Being a Teacher Led Me to Authenticity

I began teaching in the fall of 2003. I was relieved and thrilled. It was a long process of finishing college later in life and finally arriving at this decision. I'd always had an interest in teaching English when I was younger, but other career paths interested me more, like fashion and travel—both of which I did make a career of for awhile (fashion much longer). The teaching was always there, waiting. At around age 28 or 29, I decided to go back to school to complete my undergraduate degree in English. When I began school, I was convinced I wanted to teach younger kids, but I quickly learned I did not want to teach anything but English, nor did I want any of the physical requirements I imagined came with teaching little ones. High school was the choice. No backup and no regrets. I was officially an English teacher, fall of 2003.

Some of my favorite students and me. Graduation 2014.

Some of my favorite students and me. Graduation 2014.

I chose this career for all of the conscious reasons expected—I wanted to make a difference in the lives of those who needed it. Namely teenagers. When I was a teen, I felt isolated even though I had tons of friends. Isolated is the wrong word; I felt alienated from role models, stable adult figures. Teachers took the place. Not all teachers. I had a couple I argued with and despised, but having been a teacher, I know this is normal. My saviors came in the form of Ms. Ivory and Mr. Barnes—it was apparent they cared, genuinely, about the well being of their students and their brains. I'm forever inspired and grateful to have known them. I kept in touch with Mr. Barnes for a few years after I graduated high school. And, Ms. Ivory, well she just knew. All she had to do was look at me, and we understood. She knew my potential and saw me squander it away by skipping many classes and school and only showing up for extra curricular activities (I don't regret much of that time period. I had a damn good time going to the beach and out to eat with friends. I will save that for another day.). These two teachers made sure that I knew I was valuable. Without a doubt, role models for my future. 

The other conscious decisions made for becoming a teacher—job security, a normal career, built in vacation, steady pay increases every year. Never did I consider this abnormal to want. Why would I? It is what we are taught all of our lives to choose. You choose careers based on the "pay off".

I loved teaching. I love teaching. When I began, I had this notion that I should become more teacher like. I began to shed some of my "crazier" tendencies in an effort to become a teacher. I started dressing more conservatively. I dated someone that was a nice guy. I got a more conservative haircut, eye-glasses, all in an attempt to fit the part of teacher. It never felt right, but I felt it necessary to become this person and to be a part of this career. I loved my students so much, and I look back at a few pictures from that time and I can see that all my hiding was not necessary, because parts of me still peeked out (on the surface). I was becoming an actor in my own play, but I was also metamorphosing.

It wasn't until that nice guy and I had kids and separated that I began to shed some of those ideas of who I should be and began returning to parts of me that were always there, like dressing more funky and getting tattoos and cutting my hair in a way that resembles the rock and roll aesthetic I'm super fond of. I let my hair be big and wild as it does mostly on its own. There was less trying to stay contained in general. I began to shed some of the ways I thought I should be in favor of what I always was. I worked at Betsey Johnson forever in my 20's—that's what I admire, being out there and doing it the way that is best for you, but able to reach the masses all at the same time. Betsey definitely embodied those qualities. All of the women I worked with there did as well (they're fabulous and amazing women!). I was slowly returning to the parts of me I'd always loved.

The longer I taught, the more I realized I was learning and growing right along side my students. I know teaching allowed me to find authenticity while simultaneously destroying it. As a teacher, sides of me that were not polite poked out regularly. I was direct and honest and sometimes kind of grumpy, but I never faked it with my students. Never. They got all of the real me all the time. Sweet and feisty all rolled up in one. Students who never had me or people who have not actually talked to me at length really believe I'm the happiest person in the world and it never shifts (well, I am pretty damn happy), which is totally untrue. My students, just like my biological kids (my students ARE my kids too), know all parts of me—the good and awesome and the raw and the bad. It's pretty fantastic that I've let them know me in such a manner. In turn, they've allowed me to know them in ways that some of their best friends don't even know. Sometimes, I know way too much, way-too-much and I just want to close my ears, but that's the beauty of being open and vulnerable with other humans, you learn everything.

I learned how to be myself through teaching. If I could teach the way I wanted forever in a public school with little to no concern about test scores or data or those ridiculous textbooks, I would. Who needs a textbook to read good literature? No one. Not a soul. And this is where authenticity was being crushed as I was becoming my most authentic self. I stood in front of thousands of students in my eleven years of teaching continuously telling them to find their own paths and to stop listening to bad advice from scared, well-meaning people. I never once discouraged a student from following his / her dream(s) (unless, it involved illegal activity). Never. Ever. I was giving advice to these emerging beings and it became more and more apparent everyday that I could no longer ignore the same advice I was so easily and readily dispensing. The bureaucracy of the American public school system is dismal, and without going into politics or wagging fingers (I could easily do that), it is crushing every thinking person's will. There's only so much repetitive teaching a teacher can actually do. There's only so much abuse that a teacher who thinks totally out of the box can take. I can unequivocally tell you that I AM a teacher. I love it so much. Nothing makes me happier than to see a person's spark when he / she is genuinely interested in an idea or thought. Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing a student's face when the words “5 paragraph persuasive essay” are uttered or “you have to take this test and it counts as part of your grade and no, I didn't make the test.”

Temporary classroom after my classroom heater caught fire. Never a dull moment.

Temporary classroom after my classroom heater caught fire. Never a dull moment.

I made the decision to leave traditional teaching from the school system. It took much deliberation, soul searching, and countless freakouts to get to this point. I'm still freaking out on some level, but I'm also happy. I took my own advice, finally. I am still a teacher; I much prefer the words facilitator and mentor. I will just continue to do it my way, authentically from my soul and heart.

My Heart Is in California

I have lived the clichés—I didn't want to return to the past in an attempt to recapture something that no longer existed. You know that one tired saying: you can never go home again. BS. You can go wherever the hell you want. I convinced myself through logic and narrowing of thought that I needed to be bold (which I did—we all do), but the boldness stopped there by narrowing my entire life to two choices. I return to California or I move to New York. There was no choice in the middle; I pretended there was by applying to the University of Cincinnati (it was an attempt to stay small and please my mother). I was in Kentucky for three years after high school, a dismal, life-altering experience. I hated Kentucky for everything it wasn't: California, endless sunshine, eucalyptus trees, beaches, flip-flops. I had few friends and none of them knew me, not like the friends who have known you since you had that terrible flat top in the 80's (I did). Plus, Kentucky was where rheumatoid arthritis first showed up full-blown and debilitating and altering my body as I knew it. Pre-Kentucky, pre-arthritis, I was active with ease—I ran, worked out, danced, hiked, swam. I had a beautiful, unappreciated body (by me)—typical teen girl crap, not skinny enough, legs too big, tried too hard to work on my looks instead of my brain. I'd love that body like crazy now even more than I love my current body. I'd probably jump and skip and run everywhere instead of walk just because.

Condensed version: going back to California seemed like, at the time in 1992, that I was trying to relive freedom and an on top of the world feeling instead of learning something new (not that New York wouldn't include any of those feelings—I have felt it all on the East Coast). It's just that, I knew pure joy in California. I suppose New York had always been a lure with some of my favorite movies as inspiration: When Harry Met Sally, Moonstruck (I lived in that neighborhood for a brief period eventually!), Annie Hall. Plus, I loved anything related to fashion, so New York won out. I'm glad it did. I lived on my own for the first time. I loved hard here. I had my kids. I explored a few careers. I fell in love with the energy of vastness New York creates. I moved there right after my 21st birthday and have been in the area ever since. I have done everything here. I grew up in the truest sense and I appreciate and honor every beautiful and difficult moment I've had here (there have been tons -- trust me, many of which I will write about at a later date). But, now I know, like really, absolutely without a doubt, and I'm ready to go back.

Last year I moved about an hour west of the city for my kids and for some quiet. The first moments spent in the yard reading and writing, I felt like I was finally somewhere that felt more like California: pretty and in tune with nature. I have cypress trees and rolling mountains all around. I can hear myself think. People aren't hostile on a regular basis. I can find parking in town. My new neighborhood is freakin gorgeous with all of the Victorians and colonials and history. My house was built sometime around 1870. Pretty awesome (I refuse to go in the attic—too many horror movies as a child). For New Jersey and the East Coast, this area is a pretty close second home, but it isn't nor will it ever be California. I will take it for now, for the as close to idyllic landing space that it is before returning to the place where I must be by choice. I know it is so.

There have been tons of aha moments spilling out over the past ten months or so, about the time when I started paying closer attention to what my heart was really trying to tell me, when I began being closer to my authentic self. There have been too many crazy coincidences (which of course, I don't believe in—no such thing. Every encounter is part of an infinite plan), essentially tons of synchronicity floating around so many aspects of my life, but one of the biggest ones is knowing that I can no longer deny where my soul wants to be. Sure, I can make do here. Who wants to keep making do? There is absolutely nothing wrong with where I am, nothing, but my molecular structure is closely aligned with Southern California. How and when I will be there isn't totally clear, but I have some ideas that are taking shape. No more denying where I should be. I know fully.