I start to think about the topic of the next essay as soon as I hit the publish button of the last one. And that was the case last week. Ideas for essay seven and eight brewed in my mind late last week and early this week. But on Thursday somewhere between early morning and late afternoon this essay began to shape and unfold itself. And like a stubborn child with crossed arms and a scowl this essay refused to be sent to the back of the line. So, I wrote it.
Mami never liked the idea of teaching as a dream. And for the longest time I did not want to be a teacher. As a matter of fact no one was more stunned when I became a teacher than myself. And when I fell in love with teaching I felt betrayed by my own self. I had one dream only, and that was to write. But I lacked a plan. I also lacked a trust fund. And what I lacked the most was believing in myself. And life took turn after turn and my hands were empty of a road map. So, teaching became the means and writing was the dream. I underestimated teaching from the very beginning. It was an opponent that pinned you against the ropes early on in the ring. And to get from under, I needed bob and weave, jab, and I also needed to block. That skill set would take years to cultivate. So, by the time I figured it out I was against the ropes so long it required a mammoth effort to unpin myself.
“Yo no quiero que vayas a ser maestra,” Mami would tell my sister. She was the one that dreamt of teaching when we were kids. I wanted to be rich, eccentric, and travel the world when I was young. And that morphed into being a writer at eleven.
Joann stared at Mami from behind her glasses.
“Las maestras grow old fast,” Mami explained as if teaching was a time machine that aged you. “Look at your third grade teacher,” she would point out. “When she started teaching a few years ago she looked young and pretty,” Mami shook her head in disgust. “Ahora esta fea y vieja.”
Joann always wanted to play teacher when we were young. She would line up our stuffed animals in neat rows on our beds. Then she stood in front of the two beds with an old TV Guide in her hand and tear out the pages and hand them out to her stuffed pupils. She would walk in between the two beds with a notebook in her hand and deliver reading, writing, and math lessons to a sea of hard plastic and blank toy eyes .
I would sit to the side. The corner of the bureau my desk. I’d grade the torn pages of the TV Guide and hand out hundreds and nineties to our cabbage patch dolls, teddy bears, and our collection of peluches. That was always the extent of me playing teacher. So, Mami never felt the need to warn me. I refuse to play the what if game. She didn’t warn me. I became a teacher. My sister did not.
Thursday as I raced to work with a cup off coffee in my hand and my backpack flung over one shoulder my mind was a blur of worries. The constant to do list grew with every step I took. Laundry, run to the bank, my son’s soccer practice, my daughter’s dance lesson, dinner, revisions for my novel, my weekly essay challenge, and the separate endless to do list for my job. Funny even as I type the word job my finger lingers over the keys ready to substitute it with another word that fits. But nothing really fits teaching. It’s a profession of constant learning, demanding work, and it’s a job that requires a tireless effort.
“Ms. Meza,” a parent called out to me as I neared the school.
I looked up and smiled. “Good morning,” I sang out. I was thankful that the first cup of coffee I drank at home already coursed through my body.
“I just wanted to tell you that my daughter loves you,” she returned the smile with a weak one. Her eyes filled with worry as her hair blew in front of her face.
“Walk with me,” I said as my smiled broadened. Sixteen years of teaching and those words still made my heart swell.
“I love your daughter too,” I said. It was true my student while quiet and painfully shy was one of my best writers. She had a sweet smile and sharp eye for small details that were large. Dainty and soft-spoken there was a maturity greater than her ten-year old self. And already at ten boys noticed her even as she hid behind an endless graphic novels.
“She really loves you more than any other teacher she’s had. You are her favorite,” she said as she walked alongside of me.
“Well you made my morning,” I said, as I thought about my drive to work that morning. Like all mornings, I raced against the clock as I dropped off my two children to school and barreled through Fourth Avenue, with one eye on the clock and the other on the traffic. Radio always on to whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment. The dry heaving started soon after I began to drop off my six-week old daughter to Mami’s and race to work. I blamed hormones, nerves, poor digestion, too much coffee, dairy intolerance, and my own bob and weave between the traffic lanes. Whatever is the reason I have a strong physical reaction as I get close to school. If you spot a woman with her head hung out of the driver’s side window mid gag during morning rush hour that would be me.
“I just wanted to thank you for talking to her yesterday and keeping an eye out on my daughter.” She rushed to say as we reached the front of the building.
“Of course,” I called out to her as I yanked open the door and disappeared. I went back to late afternoon of the previous day where I pulled her daughter, my student, into an empty room on our floor to talk to her.
“I thought we had an agreement,” I looked at her as she sat across from me. Her straight brown hair parted in the middle, which she tucked behind her ears. “Remember you were going to tell me anytime you were made to feel uncomfortable by anyone,” I leaned into the chair and felt the late afternoon waves of exhaustion threaten to capsize me.
“I was trying to ignore it, but it really bothers me,” her voice soft.
“Of course it bothers you that’s a normal reaction when you are being teased. Do you know why you are being teased?” I waited for her response.
She lowered her eyes. “They like me,” her face red.
“And that’s normal for boys and girls to like each other. But what’s not cool at all, is to tease and make you uncomfortable.” I shook my head as anger crept into my chest.
“I know,” she looked up at me. “This happened a lot last year too, but I try not to let it get to me, but it does. ”
“Can I tell you a story?” I asked.
“Sure,” she smiled. “I love when you tell stories.”
My first year of teaching I learned bribery was an effective behavior management tool. On hot days without air conditioning in the classroom and windows that never opened all the way I bargained with my students. “Do all your work and at the end I will tell you one of my stories,” I’d barter. I had a collection of fun stories I shared from: how I almost drowned in Bermuda, my lasik eye surgery and how afraid I was, the time a rat crept into my bed in Colombia, my disaster on the parallel bars freshman year of gym class, and how I went sky diving at twenty-one.
But this time I told another story. And as I sit here and write. I don’t think it was much of a story, but more like an admission. “I get it,” I looked straight at her. “All this attention that you are getting and you don’t want,” I took a long breath. “When I was your age I was nowhere as pretty as you. But by the time I was eleven I looked like a woman.” I watched her eyes widen. “My face looked like a kid’s, but my body well it looked like a woman’s.” I let my eyes drift from her face.
“And boys liked you?” She asked.
“No I was never popular with boys, but boys and men made comments about my body. And I hated it. It made me feel uncomfortable.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I hid. I hid under layers of baggy clothes. I also started to wear all black when I was fourteen.”
“Really?” she looked up at me in wonder. “When the boys stare at me or say stupid things about me to the other kids loud enough that I can hear I don’t want to raise my hand. I don’t want them to look at me.”
I studied her before I spoke, “You can’t do that because then you are falling into their trap. I don’t want you to shrink or hid. I will talk to the boys that are teasing and making fun of you.” I searched her face to see if there was permanent damage. But like the incubation of a virus there were no signs or symptoms that I could see right then and there.
That afternoon as I drove home and I thought of my eleven year old self. My eleventh year I decided I wanted to become a writer, and that winter I got my period too. And instead of running to tell Mami and Joann I kept it a secret. I blamed Mami. She was prone to unpredictable reactions. I told her a year and a few months later. Now, I suspect there was more to my period being a secret. I think I wanted to hide the fact from myself more than Mami. My body developed curvy and soft months before my period came. And with every curve of my hips and bounce of my chest stares and comments accompanied. Grown men leered, boys joked and snapped my bra strap, and the more my body developed the more I shrunk inside.
On my way to work on Friday a few blocks away from school I began to gag. Winter recess was just hours away I told myself. And I listed off all the things that I would do this upcoming week: read, write, go to the gym in the morning, rest, spend time with my kids, more time for my chores, and on went my list. My wave of nausea eased and I suspected that my soul disagreed with teaching because it took away time from what I love. That writing blames teaching for cock blocking all the play it could get. It’s foolish to think that way because teaching feeds my creativity as well. They are more similar than not, both very difficult and require tremendous reflection. And they both reside in me.
I’m sure that when I go back to work next week there will be that fear and nervous knot in my gut. And I will have to open the windows and grasp at the fresh air as I drive. Or as I walk to the school building I will have to bite my lip as I force myself to not gag. And there will be a meeting, endless paperwork, a crisis in the classroom, a parent that needs to talk to me, a student that needs more than just a lesson on fractions, but there will be me. The me that has just begun to understand that moments are fleeting. That bad moments ebb and flow as do good moments. So, why not be present even when you want to race your car in the opposite direction or hug your student till the tears that you have fought all day slip down your face. And maybe when you do that the knot will loosen, and you will not feel bound and gagged.