When I clicked open my work email today, amongst the many missives from anxious students checking to see if I received their final essays for our English class and the military members who wanted to ensure that I knew about the upcoming Spooktacular 10k and mandatory anti-terrorism training on Thursday, there was a climate assessment survey waiting for me, urging me, gently cajoling me to weigh in on the atmosphere of my workplace, begging to know how I thought things were progressing in my daily environment. After absolutely agreeing, agreeing, disagreeing, or absolutely disagreeing with the many statements like “Everyone in my workplace has the same opportunities, regardless of gender, race, religion,” I came to a question I had to really think about: “What do you enjoy most about working here?” It wasn’t that the question was overly complicated. It was one of those teacher-questions I routinely ask my students: “what were your biggest challenges while writing the assignment? What did you do well in your writing? What challenges did you face?” Or those mom-questions I ask my kids every day: “How was school? What did you do with your friends? What happened that made you laugh/cry/fart/frown/succumb to your childlike rage and throw milk across the table in the cafeteria?” This survey question had an answer; I just didn’t quite know which one to pick.
What did I enjoy most? What a personal question for a survey to ask. Why do you want to judge me, survey? What did I ever do to you? I felt a little exposed and vulnerable as I began to type in my answer. Definitely the part I enjoyed the most was showing my students what they were capable of in their writing. Definitely. Yep. That was it. It wasn’t the fact that this assignment left me room to gulp greedy handfuls of stress-free air in a way that none of my previous assignments allowed. I didn’t have to figure out how to host a holiday party for a four-star’s wife and her friends over the holiday break, with minimal staff. I didn’t have to chart the route from Homebase, Afghanistan, to a nearby girls’ school, avoiding well-known hotspots and threatening, white Isuzu trucks loaded with who-knew-what-explosives. I also didn’t have to stand in front of a crowd of 200 and give a memorial speech for a young man who fell victim to inexperience and wet streets on his recently purchased, lime green, motorcycle. It certainly couldn’t be the predicability of a 7:30 to 4:30 pm schedule every day (with a few annual exceptions). It probably shouldn’t be the fact that I was working with some great friends, relationships cultivated and deepened over the few years that I’ve been here (I almost typed that one first). It had to be that I was able to show my students what they were capable of achieving, what they held within, that propensity humans have for unexplored potential. That had to be it. That’s what a good teacher would say. And I need to be a good teacher.
I need to be. I have nothing else. Or that’s sometimes the dialogue that runs through my head. This is it, woman. You’re coming to the end of the tracks, military-career wise. You better figure out what you want to be when you grow up. I’ve decided I want to be a teacher. If I’m being honest, I want to be one of those people who collect checks for doing very little to basically nothing, but those positions are filled by the Gwyneth Paltrows and Tom Cruises of the world (I’m still annoyed with their comments about how tough it is to be actors while I’ve watched my service members experience unspeakable things for far, far less reward). And since those positions of laissez-faire seemed to be filled, I gotta get to work, again, in just a few years. And I’m afraid.
I’m afraid of not being successful. I’ve enjoyed success in my military career. I’ve tasted it, and it is yummy. I’ve achieved things I wanted to achieve, and I’ve been rewarded for my level-headedness, my multi-tasking ability, my adaptability, my follow-through, my leadership and followership abilities, my physical strength, and my endurance. Many of these traits are supposedly coveted by the civilian sector, but I’ve watched those before me slide back to Go, forced to begin again, forced to prove their worth in a society that claimed to love and revere them when they had symbols on their collars and stripes on their sleeves. So, I’m scared that if I don’t know what I want to be, I’ll listen to what those employers will tell me I am: no longer in the military, just one of the crowd of folks searching for a job.
I need to be a good teacher for other reasons, like the big one: I’m good in a classroom. It comes easier to me than parenting, being divorced, being a daughter/sister, doing math, re-learning French, or planning a weekly menu of dinners for me and the boys. I’m almost fully alive in a classroom. I feel heard and seen (except for the occasional Monday morning class where some try to disappear inside their chairs or desks). I know how to grab the students’ attention and hold it for a little while, maybe even 20 minutes straight, by being shockingly, unabashedly honest and sincere with the crazy things coming from my mouth. I know how to teach writing, how to leak out my passion for it, how to tell a class just enough about the things to notice in this world and in themselves that their heads will expand, but not necessarily explode. I think. I hope.
Now, I’m straddling the military-civilian fence. I’m teaching in two very different environments: a classroom of students working towards personal goals of education and serving their country, and the other group, largely filled with students who have goals to do who-knows-what because they don’t have to tell me. One group consists of assured (or most nearly assured) attentiveness, and the other…not so much. No guarantees, lady.
I fearfully gave that latter group the opportunity to assess me today. During our class, I asked them to anonymously identify things they wanted to stop, start, and continue for the rest of the quarter in our creative non-fiction class. I don’t know if they suspected my fear. I tried to represent a level of insouciance by making a joke about crying quietly at home, with my children watching, and a bottle of wine as I read their comments. I totally think I pulled it off. But when I got to the parking lot, climbed in my car and opened the box containing their critique-filled index cards, my hands trembled a little bit. What if I wasn’t any good at this? What if I wasn’t successful with those students who aren’t impressed with a military uniform? What if this isn’t what I’m going to be when I grow up?
And why do I need it so much? That was one question that should have been on the survey waiting for me in my email: why do you need this, Nancy?