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Second Acts and New Beginnings

Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Second Acts and New Beginnings


There are so many clichés available to describe life. When teaching middle school writing as a language arts teacher I always pressured my students to take the clichés out of their writing. They loved clichés, but I felt like I never knew what they meant when they used them. Sometimes it felt like they were using them incorrectly or that the clichés were just not expressive enough. But lately when I think about my life, I tend to break it into blocks of times and all the chunks of time are defined by silly clichés.

Those first two years after Will died I thought of myself as having been on autopilot. Then I quit my job and took time off because I felt like I desperately needed to hit the pause button. During that year off, which I affectionately called my DIY Sabbatical, I took the classes I needed to have more teaching endorsements and be more marketable, very practical of course. It was a totally legitimate and logical reason to take a break. And I also took all sorts of music classes and art classes. I took these classes because during those two years on autopilot I had started to feel numb. I desperately needed to reconnect with myself. In some ways I did that during my DIY Sabbatical, but I also felt like hitting the pause button wasn’t enough. I couldn’t force my life to play in slow motion and I definitely couldn’t rewind or have a do-over. I think I was fearful of letting my life move forward without Will, and then there was just the basic guilt of getting to continue living while he laid in the ground. But I was also just scared. Scared to be alone, scared to be independent, and terribly scared of the label single. So, I clung to clichés and metaphors to try and make sense of the time passing me by.

The last two years I have been working as a teaching assistant. At first that was a good choice, I could show up at a school and go through the motions of being a teacher, but without any of the responsibilities. I wasn’t grading or lesson planning, I didn’t have to analyze data and figure out how to group students to best differentiate my instruction. I felt like I was doing the job, but also not feeling the pressure, hiding from the responsibilities of being the lead teacher in the room. It felt like a safe pause. I was doing things, but not doing things.

And once I started to get better at coping with grief and managing my sometimes-daunting feelings of anxiety and depression, I started to recognize all the things that I don’t get to do as a teaching assistant. A huge missing piece is that I am forbidden from talking to parents about their students. One does not technically need a teaching degree or a license to be a teaching assistant, so I am in a role that is seen as helpful, but not actually qualified to have opinions. I am not supposed to evaluate students, conference with them about their progress, or talk to their parents about student’s strengths and weaknesses. I can’t go to team meetings, I am not invited to meetings where they discuss the one students I am tasked with assisting. And the hardest thing to miss out on, the part I liked most about teaching, was the feeling of being an important and integral part of a team, a team of teachers, administrators, students, and parents. A team with goals, a team that looked towards the future. I just showed up, got my instructions for the day and went home.

At first, it felt like I was dodging a bullet and getting out of something. I was not accountable for much, especially compared to what was expected of me as a teacher. And that first year as a TA, I really wasn’t up for all the responsibilities that accompanied the title of teacher. But as I healed and became stronger, probably 3 or 4 months into year two of being a TA, I felt confined. I had insight into my students, I had ideas about how we could trouble shoot in the classroom or help a particular student to improve academically or cope with an emotional situation. But as a TA, I was kept out. I had purposefully hit pause, and chose to live in slow motion for a while, but all of a sudden, I just wanted to have a normal life again. I wanted to be a full person, with responsibilities and accountability.

As a TA and during my DIY sabbatical, money was super tight. I lived with my parents for part of this time and then eventually started renting rooms from empty nesters who were willing to share their space with me for a modest price. And again, this was another choice that let me avoid responsibilities and accountability, and yes, this was nice for a while. All the clichés and labels I have been using to try and make sense of my life, and the fact that I have been avoiding responsibilities and pressure are, no longer good enough. I don’t regret my choices, I think I did need time to work on some personal struggles, but right now I feel ready. I feel healed enough to resume my life. And my first instinct, of course, was to think of a title for this reawakening. I needed a way to describe the now. And because I love a good party theme, I started brainstorming ideas for my future house warming party. At first, I thought Val’s Thirties: Take 2. On my cake I would have a picture of that black and white directors box that you snap shut and say action with when a director shoots or reshoots a new scene.

But after further reflection, I feel like having that theme sells these past few years short. At times I have worried that all this time off, all the pausing or running on autopilot, was time wasted. That somehow, I wasn’t actually living my life. And then I remember the simple fact that I am alive and literally living my life. And I start to remember how lucky I am. There will always be periods of my life that are harder than others. But that doesn’t make them less meaningful or important, that doesn’t mean that somehow I wasn’t living. No matter what I did or do with my time, no matter how many responsibilities I avoided, I was living my life, I was alive, I was growing, I was existing. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t taken the time I needed to heal, to learn about how to best live with my grief, anxiety, and depression. So now that I am gearing up to move into my own place after 3 years of living in other people’s spaces and interviewing for teaching jobs for next fall, I have to remind myself that I haven’t lost any time. I haven’t been cheated out of time, and I don’t need a do-over. I just need to keep living my life, day by day by day.



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