Leaving Home And Finding Purpose
Jennifer Rieger - January 24, 2017
I’ve worked in education for almost 20 years, and while there have been times when I’ve wanted to pull my hair out and scour the want ads, those times are rare. Truth be told, with the exception of legislative bureaucracy, I love it all, and it’s well known. The short version of the story is that I was never supposed to be a teacher. I was supposed to be a writer and a professor, travelling from old decrepit building to old decrepit building discussing poetry, craft, and getting published. But circumstances changed. I had a baby and needed money. I decided to become an English teacher, and the rest, as they say, is history. That choice brought me to a different life—analyzing classical and contemporary writers, begrudgingly preparing students for standardized tests, conferencing over every kind of writing imaginable, and loving the heck of out my kids. And they are my kids. That’s well known, too. I guess this is why everyone was shocked that I decided to take a sabbatical, or as it’s called today, a professional compensated leave, at the start of the winter break.
It was a difficult decision. I’m finishing my second Master’s degree—an MFA in Creative Writing. While my first Master’s in literature wasn’t easy by any means, the process itself was easier. I was young. I could pull an all-nighter writing a 20-page research paper and still get up to teach 125 teenagers, break up fights, and dry the tears of college rejections. But that was years ago, and this older body refuses to let me do that anymore. Plus, creative writing is different. I get in my own way, constantly second-guess myself—deleting and revising incessantly. It’s a real head trip. With my thesis approaching, a manuscript that will eventually become my first book, I knew something had to give. I had also been awarded a stipend to travel to Sicily for an International Writers’ Retreat. If I tried to do it all, I would either shortchange my kids or shortchange the opportunity I’ve wanted since I was a teenager. Without even knowing my upcoming students, I made my decision.
From the start of the school year, I threw myself into the Class of 2017 and for four months, I made the most of every second with them. I even selfishly rearranged the order of the curriculum to teach them the content I was most passionate about. The semester flew, but in the best of ways. I laughed with them through their Homecoming pep rally skits, guided them through one of our best Challenge Days yet, cheered them on at their games, comforted many hearts after the election, lent an ear when they confided in me about their crushes, and helped them find their voices through writing. I loved those four months. I love those kids. I think about them every blessed day, watching the clock, wondering how they are, wondering if they miss me even half as much as I miss them.
I’m very used to saying goodbye to my seniors. I do it every year, after all, and I’m always a little sentimental. But I wasn’t expecting how it would feel to be the one leaving them. Let’s face it—we’re all replaceable. I knew they would be fine with their new teacher, and I knew my amazing department would look after them. But would I be okay? Would I be able to handle a life without bells to tell me when to eat and when to pee—a life void of my musty, old classroom? It’s a life without my other family.
It’s hard leaving your home. Having moved around all of my life, that building is the only “permanent” home I know. As one of my graduates eloquently pointed out, it’s my constant: the veteran teachers are my parents; the English teachers, my siblings; the other department teachers, my cousins; the students, my kids. We squabble, discipline, guilt, and love each other the best we can. And leaving that, even just for nine months, is unsettling. By the time December 22nd approached, the heart that has been broken so often at graduation, felt a different kind of breaking. I received warm gifts and beautiful notes from my kids with reminders to pursue my dream. That they would be okay. That they were proud of me. How tables turn. They were the ones teaching me.
One of my last goodbyes was Brian, the fifth child of a family I love—a family that has, in many ways, become my own. I’m invited to their holiday dinners, family vacations, and intense games of Skee Ball at Sea Isle arcades. We both looked forward to his senior year for so long, he even moved up to Advanced Placement to have me. “I’m so sorry I’m abandoning you, Brian,” I managed to say underneath the paper snowflakes and twinkle lights of my classroom’s winter wonderland. Our eyes welled. “You’re not,” he whispered. “You have to do this.” And I did. We all knew I did. He gave me a gorgeous watch that his mother and sisters helped him pick out as a Christmas present, a reminder, and as a goodbye. My time teaching that beautiful family was suddenly up. Just like that.
As I stepped out of the taxi in Ortigia in front of the Acropoli Bed and Breakfast, I looked to the stars and breathed in the cold, salt air. I didn’t know what awaited me in the next two weeks. I didn’t know that I would become closer to my friends Maggie and Maria and even find other kindred spirits among the writers there. I didn’t know I would fall in love with the female patron saints who watched over this little village, or that I would spend so much time questioning my own innate skepticism. I had no idea that I would become even closer with the program director I had known for over 12 years or that I would come to envy the faithful that made their way to church to pray each day. I embraced this lovely gift of time and place and all of its intricacies: I battled the water pressure in my cozy room at the inn, battled my heater when it didn’t work, and battled it when it worked too well; I shot down espresso standing at a café counter when I really wanted to curl up in a coffee house chair with a Starbucks’ Venti; I strengthened my thighs, squatting at every disgusting toilet I encountered and quickly realized that I should hoard toilet paper when the opportunity strikes; I learned that the snowstorm we combatted is a 25-year rarity and that a coach bus can descend an icy mountain backwards; I discovered that my broken Spanish is a nice commonality when English doesn’t work, and that the Ortigians love giving free drinks and compliments to blondes; I realized that I have gone my entire life underestimating the magic of the pistachio, and will now forever dream about pistachio pesto sauce over homemade tagliatelle; but most importantly, I learned that we all need to feel small in this world, and that smallness, that vulnerability, teaches us something. We all seek kindness and understanding, we all wish for the sun to break through the coldness of the clouds just a little more often, we all wish for hope in the face of fear, and we all miss the people we love.
I am lucky, incredibly lucky. I’ve been given a great gift—the opportunity to see what my life’s purpose really is in the absence of that very purpose. I know that there are colleagues back at school who roll their eyes and wonder how I could possibly be so sentimental when I get to take a break from the daily grind to travel and write. I was, after all, the one who signed up for this. I pulled the trigger even though I knew how hard it would be to leave my home and how much I would miss my kids. When I ran this idea past my principal, he cocked his eyebrow, like he’s known to do, smiled and said, of course you should do this. But we both know it’s going to be hard on you.
Yes, I’m a writer, a poet, and a dreamer, and this MFA is such a beautiful bonus to the education I’ve been privileged enough to receive. It’s a blessing to end it on the most gorgeous, mystical island in the world. But more importantly, I’m a teacher and a mother, two titles that took a long time for me to embrace. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. I love, I comfort, I hold on, I let go, I laugh a lot, I cry a lot, and I start all over again each year. This experience is a gift, but loving and helping others—that is the blessing of my life. That is purpose. And no amount of traditional education can teach you that.