I’ve been away from teaching since February, on a pre-scheduled and pre-paid leave to take time to work on some of my writing projects. I’ve done well. (I’m honestly my own worst enemy because I keep thinking I ought to have done more work, even though I did do what I set out to do. I just feel I have so much more to write and now I’m juggling the writing with the teaching again, so that can be a tug of war inside my heart. It is for me, anyway.) So, it’s been a bit of time away from the young women I teach. They are full of spirit and emotion. I think, almost every day, how I wish I’d had a guide of sorts when I was their age. They remind me so much of myself at that age…all creative, smart, uncertain, and terrified at times of the unknown. It makes me want to help them all the more, knowing that I might be able to help make their path a little bit less traumatic than mine was…I know it’s idealistic, but I’m a poet, so you can just chalk it up to that. (I’m lucky that I have about five really close friends who get it…and don’t seem to mind me the way I am…which is a bonus!)
I’ve missed my little writers. There are about four girls in particular who kept in touch via my ‘teacher email account’ while I was off on leave and sent me pieces of their writing to critique while I was away. They just needed someone to say ‘yeah, it’s fab. Keep going!’ One is working on her first novel, while another tends to drift towards writing poetry. A new student of mine this year is an avid writer and has dreams of starting up a publishing house when she grows up. (She told me the other day that she’s written four novels already, in a series of six stories. I just shook my head and said ‘Well, I guess I’m far behind you, then!’)
Without fail, the girls who are writers find their way to me. It makes sense. I know. They hover at the doorway after the bell (if they’re not in my class) so they can chat and then ask if I’ll read their new work, or if they’re in my class now, they’ll gather around just before lunch and chat with me. I’m glad I can be there for them. Mentorship in writing, especially in Northern Ontario, is crucial to ‘growing’ new young writers. I wish I’d had a writer as a mentor when I was in high school. Instead, I always felt really alone when I was a girl, just retreating into my bedroom, playing music loudly, reading a heck of a lot of books (and falling in love for the first time with Mr. Rochester), and writing some of the weirdest short fiction and most depressing poetry ever known to any sworn-to-secrecy-journal. I know, though, that words saved me as I struggled with depression and isolation even then. It was easy enough, if you weren’t socially adept, to retreat into yourself and imagine worlds. When these little writers come to me, I know what’s going in their heads. They tell me they love the words, and escaping into them. “Yup,” I tell them, “me too.”
Sometimes, you feel blessed to be a teacher. Sometimes, on certain days, and without any kind of warning, a student comes along and asks you a question that breaks your heart. Today, a student I’ve only just begun to teach this year stopped by to chat. We talked about the book she’s been reading. Then she asked if she could ask me a question. She started to cry. (For some reason, kids cry around me. It’s okay. I can handle it. I cry a lot, too, at home or in the car, so I figure it’s just lucky I don’t spontaneously break out into tears at school, too.) She asked me about my parents. “You talk about them in class a lot, you know…and you seem okay with it…that they’re gone.” That shook me up. “Yeah, I talk about them all the time. We were close. But, no, I’m not okay with it that they’re gone. How could I be?” She kept on. “So…I wanted to ask how you got through it when they were sick, when you knew they wouldn’t get better…that they would die. That you would be alone afterwards.” Dear God. I was not prepared for that question this morning. How do you answer a question like that? How do you protect your own battered heart and put up a wall for a bit while you try not to be shaken emotionally by the bravery and vulnerability of the young person asking you the question? I just took a deep breath and tried to think about how I managed. (My friends might say I didn’t manage very well…there are only one or two who were there through the hardest part…and they knew how dicey it was for me. It’s a miracle I’m even still here. I know that more than anyone else.)
“I wrote. I walked. I cried.” I started there. “But I was in my thirties and you are much younger. It was hard for me then, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for people your age.” We chatted about writing, then. It wasn’t a teacher and student thing. It was a writer-to-writer chat about how words make us feel better when we’re not at our best. I talked about how journaling still helps me. Years later, I can go through my journals of that time, when my parents were ill and then dying, and I can see how awful it was…how hard it was…and I recognize how strong I was, and had to be. I thought at the time that I was weak, but I wasn’t. I wouldn’t be here at all if I was weak. I know that now. I did, though, have big walls that I built up. They’re still there and that’s my biggest worry these days. You need to be strong when you’re trying to be the ‘person’ for someone who’s really ill. You tend to protect them by running interference with other people, including medical folks. You create a bubble of safety for them. I did that for my mum and dad whenever I could, but it was at my expense in so many ways.
Then, after they’ve gone, you need to be strong when you’re on your own. You feel the loss of the people who’ve died even more when you’re single, I think. Well, therapy helps, but living with dogs alone just doesn’t cut it when I have a bad day and just want to cry because I desperately long to ask Dad a question or get a hug from someone who loves me absolutely. The problem, though, is that I’ve noticed this year that I’m trying to break down the walls I built up to protect myself from pain–well, from the world, really–from the inside out. Sometimes, I think, you hope to find just one someone on the ‘outside’ who will accept you as you are and will recognize that you need help breaking your walls down. You may not even know how thick those walls are, that you’re trapped behind them, but you can feel you aren’t fully out from behind…and that causes pain all over again. It means you need someone to help you feel safe enough to break down your walls, so that you can be vulnerable…and that is quite a task.
So what’s the point of me writing this out? Here? I guess it’s that I’m remembering how much my students teach me. It’s ironic that I’m labelled as a ‘teacher’ when, in fact, they teach me the most profound lessons. One student’s question cracked me open today, made me realize that she was brave enough to let down her guard to ask me a question that would go to my most grief-ridden place. I had to be brave enough to trust her, to answer her question, to try and offer her some ideas for coping. (I’m no expert in grieving, but I don’t hide it from my students. I know grief is a reflection of love. I don’t hide the fact, either, that my creativity has come hand in hand with mental health issues like depression. I hope–I always hope to God–that what I’ve learned about how to walk through darkness to light will help one of them. If it does, help even one single kid, then I’ll be okay with all the time I’ve spent teaching…with the time it’s taken from my writing, even.)
Walking with my friend this afternoon helped, too. We talked about how palliative care is a journey. We talked about how many people are afraid to speak about how we live and die. Our walk by the lake, and our chat on the bench surrounded by too tame gulls and nosy little brown birds, made me think about how we all have to be so brave in this world. We need to take risks with our hearts sometimes. It’s the only way we can grow, I think…and it’s probably why I have always continually walked through the world ‘breaking my own heart,’ as I say. Violet laughed when I said that today. Then she said, “Well, what would be the alternative? Not feeling? Building more walls and not breaking them down?” The universe…man…the universe sends you lessons in couplets or triads, it seems, and all in one damn day.
That little writer today made me realize that it’s okay to let down my guard, to let the walls fall, even when I’m unsure of how much my heart will be broken again, in either small or large ways…and what a lesson she taught me. This afternoon, I went out and bought her a journal. She said she’d write it all out, let the words guide her through this sacred journey she’s on with her mum. Because it is all sacred, even the pain of knowing someone’s going…because the love shared then–when you know they’re in the process of leaving you–is that kind of love that creates stars in the sky and sends birds soaring through the tree tops. It’s that beautiful, and it’s that horrible. But, above all, it’s that sacred and holy.