It’s back to school time and I’m panic applying again

Happy New (school) Year, everyone! It’s that magical time of year when kids are excitedly putting on carefully curated new outfits and heading to see the friends they’ve missed over the summer, teachers are frantically making sure everything is as ready as it can possibly be for the first day, and parents are doing their best to hide the giddy anticipation of a few quiet hours that comes with the kids being gone.

Back to School season hits a little differently for me. Instead of being excited about a new year, or even grieving the end of summer, I tend to be hit with a wave of “what am I doing with my life” panic. This is my third year out of the classroom, and so far, it has happened every year. I see the posts from all my teacher contacts doing all the back to school things, and I feel left out. My own kid goes to school in the mornings, and I feel purposeless. Everyone else in the house goes to work, and I’m left with my thoughts. So I do what any rational person that blindly left a profession would do: I start looking for jobs. All the jobs. Forget the fact that I left a perfectly good job to find my higher calling, I’m clicking on any job I’m qualified for. I drive past businesses with “help wanted” signs posted thinking “I could work at Home Depot!” I look at my school district’s current openings and wonder if it’s too late to go back to teaching this year. This usually goes on for at least a couple weeks until either I run out of steam or someone (usually my husband or counselor) gently, yet irritably reminds me that I’m being ridiculous and that what I’m so frantically looking for is not what I really want. I’ll sulkily admit that they’re right and go back to trying to figure out what exactly that really is. And while I feel like I get a little bit closer each year, I still feel like whatever it is I’m meant for is just outside the periphery of what I can see.

One of the dozens of books I have read over the past few years is The Element by Ken Robinson. The book contains several stories of well known people that were able to live successful lives by finding their element regardless of scholastic aptitude or level of education. To oversimplify, Dr. Robinson asserts that an individual’s “element” is where their natural talent and skill meets their personal passion. It all sounds pretty simple if you know what your skills and talents are, or if your list of personal passions is limited to one or two things, but neither of those were true for me. Fortunately, I have notebooks on notebooks of journal entries, notes, and mindless rantings and in thumbing through one of those notebooks, I came across a graphic that looked like it might help. This graphic put purpose (or “element”) at the intersection of an individual’s talents, passions, values, and lived experiences. By the time I was finished filling in each area, my graphic looked like this:

I identified my talents as: communication, organization, relationships, and teaching. My most closely held values are inclusion, compassion, relationship, and equity. I am passionate about helping marginal groups, social justice, advocacy, and serving the community. I feel I offer expertise in parenting, mental health, personal growth, and healing trauma through my lived experience. So really, all I need to do is figure out how all these things relate to each other and BAM! My calling! My dream job! The thing which will give my life deeper meaning and somehow eventually bring in an income! It’s right there!

Hopefully the presence of a big question mark in the center is indicative of the level of sarcasm I’m trying to convey. I feel like it is somehow helpful to see these categories mapped out in this manner, but figuring out how to use it is a little bit infuriating. It feels like I’ve been putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and just as the picture is almost complete, I realize there are no more pieces.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to give up. I’ll keep looking for the big piece – under the couch, behind the refrigerator, or wherever. In the meantime though, if you know anyone looking for a compassionate parent with a background in mental health to inclusively communicate on behalf of a marginalized group, please direct them my way.

Processing… (alternately titled “A mini autobiography leading up to my current existential crisis”)

Gosh it’s easy to get knocked off track. Today is Friday, and here in Texas, it’s the first normal feeling day I have personally had all week thanks to the winter weather we had starting last weekend. That’s actually not true – the winter weather had very little to do with the absolute standstill we have all been at this week. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

I lost most of last week as well due to the lingering immune response that my body had to the second Covid vaccine that I received the weekend before. It was rough, but well worth the resistance to an infection that has knocked the entire world on our collective behinds. But I don’t really want to talk about that either.

What I want to drone on about today is calling. More specifically, my calling. What is it? How do I find it? What do I do about it when I do find it? Can I borrow yours until I do find mine? “Oh great,” you’re thinking, “one of those posts where she waxes all what-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing-with-my-life.” Well, you’re right, so either suck it up and buckle in, or move along.

So here’s the thing: growing up, I had this ambition to become a teacher. Everybody I talked to (literally tens of people) knew it. I spent weeks during the summer at an aunt’s house that was a teacher, and my favorite thing to do was go through her classroom decorations and decorate my pretend classroom where I taught my obedient class full of dolls and stuffed animals. It was all I ever wanted to do.

I graduated high school a year early with a 2-week-old son who had undergone a heart operation less than 24 hours after birth, and my priorities shifted pretty drastically (I found they would do this several more times). I spent the summer between high school graduation and starting college in a NICU learning how to care for a medically fragile infant, and made the decision to pursue nursing. I was basically getting on the job training minus the pay, how hard could it be? So when I started taking community college courses, I loaded up on prerequisites for the nursing program. What I quickly found was that I hated it. Anatomy and Physiology was the first class I ever dropped because I just couldn’t memorize all those bones (this was probably the first two weeks of the curriculum). The truth is that I could memorize all those bones – I just didn’t want to. Nursing is a noble profession, and I appreciate all the nurses out there, but it was not for me. So I cut my losses and graduated community college with a Certificate of Proficiency in Office Technology. I was basically certified to be a secretary (a profession that doesn’t actually need a certificate).

Fast forward a few years of employment as – you guessed it – a secretary, and I decided if I was going to advance my situation in life, I should probably get a real degree. I worked at a university at the time anyway; surely I could just take a few classes around my work schedule. So I did. I declared a Computer Science major, and off I went. The first couple of semesters were all about taking care of basics, but since I had tested out of both the required English classes as well as Psychology, I had some room in my schedule to take an early class in programming so when I began my degree work, I wouldn’t be so behind. I quickly learned that while I was definitely a technology savvy person, Computer Science was not going to be a field in which I was going to find any kind of fulfillment. C++ was every bit as boring to me as the bones of the face had been a few years prior. Introduction to Programming was the second class I ever dropped.

In the five years that followed, I tried out Journalism and Marketing as majors before finally declaring Public Relations as the one and started focusing on just getting the degree and getting out. It wasn’t just that I had screwed around and taken classes long enough that I needed to just be finished (though the community college that I had previously attended did send me an Associate’s Degree simply due to college hour accumulation), the coursework in the Public Relations program was actually interesting to me. A lot of it was centered around nonprofit work, which I found incredibly rewarding, and I felt like I had found my calling – to help people. Somehow.

Some time after I graduated with my degree in Public Relations (minor in English), I took a job with a nonprofit organization as their Youth Program Director. I was responsible for presenting existing programs to kids as well as developing new programs. I loved it. I loved connecting with the kids and reaching out to the community. It provided a lot of different experiences with different audiences, which was nice since I’m the type of person to burn out pretty easily when things get mundane. After about a year, the organization restructured a little and the scope of my position changed, and I left the organization with a lot of valuable insight into myself and a renewed desire to become a teacher.

And so I did. The following school year, I took a job as a special education classroom aide and started a program to work toward becoming certified to teach. Because I was already plugged into a school system, I was able to begin student teaching as soon as I finished the coursework (which also didn’t take long), and in just over 6 months, I received my elementary teaching certificate as well as an ESL and a Gifted and Talented supplemental certification.

Over the course of the 6 years that followed, I had what I always thought was my “dream job,” but I struggled to feel what I thought I was going to feel. I’m not really sure how to articulate the conflict between what I expected and what I actually experienced, but I can say that I never really felt successful as a teacher. I loved my students, and a lot of them seemed to genuinely love me back; connecting with them never really seemed to be the issue, but I never really felt like I was successful in actually delivering the content. My last year in the classroom, I was assigned to teach 4th grade Writing, and I was pumped. I love to write, and I was excited to pass that love on to reluctant writers and to encourage those that already loved it as well. The reality was that kids at that age have very little actual experience in writing anything organized because until that age, focus is put on other subjects, so teaching writing turned out to be less encouraging kids to become better writers and to love writing, and more teaching them the rules of grammar and writing, which we all hate. In the back of my head the whole time was a nagging feeling: You are not fulfilling your calling – this is not where you are meant to serve. So I resigned from my teaching job.

In the months since, I have taken on the mission of finding what it is I am meant to do, who it is I am meant to serve, and in what capacity? Unfortunately, the nagging feeling that lead me to leave teaching hasn’t really offered up any further guidance. The universe has done a good job showing me all the things I am not called to do, but has yet to open my eyes to what I am. When I embarked on this journey to find this calling, I had a list of criteria that I would like for it to include. I want to write (but what?). I want to speak (to whom? About what?). I want to empower and give hope (again – who? And how?). I have read books, listened to speakers, and talked to coaches about finding purpose, and the recurring theme is that your purpose is at the intersection of your skills and expertise, your talents (apparently those are somehow different from skills and expertise), your values, and your passions (again – apparently those two things are different). As easy as that formula sounds, I am no closer to knowing than I was 8 months ago.

So now what?