At the annual Back to School Night last week I introduced myself to the parents of my 7th graders with my usual background information: “This is my 9th year teaching and my 9th year at this school. I came to education as a second career after twenty years in the legal field. After leaving my corporate job to move overseas with my family in 2002, I spent two years volunteering and substitute teaching in the international school my daughters attended. I loved working with students and the energy and atmosphere of a middle school so much I decided when we returned home I would become a teacher. I love teaching, and I love teaching here at this school.”
All of this is true. The two years I spent as a parent, volunteer, teacher’s aide, library assistant, and substitute teacher at the St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium, were wonderful. I made so many good friends during those two years abroad, and I did rediscover within myself my creative side, a part of me that I had tamped down with never-ending conference calls, acrid negotiations, brain-numbing legal writing, terse interoffice relationships, and high-pressure business deals.
A good friend and co-worker said to me many, many times while we were working together in a large shopping center development company, “You should get out of this job. You should find something else to do. You are too creative for this work.” I didn’t really understand what she meant because I was very caught up in my work identity. I had worked extremely hard, without a law degree, to climb up the legal ladder and become successful at drafting and negotiating legal documents. It was a tough job but I loved it. I enjoyed some flexibility with my work hours and had quite a bit of autonomy within the workplace. I had five weeks of vacation leave a year, was bonus-eligible, had received stock options, and earned a very healthy salary. I loved my job and I was confident in my abilities to do it well. So, when the opportunity presented itself for us to move overseas for two years and give our daughters the experience of living, traveling, and going to school in Europe, I went to my boss and asked for a leave of absence. She said no, that it was too long a period of time, but they would welcome me back if a position were open upon my return. I was crushed.
Those last few months of work (I had given ample notice) were tough. The winding down of my responsibilities, closing out my files of signed deals, transferring my pending deals to co-workers, goodbye lunches and happy hours, packing up my personal belongings from my office, it was all very difficult. For the first few months in Belgium, I had a lot to do. First, get the girls settled in their new school, reach out and make new friends with some of their classmates, buy school uniforms and school supplies, and find our way around our new town. Then, when our sea shipment arrived, unpacking and getting our house in order filled my days. Eventually though, reality kicked in. I had nowhere to go every day. For the first time since a few months after my college graduation, I had nowhere to go every day. My husband would leave for work, my daughters would board the school bus, and then it was just me and the cat. Except for two C-sections and a back surgery, I had never been away from work for more than a two-week vacation. As many times as I had wished I didn’t have to get up and go to work, I didn’t like it at all.
A notice in the school newsletter saved me: “Help needed in high school library. Volunteers welcome!” That was the open door, or the slippery slope if I’m really honest, that started it all. Shelving and cataloging books led to helping students with research, which led to becoming a teacher’s aide, which led to substitute teaching. And, upon our return to the States, that led me to my current job as a middle school language arts teacher of nine years.
And, yes, I do still love teaching. I have totally reconnected with my creative side, through my work as drama club moderator for my school, directing two school plays a year. And, for seven hours a day, I am on stage, live performance art, acting out and reading aloud from the literature, leading lively discussions about the literature, helping students understand the literature and improve their writing. But, still, there is irony, or as we say in this Catholic school where I teach, “God sure has a sense of humor.”
What’s so ironic or funny? Well, tomorrow begins the fourth week of school and I am literally and figuratively drowning in a sea of papers. I had not even stopped long enough to realize I was drowning until a teacher friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook, but it perfectly describes my current state of affairs. I am still grading summer reading projects for my eighty students, collected on the first day of school, all the while giving out new essay assignments, covering new material, and giving tests and quizzes. I stay at school three or four hours after the final bell and still bring work home with me each night. I work on the weekends, often spending three or four hours at school on Sunday. I am exhausted, and we have only just finished our third week of school.
So, the irony is that I left the legal field to explore my own creativity, yet I am so drained each day from teaching, grading, lesson planning, and guiding students in their own creativity, I hardly have any time or energy left for my own. This “Essay a Week for One Year” project was a line drawn in the sand, so to speak, an effort to reclaim for myself some outlet for my own creative writing, some tangible sign that I could practice what I preach—read and write more.
Other than a small part in a summer stock production at my daughters’ high school several years ago, I haven’t been on stage since 1987. I miss it. I miss the theatre life, the dark and perpetually chilly rooms, the instant family created by a cast in rehearsal for a play, the feel of the lights on my face, and the sound of applause when a scene is exactly as it should be. I miss memorizing lines, working on accents, hunting for props, trying on costumes. A local community theatre group is holding auditions in mid-October for a play that I am very interested in, but if I am entirely honest with myself, I simply don’t have the time to be in it while teaching full-time, especially when the rehearsal schedule overlaps with that of the play I am directing at my school. So, I will pass.
Even though this is only my 9th year of teaching, the reality is that a lot of my college friends are retired or are in the processing of retiring, especially those who have been teaching since graduation. On August 24th this year, the first day of in-service week for the faculty of my school, my college roommate posted this picture on her Facebook page. Hilarious, right? Sure, if you are the little guy in the striped shirt, which she is. She retired last summer so she has already had a year without dragging home the school bag full of papers to grade every night. I’m jealous.
So naturally, I think about it. I think about what it would be like to “retire”, to not teach next year or the year after that. Mostly, though, I think about what it would be like to come home from work, cook dinner, clean the kitchen, and then RELAX until time to go to bed. I think about calling in sick without first calling five different people looking for a substitute teacher and then rushing to email more detailed lesson plans to the school office. I think about what it would be like to read whatever I want whenever I want, and not just read books for school or about school. I think about what it would be like to write every day, just for myself, and not just once a week to have my essay ready to post on this website. But that is when I think about those early months in Belgium in 2002, when I had nowhere to go and nothing to do with my day, and how lost I felt. That is almost always followed by remembering a funny story about a student or a teacher at my school, or about a class period where we discussed the most amazing things from a piece of literature that everyone enjoyed, or about a note a parent sent me thanking me for teaching their son or daughter to be a better writer or a better reader. That’s when I recall telling an adult about a piece of literature that I am teaching and they say, “I wish I was in your class.” That’s when I run into a former student who is in high school, proudly telling me about HONORS ENGLISH, “Can you believe that, Mrs. Ardillo?” Yes, I can believe it. Yes, I am happy to have played even a small part in making that happen. Yes, I am making a difference each and every day in the lives of these students. Yes, I am drowning, but I’m not ready to be saved—yet.