Six More Weeks of Winter: Medical Leave, Day 1

I couldn’t fall asleep last night. It felt like the night before the first day of a new job.

Here’s what I did today: Went through the Dunkin Donuts drive-through in my sweats because washing the coffee pot – dirty in the sink since Tuesday – sounded too hard. Settled into the chair – MY chair, the one place in the world where my body mostly doesn’t hurt, soon to be dubbed ‘the Medical Leave chair,’ (or ‘MLC’) I think – to read a Young Adult novel about a kid with anger management problems. Remembered that I had some paperwork to finish with the doctor who is documenting the reasons for my medical leave; began a lengthy game of phone tag. Emailed my boss with a few last details. Explained to the cats that they really don’t have to come running over for more attention every few minutes. This is not a snow day, a momentary blip  – I really will be home with them for a long, long time, cramping their style and taking up space on the couch and hogging the softest blankets. Returned to the novel, although my reading was interrupted every few minutes by reveries of what it means to grow up, to become a person. Relived yesterday afternoon’s long conversation with a parent at school twelve or thirteen times. Considered – again – my complicated relationship with failure. Showered. Cooked a chicken. Eventually reached the doctor on the phone. Eventually washed the coffee pot.

Today is not, as many friends have suggested that it should be, the best day of my life. It feels remarkably ordinary, exactly the way I have grown accustomed to feeling: that there is great, important, and sacred work to be done, and that I am unequal to the task. However, the day is peaceful. We are having San Francisco weather here in New England  – warm enough to throw open the door to the sunporch during daylight hours; cool enough to bundle up in sweats and blankets as I languish in the MLC; gray skies outside my windows. Overcast skies affect me emotionally in ways I have never even tried to dig into. They yank me out of the adult world (which for me is also a New England world, a world of seasons) and back into the infinity of childhood.

Here’s what happened yesterday afternoon. At my school each teacher has advisees – nine or ten students whose academic, social, and extracurricular development we oversee. I had a meeting with one of my advisees, his mother, and his Spanish teacher. The meeting had been scheduled for a couple of weeks. Earlier in the day I had told my boss in little more than a whisper that I was done, that I wanted the medical leave to begin today. Originally I had said I would work through the end of the week, but each day I came to school I made two additional days’ worth of work for myself with all the promises I made: Sure, we can talk about whether you’re ready for A.P. English – how about tomorrow? Of course, I’ll write you a letter of recommendation. I think it’s time we have a quiz on all these logical fallacies. Let’s start picking poems for the literary magazine. On Monday we’ll talk about the symbolism behind Pilate’s green sack. As each class ended, I said, “See you tomorrow.” The few co-workers who knew what was up held my eyes just a little longer than usual as we said goodbye. “This is weird,” I said. “This is really weird.”

The meeting with the advisee parent and the Spanish teacher was routine. Her son – a B student overall – struggles in Spanish and with test-taking in general. He received a C- for the first semester. We were meeting to make a plan to help him succeed. We tossed around the usual ideas: extra help, study skills classes, tutors. I love her son. He is the kind of kid I pictured when I imagined becoming a teacher. The first time I met him, in my freshman English class last year, he was chewing on his tie. He looked as if he wanted to chew on his tie at this meeting, but we had been on a relaxed dress code for the day and he wasn’t wearing one. In class, he tried hard to be a smart aleck and often was, but sometimes – and this was wonderful – he would cast his mind out there for something irreverent to say about, for example, The Odyssey and end up landing on exactly the kind of brilliant observation that keeps a teacher coming back. If it hadn’t been for the constant shoulder pain that kept me from picking up a pen unless a gun was to my head, I would have written a few of these down. Essentially, what this boy had figured out entirely by accident – he wouldn’t have believed me if I had tried to tell him – is that being a goofy teenaged boy and being an academic of cutting-edge intellect require essentially the same skill set. I loved it. His classmates would literally recoil, as if I had brought a box of doughnuts to class and opened it to reveal a hissing king cobra. My mouth would open, not to praise him – I knew better – but to nudge the discussion forward, to take his observation as a given and let the class as a whole get the credit for sculpting it into something of texture and depth. But he caught me every time (Oh shit! I thought I was just goofing around and now she thinks I care about this stuff! Think of a distraction, quick!), and before I could get the words out he would shout “POOP!” or some other such inanity and pop the tie back in his mouth. (For the most part, I am exaggerating here. But once he really DID yell ‘POOP!” and ever since then I’ve been mustering up the courage to use that evasive maneuver in my own daily challenges: Family members dredging up old rivalries during Christmas dinner: “POOP!” Student loan company wanting to know where my payment is: “POOP!” Yet another doctor proposing yet another allegedly cutting-edge pharmaceutical product for my body pain before the rep from the drug company has even pulled out of the driveway: “POOP, POOP, POOP!”)

Everything I really need to know I learned in ninth-grade English. While I was teaching it.

But after the meeting with the Spanish teacher, my advisee’s mother and I spent another hour in the school lobby, talking shop. I taught her older daughter, who is now in college jumping from enthusiasm to enthusiasm at a rate that makes her mother dizzy: Harvard Law School! Studying abroad in Vietnam! Becoming the head of our school! (I was just pleased she doesn’t want MY job…). Before I knew it I was telling stories of my own sophomore year in college, of the term I was so disgusted with undergraduate life that I worked full time in a daycare center, handing papers in to my professors’ boxes after never having attended classes, getting B’s and B-plusses anyway. It was a conversation that danced close to the great story of my life: the story of failure. The story of why I would later drop out of college altogether and rent a silo-shaped house in the woods, a house infested with flying squirrels and prone to being stuck with deer hunters’ arrows in the early hours of the morning, to write a novel. The story of my four years of graduate school, in which I received honor after honor for my poetry and fiction, all the time knowing that writing probably would never be my passion, loving that I was good at it and that it garnered me so much praise, but knowing that whatever gave my life meaning would be something I would have to fight like an enemy, something that had the potential to kill me with its intensity and importance. Writing is that adversary for many people. I sensed even in my early twenties that it wasn’t mine. I didn’t tell my advisee’s mother the story of how my first teaching job after grad school became this enemy for me, the enemy that wrestled me down and almost killed me. I was thinking it, though. I was thinking of the way I recovered from my two years at this job in the only way I could think of: by enrolling myself for three years in a martial arts training program so intense that it would leave me with the head injuries and autonomic nervous system damage that are now forcing me to take a medical leave to heal. I didn’t tell my advisee’s mother this story – nor did I tell her that as of the next morning I would no longer be her son’s advisor, that I would be leaving behind this relationship that I have come to believe is truly sacred – but I knew in my mind that I was telling it in code.

I was not born to be a writer. I was born to be a teacher. But I was lucky enough to have such good writing teachers in college and graduate school that when I am called to tell a story, I will have the tools and skills to do so. And at this time I am called to tell a story. This is a story of growing up and growing imperfect. This is a story about learning to fail. My life has been a blessed one and an easy one by world standards: I know this. But even easy lives leave scars.

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