Twenties Questions

Ingraham High School commencement, 2010

With many recognitions dim and faint, 

And somewhat of a sad perplexity, 
The picture of the mind revives again: 
While here I stand, not only with the sense 
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts 
That in this moment there is life and food 
For future years.
William Wordsworth, from “Tintern Abbey”

It takes me a while to find a parking spot, and even longer to find the door.

The little gravel patch where I used to park my white Nissan, long dead, has been landscaped away, so I drive around the far side of Ingraham High School, picking my way past too-narrow perpendicular spots, my personal worst-case parking scenario, until I’m almost at the end of the lot. From there I walk back to the school, past the sculptural auditorium, past the gym and the glass halls that we always just called “the trophy cases,” to a door that should lead to the main office.

Except there are chain-link fences all around, and the other doors are locked because, of course, it’s a school day, and you can’t just let strangers onto your campus through any door these days. At this point I’m doubting my purpose—truly I am a stranger here, one who didn’t even know that Ingraham is nearly finished constructing a massive new wing—but I persevere down a ramp and through a tunnel until I find myself delivered to the office to sign in, like a good visitor.

It’s been nine years (and two days) since I left Ingraham High School, packing up my classroom and then flying out to TeachBeyond Orientation that same night, an abrupt beginning to so much adventure ahead. I stumbled on a Facebook status earlier this week, one in which I lamented the difficulty of packing everything I needed “for two years” into one backpack. Two years, I read with a smile. Yes, that’s what I thought I was doing: leaving the country for two years, only to return to my school and job, adventures over, and ready to teach there forever. That’s how much I loved it, how much I left behind.

After a warm greeting from the head secretary—a lovely and ageless woman who really does run the school, as head secretaries are known to do—I head to the library. Though the two teachers with whom I’d been closest have left, I’ve kept in touch with the librarian a bit over the years, so I wait for her to finish working with a class and wander around the library until the bell rings. I look at the posters on the wall, cheery homages to Mr. Dewey directing us around, a display of Tony-nominated Broadway shows, a handful of student projects pasted to the conference room windows.

Even this place, especially this place, is full of memories. Those empty conference rooms were my first classroom, long ago when I taught a remedial reading intervention class to students who’d failed the state reading exam. I remember decorating them with Christmas lights, buying my own clock for the wall because there wasn’t one, preparing waffles for my students on exam day. Those quiet days in sixth period, when we were all tired, they from learning in a foreign language all day, me from learning a brand new profession, we would read stories together and then tell them, about our homes, our cultures, ourselves. I didn’t really know if I wanted to be a teacher yet, but I knew I liked how these days were ending, and a good end tended to soothe a wide array of wounds.

A little more than a year ago, my English teaching colleagues at Black Forest Academy went out to visit Tintern Abbey in Wales, making a small pilgrimage to the setting of a poem about pilgrimage. Specifically, it’s a poem about returning, the spirals that take us back to the places that once meant so much to us. These are places that cause us to remember not just the times spent there, but who we were in those places, and who we’ve become since leaving them behind.

I don’t know precisely what I expected or wanted from this particular pilgrimage, but as I walk through halls, seeing rooms I know and people I don’t, I realize that Ingraham is my own Tintern Abbey. I think of the alumni who flocked to BFA every spring, drawn back to see friends or siblings graduate, but also to walk familiar trails and speak to people “who knew me when.” I always supported this endeavor, glad to be the witness to my students’ transformations, a small part of this place from which they began to grow. In many ways they were visiting not just a place, but themselves in that place.

Perhaps that’s what I’m doing today, visiting a new teacher, aged 20-25, trying to discern if this profession she’s chosen is really going to work out. She’s in the halls, greeting ninth graders and breaking up squabbles. She’s drinking tea at dawn, at lunch, at dusk, staring out the window at the forest and trying to imagine some other life, not sure if this is the one she wants. She’s working late with the newspaper students, class officers, ninth graders trying to pass at the last minute, having given up leaving when her contracted hours end, having too much fun to worry about that. She’s confident teaching, and as alone as she’ll ever be, wondering if she’ll just keep getting better at this, alone, for the rest of her life. She can imagine working here forever, but she’s restless. She wonders a lot.

These halls are full of questions, and incredibly, I realize that while I have so many other questions now, those ones, the Twenties Questions, have answers. I fell in love with teaching and with Ingraham, even though that once seemed impossible. I left, even though I was afraid, and fell in love again, with a new school, new students, a new country. And then, despite all my fears and doubts, I fell in love with a person.

If I could travel in time, visiting myself in a way that practically every fantasy and science fiction story has deemed disruptive, I’d be tempted to tell her all this. It will work out, I might say. All of it. God’s vision of the future is better and more complex than the answers you can guess at right now. You will actually be fine. I promise.

And since I can’t say it to her, I’ll say it to myself, the still-wondering me, and to anyone else who needs to hear it. Life can be weird and wonderful, and with stunning vistas around corners you didn’t imagine you’d ever have occasion visit. Keep listening, keep loving, keep showing up. There will always be questions, and someone knows the answers, even if you don’t. So keep wondering. 

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