I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible—except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. –Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”
I held the phone to my ear this afternoon in the rain, zigzagging the shielded stroller up the street as I juggled the umbrella and attempted to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk. At moments, I simply had to stop to catch my breath and to whisper-shout into the phone, “Yes! That is exactly what is wrong with me!”
When one of my patron saints calls me, I do not let the call go to voice mail. Oh no. Instead, I take the call, wherever I am. This time, my patron saint (PS) and I chatted about a couple of initiatives I’m trying to launch at my school (a faculty-staff book club and a conference). I should have been feeling exhilarated about these things, but I instead felt lingering dissatisfaction. I attempted to explain that to PS, and, as always, she knew exactly how to take all of those words I was saying and not saying and synthesize them into the perfect explanation:
“You’re not being intellectually challenged.”
I inhaled sharply for a moment and let her words sink in. Right there, with rain dripping around the sides of the umbrella haphazardly perched on my shoulder. I stopped pushing and leaned forward over the handles for a moment.
She’s right. I thrive on intellectual stimulation. I love thinking about seemingly disparate ideas and about how I could make them work with students. This year has been none of that. Instead, I have a new administrator who is more interested in conformity, objectives written on boards, and low-level instruction. That I have to explain the research behind independent reading pushes me further away from the work I used to enjoy doing. I also always moved between theory and practice–I am a scholar who is a teacher. This year, though. UGH. I am a paper pusher. I am one who is beholden to protocols. I fear that I am teetering on the brink of becoming mediocre because I am no longer engaged in the work that my soul must have.
How much of this is my fault? A good deal, I’d wager. I allowed myself to get comfortable and I haven’t been writing enough about the work I’m doing in my classroom. That work, that writing, was what kept me thinking about relevance and about literary practices for young people. I keep a lot of notes, but the urgency of that work lost much of its importance while I focused on being a mom. I don’t regret that exchange, but I now understand the importance of enjoying my work.
What this moment means, most likely, is that the work of scholarship is calling me back and, as PS noted, I have so much to say if I take the time to write it. “It doesn’t have to be long,” she urged. “It just has to be novel.”
She’s right. She’s always right. She has known my work since I began teaching and has always championed it, has always told me that I have to document the work I am doing in my classrooms because it is necessary.
I know the work I do with young people addresses gaps in literacy practices, particularly for traditionally underserved ones. My PS also encouraged ways to get back into the work: reading as many books as I can find written since my dissertation so I can find the gaps in the literature. Thinking of my teaching days as being in the field and taking an hour each day to write field notes. When she reframed how I could re-balance the teacher-scholar hyphen, I could feel myself starting to breathe again.
My soul must have the work of both: the intellectual work and the practical work. One cannot exist–for me–without the other. It is the work my soul must have.
I might become radiant again.