I was in a motel in Hamburg, Arkansas when I learned that I had been hired for my first boarding school job. It was a decade ago, almost to the day. I knew that the call was coming and checked my home voice mail from the motel phone as often as I could. I was on one of my last trips as a teacher with the Arkansas Writers in the Schools (WITS), a team of graduate students who traveled across the state to teach poetry and fiction workshops in the public schools.
Jim Whitehead, a retired professor of creative writing, was the founder and director of WITS, and I was one of two student directors – so in addition to being my former professor, a writing mentor, and one of my thesis readers, Jim was also my boss. I did most of my work from his office, which was crammed with the papers and memorabilia of his 35-year career at the university. A pink tasseled pasty hung from a thumbtack. Curly-edged photos of workshop students critiquing each other’s writing while stubbing out their enormous cigarettes in ashtrays the size of dinner plates lined the bulletin boards. Over his file cabinet hung a watercolor painting of a naked woman being stared at by a bear. Every so often Jim would stand up, walk over to the painting, gaze at it for a while, poke at it with his huge index finger, and remark, “Now THAT’S a painting.”
When I returned from Hamburg and told Jim that I had gotten the job, he slammed his fist down on the December 1993 calendar that served as his blotter. “You’re going to be so fucking good at that job,” he said, in an enraged voice that didn’t match the words he was speaking. “And then it’s going to kill you. And what’s worse, you’ll never write again.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Jim knew a lot about jobs that can kill a person. A year later, the university cut its funding to the WITS program and nearly decimated it. Jim learned on an August morning about the budget cuts, and by afternoon he had had a brain aneurysm and was dead.
Today I wish Jim were alive so I could go find him and yell at him for always being right. I am good at teaching in an independent high school setting – although I wasn’t good at it right away, as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, and, if anything, it was the process of becoming good at it that did much of the work of destroying my health. He was mostly right that I haven’t written anything in the last ten years, although that is changing. And he is right that this career has sapped me of my strength, spirit, and soul – although what he didn’t say, and what I know now, is that it was only through teaching that I developed a spirit and a soul that I can feel proud of.
Did I even have a soul before I started teaching? I don’t remember.
So today, ten years and three schools later, I resigned from my wonderful, fulfilling job as teacher and department chair – a job so sacred and important that I could never do it as well as it needed to be done. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing in the fall (but I do have some ideas, so don’t be too scared for me). It won’t involve teaching. It may involve schools. It WILL involve writing.
I am heartbroken.
And, OK, also relieved. There, I said it.