Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #17: Teaching

One of my favorite 8th grade classes.

This week marks the start of spring classes at George Mason University. I read my colleagues' messages on Facebook, identifying with the first day jitters and excitement they are reporting, but for the first time in almost 9 years, I'm not headed back to teaching after winter break. Instead of managing a room full of squirrely eighth graders or trying to engage some lethargic second semester freshman in the wonders of Shakepeare, I'm here at home, sipping hot cocoa, blasting my space heater, and getting ready to have a baby.

I'm not sure the reality has really sunk in yet. So far, I just feel like I am on some sort of extended winter break. I'm relishing the time I have to organize our house, set up the nursery, read marriage and parenting books, and write. This time is a real gift to me.

But at some point, I expect, I will wake up one day and realize that I miss teaching. It might come in a few weeks, when the nursery is ready and waiting, when I am left with only the daunting uncertainties of motherhood stretching before me. Or it may come this spring, when my days are consumed with diapers and feedings and the absence of sleep, when even a pile of essays to grade or a classroom full of eighth graders after lunch in the springtime would be a welcome relief. Or perhaps it will take until the fall, when I always feel an almost magical excitement about a new school year, fresh, unmarred, waiting to be unfurled.

The reality is that I've been in school for 25 of my 30 years, either being taught or teaching. My only "real" jobs have been teaching jobs - five years of teaching English at a public middle school, three and a half years teaching composition and literature at George Mason.

And though it has often been very hard, I have loved much about teaching. I have loved putting good books into the hands of my students, loved seeing reluctant readers get hooked on a series and avid readers discovering a new favorite. I have loved the challenge of educating, the impossible task of connecting material with hundreds of different learners and personalities, of making a skill that seems abstract and impossible into one that students see as concrete and possible. I have loved the creative and energetic and sometimes downright goofy part of me that comes out when I am standing in front of a classroom, loved making my students laugh and have fun learning, sometimes in spite of themselves. I have loved the many colleagues who have become friends, loved collaborating with them and laughing and venting and sometimes even crying with them over the ups and downs of the teaching life.

And I have loved my students. Their faces flash before me now, so many of them - Jamie, Mike, Hilary, Cecilia, those whose names I can't remember but whose stories I will never forget. They have inspired me, challenged me, impressed me, and taught me. Because of them, I am more appreciative of God's creativity in making each person unique. Because of them, I am more aware of my impatience and self-righteousness and the ways I will be challenged as a parent. Because of them, I am more conscious of how very blessed I have been and of how very hard life can sometimes be. I could go on and on.

In truth, teaching has been so much a part of my life and my identity as an adult that in some ways, it is hard for me to imagine myself apart from it. When I meet people now and they ask me what I do, I still sometimes say that I am a teacher. It's the answer I've been giving the past eight and a half years, and since I don't really feel like a mother yet, it somehow seems like the most accurate thing to say.

I don't know when I might return to teaching in some sort of official capacity. I may teach a class or two on a part-time basis as soon as the fall; I may teach again when our children are in school themselves. And I may not ever again write the word teacher on my income tax return. The future holds many unknowns. But I do hope that whether I am being paid to stand in front of a classroom or not, I will carry with me the lessons from my teaching years and always be a teacher in the truest sense of the word, helping others to learn and grow and reach their full, God-given potential.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #11: "Classvictorian"

Me at my high school graduation

Part of me doesn't want to write this post. I'm afraid you'll all think I'm arrogant to include my title as valedictorian of my high school class as one of my thirty pieces. I'm afraid that maybe I am arrogant to call attention to it.

But I can't help but think that if this series is really about the 30 most defining experiences and people in my life, being the valedictorian has to be up there somewhere.

Of course, now that I am thirty and have been out of high school for twelve years (yikes!), no one really cares that I was a valedictorian. It's not on my resume anymore, and I rarely talk about it. If I do, it's to tell the story of the drunken classmate who ran into me on the boardwalk during senior week and gushed with enthusiasm, "It's Abby Martin...the freaking classvictorian."

All that to say I'm not writing this post to convince you that I'm super cool and important because I happened to have the highest GPA of the 200 or so students graduating in 1998 in my small Pennsylvania town. If I ever had delusions that being valedictorian was cool, they pretty much vanished with the "classvictorian" comment. And I'm certain that if I'd gone to school in my current home of Fairfax County, where the schools are bigger and academic programs are stronger, I'd have been lucky to graduate in the top ten or twenty percent of the class.

What I do want to say though is that being the valedictorian did shape me, for better and for worse. Allow me to explain by going back to the beginning of my educational career.

I was home schooled throughout elementary school and only began attending public school full time in the eighth grade, a transition that just happened to coincide with my family's leaving the church we'd been part of my whole life. Though I wouldn't fully realize or be able to name it until years later, these two major changes, along with the all the normal unhappy realities of adolescence, ended up making my teen years a particularly difficult period for me.

You wouldn't have known it from the outside though. I was a straight-A, honor roll student, newspaper editor, Fellowship of Christian Athletes president, and yes, eventually, valedictorian. And in many ways, I was happy in these roles, relished the recognition, the constant reinforcement of awards, praise from teachers, and high grades.

I think though that I used these roles and titles to fend off the emotions I didn't know what to do with - the loneliness of being a newcomer and missing my old friends, the constant confusion about how to fit in and be cool, even the spiritual doubts that I didn't yet know I had.

Being an overachiever game me an identity. I might not have been the prom queen or the basketball star, but I was someone. I mattered. People noticed me (even if it was only to ask if they could copy my homework or be in my group for a project).

In some ways, I see this as God's kindness to me. I didn't know when I started going to public school that I'd do as well academically as I did, but He allowed me to discover gifts that would make a way for me in an unfamiliar place. This was a real kindness to me.

In other ways though, as I suppose is often true of gifts we've been given, I think I clung too tightly to my academic gifts. I allowed them to define me in a way that only God should have. I didn't know who I was apart from busyness and success, a mentality God's been gracious enough to spend much of my twenties undoing (or at least beginning to undo).

From my vantage point now, I am very, very grateful for the many academic gifts God has bestowed on me, gifts I am deeply aware that I do not deserve. I want to use them well. But I am also less and less interested in being defined by them, by measuring success according to titles and accomplishments. I want to be known and to know myself first and foremost as a beloved daughter of the giver of all good gifts and to rest in His acceptance of me apart from what I do.

When I get to heaven, what I hope to hear is not Abby, Valedictorian, but rather Abby, Good and Faithful Servant.