Maybe you can go home again?

About 20 years ago, I saw a notice in a work newsletter that a committee was forming to create a new kind of school. The idea was for several local school districts to combine resources to create advanced tech-based programs of study that none could afford to offer on their own. Core academic skills would be embedded into the context of non-academic fields, tying learning in English and science to topics students would (presumably) be highly interested in.

Well, I got myself on that committee as fast as I could. I’d been teaching English Language Arts (ELA) for a bit more than a decade then, long enough to have learned that I was not cut out to be a traditional English teacher. I loved the idea of connecting my curriculum to current, meaningful topics for students. I eventually became a member of the school’s design team, and when our public charter school opened in 2003, another teacher and I were the English department. I soon found my true home and true people working in the IT, digital media, and engineering/manufacturing programs. Teaching there was fun, creative, challenging, and rewarding. Our students attended their home high schools half-time, and our school half-time. We were small, and students traveled through their day with us in program-area cohorts, taking all of their classes with the same people. It made for tight communities and close relationships. It felt almost like family. The first few years, I thought I’d never leave and would be there for the rest of my career.

Then life happened. I got divorced and the demands of single-parenting and full-time English teaching toppled a balance I’d barely been maintaining before the divorce. The Great Recession hit, and in order to absorb devastating budget cuts the school administration decided to separate English from program areas in order to make bigger English classes that combined cohorts. This would mean going back to teaching a more traditional English curriculum. The idea of going back to traditional teaching, with an increased workload, crushed me. I left the place I loved and had helped create to take a completely different kind of job (coaching teachers) and pursue a long-deferred dream to be a teacher-librarian. Painful as it was, I knew I was not going to live out my career in that place and retire from it.

And I didn’t.

This spring, I officially retired from my career in education, but as I’ve been telling people all summer it has never felt like retirement. “It feels more like I quit,” I’d say. I just couldn’t do what I’d been doing any more. Every article I’ve read about people leaving their jobs because of what the pandemic revealed to them about work and its impacts has resonated for me. I had no real sense of closure or ending; I felt more like a person escaping from a burning ship: I had to jump off to save myself. I felt enormously fortunate to have that choice, but it didn’t feel good, leaving like that. Ending like that. I didn’t like it, but the alternatives felt impossible. Until now.

An opportunity has come up to return to that school I helped create more than 20 years ago, and I’ve taken it. I’ll be teaching two English classes, every-other-day, in the mornings. With only two classes, I’m confident that I’ll be able to take care of prep and grading in the afternoons, leaving two or three other days of the week free for other things. Instead of serving 10 entire schools in two different roles that often had me feeling isolated, conflicted, disconnected, and ineffective, I’ll belong to one school, one community, providing direct service to students. Instead of performing a role that felt increasingly at odds with my values, I will get to do work that aligns with them.

All through the spring and summer I kept seeing different kinds of jobs that felt almost-right. I started to apply for some, but I never completed any applications. At one point I told myself that I wasn’t going to take any job for a year, so that I could fully detach from how I’d lived in order to allow space for wildly new directions to appear. And then this opportunity appeared, and it felt completely right, immediately. So much so that I felt a little wary about it, as I tend to be about things that seem too good to be true. I took three days to think/feel and had multiple, long conversations with some of my most trusted people before committing. And now I am all in.

It has all felt a little magical. I tend to be skeptical of most things, and I have looked askance at the current fascination with manifesting, but… It feels like that is what has happened. Right before the pandemic hit us, Kari wrote something about wanting to stop blaming others for her unhappiness and it struck something deep within me. I was so tired of being unhappy and so tired of feeling powerless in my unhappiness. I hate toxic positivity and any solutions to personal problems that don’t consider systemic causes of them, but I sat myself down and made a mental list of all the things that weren’t working for me and asked myself what I could do to change them, by myself. I quickly realized I would have to do two things: Be open to what I started calling “radical lifestyle change” and tell myself and those close to me the truth of what I wanted (and didn’t), despite fear of my truths and of others’ responses to them. Sometimes it was scary and it was never easy, but when I remember my life two years ago and then look at what it is today, it feels like a damn miracle. (But to be clear: It’s not. I could not be where I am without systemic structures and advantages that have allowed me to make the choices I have, primarily the one that is allowing me to both draw retirement income and return to work.)

You guys: At the core of my life is a healthy, loving, committed relationship. We are creating a home that feels just right for how we live and want to live. I have time to nurture my health and relationships. I have time for creative work outside my for-pay work and to learn how to live in more congruence with my values. And now I get to go back to school, doing the kind of teaching I’ve missed for more than a decade, in the place I loved more than any other I’ve worked. I know it won’t be the place I left, and it’s going to be hard (Covid alone assures that), probably in many ways, but I am so excited to finally be tackling what feels like the right kinds of hard in this very hard time. To be starting a new chapter. To revise the ending of my story.

16 thoughts on “Maybe you can go home again?

  1. Marlene Lee says:

    Rita,
    What a wonderful opportunity. I also know you will put your library training to work in teaching research skills and a love of reading. Part of my enjoyment in retirement is my part-time volunteer work, allowing for a sense of accomplishment in doing work I love and time for me and rest I did not have working full time. Enjoy!
    Marlene

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Marlene. I hope I’m able to do that. And since it’s only a .33 position, I’ll still have time to volunteer with OASL. 🙂

  2. Laura Millsaps says:

    I love this news for you! Congratulations! I understand your feelings, about not wanting your retirement to be about “just quitting.” Everyone, I think, wants retirement to be a culmination of a rewarding career or a job where you felt you made real contributions, not leaving out of disgust, survival, or resignation that nothing more could be done (or all three). Your feelings about that are all so very valid. But if you will permit a friend to share her view of “just quitting,” to reframe that. I think the “just quitting” was an act of healthy self-defense in the face of a job that was making you quite literally ill. The “just quitting” was say a justified “No” to all the ways in which education has gone wrong for educators. It was a way of saying “No” to all the systems and inequities that put this on your shoulders, trying to make it your fault, and handing it back to them. It was a radical, risky, brave way to force change in your life (even if it didn’t feel that way at the time), and I admire your courage. You should (hate that word, but I’m gonna say it this one time) celebrate your strength. I don’t think you do it often enough, but damn girl. You have earned it.
    Laura Millsaps recently posted…This Dip: It’s Kind of a Big DillMy Profile

  3. Ally Bean says:

    I’m glad your life is falling into place in a way that makes sense to you and allows you to work & play in ways that make you feel whole. I like the idea of manifesting something good in your life, and I’d suggest that if it weren’t for you cutting ties with one job you’d never been in the headspace to embrace this new one.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Ally! I agree that we have to make space for new things. For a person like me (pretty financially conservative), that can be hard to do. I feel fortunate that I was able to.

  4. Barbara says:

    I love the phrase “the right kind of hard.” It sums up so much about working as a teacher. I’m excited for you!

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