28 August 2010

Taking Stock

Thursday evening I flipped on the news to see each channel reporting live from their booths at the Minnesota State Fair. I promptly turned off the TV and fled the room. Others celebrate the "Great Minnesota Get Together." I see it for what it truly is--the death knell of my summer.

According to the powers that be, the year ends December 31st. But my life has always been tied to the school calendar--first as a student, now as a teacher. Fall for me is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. Summer then, particularly August, is a sort of ending. It is the time when I take stock of my life, an inventory where I look around and say this is what I have, where I've been, and where I'm going. But what I feel most this time of year is always the inexorable pull of the past, the weight of hurts unmended, friends unspoken, and opportunities lost. Such is the nature of endings.

But this year I remind myself that time always marches forward, and always, always there will be things that we could have done differently. There will be people who come in and out of our lives whether we want them to or not. There will be hurts we cannot heal. And there will be chances lost. Truly, we are always in some sort of shambles; the beauty comes from the way in which we piece it all back together, creating the mosaic of our lives.

Despite the inevitable melancholy that always surrounds endings for me, I am ready for a new year. I feel more grounded in myself than I have months. I am ready to leave behind this hazy, crazy period and move more into the life I have created for myself, leaving much foolishness and uncertainty to stay in the hot, languid days of summer. I am ready to move forward, a step at a time. Because truly, that is surviving and thriving. It is not being afraid to cry and laugh all in the same breath--something my best friend taught me how to do years ago, and something I have rediscovered thanks to her in the past few weeks. It is not being afraid to send an email to a friend two states away saying, quite simply, "I'm blue." And most importantly, it is confronting the good and bad of your life and laying ownership to it all.

As I sit here now, my last true day of summer--the last day of this year for me--I sit here listening to my montage of year-end music in the dim light of my table lamp as the wind rushes through the window and leaves rustle in a seductively autumnal way. I see my year in its entirety: walking the streets of New York City with my husband, spending lazy beach-filled days with my sister and nieces, welcoming my friend's daughter into the world, saying goodbye to friends as they move away, laughing with students (and occasionally hiding from them), holding my mother's hand during the long wait of my father's open-heart surgery. I see all of it--the good and the bad, the hugs and fights and painful goodbyes; all of it is tinged with love. What more can I ask for? And so I feel my grip on last year easing.

Perhaps now, as I pass through one year and greet a new one, I can take to heart the words I hear on my iPod: "There is reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last." Not because last year was bad, but because that thought it what keeps us moving forward, trying harder. It is the thought that makes me excited to kick off another year on Monday, that makes me smile when I think of the 180 students who will fill my classroom and my life in a little over a week. It's the thought that, despite the sadness of endings, makes me smile and go confidently into tomorrow.

And I'd really like to reconcile with the Minnesota State Fair.

Because I do love corndogs.

23 August 2010

Pirates and Princesses

This weekend was college move in across the great state of Minnesota. The majority of college campuses are now teeming with students, the dorms (no, I will not call them residence halls) are once again slowly baking their freshman inhabitants alive, and RAs are rounding up beer cans and cheap vodka bottles by the bag. It's autumn in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Most of these students are, right now, experiencing that first lonely, homesick night. They're wondering why going away to school seemed like a good idea and they're desperately calling, texting, facebooking, or skyping every high school friend they didn't alienate during their last senior summer in a last ditch attempt to stave off tears. As I watched the laundry carts roll down the sidewalks and the cars crammed with mini-fridges, microwaves, and terrified families stream into town, I began to wonder about the dreams that brought those students to college.

There are, naturally, students sitting in dorm rooms right now who went to college simply because it's what you do when you graduate from high school. I knew many of these people. But by and large, I knew them for short periods of time, as they inevitably fluttered away to other easier--and cheaper--life paths. Those who stay however, who trek to class when its 20 below, who race strangers for open computers in the library, and who are lucky enough to walk across the stage at commencement, do so because they had some dream or desire that convinced them the money and hard work was worth it.

Yet, somewhere along the way degrees become valued based on their usefulness in teaching "applicable job skills." I graduated in 2006 with a double major in History and English Literature and Writing. I worked three jobs. I had a 4.0. I genuinely enjoyed learning and I was passionate about these subjects. Yet this degree was roughly the equivalent to a Philosophy degree in that it qualified me to do nothing except return to school for more studying. So I did. And two years later, I graduated with a degree in Education. I got a teaching job (which I love wholeheartedly). I was an adult.

At some point, the practical value of what we are going to do becomes more important than the idealistic satisfaction we get from doing it. Ask a child what he or she wants to be and he will say astronaut, pirate, or rock star. Others will tell you ballerina, writer, or princess. I have yet to meet a 5 year old dreaming of becoming an investment banker or telemarketer. So where do these dreams go? When does the world teach its children that money and practicality trump dreams and possibility? It happens. At some point we learn that astronauts have to know a lot of math, ballerinas ruin their knees, and princesses require a lot of etiquette lessons. So we do practical things.

We too often convince ourselves that we're too old, too responsible, too "average," to pursue extraordinary things. When did being an adult become synonymous with settling for "good enough"? The truth is the vast majority of us consider ourselves unworthy of our childhood dreams. We let life happen and tell ourselves that it's just the way the real world works. Fantasies are the stuff of childhood.

But I bet the world would be a bit kinder if there were a few more pirates and princesses wandering around.

19 August 2010

Chasing Summer

According the calendar put out by the school district which employs me, I have been enjoying my summer vacation since June 10th. Teacher workshops begin on August 30, which left me with 11 weeks--77 days--of glorious, sunshine-y summer. Now, 66 days into my summer, I am confused.

As I watched my students file out of my room on the last day of school--wishing some a fond farewell and secretly hoping others would transfer to another district for next year--I was all too aware of the fact that I had curriculum writing the following week, which hardly felt like a vacation. Two days after that, my husband and I left for five days in New York. Now, I recognize that most would say five days in New York is, in fact, a vacation. But as any adult can tell you, vacations are usually far more stressful than working. We returned from New York and I began prepping for summer school. To this day, I am unsure what demon possessed me and convinced me to teach summer school for the month of July, but I am certain that I have rid myself of him. And while a student's ankle bracelet going off during summer school makes for an amusing story, it does not make for a relaxing summer vacation. Those suckers are loud.

So, summer school ended and I found myself marveling at my calendar. August 1st. Summer was two-thirds over and I felt as though I had yet to take a break. But here I was, with a solid month of sunshine and free time staring me down. Instead, I spent far more time than I would have liked familiarizing myself with the local hospital and its myriad of waiting rooms. Alas, another two weeks slipped by.

So here I am, on August 19th, finally ready and able to enjoy my summer. I'm itching to lay outside and lounge in the sunshine. I am ready for farmer's markets, sunburns, and beaches. I am ready to wear shorts.

Instead, I have overcast skies, a temperature hovering around a balmy 65 degrees, and countless emails and messages from colleagues at work about... well, work. I have 30 hours of curriculum writing to complete, and in two weeks, I will have 180 students waiting for me to teach them something.

Perhaps this is the life of a teacher--we dream of long vacations and hours away from our students. Yet, we spend the majority of our "breaks" relentlessly chasing a summer that seems determined to elude us.

Instead of lounging in the sunshine today, I will plug in my flashdrive so that I may update calendars and puzzle over computer lab schedules. It seems that in this particular chess game, summer was always one move ahead of me.

But I still have shorts on.

Check mate.

17 August 2010

I could be a 50s Housewife...

A good friend of mine recently moved to Montana; since then, she and I have started a rather intense but lovely email relationship consisting largely of emails that are, in complete honesty, novel-length and full of snappy remarks. Yesterday, I was feeling a bit blue, so my Montana friend recommended I keep myself occupied and distracted with a bit of work. Housework. I agreed, as my apartment was disgustingly overdue for a cleaning. And this is when I discovered my true calling in life: 50s Housewife.

During my venture into the world of home economics yesterday--they call it family science now--I scoured my apartment whilst listening to Broadway showtunes at an obnoxiously loud volume to annoy my neighbors, who I dislike anyway. I polished furniture, put away dishes, organized drawers, washed windows, and mopped my floors. I dusted baseboards and scrubbed sockets and switchplate covers. I vacuumed in an apron. I washed towels and linens, did my laundry, and even hand-washed a garment or two.

Then I decided to sew.

You see, I had a button that was falling off a sweater that I happen to like. The time had come to sew the button back on my sweater. I had a needle and thread in the appropriate color, and sewing a button is fairly idiot-proof. After all, I can see the four little holes and, as a college graduate, I understand the concept pretty well. My needle and thread needs to go through the holes enough times that the button no longer dangles from the shirt. Easy enough. So I began.

Roughly 45 minutes later, said button and I came to an understanding. It agreed to stay firmly affixed to my shirt provided I never allowed anyone to look at the horrendous sewing job on the inside, where my frustration resulted in a pounding headache behind my left eye and a "eff it" attitude. By this time I was thoroughly aggravated and I believe that were my button able to express feelings, it would tell you that it feels a bit like a stripper with a botched boob job.

I decided to cook dinner. At this time, my poor, unsuspecting husband arrived home. Dinner began smoothly enough. The pork chops were in the pan, sweet potatoes in the oven, and the table set. Then I tried to make the balsamic glaze to put on the pork chops and discovered that we did not have the required 2/3 cup of balsamic vinegar. From here, the situation turned pretty ugly. The final result was my apron lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, me sitting on the couch with tears in my eyes bemoaning my "ruined dinner," and my wonderful husband trying desperately to make our sauce thicken at the stove. It never did.

Yes, I could be a 50s housewife.

But the kind with a maid and lots of liquor.

14 August 2010

When Did This Happen?

Do not misunderstand me. I understand that I am 26 years old. I understand I have graduated from college (twice), traveled around the United States, and been married for nearly three years. I do my laundry, cook dinner, clean, and pay bills. I have my own car and medical insurance. I have a job--nay, a career--that I love. People under the age of eighteen are not allowed to call me by my first name. Parents ask me for advice on how to handle their teenagers. These are the trappings of adulthood. I recognize that. But still I find myself asking constantly, "When did I become a grown up?"

It's not that I mind as much as that I am constantly baffled by this fact. Being a full-fledged grown up seems like a momentous event, something that should be marked by an elaborate ceremony. And yet all around me I watch as my friends, with little fanfare, continue to do things that can only be described as adult. My friends are getting married (to be fair, some fanfare is involved in this). They are slowly fanning out across the country--some the world--to follow careers, significant others, and new opportunities. They are buying houses. My best friend just gave birth to her second child. I can no longer deny that eight years after the end of high school, we are officially a part of the real world.

And the real world seems simultaneously far more and less complex than I anticipated. The things that seemed so impossible as a child--retirement accounts, medical insurance, travelling without supervision--seem easier than anticipated. Other things I thought would be easy--finding contentment and genuine happiness in a crazy world--take far more effort and are much more difficult than adults lead children to believe.

I am an adult. I see this. I even accept this.

That does not mean I have to be happy about it.