I accepted the first job offered, a position teaching 11th and 12th grade English, coaching soccer and ice hockey, and living in an upper school girl’s dorm at New Hampton School. The small rural boarding school sits across the road from the post office and library, which pretty much makes up the town of New Hampton, New Hampshire.
The first student I met in the dorm asked if I wanted to have a dip (chewing tobacco) with her.
“I’m a teacher,” I said, and we both smiled. And then pretended the conversation never happened.
As a young teacher, I was often unclear who I felt more of an allegiance to, the students, a few years my junior, or the older administration. Luckily, there were about twenty other young faculty members to sort it all out with over Saturday night beers at the Common Man, a refuge from our 24-hour a day jobs of being role models for young minds. We used to joke that we could stop working on Tuesday--we’d already put in our forty hours for the week.
I loved teaching. I hated grading. I didn’t like being the one to determine whether an essay deserved an A- or a B+. I didn’t enjoy teaching grammar but I could have sat in a classroom for hours talking with my students about their lives. And on any given night, I had girls in my apartment, sprawled on the couch, telling me their secrets.
I was not a traditional English teacher, often skipping a lesson on misplaced modifiers to discuss a recent stealing incident or to explain why I thought “chick” was a derogatory term. I gave my students the first five, sometimes ten, minutes of every class to unwind and let go-- wrestling or climbing the old buildings’ exposed pipes was not off limits. Swears in moderation were tolerable. This was their time and then the rest of the class was mine.
Conversations from this “free period” would often trickle or steam-roll into our “class time” but this allowed me to use their lives to teach English. Often the days they walked out laughing about how we never opened our books were the days I thought I taught my best lessons.
Just not in grammar.
I probably could have stayed teaching in a boarding school setting forever. Put in over thirty years like my parents before retiring to the Cape. It’s a good life. All-consuming. But good.
Except I had always, with the exception of our year in Ireland and my senior year at Colby, lived on a school campus. I’d never lived in the world outside academia. So after two years, I took a leap and moved to Portland Maine with another teacher I met at New Hampton. He and I had grand dreams of becoming writers and living happily ever after.
Which didn’t happen.
The happily ever after part.
I spent my first year in Portland sifting through jobs and only writing in my journal about my turbulent relationship. I worked at a day care center, a cafe, a small grocer, a teen shelter, a graphic designer’s office, and at the Maine Women’s Fund, all in the first twelve months, sometimes I split shifts between three places at once.
After a pile of rejection letters, I stopped submitted my children’s stories and poems to publishers and asked myself what I really wanted to do. I wrote in my journal that I wanted to work for a small non-profit organization that supported women and reached out to adolescents about issues of relationships and sexuality.
A few months later, I found this job or it found me, and I spent the next three years coordinating the prevention program of a domestic violence shelter. We trained high school students as youth educators and used theater as an educational tool to address dating violence, bullying, sexual harassment, and the larger issues of power and oppression that underpin violence against women. We traveled to middle schools and high schools all over southern Maine performing and facilitating workshops. I must have played the role of Caroline, a young woman who ends up gagged and on her knees by the end of the half-hour skit, hundreds of times. Though her boyfriend, the character Jake, wins in the end, I played her strong and found my voice through Caroline’s words.
During this time, I ended the rocky relationship but regained one with my parents and most importantly, with myself. Drawn to this field to sort through my own issues, I left it realizing how good I had it all along. That my adolescence wasn’t nearly as reckless as it could have been, that I never truly lost the little girl, that my family protected her even when I couldn’t find her.
That I was loved.
It was 1999. The year of the Y2K scare. And somehow all the talk of systems collapsing made me want to get out of the “city”… and this is where my Alaskan dream began.
Only I didn’t know it yet.
I remember being stopped at an intersection on my way to a presentation, staring at a Jeep with a kayak and mountain bike on its roof and thinking, “I want to be in that car.”
When I tried to explain my feelings--my desire to be outside more, to stop fighting against something, to feel more connected to the natural processes that support my life-- to my friend and roommate Kim, she pulled from her files the admissions brochure for Alaska Pacific University. Kayaks graced the cover and a picture of two students mountain biking across the tundra took up two whole pages on the inside.
I set aside my Harvard application and applied to APU. My family and advisor from Colby thought I was a bit crazy and they were right. I knew nothing about the school. I didn’t research it online. (I didn’t use the Internet back then). Didn’t visit the campus. And it certainly had nothing compared to Harvard, where a long line of Everett’s had graduated before me, in terms of prestige and resources.
I just knew I needed to go to this small-unknown school thousands of miles away. Even if it wasn’t logical. Even if it didn’t make sense to anyone but me.
I thought it was because of the outdoor pictures and the philosophy of active learning and how perfectly it meshed with my present need for “wildness” to come from nature and not from the stories the students told me after each presentation.
I thought it would be a two-year adventure and then I’d return to Maine to lead prevention-based wilderness trips. I thought I’d settle in New England, marry a prep school boy who played lacrosse, and drive to see family and friends on long weekends.
I thought this even as I drove west and north to Alaska, pulled by a force I couldn’t quite explain.
--Excerpted from Following Elias, originally published on Parents.com. Copyright 2009 by Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.