Happy Birthday

I am almost thirty-three. In four days, I’ll be able to remove the word ‘almost’ from that sentence. About ten years ago, when I was trying to envision my life, what it might amount to, and where, I’d always picked thirty-three as the age when alarms needed to sound.

If I was still single at thirty-three, then I’d probably always be. If I was still single at thirty-three, I’d go to a sperm bank so I could have a child before it was too late. I am ninety-six hours short of thirty-three. I am still single. Having a child is perhaps the last thing I want to do right now. I still think, yes, some day, a child or two, but I also have to consider the possibility that “some day” may never come. I no longer try to envision my future in hard terms. I no longer set deadlines, nor alarm bells for dates twinkling in the distance. My grip on life is loosening, and not in a dying way, but a living one. I keep realizing and re-learning the same thing: life is better when I let go. But it’s still so goddam scary.

I want to talk, today, about silver platters and beatings. I have been thinking about both of those things a lot, lately. I have been thinking about how often, we as humans, long for the silver platter. We crave that ease and opportunity of things floating to us, landing at our feet, untarnished, beautiful, a gift. We don’t desire to be beaten down, slapped back and forth by reality’s unrelenting blows. Why would we? I think, though, the latter is the better option. At least for me. I’ll take the beating, please and thank you.

Five years ago, I became a “real” teacher. I’d been teaching for about three years, already, but it seemed none of those years counted. I hadn’t been tested. I worked part time in an enrichment program at a charter school. I taught at a university with well-behaved students in South America. I worked hard, of course, but it didn’t compare to the work of teaching in a city school district.

I floated in high on ideas, fantastical visions about being one of those teachers who could reach any child, no matter how stony or lost or hateful of art or education. And then I met my students. I fell in love with most of them, eventually, maybe even all of them… but not until after they’d caused me to pull all of my hair out, to cry under my desk at the end of every day for months. Not until I’d failed a thousand times and willingly continued to fail; just as brightly and predictably as the sun rises from below the crest of our planet, I failed. It became a dazzling, exciting event, this failure. It first smashed me to pieces, but then came the elation–finding the will and creativity required in order to locate and re-assemble all the pieces. Some are still missing. I was not one of the chosen ones. I won no awards for my teaching, received no real acclaim for a long time. I loved my students, I gave them my very best, but I still struggled. I spent my evenings wrapped in steaming hot water, up to my neck in the bath, reading book and after book after book on classroom management. None of them really helped me, but I smile, now, when I recall my assiduous efforts.

There are teachers who, right away, get accolades for their teaching. In their first year, they win a prize for being exceptional. I have known many of these teachers. They’re difficult to collaborate with. They always know best. That’s right. Because my first year obliterated me, and you were crowned. I’ll take the realm of the regular if it means I also get to be a good listener, if I get to learn from others. That silver platter looks nice, but.

I became a good teacher when I finally did pick up those pieces. When I taught from my heart and not from a book. When I learned about the really really hard stuff: poverty and racism and the traumatized adolescent brain. When I had to learn to look at my own unconscious bias. When I had to destroy it all and start from scratch. When I learned how small and fleeting I was–in every countable way.

Not too long ago, I dated a man who told me, out loud, that he thought he was special. And not just special in the way that nearly all our mothers and fathers tell us we are, but, really special. In the ranks with Einstein and the Buddha and Jesus, he said. He said. I think I said, smiling: are you insane? That was perhaps when I knew it was over, even though I hung on for months afterward, clinging to the image of that platter, its sheen, its hazy reflection of my face. I looked prettier in silver, but, doesn’t everyone?

Since before I can remember, I’ve written. Compulsively. I filled dozens of diaries in my childhood and adolescence. I filled book after book after book with horrendous poetry. I wrote and hand-bound stories about girls and their horses–sealing my own personal dreams into card stock and cheap printer paper bound with a black plastic spiral. Life became more real when I wrote about it, even if I never got everything I wanted. I’ve held onto the delusion that I might be an exceptional writer for a very long time.

The beatings (not physical of course, just to be clear) that I took as a teacher also serve another purpose: they solder teaching into my soul, into the very essence of who I am. It would have been so easy to quit, to walk away. But I didn’t. I stayed and took the beatings until I could make sense of them. Until I could put the pieces back together. Until I could learn to love my students despite the numerous challenges many of them presented me. I learned, because of the beatings: I am a real teacher. Even if I leave the school system, I will always teach, in some capacity. I know that teaching is a part of who I am because even the worst conditions could not make me leave.

When I went to college, I decided to major in the visual arts; it was the art form that had been noticed and nurtured the most in high school, so it only made sense to continue. I struggled, though. I nearly switched majors because I was no longer the “best” artist in the room (ego shatter number one, very important!). But I found myself watching my creativity seep through my pores and out into the air. I felt bored, stifled, directionless. After college, when there were no more assignments or deadlines, I stopped drawing and painting, for the most part. I wondered what the hell had happened. I did not, though, pay any attention to the fact that I never stopped writing. That I had never stopped writing. And no one had ever given me a single assignment.

The first “novel” I wrote was about a girl named Aisha, and her horse. Surprise, surprise. I was thirteen. Upon completion, I burned it in a log fire in our backyard. It was no good, I thought, re-reading my words in disgust. In fifth grade, my otherwise insane teacher pulled me aside and told me she’d give me extra time in the book-making lab, since she was very impressed with my writing. You see where this is going, right?

It has been relatively easy to maintain the idea that I’m a very good writer. It is in part true, but it’s also a theory that’s never really been tested. I haven’t taken any truly rigorous writing courses. I went to a tech school, so it was not difficult to shine in poetry and non-fiction classes there. I even won grand-prize in a campus-wide writing contest, coming out on top, no longer needing any genre except “grand”. It was funny though, when they called to say I’d won, they told me I’d gotten an honorable mention in non-fiction. A few days later they called again to fix their mistake. No, they said, you actually won grand prize, we apologize for any confusion. So I’ve stayed comfortably nestled in the delusion that I could be exceptional. And maybe (a very slender maybe, I’m realizing) someday, I will be, but not before I allow the process of writing (and reading) to beat me down, to whip me into shape, to shatter any glass balloons I carry around with me, hoping that this will be easy.

I wanted, like probably many or most other writers have wanted, to be among the best. To be some kind of literary whiz. To be original and interesting and capable of the cleanest and brightest sentences. By way of confusion, of repeatedly getting lost in other worlds, I’ve held onto the hope that these things are possible. But I’m emerging, slowly. From the world of teaching, from the world of depression, from the world of the directionless, and I’m beginning to see myself within the world at large entirely differently. I am not the best, I am not even close, nor will I ever be. I’ve probably already won my last grand prize. I’ve wrestled a lot lately, with a single idea: is there any point in writing, if I’ll never be truly original or exceptional? If my words will still die with me? When other people will always write better and more beautifully then I? What is the point, at that point? Does the world really need more words, more stories from an unexceptional writer? I don’t know. Probably not. Maybe.

But I do know this: I cannot, not ever, not write. So why not, then, really try?

Instead of running to a sperm bank, at thirty-three, I’m running to the starting line. Humbled and smaller and a little bloody from all those bits of broken glass balloons I’ve been holding so tightly, but with sharper vision, lighter feet. Some of the books I love the most were written by the rare few who had literary genius. But most of my beloved books were written by people probably more or less like me–people who could not not write, who had to surrender to this life, at last, despite the real and not-at-all-remote reality of repeated failure. I feel, honestly, like I have no choice in the matter. I have to write. If I don’t, I die. Slowly but surely. And I suppose I’ve been avoiding this decision, hiding from it behind a dark and heavy gauze for a very long time; it’s not an easy one to make. I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary writing these past few months. Some so beautiful it absolutely annihilates my own, it makes me question over and over: is this even worth it. I used to dream of silver platters, but now I think I don’t want one, not even a little, not at all.

The light has been turned on, and I can see how unsightly these conditions of denial are. It’s time to go, and at thirty-three, I’m finally ready. Failure: I’m looking at you. Give it to me, please, and give it to me hard. It’s the only way I’ll ever really know.

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