This haiku is inspired by actual events.
See last week’s haiku and an explanation of why I’m only posting seventeen syllables a week here.
This haiku is inspired by actual events.
See last week’s haiku and an explanation of why I’m only posting seventeen syllables a week here.
So here, friends, is what is currently going down in my life:
It is summer. It is hot, miserably hot. I have three people between the ages of 1 and 5 asking me for things, begging me to feed and entertain them. Oh how I want to write, but I can’t. It seems that’s just what this summer is: The Summer of Not Blogging.
My children have my creativity on a leash, and it is wrapped around their little fists.
But I have a solution- a temporary one, at least. You see, I have these haikus. The goal, for me, was to take a particular parenting experience and metaphorically put it into that Willy Wonka machine that made a Thanksgiving dinner into a tiny piece of gum. To distill what it means to be a parent into seventeen syllables.
I wrote them quickly, dreaming big dreams of the prestigious parenting websites that would agree to publish them. How creative! they would gush. How cute! Yes, a million times yes! I thought they were pretty good; I was proud of them. Certainly someone else would appreciate them.
After silence, more silence, rejection, rejection, rejection, I came to a decision. I am declaring this summer The Summer of Haikus that May Not Be Good Enough for the Washington Post but Dammit, I Like Them and I’m Just Going to Put Them Out There and See What Happens.
So there: I bring you my haiku of the week, volume 1. If any of these haikus speaks to you, please share them. Share with anyone and everyone who understands what it is to be creatively tethered, or to have to find ways to get creative within the confines of motherhood. Share them with those who have so much they would like to say, but cannot find the time to say it. These haiku are for you.
One would think that the end of the school year would be a teacher’s favorite time of year. Because, you know, school is ending, and we all know that teachers have only chosen a woefully low-paying and difficult profession for the perk of having summers “off”. (See this post for more about my take on the teaching profession.)
This is not, in fact, the case. When I was in the classroom, the end of the school year was filled with stress and anxiety. There were angry parents to deal with. (Well, Johnny’s mom, I understand that you are upset that your son might fail social studies, but remember the 800 emails I sent you about how Johnny was drawing tiny stick-figure Hitlers instead of taking notes?) There were awards ceremonies and field days to plan, locker clean-out to supervise. There were days, far too many days after the state tests were over, to fill with activities that would keep spring-feverish adolescents happy and occupied. The hallways were filled with an air of crazed giddiness that simmered and threatened to explode.
It was all a bit much, really, but it felt manageable (well, manageable-ish) because it was also the time of year when I felt most appreciated. There were years when I received a lot of end-of-the-year gifts. There were years when I received fewer. But it was always special to watch a quiet kid come forward with his or her offering and wait while I opened it. It made me feel good to know that there were students and parents out there who felt I was deserving of a small token of gratitude.
If you are a parent who purchases end-of-the-year teacher gifts, read on. If you are a parent who gives your child’s teacher nothing at the end of the year, please stop reading now and go immediately to church. There is nothing you can do now but pray that God will forgive you and spare you the agony of hellfire.
Let’s be clear here: teachers are thrilled to receive any gift at all. We aren’t picky. You could give us an imprint of a raccoon’s foot in a piece of concrete (an actual gift given to a teacher friend of mine) and we’d be like, “Wow, that kid is telling me that I made an imprint on his soul. That is SO nice!”
Now that I’m no longer a teacher, I feel I can put it out there: All teacher gifts are not made equal. So pay attention, because these are the end-of-the-year gifts that teachers really want:
1. Alcohol. Sometimes your children drive us to drink. As this is, however, unacceptable in most cases, let’s move on.
2. Gift Cards. Give a teacher a little plastic rectangle loaded with money and they will spend it. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are always, always a sure thing, but feel free to get creative. One of my favorites was when a student gave me a gift card to the movie theater. I almost never go to the movies, but it gave me an excuse to get out for a date night, which is a precious gift in itself. A bookstore, a restaurant, Target… honestly, it doesn’t matter. Teachers heart practicality. And did I mention that they don’t get paid enough?
3. Baked Goods (to Share). When I taught the children of a local restauranteur, he and his wife used to send in a cheesecake for the teachers to eat at lunchtime one day toward the end of the year. This was amazing because it was cheesecake, obviously, but also because unlike when I was given a personal bucket full of cookies just for me, I couldn’t stash it in my desk drawer and binge on it for a week straight.
4. Something They Can Actually Use: You can always tailor it to the teacher and what you know about him or her. Is he a coffee-drinker? Is she always searching through her bag for a tube of Burts Bees? One of the cutest gifts I ever received from a student was nail polish. It was clear that she had picked out each color specifically for a certain teacher, like she was trying to match the teacher’s personality. Doesn’t work for most male teachers, but you can give them, I don’t know, a beard trimmer or something. Other gifts in this category: throw blankets, nice hand soap (teaching is a germy profession), a mug or tumbler, a beach towel, stationery.
5. Good Old Appreciation: If you want to give your child’s teacher a gift, then by all means, do it. They will be grateful. They will not turn it away. If nothing else, give them an old-fashioned thank you, in whatever form you wish that to take. Give them a drawing that your child made just for her teacher. Send her to school on the last day with strict instructions to verbally express to her teacher just how much she learned this year. Maybe even throw in a hug, if everyone involved is cool with that.
I received a lot of gifts when I was in the classroom, but a hand-written note from a student or parent expressing sincere thanks for the impact I made on their child and the work I did in order to teach them? I mean, that would be worth at least three cheesecakes. Maybe four. And I would binge on those words all. summer. long.
In a previous post, “How Will I Know When I’m Done?”, I discussed the uncertainty I felt about whether or not my family of five is complete. That was four months ago, and I’m no closer to having an answer. Not that I necessarily expected one at this point; my youngest daughter is only one, after all. It’s just that there’s really only one thing standing between me (well, my husband) and the inevitable snip snip, one detail that keeps the whole matter from being settled forever.
It’s the imaginary fourth child. The one who appears in my mind each time we ask ourselves if the era of babyhood is, for us, coming to a close. What would it be like, I think, to have one more? So I picture it, the addition of another human being into our fold. One more set of lungs, one more maker of messes. One more hand to hold and load to carry. One more division – or multiplication? – of our love.
He has a name. It’s the name we had chosen for all three of our children, if they had been boys – unless I change my mind at the last minute like I did with our second daughter, who we came this close to naming Edith. (After my husband’s grandmother, but I lost my nerve. She really would have been a sweet little Edie though…) And if she’s a girl, I fantasize about naming her something exotic, maybe French. Pronounceable, but different.
This child would be our last, DEFINITELY our last. He’d be eight, maybe nine years younger than his oldest sister, who would watch after him when she felt like being helpful. He would trail after them or let them take turns carrying him around; he would look up to them. They would dress him up like a doll and speak to him in baby voices. They would teach him the best words from their Fancy Nancy books and the names of all the Star Wars characters.
The imaginary fourth child. The one who would bring our current vehicle to capacity. The one who would solidify the reality that sometimes, in this world, people do share a bedroom with other people. The last one to wear the clothes that have become, for me, hallmarks of the too-swift ascent out of infancy. OR, the one who would necessitate the buying of an entirely new wardrobe – I’m not sure which is worse.
He is a presence. In my mind, she exists. I can picture them, these phantom children, at their birth, and I know that I do have the capacity to love them. To fit them, as gently as possible, into this imperfect pandemonium, this affectionate wild rumpus that we call our family.
I cannot make them any promises. How can I? I am tired. I am overwhelmed. Just yesterday the one-year-old made her way down an entire flight of stairs, and I didn’t know about it until she reached the bottom. Safely, thank God. I listen to the older two argue and I start another load of laundry and I think, One more would be unwise. I think, Look at what you already have.
A little boy with so many sisters. Four girls, my own little women. I am waiting to see if he will begin to lose substance, if she will start to fade with the passage of time. Until they do, I find it hard to wish them into never-existence. And if they don’t? Then the answer to my question will finally be clear.
I grew up just down the street from Utica, NY, where the Boilermaker 15K Road Race is held each year on the second Sunday in July. But because the date of the race coincided with our family’s annual trip to the Adirondacks, I never got to see what all the fuss was about. On Monday morning my parents would drive from our rental cabin to the small corner store to pick up donuts and a copy of the Utica Observer-Dispatch paper, which ran a Boilermaker insert. We would scan the results pages with cinnamon-sugary fingers and use a highlighter to indicate the names of the people we knew. Growing up, this was all the Boilermaker meant to me.
When my oldest sister began running the race as an adult, I was happy to pick up one of Utica’s finest bagel sandwiches and sit on a curb with the rest of the family to wave signs and cheer her on, but I had no real interest in distance running. I had been a member of the track team through middle and high school, but despite my coach’s best efforts, I was a high jumper and nothing more. I associated running with pain; there was never enough air in my lungs, and my flat feet made me susceptible to shin splints.
I guess it was love that led me back to my running shoes. A year after we got together, my future husband-to-be ran the Go! St. Louis Marathon, and the year after that, he agreed to run a half-marathon with me. We crossed the finish line at exactly the same time, my sneakers full of blood from unanticipated blisters. He spent the next several days complaining about pain in his knees and hips from “not running at his natural pace.” (Which really means, I love you, but I’m never running with your slow ass again.)
After conquering a half-marathon – or maybe it conquered me, but either way – I felt more equipped to tackle the Boilermaker when my sister suggested that we run together in 2010. On the day of the race, I had a nine-month-old and she had a ten-week-old. The fact that we were running at all seemed a little insane, but the draw of the post-race party, where Saranac beer flowed freely for all runners, spurred me forward.
What I didn’t anticipate, as I shuffled toward the starting line for that first Boilermaker (I’ve run one more since), was how enjoyable running 9.3 miles could actually be. The streets were lined with spectators offering encouragement, popsicles, and the occasional spray of a garden hose with which to cool off. Bands performed along the route; DJs blared popular hits and oldies music. This blighted city, which a century ago had been a vibrant seat of manufacturing and transportation, came alive. The whole city, it felt, was smiling.
I knew, just a few steps into that race, that I would do it again. Never mind my general dislike of running. This was something special.
So, again I’m in training. With three children now, and let’s be honest: my body isn’t what it once was. This body that has birthed three babies, that totes them around and stoops down to clean up their messes and to look them firmly in the eye- this body is not psyched about running. It hurts. It hurts my joints, it hurts every bone in my feet. I have to wear as little clothing as I can get away with or the heat generated by my own exertion threatens to consume me.
Most of the time it feels like crap, but I do it anyway. And I never thought I would say this, but in the process, I’ve found something that I actually love about running: I’ve found the power of my own stubborn will. I’ve discovered that I can talk myself through the hardest parts. I’ve come to love the struggle, because it shows me I am strong.
At some point in this round of training, maybe panting on a treadmill in a crowded gym, or venturing out in the 5:30 a.m. dark while my children sleep, I unlocked a secret. Running and parenting are no different. Think about it: Most of the time it feels like crap, but I do it anyway. I can talk myself through the hardest parts. It’s a struggle, but it shows me I am strong. Stronger than I ever knew. And it makes me a part of something too special to adequately express.
If I can do one, I can do the other. Bring on the pain, and see you at the after-party.
754 miles. That’s the driving distance from Anderson, South Carolina to Brooklyn, New York. That’s the distance I need to cover if I want to visit my two older sisters, who for some mysterious reason cannot be convinced to relocate to my pleasant southern town. (It could be because they are sophisticated urbanites who dislike rural practices such as driving in cars and living in spaces larger than 800 square feet.)
It’s a distance much more easily traversed by airplane, but with three small children, “easy” is a relative term. The last time we flew to New York, two years ago, we were so distracted at LaGuardia while waiting for our return flight, so concerned with keeping the kids occupied and fed, that we missed our boarding announcement and the plane flew away without us. With all of our luggage. And they couldn’t book us on another flight until the next morning, so my sister came back to get us and Matt had to cancel all of his patients for the next day. He also had to walk to the CVS closest to my sister’s apartment and buy diapers for Ceci and underwear for me. And since everything in New York is smaller and narrower, including the aisles of CVS, the underwear was way up high and he was forced to ask an employee to get them down for him. The whole thing was humiliating. We vowed we would never make the same mistake again. So this year, when we decided it was time for another Brooklyn trip, we knew we would drive.
The long drive itself is nothing new; my parents still live in Upstate New York, and we make the trek up there at least twice a year. As I’ve said, the expense and stress of flying with the whole family just doesn’t feel worth it to us, especially after several nightmare experiences of getting delayed or stranded. (The first time we ever took Maggie on an airplane, she was four months old. We flew from Charlotte to Syracuse, circled the airport, which had shut down due to blizzard conditions, and then turned around and returned to Charlotte. Because apparently that made sense to someone. It was the five most pointless hours of my entire life, but at least it makes a good story.)
Over the years, though, our attitudes about how we should handle the drive have changed. For starters: with kids, it’s no longer a 13-hour trip. They don’t have the same bladder control their parents have. When we’ve been in the car too long, they sob and strain against their seat belts and scream, “Let me get out of here!”And when we do take a break to let them run around, the process of getting them back into the car truly makes us look like kidnappers. As a result, we’ve made the following adjustments to our driving routine:
There’s no way around it- the trip from South Carolina to New York is grueling. In a lot of ways, it’s hard on all of us. There are people I know who don’t get why we put ourselves through it. “Just tell them you’re not coming,” they say. “Tell them you don’t want to do it.”
But as much as we dread the drive, as much as we complain about the exhaustion and the traffic and having to please the maniacs in the backseat, we do it because we want to. Because living 754 miles away from my family is hard enough, and I can’t imagine choosing not to see them. Because my daughters deserve to know their aunts, uncle and cousins. Because they benefit from spending time in a place so different from the one in which they live. Because of all the reasons to drive 1500 miles, family is the best possible one.
This most recent trip had its stressful moments. There was the time when Alex, who just turned one, and Ceci, who is two, were both crying uncontrollably in their car seats, and Ceci yelled at Alex, “STOP COPYING ME!” There was the moment when Matt went to retrieve the car to load it up for the trip home and realized that it was… gone. As were all of the other cars on that particular block. Whoops. Family vacation fail.
And then there were these moments: My daughters’ faces, amazed, when they spotted the Statue of Liberty, lit-up outside their car windows, at 2:00 in the morning. My girls and their cousins marching down a Brooklyn street, arms linked, chanting nonsense words and giggling with their whole hearts. Riding a carousel beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Boarding a subway train, an experience as foreign to a kid from Anderson, South Carolina as stepping outside your house without shoes on is to a kid from Brooklyn.
1500 miles is not so much, does not feel so impossible, when your destination is a place you really want to be, when the people you journey toward are the people you really want to be with. Eventually (with the help of Frozen and The Lego Movie) we might just learn to enjoy the ride, too.
Step 1: Consider where you might like to go. Pick someplace child-friendly, with kids’ menu options, readily available high chairs, changing tables in the restrooms, dishes that can be thrown frisbee-style without shattering, soundproof booths, and strong adult beverages. How far is the establishment from your home? Will anyone there recognize you? At the same time, you want the area to be familiar enough for a child to find her way home on foot, should she wander off. There are many factors to take into account when choosing a restaurant that will please all members of the family.
Step 2: Before entering the restaurant, set behavioral expectations for your children and communicate these clearly to them. For example: Sit up straight. Be polite to the wait staff. Every once in a while, pick up a utensil and make some kind of attempt to use it. Speak in indoor voices. Don’t stare at other people while they eat. If you embarrass us, there will be no dessert. And we will never take you out in public EVER AGAIN. Be as specific as possible; children do best when given very explicit parameters within which to function.
Step 3: Ask to be seated somewhere unobtrusive, where the children won’t bother other customers. But maybe close to the restrooms? Because the two-year-old is working on going tee-tee on the potty. But not so close to the restrooms that that’s all she wants to do, because we’re not paying for a nice meal just to spend the entire time in the restroom, are we? A corner, a dark corner, somewhere in the vicinity of the restrooms, would be just fine. But not so isolated that we can’t signal our waitress for help. And perhaps with a direct line of sight to the bartender?
Thanks, that would be lovely.
Step 4: Order a margarita.
Step 5: Settle the children in their seats. Oh look!, tell them, in your most enthusiastic voice, how NICE it is that the restaurant provided them with children’s menus that they can color, and two crayons each. Exude positivity; children take cues from the adults around them.
Step 6: Take the yellow crayon away from the baby, who has started to eat it. Hand it to the two-year-old, who is melting from her chair to the floor, hysterical because she HATES RED!!!!
Step 7: Open the menu. It is time to decide if you’d like to order an appetizer, to keep the children from getting too hungry, or to get your main course in as soon as possible to-
Step 8: Take the two-year-old to the bathroom. Since she has refused your help, watch as she struggles to pull down her pants and underwear, touches every surface of the toilet seat, and then decides that she doesn’t have to go. Patiently suggest that she wash her hands before returning to the table, then patiently respond to her queries as she pokes around the bathroom like she’s Ariel in The Little Mermaid, seeing human inventions for the first time. “That the trash can? That the light? That the soap? Where the paper towels?”
Step 9: Return to the table and apply hand sanitizer to the two-year-old’s hands. Ask your husband if the waitress has been by. She was, but he didn’t know what to order the kids. He got you another margarita, though. Alright, then. Food. You’re here for food. Open the menu.
Step 10: The two-year-old says she has to poop. And the five-year-old needs to go, too. Sniff the baby just in case; on the bright side, here is a chance to cut out one future trip to the restroom! Give your husband instructions to order the children hot dogs and to choose something for you, something with cheese and salt, maybe a leaf or two of lettuce. As you trudge toward the restroom, exude positivity. They are children, after all. Sometimes children need to potty.
Step 11: As you change the baby’s diaper, watch as the two-year-old struggles to pull down her pants and underwear, touches every surface of the toilet seat, and then decides that she doesn’t have to go. Even though you can see her literally squeezing her butt cheeks together in an effort to keep the poop from getting out. Attempt to explain, calmly, to the five-year-old why she shouldn’t use the automatic hand dryer for entertainment. Because other people are eating their dinners and don’t want to hear gleeful child shrieks and explosive air pressure coming from the bathroom. And also it hurts your ears. And is making the baby cry.
Step 12: Return to the table. Settle the children in their seats. Drink a healthy sip of margarita. Feed the baby the backup Cheerios that you had the foresight to pack. Learn from your husband that he has ordered you a fish sandwich. Ask him when, in the eight years you have been married, has he ever seen you eat a fish sandwich? Apologize for your tone; it will be fine. It will be great. Is there cheese on it? Okay then. Exude positivity.
Step 13: The two-year-old has pooped in her pants. Send your husband to the bathroom with her. Take a healthy sip of margarita. Motion to the waitress for to-go boxes. On the bright side, you’ll get to eat your fish sandwich on the couch while watching last season’s episodes of Game of Thrones. On the bright side, you’re never taking your children into public, ever again.
Two days ago, my youngest child turned one. I never thought I’d be the mom who cried on my daughter’s birthday, but there were a lot of things I never would have imagined doing, before. That’s what becoming a mother does to a woman: it grabs hold of the person she was, or thought she was, it tears that person apart – yes, literally – and it rewrites her. What had seemed impossible in her old life suddenly seems possible – for better or worse- to this new, revised version of herself.
But here’s the truth: this wasn’t the first time that I’ve dissolved into emotional anarchy on my child’s birthday. It happens every time, and why? Because I want to have three children ages five and under FOREVER? Uh, no. Not particularly. Because my understanding, when I gave birth to these girls, was that they would stay tiny and manageable, like miniature dachshunds? Cute, but no. Because the thought of finding a place in my house for all of their birthday gifts threatens to bring on a bout of long-dormant vertigo? Well, yes, but that’s not exactly it.
What is a birthday, to a mother? It is the finality of a year. It is the passage of 365 individual days, one indistinguishable from the next, the way the cars of a train or the dashed lines on the highway blur together as they speed past. I admit that in some ways, a birthday feels a little like grief. Where did a year go? What was I doing? What if I can’t recall all the strides they made, every little way that they grew and changed? Where do those memories go when they aren’t hoarded like treasures?
A birthday, to a mother, is a mad attempt to remember it all. It is the realization that we cannot remember it all, that in the past year the compartments of our brains have been gummed up with sleeplessness and shopping lists and frustration and perhaps one too many glasses of wine. Not everything that should have stuck, did. We see that as our failing. A birthday is a reminder that not every memory is going to stick, that most of the days we have with these beautiful human beings will simply be lived, not preserved. But a mother has a hard time letting go.
These feelings of wistfulness and regret do not diminish the sense of celebration, the joy, the desire to make our overwhelming love known to our child on this day, of all days. No, this is something else we learn quickly: that motherhood is all of it, at the same time, a big soup of loss and pain and love and pride. Our children grew inside of us and we brought them into this world, where they will continue to grow, apart from us. One year at a time.
And while we might wish- as the candles flicker on the cake and the cameras flash and everyone smiles wide- that we could make time stand still, ours is not the wish that matters, today. So we put it away. We smile wide, we live in the happiness of this moment, and we try to hold on to all we can of it, because we are mothers, and we cannot help ourselves.
Several years ago, when I had but one child, I joined a friend of mine for a girls’ night out. Although I didn’t know the other women that she had invited along, we all had kids, and that was enough to keep the conversation going. I can’t remember exactly how it came up, but at some point one of the ladies made a statement that went something like this: I don’t have that many friends on Facebook. I mean, if I’m friends with someone and they don’t even like any pictures of my kids, I’ll unfriend them.
At the time, I thought this statement was a bit harsh, if not straight up crazypants. You’re going to unfriend anyone who doesn’t like pictures of your kids? It seemed to me that Facebook had certain unspoken rules, and this practice was flying in the face of all of them. Take these, for instance:
Those are the rules. And I’m sorry, but 843 semi-random acquaintances are NOT going to like every picture you post of your child standing in front of various zoo animals or “smiling” at three weeks old. So it looks like you’re going to be hitting the “unfriend” button a whole lot.
That’s what I thought then.
But here’s the thing: The more time I’ve spent as a mom, the more those pictures of my kids doing inane kid things represent my life. My existence. My whole being. And so, yeah, if you don’t like pictures of my kids, if you don’t care to validate that giant part of my identity, are we really even friendly enough to warrant the term “friends”?
And here’s the other thing: If we are, in fact, friendly enough to warrant the term “friends”, shouldn’t I be going out of my way to validate whatever it is that you find important – be it your children, your cat, your new healthy lifestyle, your most recent crafting success, your borderline unhealthy obsession with a certain country music star? Yes, I should.
In light of this second realization, I have a new social media philosophy: Like Everything.
Look, I know that Facebook uses some algorithm that impacts who sees what on whose news feed. You can’t like something you never saw in the first place. I get that. I don’t actually take it personally. It’s certainly possible that I don’t see posts from about 500 of my Facebook friends, and it’s not that I don’t care what they’re doing. It’s the f-ing algorithm. (By the way, I found this article about it fascinating…)
Anywho. Back to liking everything.
If you’re important to me, and it’s important to you, I vow to do my best to like it. Because I like you. I like what you stand for. I like your interests, even if they’re not my interests. I like your kids, even if they’re not as cute as my kids. (TOTALLY kidding. Of course they’re as cute as my kids. Way cuter, probably, because they don’t throw pantiliners all over my bathroom floor or try to serenade me with a doggy guitar while I’m sitting on the toilet.) I like your vacations. I like your home improvements. I don’t like your job troubles or your flat tire, but I WILL react with an appropriate emoji.
I won’t, however, like everything flippantly. I won’t like it without actually reading it or swiping through the album, because I don’t want to be caught in a lie. I won’t like it out of pity or to prove something. I won’t like it if I don’t actually like it. Does that make sense?
I want to see how it feels, liking everything. Scrolling a little more slowly. Taking a minute or two more to appreciate all that we share of our lives, all that we offer. And then putting my phone down, or closing my computer, and continuing. To like everything. To see my life the way others do. These kids, my family, are my life. My existence. My whole being. If I don’t give myself a thumbs up, what does it matter who else does?
Almost exactly a year ago, I sat at my desk in the classroom where I had taught middle school social studies for three years. Spring break was starting, but I was furiously trying to finish grading a project that students had just turned in, a timeline of the major events of World War II. Grades had to be entered and finalized a few days after the break, but I wouldn’t be returning. My third child was due to make an appearance in the next couple of weeks, and I had decided that juggling three children under the age of five AND a full-time teaching job just wasn’t doable for me. Something had to go, and teaching was it.
I spent eight years of my life teaching, six of them in public school. Deciding to leave the classroom was a process that took several years and caused me serious mental anguish. The truth is, I loved my job. I loved the feeling of camaraderie I shared with the other school employees. I loved the vast majority of the kids, excluding the ones who went out of their way to be assholes. (Yes, I said it. Sometimes seventh-graders are assholes.) I loved when I made an obscure joke about Napoleon and ten percent of the students actually got it. There were many things about teaching that were creative and fun and rewarding. But then there was all the other stuff.
I stay in close touch with many of my teacher friends. Each time we get together, I hear them talk about school, and I marvel at the fact that I stayed afloat for as long as I did. Their daily lives read like a revised version of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried: They carry laptop cases. They carry Thirty-One bags stuffed to bursting with spelling tests and homework sheets and lab reports. They carry their lunches in microwaveable Pyrex containers of various sizes. They carry the burden of responsibility, not just for their students’ education, but for the children themselves, who carry their personal histories with them to class each day. They carry frustration, thinly-veiled, about the newest accountability initiative forced on them from the top down to prove that they are doing their jobs effectively, in a way that can be quantified.
They carry too much. I was carrying too much. Leaving the classroom was a viable option for me financially, and I understand that my ability to choose to leave was an enormous privilege. For me, it was the right choice. Even though my days at home are equally challenging and equally exhausting, I don’t regret my decision for a second. But I wonder, sometimes, if there is anything that could have convinced me to stay. If the conditions were different, perhaps. The answer is, frankly, yes. And I need someone out there, someone who has some kind of power over the working lives of our country’s educators, to hear me.
I left the classroom because I couldn’t do it all. Thousands and thousands of other really dedicated teachers have done the same. What would have made the difference? For starters:
Pay teachers more. Like a good teacher, I did some research. Nationwide, in 2014 the median salary for a middle school teacher was $54,940. Actually, I didn’t make anywhere close to that. Who gets paid more, on average, than teachers? According to the same U.S. News and World Report list, MRI technologists and dental hygienists are just a couple of the listed occupations with a higher median income than teachers. I’m not hating on MRI technologists or dental hygienists; my husband is a dentist, and I know how important it is to have skilled, sociable hygienists. Those ladies rock. My point, I guess, is that these are jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree, and that you don’t take home with you, at least not in the, “Honey, I know you need mommy to get you a snack, but I’m just finishing up this dental cleaning,” kind of way. And for the many teachers who hold a Masters degree, it’s discouraging, to say the least, to be at the bottom of the list of earnings potential with a graduate degree.
Okay, so you’re not willing to pay us more. At least reduce class sizes to ease the burden. In South Carolina, where I taught for six years, class sizes in grades 6-12 cannot legally exceed a ratio of 30 students to 1 teacher. For those of you who have never tried to teach a room full of thirty 12 and 13-year-olds about Imperialism in Asia in the 1800s, I dare you to try. Also, I taught five class periods per day. So I could have potentially been dealing with 150 students every day. I could have been grading 150 tests, 150 essays, 150 homework assignments. Luckily, I think the most I ever had was 130, but seriously. Do people even understand what they are asking teachers to do? IT IS INSANITY. It is unsustainable. Oh right, and then there’s the whole proven fact that students learn better in smaller classes.
Do what is in the best interest of the students. Students get the most out of school when their teachers are happy. I have no evidence for this statement, though I’m sure there’s some study out there. But let’s look at it this way: At home, if I’m stressed, my kids feel it. At school, it’s no different. A teacher who is distracted by her ever-growing list of responsibilities and pressured to get her students to perform is going to be less focused on the children in front of her, and aren’t they the whole point?
Next year I will send my oldest child to kindergarten. I know she’ll learn. But I want her teachers to have space in their lives to love her, the way I felt loved by my public school teachers when I was in school. And I want to make sure that her teachers feel appreciated, not just by me, but by the society they are serving. I just don’t think that’s asking too much.