It’s been about a year since I decided to leave teaching. I don’t remember the day, but I do know I was in Guatemala, working on teacher certification forms for the state of Georgia, when it hit me very abruptly: I didn’t want to do this anymore. I closed the various files, website pages, shut my laptop, and went outside into the sunshine. I have not returned since.
In a panic, I’ve dabbled a bit in teaching art again. I had a part-time gig for three months here in Atlanta and again, realized my time working with kids in the classroom was up. I’ve had moments of weakness and desperation for a “meaningful” title and income stability and decent benefits and toyed with the idea of maybe, just maybe, applying for a position with Atlanta Public Schools (or some other similar entity.) But I also return to my senses, rather than to the classroom.
Despite my (tenuous) confidence in this decision, I have still found myself feeling a little too lost, too widely scattered. In my year as a non-teacher, a lot of time was spent desperately trying to make money, however possible (that masters degree was quite expensive, and I’m still paying for it!). Several months in Atlanta included my juggling anywhere from 2-4 jobs or internships. Seeking: money, and, a better, more meaningful title. Because, I am not a career server.
But, I also haven’t really embraced that, for now, serving is how I make my money and pay my bills. I haven’t really accepted the fact that there are things I enjoy about it: the challenge of learning an ever-changing menu, about wines, the thrill of opening bottles of champagne at a table. I am also good at it: I’m fast, smart, patient, can juggle multiple tasks at once, and my mind can delegate, recall, and strategize how to handle several tables and all of their needs simultaneously. This is, no doubt, connected to my years in the classroom. When I served in graduate school, I wasn’t nearly as efficient or confident (though even now my confidence is, as always in all things, tentative). Whenever I go into work, I brace myself for whatever ludicrous things my customers might demand, so I can pretty much handle whatever they throw at me. In turn, I’ve learned to brace myself in my everyday: what now? What next? It requires fortitude, patience with ambiguity, and belief in myself. That last one is where I struggle the most.
I went to an art show last night where I am certain all of the artists were younger than me. Whether or not I liked the art was not the takeaway, what impressed me the most was the confidence these young artists had in themselves, in their message and medium. I realized: making art and putting it out into the world requires that you not only believe you’re good enough, but that what you have to say is of importance, is meaningful somehow. I realized: this is where I’ve always gotten stuck. I got stuck in my early twenties and gave up before I even started. And I can feel myself getting stuck again.
The narrative is different from when I was twenty-two, but the message is the same: Look at me, I’m thirty-four and just starting out, and I’m a goddam server! Someone of greater talent or intelligence would have figured this out by now, would be more accomplished and productive and successful! It’s likely not worth it, I’ll never make it! I need to get out of serving so I can at least have a title I’m not ashamed of…
Feeling excessively scattered, nervous, uncertain, and downright ashamed of my life, I recenty bought a weekly/monthly planner designed to help you track habits, to-do lists, and both short-term and long-term goals. So I thought long and hard about my goals, the things I know I want to do, and the things I don’t. Which lead me to read and re-read books about designing your career and your life as a creative, or as someone with seemingly infinite interests (and I’m both). Titles like “Body of Work”, “Show Your Work”, “How to be Everything!”, and “Art, Inc.” litter my bed, and stay with me trapped in the covers after I’ve fallen asleep. I’m not done reading any of them yet and I don’t have any solid ideas as to what’s next, but I feel better. They’re reminding my why I left teaching, and giving my a little bit of hope that, with a bit more focus and dedication, I’ll figure this out.
Whether ‘this’ is a freelance career, a 9-5 position somewhere I care about, contract work, or a little bit of all of those things, I’m excited. I’m not only writing and drawing more, I’m thinking about what I want to do with those creations (and those skills) in a larger sense. How can I use my gifts to serve the greater good, beyond just making things? How can I hone my skills so they’re applicable in a new job market (as, obviously, I’m not returning to the classroom). What else do I love to do? Am I good at? How can I channel that into purposeful work? How can I use it to enhance the lives and minds of others? I’m asking good questions, and sometimes, I’m able to answer them. Other times, I just keep on reading. Or drawing, or writing.
I realize: I need to embrace my life the way it is. Including titles and realities I don’t love. My job title. That I’m still ‘alone’ at 34. So: I bought myself two new (discount, of course!) neckties to wear at work: teal and dark blue woodgrain, and a black and white topographic map of the Smoky Mountains. On ties! They’re perfect for me (though I’d wanted the solar system or galactic ties, but they were absurdly expensive). Serving isn’t my career, but it’s flexible, it pays the bills, and I can do it well and with ease. Best of all: it does not drain me. I come home with mountains of mental and emotional energy for my projects and ideas! And being ‘alone’? For years I’ve fought it. But I’m going to instead attempt to see it as a temporary gift. It gives me the space and time to create work, to redesign my life and my career, to make myself my first priority (in relationships, I always deferred to meeting the needs of someone else before my own). So: this is needed, this is good! Perhaps not easy, but necessary, and I’d better start using all of this alone time more wisely! Most of the time I don’t believe it, but I do think I have a lot to offer the world. I just have to figure out how to get it out there. And that is what I’m working on right now.
PS: in a recent effort to “collect” all of my work, I’ve searched for and found/uploaded much of my previous blogs. Some seem to be lost forever. I know I was devastated to lose a few posts back in 2013 when I accidentally deleted a website before backing it up, but what I could find, I have here. Damn my scattered, burn-down and re-start attitude. I’ll be editing, and possibly deleting, what is necessary, over the coming months. And of course adding new material, as per Austin Kleon’s advice in “Show Your Work” 🙂