By Susan Lilley
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of bragging on Facebook and Instagram about former students doing stellar things, like performing on Broadway or publishing in top-tier magazines. But the fact is that as an English teacher in a very good independent school, I want to celebrate my students all the time. As wonderful as it is to post a picture of a newly minted Broadway star, I wish I could also put names in lights for an army of former students doing things like medical research, fighting human trafficking, defending the voiceless in courts of law, striving for equality, managing this, managing that, creating art, raising children, and many still finding their way. The one taking the bar exam for the second time, the one working crap jobs so he can go to auditions, the ones behind the scenes and in the spotlights of all kinds of worthy endeavors, and the very special former students who have brought their talents, hopes, and energy to the world of education—some of them teaching by my side every day. They would share top billing in my marquee of celebration of incredible people from generation X right through the millennials. Yeah, I have been at this a good while.
Teaching is hard work; it does not seem terribly glamorous or lucrative, and many of my students cannot imagine why a reasonable adult would even want such a job. After all, at their stage of development (I teach seniors) they are quite desperate to move on to the next stage of life’s adventure. School begins to feel like a confining chrysalis they must wiggle out of on their way to their “real lives.” They are often surprised when they find out I had a stint in corporate life and another enjoying the divinely airy schedule of a college educator. Teaching all day every day is not for everyone. There is no office door to close when you are having a bad day. There are times (when the alarm goes off at 6 and I burst into tears) I still wonder if it is for me. After all, my most creative hours are the morning hours, when my time is most definitely not my own. Teaching has slowed and sometimes stopped my work as a creative writer. But in many ways, I must confess, it has saved me.
For example, the past year presented me with some major, life-changing, out-of-my-control circumstances that I still cannot bring myself to address directly in writing. Not yet, anyway. But suffice it to say, this year contained challenges that would drive even a strong person to pull the covers over one’s head and give up. There is precedent for this response to trauma in my family history. One of my mother’s great-aunts was upset about something (nobody remembers what) and she announced she was going to bed to die. Which she accomplished, although it took some 17 years. “Taking to the Martin bed” did not seem like an option for me when my life fell apart in a few earth-shaking ways that required changing just about everything but my gender and my job. And this year, that job has saved my sanity.
It has taken many decades of various kinds of work to realize that work is actually good for me. Never mind that I am tired too much of the time and wish I could turn the intensity down about 20%. I even admit to harboring envy of those who own so many of their own waking hours. And yet, when faced with life drama and chaos that made me want to check into a padded cell, I instead just got up and went to work. I also leaned hard on some incredibly loyal and loving family members and friends. Some people suggested a leave of absence to pull myself together. But something about the rhythm of the school day and week was weirdly soothing, even when I had to hit the ladies room to cry between classes.
And my students–those fabulous knuckleheads! If they knew something was wrong, they only showed it by being extra smart, extra polite, and extra motivated. Despite how overwhelming it felt to face over 80 papers on Richard III or a zillion class blog posts and comments on romantic comedy, the tasks could be somehow divided and conquered, which gave me a pathetically minor yet cheering sense of accomplishment. Going to class required a deep breath between emotional exhaustion and totally absorbing discussions on writing, research, literary criticism, gender, race, power, love, betrayal, heroism, and what it means to be human. Even the most difficult and incendiary subjects can be explored relatively safely in the literature classroom—or as I like to call it, the laboratory of the soul.
I am sure I haven’t done everything perfectly during this difficult year, and I am still finding the pieces to my new version of life. But I am grateful for the capacious refuge of work that has real meaning. Looking at the earnest faces of my current students makes me wonder what is ahead for them. They yearn, they complain (of course), they strive, they do amazing things as they negotiate their place during difficult political times; they must fathom the transition from high school to college–from child to adult. I try my best to nurture their sense of hope while finding new definitions of that word in my own consciousness. And they don’t even realize how much they are helping me, their teacher, by just being their hilarious, bold, shy, hard-working, procrastinating, BS-ing, chance-taking, outraged, joyful, truth-blurting, lovely selves.