Fear of "What's Next?"

A student, when I asked what I should write about, said, "school. Write about school." I told her I'd have 750 words on it in twenty minutes but it took twenty-three to compose the first draft of this and give her a copy. She read, shrugged, and went back to reading Ellen Hopkins. In school I'm not looking for applause. Connections are tentative and take time. I was happy to write on her topic. School is something I've thought about a lot of late. I'm thinking how school might, after forty-five years, be the wrong place for me. It may be time to graduate.

The toughest part of graduation isn't passing the classes and tests. Hell, I went K through twelve with so few problems that the few I still recall seem laughable now. Even after failing out of college, I got over worrying I might never graduate enough in three weeks to start school again. Three graduations later I had my masters degree and that was that. Getting to graduation was the easy part for me.

The hard part came after graduation when I had to answer the question that keeps me up nights: what's next? Those two words and question mark are the signposts of my anxiety. I've stayed in teaching largely because I fear answering that simple question. I don't know what's next. Not knowing freaks me right out.

Some people who have worked in schools for decades are still surprised when some seniors sabotage graduating by failing a class, not coming to school, and dropping out. "How could you fail this close to graduation? Why didn't you do the little work that was left? What's wrong with you?" I feel the answers to all these questions somewhere above my right eye and deep within my upper chest up near my neck. We get scared not knowing what's next and don't believe we will ever figure it out.

But isn't dropping out just as scary? I suppose, but kids often have jobs slinging fast-food or roofing for their friend's uncle. A few have kids already or a true love's name tattooed on the bicep. School's questionable promise of leading to a better what's next? becomes too much and they push away from all that, go deeper into the job working the grill or hauling shingles. They trust in the illusions indelibly inked on their skin. They play it tough — I ain't scared of nothing, yo. I know what I'm doing.

At community college I got a vague idea about being a teacher. While tutoring a kid, I thought, I'm pretty good at this. That was the sum total of my thinking on the issue and I've followed that vague idea for thirty one years. It was such a relief to know what's next that I went with it like the answer had come from a burning bush or straight out of the grey sky. I didn't question it as I applied to a teacher's college, got my master's, and then went out looking for a teaching job. I didn't question it at my first full-time job even when I got fired, or at my second when I burned out, and it wasn't until seven years into my third job that I even considered leaving teaching. That was eleven years ago.

I'm one of those teachers who just can't learn.

I've been a pretty good teacher and enjoyed some of the work, especially in my first years. I've studied the craft and helped others learn it. I've written more pages about teaching than I can count. Teaching has been good to me and I've been good to it, but lately teaching has gone bad.

I've defined myself as a teacher for so long that it feels odd to consider being something else. If I'm not a teacher, what am I? That question leaves me feeling worse even than what's next? Somewhere Walt Whitman whispers, "I am large, I contain multitudes." No, Walt doesn't whisper or hide. He's banging on his chest outside my window and shouting it into the wind. All the while he's looking at me.

I have to give some thought to what's next. There are bills to pay and even if there weren't, I'd still want answers. Certainly I'll write. I'll always write. But writing for myself or having a few people read my blog isn't enough. I want more. Why is that?

It's what I feel called to do. I'm embarrassed using that word. Called? Have angels come down from on high? Am I hearing voices? I say I'm called to write because there's nothing I want to do more, no push I feel as strongly, and nothing else I have wanted to keep doing for nearly all of my fifty years.

I was supposed to be writing about school here, but I've done the assignment wrong, skipped out of class, moved on to something else. It's like I'm already gone.

That was the end of the draft I wrote for my student. I didn't want to tell her that I'm four years away from the minimum age of retirement and here I go, dropping out. I'm not supposed to say things like, the hell with graduation. I'm supposed to be all about staying in school, following their rules, and going along with whatever I'm told is next. It's frightening to contemplate what's next, but it's better for me than staying in school. She may have already figured that out. Most of my students learn a lot faster than I have.