On taking flight

The Skater
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.

18 thoughts on “On taking flight

  1. Carolyn Flynn says:

    You will find your way, Rita! I am still finding my way after leaving teaching. It is exciting and daunting at the same time, but I am finding that life hands us clues as to how to proceed. My daughter is now expecting a baby in September, and it is clear that my parents are needing me more than ever. Proud of you and happy for you that you have found the love of skating again – you will land on your feet 🙂

    • Rita says:

      Thank you. I’m counting on it to be like this! One reason I decided not to come back in a regular teaching job is that I wanted more flexibility in my schedule so that I could be available to my parents and brother in a way that I’m not now. Congratulations on the baby! I think it would be so wonderful to be a grandma. 🙂

    • Rita says:

      No, he has a few years left. He’s a bit younger than me and he started teaching later than I did. Luckily, he’s in a great school (the one I’ve been at this year) and loves what he’s doing. We’re both very fortunate.

      • TD says:

        Rita, On ice skating: Your poem reminded me of childhood finding a pair of white ice skates underneath our Christmas tree. Lots of time on the ice rink as a young girl.

        Your essay relating ice skating with a every important milestone of life as retirement approaches is fascinating!

        Wouldn’t retiring together be such a lovely poetic fairytale. Ice skating days were certainly made of fairytale memories for me. My first retirement was three years after marrying my second husband (with of course agreement to do so of my husband at that time).

        Life takes us wherever it takes us! Some figure eights. Some falls. On my second retirement appreciation of owning my time. Neighborhood is quite again and spring feels wonderful!

        • Rita says:

          I’m glad to hear that your neighborhood is quiet again and that spring feels wonderful. It’s been feeling more like winter again here. I guess we had a bit of a false spring? Oh well–the flowers are still beautiful!

  2. Kari says:

    I believe in you, my friend. This punched me in the gut a little because Anna is nearing the end of her undergraduate career. I’m so happy for her, but her life is about to change drastically in the next several weeks. My life will change as well. There are so many changes going on.

    Change used to be a lot more frightening, but I think we’ll all be alright. Xoxo
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  3. Kate says:

    Rita, I’m glad you had this year and I’m glad you’re leaving teaching knowing that it’s the right decision at the right time. I look forward to hearing about whatever comes next.

    • Rita says:

      Me too! 🙂 It’s so much better to make a right decision at the right time. Last year was right, but the time wasn’t.

  4. Ally Bean says:

    “It’s time for me to do other things”

    I wish more retirees would embrace this idea. In my observation the people who do the best in retirement move onto new adventures, allowing themselves to grow and evolve into someone different. It’s the people who hang onto their past personas with iron fists that seem to have a difficult time of it. You’ll land on your feet.

    • TD says:

      You are absolutely correct in my opinion. When I moved into/onto this property exactly two years ago during the beginning of pandemic, new neighbors for me would constantly ask me over and over again about my past (you know all curiosity those questions,Ally). And most of the time I would respond with “I’m retired, I’ve done so much of a variety with my life. I do other things with my time now. I’m so happy to be here in this new home.” But still people press and push to know., to judge, to make a decision to accept or reject. (Sad human behavior).

      So I eventually decided to respond with thoughts of mine, “I love the quiet neighborhood.” “I love all oak trees.” “I love the birds.” “I love that this home is so close to all my places I go, like my small size grocery store, my veterinarian, my bank, and so close to the waterfront on the bay and only 20 minutes to drive to the beach.”

      Oh, you are so correct. I absolutely don’t want to hang onto the past or give explanation. I already know about that and I’m interested in now and the time ahead, new activity, new adventure, new friends to make.

    • Rita says:

      I agree. Would that we could all hold ourselves more lightly, through all our lives. Or that I could have, anyway. There’s such a freedom that comes with not taking our ideas of ourselves too seriously.

  5. Debs Carey says:

    I hope you were able to sit and take pleasure in the knowledge that they’ve enjoyed you being their teacher and will miss you, instead of feeling any form of guilt about leaving or taking time (well earned time) for yourself. What a lovely memory to take away with you.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I don’t feel any guilt. I feel like this is exactly the place I was supposed to be for this year, and also, that it really is time for me to move to other things. It’s time for younger folks to take over. The whole year with these students has been a lovely memory, and a much better way to end my career than it would have been if the previous school year had been my last. I’m nothing but grateful and content about it all.

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