I realized I’ve been a little bit quiet on this blog. That’s not because nothing’s been happening, nor is it because I haven’t had any thoughts. In fact, more has happened in the past two months than I thought was possible to happen in that time span. At the beginning of April, I got two job offers, I flew to Haiti, I signed a contract working with a non-profit to develop teacher training curriculum in third world countries, and I signed a lease for an apartment in Massachusetts. Now I’m getting ready to move back up North for who knows how long. As exciting as these things that are happening are, it also means that another chapter of my life is coming to a close—the chapter called Teach for America.
This past weekend we celebrated the end of our two-year commitment to Teach for America. Just like anyone who completes Teach for America, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned to become a better teacher, I’ve learned to teach reading, I’ve learned how to (relatively) manage a classroom of 20 teenagers who don’t care about history. I learned how to live in a small town, I learned how to talk Southern (sometimes) and how to somewhat enjoy Southern barbecue.
All of these lessons are hugely valuable, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. But I wasn’t expecting to learn as much about myself in the two years that I did, and it’s these lessons that I feel more privileged to have learned. Someone twenty years older than me might laugh at these, and maybe twenty years down the road I’ll be re-writing some of this, but that’s okay.
Lesson #1: It’s not necessarily what I’m doing, but why I’m doing it that I care about.
To put it simply, I hated my first year of teaching. Hated it. I thought about leaving and not completing my two-year commitment. I had a pro-con chart drawn out for staying vs. leaving, and the pros in leaving were much greater than the pros for staying.
Yet I knew I wasn’t finished with what I had come to NC to do. I’d made a two year commitment and was going to stick it out. But I knew that if I was going to stick it out, something was going to have to change, because I didn’t want to hate what I was doing.
Toward the beginning of the second year, I got feedback on one of my lessons. “I’m seeing a lot of the what and the how of your lesson, but I’m missing the why this lesson it happening,” was what it said. And I realized that this was how I had viewed much of my life up until then. I had focused on the what and the how, but was lacking in the why I did what I did. Up until recently, I had adopted much of the why that the world preaches—the idea of a successful life. But I realized that as a Christian I was called to more than that, and that was why I hadn’t bought into the world’s success in a meaningful way.
When I realized that, things started to change—not magically, but change they did. The frustrating politics of education were still there, and they drove me nuts to no end. Those students who seemed to never do what I asked them to still acted out. But instead of being bogged down by the frustrations, I realized that those frustrations are why I’m there. No, I can’t fix a broken system as a single person, but I’m also called as a Christian to work to bring God’s kingdom and justice to this Earth. The world isn’t changed by one extraordinary person. The world gets changed when ordinary people realize that something’s not right and start working to fix it.
Lesson #2: There’s not a “supposed to” in life.
For much of my life, I’ve done things because I felt like I was supposed to. It was just who I am. I went back to camp because I was supposed to (after all, my mom and grandmother had been highly involved in it, so I should have too. Good thing I feel in love with it the second year.) I went to the dorms because I was supposed to (and again, good thing I fell in love with it the second year). I chose to go to a small, Christian liberal arts college because I felt like I was supposed to (and I did like the school, so that worked out). I kept my education major all through college because I was supposed to, and joined Teach for America because I was an ed major and a missionary kid and so I was supposed to do things like that, and I was supposed to get a teaching job out of college.
At the beginning of year two of TFA, when people started asking me what I was going to do after TFA, I had no clue. “Well, I was an ed major, so I guess I’ll teach,” was my standard response. It was what I was supposed to say. I thought about staying a third year because that could be what I was supposed to do as a teacher. I also began to explore other routes that I was “supposed to.” I looked into teaching at MK schools overseas because hey, I’d been a Missionary Kid, and isn’t that what MK teachers are supposed to do? And wasn’t I supposed to not want to live in America anymore because I’d spent the greater part of America overseas?
But as the year went on, I realized that all of these “supposed to’s” were first, not where I really wanted to be, and second, not what I really wanted to be doing. A part of me wanted to pursue all of them…until I realized that I was pursuing them because it was what I felt like I was supposed to be doing, and that in itself was not okay with me.
And so I’m not doing any of them, and I’m beyond excited. Never in my life did I think I would be leaving the classroom after only two years of teaching, but I’m thrilled to be doing something that I’m passionate about. There are huge questions that come with this switch, but it’s a brand new adventure that I’m stoked about.
Lesson #3: Home is where I am with the people with whom I laugh and love and where I am doing what I love.
I think that after college I thought I was going to find a magical land and suddenly everything was going to be right in the world and I was never going to want to leave and I would know that I was home. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and it maybe never will happen. But for a girl who spent her childhood watching friends move away and flying back and forth to the states and saving money so she could by a plane ticket to go to camp with her friends, it was a nice idea. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade this childhood for anything, but I always thought there would come a day when I found something else. I would see friends who had never moved in their life and wondered what it was like to have grown up in a community like that.
But the home that I was envisioning either doesn’t exist or I will never be able to have it because I’m too much of a restless soul. Which is fine. In fact, it’s great. Because that freedom enables me to go where I feel God is calling me and love deeply wherever I am. For the past couple of years, North Carolina has been home. I’ve laughed with the friends I’ve made here, loved students, and learned. For two days, home was in Haiti in a massive dormitory with cockroaches and geckos. Now I get to move back to Massachusetts, which will be a home for however long, and I’m privileged to already have friends to move back to. I realized how blessed I am to have friends not only all over the country, but all over the world, and to know that wherever I am, I have a home with them.
Today in class one of my students asked me where I’d gone to college. I told him, and he asked if he could go there.
“Of course you can!” I told him.
“I want to,” he told me. “You seem like a successful person, and I want to be like you.”
I laughed a little inside, and realized what a privilege it is to show this student a picture of success that isn’t necessarily about having money, but about living a meaningful life. Not that I’m doing it perfectly, but it’s good to know that that’s what they see.