I decided to become a teacher one winter day while tutoring 9th and 10th graders in the AVID program at Asheville High School, mostly in basic algebra, sitting across long-rowed cafeteria tables. There was a girl named Cece, and a boy named Darius, and as I watched them start to subtract, divide, and isolate their own variables, the lights came on for all three of us.
I have told this story as brief and epiphanal for years, as a sudden burst of knowledge handed down from the sky, but the truth is that the decision to become a teacher came much more gradually, over the course of months and even years. It's much more fun to have a story that doubles as a Road To Damascus moment, but I barely believe my own story.
I know the truth is actually much more complex.
I decided I wanted to be a teacher in a drama teacher's classroom at Asheville High. I was a senior in college, knower-of-all-things, trying to remember how to balance chemical equations on the board, feeling the chalk between my fingers, feeling the adrenaline spike as I realized that I was working with CNO3 on one side and splitting it off into two molecules of carbon dioxide on the other, and that holy crap, there's too much nitrogen and this wasn’t going to work and these kids are thinking I actually know how to do Chemistry and WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?!?
Or: I decided I wanted to be a teacher after getting turned down by the MFA-In-Poetry programs at UVa, Warren Wilson, and Iowa--three of the most elite in the country.
Or: I decided I wanted to be a teacher after a terrible series of experiences with teachers in high school history classes, after which I determined that I never wanted other students to suffer through the kind of Historical Hopelessness I had felt.
Or: I decided to become a teacher when my grandfather, a 25-year teaching veteran himself, told me that it would be a good idea to get my teaching credential alongside my Creative Writing degree.
Or: I decided to become a teacher when I realized that I didn’t want to live that far from where I grew up, and that there weren’t really any pockets of literary study/criticism that I thought were interesting enough to study as a grad student, and when I decided that it was all a bunch of arcane, disconnected-from-the-real-world, ivory-tower nonsense anyway.
There seem to be two versions of I Want To Teach stories: either the "I wanted to be a teacher since I knew that was a thing, and I taught my dolls/GI Joes/baby brothers/dogs/anything else I could compel to be a captive audience" story; and the "I came to the idea of teaching late(r) in life/I wanted to do anything else but teach" story.
But here’s the thing: teaching is something that you can't really decide to do as an avocation just once. Just like anything else you want to master, it has to be a constant, repeated choice over the course of many days and years. It’s a craft, like gardening, or painting, or joining two pieces of crown molding perfectly in the corner of a 150-year-old Victorian living room. It takes study and patience, hard work and moments of respite, fear and joy and magic pixie dust.
The truth of the matter is that I decided I wanted to be a teacher on Friday, just a couple days ago, after we'd just missed almost a whole week of class because of a bit of ice and a lot of frigid temperatures. We went into school on a three-hour delay. I had a meeting before classes started that I got to take my kindergarten-aged daughter to, since her school didn't open for another hour. I was freezing, I was anxious, and I hadn't been to school in almost a week. I always get nervous before class starts, especially after a long break, and this particular time was compounded by the cold and the fact I realized we had lost a week of learning in an AP class that only had thirteen weeks of pre-exam instruction to begin with.
I walked back up the hall after saying hi to a couple department members, just as the first bell rang. The kids trundled in, cold, grumpy, laughing cynically (as only teenagers can) at having a four-hour school week. I told several students good morning as I walked, many of whom I have taught multiple times. I watched the fog lift momentarily as each looked up and said good morning as well. Then I walked back into B109 and sat down around a big table with fifteen students, with twenty more seated around four other satellite tables.
The room got warmer, despite the single-digit temperatures outside.
The opposite of an ivory tower.
I leaned back in my chair and began to talk.