Saturday, June 20, 2009

Archetype

Occasionally, life marches up to me when I'm not paying attention and hands me a night that means something. It might not start out that way, but somehow an hour turns into three and I find myself driving home, smiling into the dark. Tonight blessed me with such an experience. I attended a retirement part for one of the pillars of our English department. Walking up the driveway, alone, I felt nervous. Parties set me on edge. I walked into the house, to my chagrin, to a sea of unknown faces. Fortunately, it didn't take long for me to find some familiars, and time flew, leaving me with that aforementioned grin.

I realize I need to continually challenge myself because of limiting choices I made when I was young and marrying--like staying in the town where I grew up and teaching at the high school I attended. None of this I regret, but still I realized somewhere around twenty one that my world view was small, my opinions were once very narrow, and my understanding of perspective took time and a conscious effort to develop. I would say, though, that I have never wanted for examples of what it means to be an intelligent, strong woman. Tonight was a reminder of how my life has been impacted by women of all ages, and how I have consciously tried to pattern myself by the model they set. This isn't to say that I'm setting out to clone--but I have gifts of courageous, outspoken, verbally gifted and intellectually curious role models and friends abounding in my job. I feel like it drives me to emulate these examples in my own life and career.

I hold these relationships so close to my heart, some of my closest friends now are women who taught me themselves. K was my history teacher, a talented storyteller and tireless mentor, but she's so much more than that now--one of my best friends, now essentially a family member, "fairy godmother" to my children as well. I spend more time with her than almost anyone else I know, and my life is better for it. I get asked from time to time by students if "it's weird" that I work with so many of my own teachers now. It isn't, but primarily because many of these people have woven in and out of life continuously for me since high school. I have so much respect for them, and I maintain that many of the best teachers I've had were at my podunk town public high school. I say that with all of the confidence I have--in the act of teaching, there are very few who understand how to undertake the business of imparting information, shaping students into adults, and making a difference as much as these women--they were truly accomplished in this profession. It is my privilege now to call them my friends, and even more of one they call me theirs. I don't have trouble negotiating that balance because I realize what a benefit it is to me to see women being fabulous, smart, and funny at any age. My friend group is assorted, chronologically, and I suppose that I'm also kind of an old soul... or so I hear. It doesn't really matter to me--that's my point.

What made this evening special was the chance to see two mentors--two English teaching mentors--side by side and realize the impact that they've made in dual spheres of my life. I count them among the people who shaped who I am as a person, but also as a teacher. P, who just retired, was my 11th grade English honors teacher, and KM was my 10th grade honors English teacher. KM's class lit a fire inside of me for writing and I knew I wanted to teach. P was the one who showed me what it meant to live the daily grind of teaching with grace and wit. It was in KM's class where I started to see that literature was a series of treasures that unfolded themselves to those who just looked hard enough. P's class was where I saw that teaching was being human. In KM's class, I learned that it was okay to be real with students, to admit when you didn't know about something, and to learn from your students as well. From P, I learned how to be a teacher--I learned to take risks, I learned to be myself, and I learned to always try to do it better.

In KM's class I undertook one of the single most difficult academic projects I've ever completed; I also read my first Science Fiction and learned about something magical called "symbolism." I was put through the paces but with guidance and sarcasm--best thing that could have happened to fifteen year old me. I have to say that my seventeen-year old brain, in all its infinite wisdom and black-and-whiteness, couldn't fully appreciate that 11th grade class because I was too busy getting in trouble with my buddies in the back. It wasn't until I was a student teacher, returning to my high school fresh out of the credential box and clueless about life, that I was able to really absorb and learn and appreciate. It surprised me at that time to learn that P was master teacher to KM... now that seems to be such a natural leap. Both are confident. Both are driven. Both are hilarious. Both know more about teaching English than I could ever hope to acquire. Both have a gift that I can't even really begin to describe. I have been working with P for the seven and a half years I've been teaching. KM moved far away just before I started, so I haven't had the privilege of working with her. It was P's retirement that brought her back for a visit.

I know I get like this--I know the effusive rosy glow of a life experience is still warming my heart and shining on my face, but tonight I've let it spill all over my blog. I'm okay with that, because of just how much it touched me to be surrounded by so many colleagues who understand one particular aspect of my life so well, and to be in the company of the two people who shaped me as a teenager and as a teacher. I just had such a lovely evening: a veteran teaching sharing "war stories" to a choir of "amens"... memories and shared experiences that transcend generation... women laughing out reflections on parenting, marriage, and living--all while teaching English. You can't imagine how much strength there is in the camaraderie of my job, and how completely happy it made me tonight to be among the ranks of those I respect and care about so deeply.

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