“Who are we to wonder where we’re going? Who am I to tell me who I am? Let’s take it back and take in every moment. Who am I to tell me who I am?” -AJR
I met with her on a Tuesday evening, the day that Starbucks finally released its pumpkin spice latte for the fall season. And I was completely there for it. But her? Not so much. Hers is a story of the life and times of a person who has been able to successfully trek through life without a co-dependence on coffee–something I’ve failed miserably at. I arrived first, grabbed a table outside, and pulled out my computer. I looked through questions while I waited, finally noticing her drive by, a goofy grin on her face. I waved, smiling back. She parked and walked over to me, a casual lilt to her step and a smile on her face. The traffic was heavy near where we sat, the sound of motors roaring constantly.
She’s always been the girl with a casual smile and an easy presence–someone well-loved by the people in her life and well-known for her personality, bringing life into every room she steps into. Her story begins, much like mine, in Greenville, South Carolina. She’s lived in this city nearly thirty years, only having moved briefly outside city limits to attend college where she earned a degree in early childhood education. Her favorite part about living in Greenville are all the different activities available and the growth of the city. And here in Greenville, is where she found some of her deep loves–mountains, music, connecting with friends, and even her young son who arrived in 2016.
Someone largely involved in activities during high school and college– to this day– two of her favorite things are learning new things and playing sports. Some of her best memories take place in Canada where she and her family would vacation every summer–swimming, fishing, canoeing, and playing card games at night. She loved the simplicity of those vacations, not having access to phones and being able to spend quality time with her family.
Currently she works as a teacher, spending her days herding sticky-fingered children and teaching them the fundamentals of the world they’re in. In the evenings, she takes care of her family, spends time with her son, and focuses on coursework for the masters degree in literacy she hopes to finish at the end of summer 2019. Her purpose in life, from her perspective, is split into a couple different parts–on the one hand, she believes part of her purpose is to be a mom and on the other, she works to be an advocate for children. Reading with your child, she says of parents, is one of the best ways to help them learn. And so she’s not just out to make that connective difference in her own child’s life, but in the lives of every child she can.
Advocating for children, she feels, is part of her job. In a broken education system where teachers are run-down and testing is placed on a pedestal, she’s looking to make a difference in the life of each child that walks in her classroom. One of the biggest things she believes needs to change is how content is tested, saying that the education system is doing a disservice to children by basing the system on testing. For her, she wants to see the education system work to bring in better ways of testing content–through projects and hands-on experiences.
As a teacher, with everything she does in an average day, she says that the hardest part of her job is having to battle between everything she knows from her own research and classwork, against what an administration does. Her principal from last year called her a devil’s advocate because of how much she argued the system, she says with a chuckle. The administration, though, doesn’t faze her as she’s looking to make a difference and build the confidence of her students, while making sure they learn everything they need from her.
We finish talking education and start talking life, me digging into some deeper questions. I ask her what one thing is that people typically misunderstand about her. She’s got a kind of far-away look in her eyes when she speaks, like she’s trying to reconcile who she’s always been with who she needs to be. “The misconception is that I’ve got it all together because I’m doing so many things and I’m one of those people to where I break privately and so nobody sees the break and so it becomes this thing to where a lot of people think that they can expect more from me because like, ‘Oh look, she’s got everything under control. Here!’” She widens her eyes when she says this, holding out her hands in a half-joking manner.
“That’s very, very true,” I agree. “Because nobody wants to look like they can’t handle things.”
“Exactly,” she nods, “I want to look like I can handle everything you throw at me and do it perfectly well.”
“Exactly,” I look at my page, writing out some notes, and we move onto the next question. “What is the hardest part about being you?” I ask, watching as she laughs loudly.
“Do these questions get harder as we go?”
“Um…” I look down at my notes, “No.”
She takes a minute to think before saying slowly. “I have made a choice in life to not be open. I have made that choice—it has been a conscience choice and it has caused me to be almost isolated in a lot of ways and to where I never felt like I could share my struggles and therefore my struggles would become more and more overwhelming. And it also made it hard to make those truly deep connection with friends and the older that I got and the more life changes and life stages that I’ve gone through, the more distant I’ve gotten because the less I felt like I could share. The problems got more serious and the bad thing about it is, the problems got more serious and it made me feel like I could tell people less, even though I was struggling more. And it’s like I chose this and it’s a path that I, you know, went on, but as things keep going down these paths it becomes harder I guess.” She goes on to talk about growing up with brothers, how they’d told her they’d trained her to be the perfect woman–with no emotions. They hadn’t meant anything mean by it, she explains, but she wonders about the affect it had on her life. She’d always been friends with guys and had chosen to be the crazy, silly friend, she explains, “But the crazy, silly friend doesn’t tell you about all her problems–the crazy, silly friend doesn’t break down.”
We go on to talk about our moms, how the need to be less emotional tends to trickle down from them. She agrees, saying that she thinks her own mom always wanted to be strong for her family. “And that’s what a lot of us women are—we always put our family above our own needs and so we don’t want to show that we’re struggling, we don’t want to show that to our family because we feel like we’re the rock and we need to stay the rock. And I don’t necessarily feel like that’s a bad thing, but we’re also doing a disservice to our kids if we’re showing them that you deal with struggles by bottling them up and never opening up to anybody about them. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to handle things. I’m never going to be somebody who goes and tells my problems to the world, but I do feel like you need to find at least one person —one or two people— that you fully open up to.”
Nodding my agreement, we wind down the interview and I ask for the lyrics she picked out. I always ask the person I’m interviewing to bring lyrics because I think lyrics tend to say more about a person than sometimes even the person can say. In her case, that’s not the case but I ask for the lyrics anyway.
She says the song’s a little bit silly, but the true purpose of the song is what draws her to it. “We have these moments that define us, but we’re sitting here trying to define ourselves and create our idealized version of ourselves and pushing that out on people like, ‘This is who I am, look at this idealized version of myself,’ and what it does is it stops us from reflecting on the whole. And I feel like I’ve done that a lot—I choose to forget all the bad that’s happened. I choose to forget all the flaws and everything and what it does is it limits my perspective of myself and I lose an understanding of myself, of why I think the way I do, why I make the choices that I do, why I react the way I do. And while I do believe, obviously we do have choices, in who we are because our actions do define us, we also need to have the understanding of who are we in our innermost being too. And I don’t think we’ll ever understand that, but we’re sitting here trying to define ourselves by only our best qualities, it’s not the true version. Who am I to tell me who I am? I am because of everything that’s happened to me—I don’t get to choose what’s happened to me in my life.”
Well, dang–that’s good. I nod and jot down final notes, turning off the recording.
“Oh, wait,” I say a minute later, turning the recording back on after realizing I’d left off a question. “How do you add purpose into the mundane?”
“By being present–in the moment,” she says immediately, talking about how easy it is to get caught up in big-picture thinking. I ask what that looks like for her and she tells me it’s about being focused on who you’re with rather than zoning out, going on to say it brings a better appreciation for who she’s with and what the moment brings.
We left the table that night and she went off to prepare for a day full of teaching and raising the upcoming generation and I walked off to my car, feeling like I’d met a new person that night. I’d met someone compassionate and thoughtful and driven–someone with both eyes on the future while still holding onto the hands of those around her.
And in my humble opinion, if all teachers and mamas are like her…I’m a little less worried about the next generation.