Time and Teaching and Joy

This past week marked the first full week of teaching. Sixteen completed years. And, with the lapse of seven days came a greater sense of time, how it sifts through, and accumulates.

I have been obsessed with time for so long, can’t pin point when it started, but it started early. As a child I laid on my back, my Raggedy Ann and Andy sheets beneath me, my red-headed Cabbage Patch doll named, Cindy on my side, my arms crossed over my stomach, and ankles to match. I stared at the ceiling in a trance, and wondered where time went: how could movements, conversations, and incidents all disappear? They had to keep existing somewhere, on a perpetual reel, I hoped. If not it all seemed so unnecessary, irrelevant, and worthless.

And as a teen I was desperate for time to gain speed, weave in and out of the years that unfolded before. I gave many of my friends birthday cards, and inscribed my fear: one more year closer to death happy birthday! All around me I saw time dwindle, as if a joke about time and death made it cool and less scary.

In my early thirties I read this book called the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It was filled with great tidbits and quotes, but I lacked the motivation to search for my happiness. It did not seem important, my to do list had greater priority, and happiness seemed only to grace others, and not so much me. One quote in that book haunted me, seemed to whisper to me in the dark, and rattled my insides. The days are long, but the years short. I would sign my emails to my brother-in-law, Al, while he was in prison like that. And for a lot of his time inside, we wrote back and forth, about time. Time, he was serving, and the one slipping from my grasp.

He once wrote me: sis you sure love that line.

I responded with a simple: I do. But unsure why.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

This summer I was the oldest group member in my VONA fiction section. Some, as young as twenty-three, the closet to my age, Salima at thirty-six, I was a few weeks shy of turning forty. The only married one and with kids, somehow I felt older than forty, but also younger in other ways. But, my fiction members saw, not what I lacked, but the abundance of my experience. And long ago, I realized if people expect you to be a certain way, you do what is expected, and I did. I dispensed advice like Lucy Van Pelt in Peanuts.

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I wanted them to succeed, and sat next to every one of them: Amanda, Annie, Anum, Bobuck, Nia, Noelle, Ruben, and Salima, and in our conversations I left them scraps of myself, and listened to their story. At the very end of every conversation I told them one thing, which I had learned: time had legs, and it ran from you. Go! Do! I urged them all. I needed them to listen.

But, what we tell others is what we long to tell ourselves.

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My last night at Las Dos Brujas I drank a beer at a local bar and spoke to Michelle and Tomas, both VONA alum I met in 2015, now we met again at Las Dos Brujas, two years later. Young poets I asked about their dreams and marveled at all the time that laid at their feet. I did what I had done at VONA, and urged them to see time as a gift, but one that quickened its pace with years. They nodded.

“You know,” I looked at both Michelle and Tomas. “Time has legs, it runs from you.”

Silence.

I repeated myself again, knowing that poets follow the echoes of words.

They told me their plans.

I smiled. I urged. I reminded them time was on their side and not to let it slip.

“What about you, Ms. Time Has Legs?” Michelle asked.

I laughed. Stalled, as I waited for the puncture of my words repeated back to me to fade. “I’m going to write. Writing is my joy,” I said.

“Ok.” Michelle shook her head, her smile wide. “Because time has legs, Connie.”

*

This week as I drove to work and listened to an audio by Dr. Wayne Dywer he quoted one of my favorite books, one I read long ago, required reading for Sociology. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A sophomore in college, nineteen at the time, I read the book on the train ride the day it was assigned, horrified. How could someone live their whole lives without purpose, and their last thought be a deafening scream, as Ivan realized time had slipped from him. The agony of wasted time a torture for Ivan and Tolstoy’s readers.

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Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light…Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside. The dying man was still screaming desperately and waving his arms. His hand fell on the boy’s head, and the boy caught it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry. 

Naive and young, I declared that I would never be Ivan. I knew what I wanted more than anything in my life. I wanted to write. This I was sure of.

But.

Time has legs, and it runs from you. But, since I’ve spoken those words I have learned that there is more to it. Where you stand matters. And, if you are angled in such a way, those legs can look like more of a trot than a run. You can fool yourself. Stronger now, I can run alongside time. My own voice has been the shot in the air, the one that has signaled me to run.

*

Time seems to be everywhere. The trees are changing colors, the hues are subtle, only a few scattered leaves have fallen, but I notice. And like the seasons note the passage of time. School, notes the transition of time for me, a signal for me that another year has left me.  Seventeen classes, not including the two from summer school I taught those early years, before being a mom, When teaching felt new, like a coat. A coat, not broken into, no crumbled receipts in the pockets, loose change in the lining because of the small tear in left corner, and frayed cuffs.

I catch my reflection as a teacher, teaching sits on my shoulders, hangs off my arms, wraps itself tight around my chest. It’s familiar. But, it weighs on me.

On the first official day of school, I asked my students to write goals about what they wanted to accomplish this year. They had to write academic as well as personal goals, and while they shared their goals, written out in colored index cards. One particular student turned in my direction, and asked me what was my goal. I did not hesitate, and answered in one breath: I want to find joy everyday I teach. I wrote out my goal in black sharpie and placed it beside theirs.

Later that day, as I walked home from school towards my car, I saw a former student. Now, a freshman in highschool I asked him what school he attended.

“Stuy,” he said.

We walked next to each other the whole length of the block before we parted ways. But, not before I asked him about what he was reading, and how he felt about being in one of the best high schools in the nation. Shy and matter of fact about his accolades, I rejoiced for him. This was one of my favorite parts about being a teacher, my former students, and learning about their current lives. Not one student has failed to remember me, but sometimes I must slow down and stare at a former student’s face for a long time, their name always come back to me. And once I have a name, the memories come, flood and invade.

My oldest students are now twenty-six, some twenty-seven. They seem to stick closer to my memory, and I think about them, sure I have made a difference in some of their lives. And, while this fulfills me, I want something greater. I can’t help, but want to grow, and make my students proud of me. I want them to say: Ms. Meza was my teacher before… she went and followed her joy.

I recently got a writing mentor. He came into my life when I asked the universe to send me light and love. We have begun emailing back and forth.

Today I wrote him an email, I asked him if I could be so bold as to ask him when he realized that writing was his joy. I told him that I was eleven when I feel in love with writing, but only during these last nine months did it become clear, writing is my path to joy. And as I typed my email to him during the warm up of my son’s soccer game, I couldn’t help, but look up every other sentence. The bright blue sky above me, the hot son on my legs,  as ants crawled up my sandals, the world seemed perfect. I was content. Everything seemed to come together. Holden played soccer on the side, with my friend, Kristen’s, six-year-old daughter. Rubencito jogged the field with his knees high up in the air. My husband sat close to the sideline ready to cheer our son on, and I emailed my mentor about writing. I described the way the grass moved in the light breeze, and how shiny it looked under the bright sun. I confessed to him, writing makes me giddy, and forces me to look at life and those around me different.

Writers, write above your imagination. Laleh Khadivi

Laleh Khadivi dropped so many quotes and lines that fucked me up. In a good way. Her words, continue to unfurl from my mind, and they slant my vision, and I’m left in awe by her knowledge and wisdom.

I’m doing the work. I’m digging. I let Vanessa Martir words on the first night of VONA this summer guide me. Under the lamp-post by the restaurant, Copacabana I stood with V. She squinted her eyes in my direction, and said: “Connie, we are not so different. I’m no different from you. I made a choice to live this writing life… that’s all.”

Her words have played over in my mind, and I know she’s right.

And on Friday I was tagged on a post by one of the writer’s I studied alongside with at New York Public Library Cullman Scholar Writers Center, for a week in mid July, under Salvatore Scibona. Kelly, inspired by my weekly essays, has begun to write an essay a week, and created her own blog. Filled with joy, my eyes watered, and I knew for sure then, what I wished for at eleven, to write, was my path to joy.

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