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Right now, it is utterly silent in my little hutong home, save for the neighbor’s mother singing next door and the wind I hear whirling outside. For months, I have been teaching online, each day a cacophony of voices, my own occasionally strident and perhaps a bit inauthentically perky. I cannot wait to stop teaching. For nearly 15 years, since June of 2008, I have been in a job I deplore, a position that fits as poorly as an itchy wool sweater.
The woman’s voice has stopped, a phenomenon I feel neutral about, and the wind is slightly louder now. Her singing reminded me of my older sister, a gifted choral performer who became a choir teacher and a passionate pastor’s wife, but could also have traveled the world, singing, and I think about choices. My sister’s were deliberate, and she has crafted a life that she loves, but mine were not quite so certain.
I have learned that I have a little minion inside me, a kind of willful id that definitely pushes me forward, but can also hold me back by propelling me forward into lives that may not have been the best choice. Teaching, as well as a spontaneous marriage at 23, are two such occasions.
In my interview with Teach for America in 2008, I felt ambivalent about the entire process until the last phase of the third step of the process. Up until that point, I had felt awkward, like I was doing something because it had appeared in front of me, rather than because I really wanted it or knew what to do. This was tied to a crisis of faith happening at the same time and not truly resolved until a few years ago; when you’re used to making every choice based on what God told you to do, it’s hard to make any when you’re not really sure that He’s there!
The day consisted of a demo lesson, a written exam and an in-person interview that stretched out for long hours. By my interview in the afternoon, I was exhausted, my brain trying to cohere around this possible angle. Being a teacher felt as foreign to me as becoming a football player, and I had never been athletic. But during that interview, I felt the spark of ambition light, and as it progressed, the conviction grew that I was good enough for this, that I could be great at it. (I never considered asking myself if this path were good or great for me.) I have always been a good interviewee, while I “fail” at online personality screenings, and this day was no exception.
Near the end of the interview, the man–only a few years older than me; TFA lovessss to promote young leaders from within–put down his pen and looked at me intensely. “I like you, and I think you’d be good for this, but you don’t have enough extracurriculars,” he said, meaning in college. He was right; I did all the things in high school, and then sank into the bliss of three years of literature with every bit of my being, eschewing extra commitments, save for one.
“Our recruitment works on a points system,” the interviewer continued, “and you just don’t have enough. Can you give me something? Any reason for not having being more involved on campus?”
I thought about it, and realized that while I loved focusing on school for once, I had also had to work–a lot. My father was covering my rent–a massive privilege–but I never had enough money for food, gas or other amenities, so I worked all through college except for my first semester, and subsisted on a mix of work study, summer gigs and–my last year of school–25-30 hours a week at a Borders Cafe in town. “I had to work,” I told him, in a rush of relief. “That’s why I wasn’t more involved. Apart from when I studied abroad, I worked all through college–my last year, almost full-time.”
He nodded, satisfied. “That’ll give me enough.”
And so, a teacher was born.
As early as I can remember, money has driven my choices–well, money, and this prideful id I mentioned earlier. I wanted to be a journalist at 15, but was dissuaded due to the “liberal” nature of the field, and silenced voices of doubt by telling myself that “I want to be the kind of person having the adventures, not reporting on others‘.” The power of simply sharing stories from other places to people less familiar had not yet occurred to me.
Then, during my crisis of faith, I had about $8,000 of credit card debt and was making $19,000 a year as a Borders employee; I also worked as a live-in nanny for the aforementioned sister, which covered rent. I had wanted to live in China since I was young; my first strange feeling of being “pulled” towards the country came at 10, when I discovered an article about the country’s One Child Policy in an issue of Reader’s Digest. The innate foreign-ness of the concept and culture presented triggered some macabre fascination in me. The interest deepened to a genuine respect in AP World History as a teen, when I saw beyond the current system to the truly ancient history of the nation…but I was worried about earning only $1500-2000 a month as an EFL teacher abroad. This was the only path I saw as a way for me to reach China, and I still carried debt and knew rent wouldn’t be covered like when I was a nanny.
Really, becoming a teacher was the best way to get a well-paying job in the country I’d wanted to explore since adolescence, but that didn’t make it a good fit. After pushing myself to graduate college early, I hit that first crisis of faith and felt directionless, adrift with the main identifying feature of my core self up in the air.
I had studied in Argentina and knew that Spanish would be an asset as a flight attendant, so I applied to Delta with far more enthusiasm than to Teach for America. I felt lit up inside when I considered the job, and I got pretty far in the interview process, too–but then I realized that I’d have to travel to Atlanta for the final job interview on the same day as the TFA interview in Athens, GA, and I faced a choice.
By then, the downsides of becoming a flight attendant had also occurred to me, and again, my willful id intervened, saying, “That could be uncomfortable. You’ll have to deal with cranky passengers,” and most damning of all, “You want to be the person going places, not the one helping others reach their destinations.” Ah, the arrogance of youth.
There is an established difficulty for people with ADHD minds to grasp the full implications of our decisions. Perhaps conceptually similar to time blindness, there is a patented inability to see “down the road” accurately, and so I have repeatedly chosen “the path of least resistance” when pressed up against the wall. I knew the training for flight attendants was not well-compensated, and that it might be years before I could build up to a good income. While the novelty of the job would have been scintillating, and appealed to a part of me I would put on the side of ADHD, the lack of control over my schedule in the early years was less enticing. Thus, I went with Teach for America, knowing that they would “take care of everything”–which really meant that they’d allow a lot of recent college grads to depend on their family members or credit cards and meager grants to survive a summer with no income that included, for many of us, a cross-country move.
Ironically, I ended up far more deeply in debt by the time I got my first paycheck as a new teacher in September 2008, and by then, I would have probably been through training with Delta and well on my way to earning just as much; but, such is life.
The conundrum of my experience since has been that even though I am ill-suited teaching, choosing TFA–and that gracious, “creative” interviewer’s intervention, which led them to choose me–has delivered on a lot of things that matter to me a great deal. While I would have enjoyed flying all over the world, I do love slow travel. I had a taste of that already from how I stayed in Buenos Aires for months while my peers flitted around the country. While I was partially constrained by my finances, I also felt like I wanted to drink in the life of the porteños with every bit of my senses–like I had far more to explore to know the city fully before embarking on a trip elsewhere. While we’re all beautifully complex creatures with unique facets, I attribute this appreciation for place to my introverted side, the side of me that likes to “take it slow.” For all I know, it could also relate to the tendency for those with ADHD to eschew things that seem too complicated, but I don’t think so. When the time is right, I love to travel; I just tend to do it less frequently than others in my sphere. I also, as I’ll write about later, like to travel to places with people who have been there before, or–even better–to go to places where I have friends or family living who can show me around.
Thus, moving to Las Vegas with Teach for America allowed me to experience life in the Western U.S. in a full, rich way that flying through never would have. Just as working for weeks on Native American reservations in South Dakota as a teen did far more to show me the consequences of my country’s treatment of indigenous people than a tour or brief trek would have done, living in Vegas introduced me to the realities of the immigrants who helped to build our country and have contributed to its largest population growth in the 21st century. Vegas, of course, is a particularly striking example; I had never felt the desire to go there as a tourist, yet living there immersed me in an exciting world of opportunity and growth. I don’t regret it for a second.
Neither do I regret my six years in China or my year in Kuwait. Each has been integral to a deeper understanding of the cultures than could ever be gleaned from a weeklong visit, so while I am thrilled to finally be facing the exit, and the start of a new adventure, somewhere else, I suppose I can’t be too angry at my “id” or ADHD.
After all, they have led me to many adventures, and most of them have done me no harm ;-).