The skater is only eleven,
her narrow body just beginning
to grow out of control.
She is moving backwards,
tiny skirt lifted flat
against the arch of her back,
mittened hands held out,
the pose of her index finger
hidden in the wool.
With force she leaps,
a simple hop
from one foot to the other,
yet, for her, flight:
for an instant she is suspended,
legs open, arms circled, closed,
her act both giving and receiving;
then she is bound again,
landing crunch hiss,
her blade holding an edge firm into a smooth curve,
her free leg stretching, her arms reaching up, out–
not in a pose, but a celebration.
Then she is off again,
sharp air pushing against her cheeks,
turning them pink, turning her into a ripple
of sleeves, skirt, hair,
and she breathes deep,
moving backwards still
with long, sure strokes, feeling
she’s pulling the ice in, to her,
consuming it with her limbs,
knowing she’s found
the element she was born to exalt in,
and intoxicated by it all–
the air, her speed, the power
in her body, strong and fresh as clean ice–
she drives her toe down
to propel herself up again,
arms and legs held close, tight,
never thinking of the pock in the ice,
the hole that is the price
for this glorious, twisting flight,
or of her landing,
which may or may not
crunch hiss into a smooth edge
that curves gracefully
as the arch of her tender back.
I wrote the first version of this poem in the fall of 1987, the day before I began my first “real” job after graduating from college. It had been more than 10 years since I’d quit skating, but these were the words that came to me as I thought about leaving behind my life as a student, the only one I’d ever known. I was going to be working in a cubicle, with two weeks’ vacation every year. Sitting at my sunny dining table, I thought about how it would likely be decades before I would again have time on a weekday morning to write poems.
I wondered what I was gaining and what I was losing and how I would feel about it all far in the future, at the end of my work life, when I might again be able to spend weekday mornings writing poems.
This week, trying to write a post about my return to skating, I remembered the poem I wrote nearly 35 years ago. I went searching for it in a box of papers I have in my attic that is full of essays and resumes and news articles I wrote during those years in which I was figuring out what my life might become. Taking that first job–as an editorial assistant in an educational publishing company–felt like taking a leap, and I didn’t know what it might cost me or how I would land. I knew then what I knew as a skater, though: to complete a jump, you have to trust that you will, while simultaneously being OK with knowing that you might fall.
Two weeks ago, I had to formalize my decision not to return to teaching in September. This week, while talking with one of my classes about how much time we have left and what we need to get done in it, I told them that we would only be meeting 15 more times.
“Only 15 more times?” one boy said in mock dismay. “But Ms. Ramstad, I’m going to miss you!” The others laughed, and I did, too.
“It’s OK, we’ll see her next year,” another one said.
I hesitated, then said, “Well, actually, I won’t be teaching here next year.”
The feeling in the room shifted. “Why?” someone asked, and I said something about retiring.
“I’m already retired, you know,” I said. “I only teach two classes here now. I’ve just decided that I’m ready to retire more completely.”
There was a pause before another student said, “It’s ’cause you don’t want to work with us anymore, isn’t it?” He, too, used a joking tone, but as always with jokes, I knew there was truth in his words.
“No, no,” I said, quickly, seriously, anxiously. “I really like working with all of you. I’m so glad I got to do that this year. It was a hard decision because I didn’t want to give that part of teaching up.”
“Then why?” someone else asked.
I hesitated, then gave them the truth. “I’ve realized that I’m not really into teaching English any more,” I admitted. I didn’t say what I’ve said privately to friends in recent weeks: “My heart’s just not in it.” Not in the way it should be, the way it needs to be, the way it used to be. I can’t make myself care about teaching multiple approaches to literary analysis, about participating in academic discourse. As with so many things now, I’m a one-time believer who’s lost her faith.
“It’s time for me to do other things,” I said instead. I know this is true, even though I don’t know what, exactly, those things are.
Who will I be and what will I do if I’m really no longer a teacher? I don’t know. Stepping away, for real this time, feels like driving my toe-pick into the ice to propel myself into the air. It leaves a hole behind, and it–along with the possibility of falling–is always the price for flight.
But jumping I am, knowing this time what I didn’t at 11 or 22 (or even 33 or 44): That inventing ourselves is a lifelong activity, something we have to do over and over again. Wish me luck that my landing will crunch hiss once more into something as sure as the curve of my tender heart.