In a humdrum


Kindergarten class, Barnett Elementary School, 1974-1975.

Ever since I decided to go to my 30-year high school reunion last month, I’ve been sorting through old photos and mementos from my school days, photographing and posting them online as a way of making a digital backup of the analog artifacts of my early life. Yesterday, I photographed and posted two photos from kindergarten: first, my class portrait, and second, a composite photo of everyone in my kindergarten class from Barnett Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio.

Kindergarten portrait, Barnett Elementary School, Columbus, OH. I wanted to be a school teacher. ☺️ #fbf

I’m Facebook friends with two members of my kindergarten class, and I recognize and remember a handful of other classmates I’ve since lost touch with. But the names and personalities of the other children in that composite photo are lost to time. I remember my kindergarten teacher, Miss Mock, and I remember vague details about our classroom, like the fact it opened onto its own brick-walled playground and had in one corner a playhouse with toy kitchen utensils and costumes for playing dress-up. But everything else is a blur.

Through

I remember learning in kindergarten not to be a tattletale, even though I was greatly aggrieved that Miss Mock didn’t spring into action when I dutifully “tattled” that some now-forgotten boy was doing something both dangerous and forbidden in that walled-in playground. Wasn’t preventing a child from braining himself on the concrete a more pressing priority than teaching me, an obedient and good child, an abstract lesson about minding my own business?

See-saw

Clearly I was wrong: Miss Mock wasn’t concerned that so-and-so would fall from whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be climbing, and indeed nobody was hurt that day. But the lesson–or, more accurately, my sense of outrage that I was being scolded for following the rules while a boy who was doing something naughty got no scolding whatsoever–clearly stays with me. In retrospect, this might have been the most valuable lesson I learned in kindergarten: not a lesson about tattling, but a lesson about life’s unfairness. Sometimes good girls get scolded and bad boys get away with being naughty, a lesson I suspect many women would understand.

Grab a hold

The only other experience I remember from kindergarten involves wooden blocks. One day I was playing with blocks, and a little boy knocked over the tower I was patiently building. (As a child who grew up with older sisters, I hadn’t realized until kindergarten how senselessly cruel little boys could be.) Enraged, I picked up a block and promptly threw it directly at the little boy’s head. It was a clear instance of vigilante justice: you touch my toys, I bean your brain.

Make it better

Except…after hitting the boy, I immediately started crying, upset at the bad thing I’d done. (Have I already mentioned I was an obedient and good child?) I don’t remember if the boy cried because I’d hurt him; I was probably too upset to notice. Instead, I was completely overwrought by the tiny tragedy that had played out: first he ruined my tower, then I hurt him in return.

Pretty pony

When Miss Mock asked what happened–as I remember, this all transpired in a split second when she was out of the room, so a more savvy child would have denied everything or pinned the blame on someone else–I gushed out a tearful confession: “He did this, I did that!” Ultimately, I think I was more wounded from the encounter than he was. The boy whose name I no longer remember presumably rubbed off the bump to his head, but I was heartbroken to think I’d hurt someone simply because they made me mad.

First day of issue

Yesterday, J surprised me with first day of issue covers of two US postage stamps commemorating Henry David Thoreau: one issued in 1967, and the other issued this year. The stamp from 1967 is ugly as sin–its designer managed to make an admittedly homely fellow look even worse–but this year’s stamp is lovely, with a portrait of Thoreau in muted earth tones alongside a reproduction of his signature.

Postcard with Smokey Bear stamp

I was never a serious stamp collector, but I still have the albums from when I dabbled in stamp-collecting as a child, along with a souvenir postcard with a Smokey Bear stamp I bought and had cancelled at the Smokey Bear Station at the Ohio State Fair in 1984, when Smokey turned forty. (That sentence tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me as a fifteen-year-old. Not only was I nerdy enough to collect stamps, I was nerdy enough to love Smokey Bear.)

Stamps about stamp collecting

To me, stamp collecting was an aesthetic pursuit, like admiring tiny works of art. I enjoyed the serendipitous nature of stamp-collecting: getting mail was exciting enough, and getting mail with interesting stamps was even better. I still like to use pretty stamps for even mundane mail: if you have to stick a stamp on an envelope anyway, you might as well use an attractive or otherwise interesting one.

Thoreau stamps

When Thoreau’s new stamp came out this year, I bought several sheets even though I didn’t need any stamps at the time. I like to think that sticking Thoreau’s face on my mail draws attention to a writer who has left an indelible mark on my intellectual life. Even if the adult recipients of the mail I send don’t notice the stamps I use, maybe some curious child will, just as I did when I was younger.

This being said, I haven’t yet used any of the Thoreau stamps I bought; so far, I’ve been saving them, using other stamps instead. I like to think my secret stash of Thoreau stamps is there just waiting for me to use them when the time is just right: in the “nick of time,” just as Thoreau described his own birth.

Apparently, I’m a true collector at heart, buying sheets of Thoreau stamps when they became available only in part because I wanted to use them. In reality, I just wanted to have them.

Your moment of Zen.

I spent this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio visiting family and attending my thirty-year high school reunion. I still can’t believe it’s been three decades since I graduated from Eastmoor High School, went to college in Toledo, and never looked back. In my mind, moving back to Columbus was never an option: moving home after college would have been an admission of failure, a white flag of surrender indicating I’d botched my one big chance to leave home and make it in the real world.

I'm here.

My ex-husband used to deride my lack of corporate experience, given I’ve only worked in academia, with brief, part-time stints in retail sales and secretarial work when I was in grad school. My ex-husband believed that because I’ve never worked in the corporate sector like he did, I didn’t have “real world” experience. But from my perspective, I’ve always been in the real world, and I never worked for a corporation because I never needed to. Even though my ex-husband dismissed academia as being too “Ivory Tower” to count as “real,” it’s taken me an inordinate amount of scrappiness to survive on a patchwork of part-time teaching jobs I’ve juggled not for fun, but to pay the bills.

And for the past thirty years, I have paid the bills, persevering with an exhausting assortment of adjunct jobs because teaching is what I do. There have been many times over the past thirty years when I’ve sweated the small stuff, wondering whether there would be enough paycheck to cover the month. But I always found ways to make ends meet–I always managed to scrimp, save, and budget my way–and it doesn’t get much more “real” than that.

Goodbye, Columbus.

The story of the past thirty years has been almost entirely self-motivated. My parents were proud when I earned a college scholarship, but they never pressured me to finish; even if I quit after just one semester of college, I would have achieved more education than they had. But even in the absence of pushy parents, quitting college was something I never would have allowed myself to do: the drive to finish what I started was mine. Although I’ve had friends, teachers, and mentors who have encouraged me along the way, I went to and finished both college and grad school because I wanted to.

What I lack in ambition, I make up for in stubbornness. My path through college, grad school, and a meandering career as an overworked adjunct instructor was a difficult, clueless road: I didn’t know where I was going, but I kept climbing. Because I enjoyed the work I was doing–because I enjoyed reading and discussing literature, researching and writing papers, and ultimately teaching and encouraging students–I kept doing it, persevering primarily because I didn’t know what to do other than take the next step, then the next, then the next.

Logan Airport

The fact I’ve managed to support myself as an English major these past thirty years is, in my opinion, my greatest accomplishment: not even getting a PhD can top it. Simply surviving and supporting myself in New England, some 700 miles from where I was born and raised, is the thing I’m the most proud of. Not only did I go to college and get a degree, I’ve figured out how to support myself while doing the things I love. It’s natural at a high school reunion to compare your lot in life with that of your classmates, and I arrived back in Boston on Monday feeling pretty good about myself. I might not be the thinnest, least-wrinkled, or best-looking of my high school classmates, but after thirty years of making it in the real world, I feel like a success.

30 years ago

It’s been thirty years since I graduated from Eastmoor High School in Columbus, Ohio, so that means it’s been thirty years since I accepted a full scholarship to the University of Toledo. The rest, as they say, is history.

Had I not gotten a full college scholarship, I probably wouldn’t have gone to (much less graduated from) college. I certainly wouldn’t have gone to graduate school, and I most definitely wouldn’t be a college professor today. The daughter of a truck driver and a housewife, I never seriously considered going to college until my high school guidance counselor suggested that my standardized test scores would qualify me for scholarships. Since my family has never been one to refuse free money, that was it: if I could go to college for free, I’d go.

Class of 1987 senior awards ceremony

Much has been said about the power of a college degree to lift students out of poverty: workers with college degrees consistently make more than workers with only a high school diploma. But money is only half of the story. Nobody gets rich as an adjunct English instructor, but the job offers other benefits: for me, having an intellectually-stimulating, satisfying job I enjoy is truly priceless.

Thirty years ago, Eastmoor High School class of 1987. #tbt

This is easy for me to say, of course: because of my full scholarship, I didn’t graduate with student debt, and it was only in graduate school that I had to juggle my studies with the demands of being a teaching assistant while holding down a part-time job. In 1987, the value of a scholarship covering four years of undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board, and books came to a whopping $20,000: these days, a four-year degree costs significantly more than that.

Thirty years ago, Eastmoor High School class of 1987, with @ericloveslife68

But even though many of my current students have to work to pay their way through college, I still see higher education as being a sound investment. There are plenty of respectable, well-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree: when your toilet is spewing sewage or your car won’t start, you’ll pay whatever price your plumber or mechanic demands. But if you don’t want to pursue a trade, and if you recognize the job you’ll have in twenty years probably won’t be the job you have today, a four-year degree offers something better than a mere boost in pay: it offers the flexibility to do a variety of jobs, not just the one you get when you first graduate.

Class of 1987 senior awards ceremony

What my full-ride scholarship ultimately gave me was a ticket to ride. I sometimes tell people that I went to college and never came home, and that’s one way of understanding the trajectory of my professional career. Receiving a scholarship and going to college not only opened doors, it opened my eyes to greater possibilities.

High school graduation

Several weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from a high school friend saying she is going to our thirty-year high school reunion in Ohio later this month. I had initially decided not to go–I had gone to our twenty-year reunion in 2007 and figured not much has changed since then–but since H is coming all the way from California, it would be a shame not to meet her halfway.

Senior pictures

It’s an understatement to say H and I lost touch after high school: we lost touch in the way that people on entirely different planets lose touch. After high school, H and I went to colleges in different states, and we moved in different directions after that. Today, my college students keep in touch via social media with every friend they’ve ever known, but thirty years ago, moving away from your hometown meant you lost contact with people. Thirty years ago, you went to college, made new friends, traveled in new circles, and became someone new, all without the safety net of your old friends.

Senior pictures

So it’s been thirty years–three decades!–since I’ve seen H: how is that even possible? One mystery of middle age is the realization that your body and mind don’t age at the same pace. When I look in the mirror, I see a pudgy, “well-settled” middle-aged woman, but in my mind, I’m still a broke and skinny graduate student playing life entirely by ear.

Thirty years ago, my high school classmates voted me “most likely to succeed,” so the occasion of my thirty-year reunion is leading me to ask the inevitable question: have I succeeded? I suppose it depends on how you define success. In her Facebook photos, H looks beautiful and youthful: a radiant, grown-up version of who she was in high school. To my eye, I look older, heavier, and grayer now than I did then: washed up, or maybe just worn-out?

Senior pictures

But this is judging mere appearances, and success is more complicated than that. Looking back to high school, who was it I wanted to be, and what is it I wanted to become? Thirty years ago, I wasn’t planning on being an English professor; back then, I wanted to be an interpretive naturalist working in a metro park somewhere, taking people on nature walks and teaching them about birds and flowers. I teach inside these days, and I don’t spend nearly as much time as I’d like among birds and flowers. But I am still “interpreting” information: I’m still teaching.

Senior pictures

And I’m still writing: that is one thing that remains constant. As a high school student, I loved to write, and I still do. I’m not sure I knew thirty years ago exactly what I wanted to write; I guess you could say I was a writer in search of a topic, motivation, and voice. But I knew I wanted to write even though I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with that desire.

What I have managed to do over the last thirty years is figure out how to keep writing, regardless of whatever other things in my life are changing. In college, I discovered Annie Dillard and other American writers I’d never encountered in high school, and in graduate school, I learned there is a thing called “nature writing” that people other than Thoreau do.

Senior picture

Since high school, I also discovered Natalie Goldberg and her admonition to keep my hand moving, and in large part I have managed to do just that. I also discovered May Sarton, who assured me that simply keeping a journal of one’s inner and outer life could be art, and I discovered blogging as a way to share my thoughts immediately, without the intervention of an agent, editor, or publishing house.

When I was in high school, I wasn’t sure how I’d support myself; I just followed my curiosity wherever it led me, and I continue to do that. Does that make me a “success,” or does it make me a dabbler?

High school graduation party

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the label “most likely to succeed.” I graduated in the 1980s, when success was defined by the excesses of Dallas, Dynasty, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. One of my favorite TV shows when I was a teenager was Family Ties, but instead of admiring the clean-cut ambition of Alex P. Keaton, I admired the warm-fuzzy liberalism of his earthy-crunchy parents. To me, “success” always sounded cut-throat, and I’ve never felt I have the ambition–the kill-instinct–to become a lawyer, politician, or high rolling businesswoman.

Despite all this, thirty years later I’ve done fairly well for myself. I made it out of Columbus, out of college, and out of the Midwest, and like H in California, I’m living in the heart of the “coastal elite” here in Massachusetts. The fact that my life today looks so radically different from what I ever envisioned in high school suggests just how far I’ve come. Maybe “most likely to succeed” is just another way of saying “going places she never even imagined.”

By any other name

This year for Mother’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before: I bought myself flowers. J and I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time tending our animals, so when I was doing this week’s grocery shopping, I picked up a mixed bouquet for myself, from the pets. I’m not a mother, I decided, but I spend a lot of time and energy on the kinds of things that mothers do, a wide swath of my life devoted to feeding, cleaning, tending, and errand-running.

Gracie peekaboo. #catsofinstagram #graciethecat

Several weeks ago, one of my students asked me point-blank: am I childless by choice, or was I unable to have children? Normally, this might seem to be an impertinent question, but this particular group of students and I have read and discussed texts about a wide range of sensitive topics, and we’ve built a rapport.

“Choice,” I answered, and she nodded. I explained that I’d always known that I didn’t want kids: when adults told me I’d acquire maternal instincts when I was older, or when my biological clock went off, I inwardly disagreed, and I was right. Some people have always known they are gay, and I’ve always known that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. It’s a vocation I was never called to.

All ears. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

It’s difficult, of course, for a woman to openly admit she doesn’t want children: women were put on this earth, some would argue, to have and tend to children. Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a Korean woman who lived there with her two children was horrified to learn that my then-husband and I didn’t have kids of our own. “A woman needs children to experience the universe,” she declared, but she relented when she learned I was in graduate school studying to become a professor. “Oh, you’re a teacher,” she exclaimed with an air of relief. “You will experience the universe through your students!”

Cuddle buddies. #catsofinstagram #gumbothecat #ninathecat

I’m not sure a woman needs children, students, or even pets to experience the universe: I think being alive and awake and aware is enough. But perhaps some people (men and women alike) need occasional reminders that a universe exists outside themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but I do know that tending animals constantly reminds me that I am but one tiny creature on an enormous planet of need, and my well-being is intrinsically connected with that of my fellow creatures. Perhaps that is a lesson we all can take from mothers and Mother’s Day.

Today’s photos show a handful of our pets: Gracie playing peekaboo under a loveseat, Cassie looking alert, and Gumbo and Nina sitting side by side.

Baltimore oriole

I taught my final class of the semester last Thursday, and today I collected my first batch of final portfolios. In between, I spent the weekend catching up on sleep, readying myself for this week’s final onslaught of paper-grading.

Halcyon Lake

I never know how to describe the final weeks of the semester. Are things winding up, or are they winding down? My students’ anxiety and caffeine levels are rising as they study for exams and submit final papers and projects, but other academic activities are slowing to a halt. At the end of every semester, I look forward to Finals Week, when I have piles of papers to read but no classes, committee meetings, or other academic obligations.

Robin in redbud

So whether the semester is winding up or down, I’m looking forward to a chance to unwind. Last week I met Leslee at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a quick walk after work: the first time I’d been there all semester. It was delightful to take a brief stroll among flowers and birdsong before heading back to my desk, a cup of tea, and my waiting paper-piles.

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