As I enter the journey to the elder years, I seem to be myself more than ever.
In the shedding of what was not me – what was given to me by others, to shape me into who they would have me be – I become, every day, more myself. And even though, in the living of life, I wondered if I was being true to myself, I see now that I have only come back – through the shedding of others’ image of me – to me. To me! To me!
I have vivid memories of being a young girl – 8 or 9 – playing alone in my first bedroom of my own. The small bedroom was at the back of the flat, a narrow window overlooking the city backyard and the alley. To the right of the window, adjacent, was the dark wooden door of the small closet – my own! The narrow Jenny Lind bed – second-hand, my mother had refinished the wood to a deep cherry – was to the right of the closet, its foot at the door when I entered from the kitchen of that narrow flat. I had room for a desk – plain wood stained to match the bed, directly ahead of the room’s entry, to the left.
I still like to play alone! An introvert, I have often had extroverted work in my life, and I’ve had a need to rest – alone. In my memory, I play at being a teacher, in that small, dark room. . First of all, I make up files for each of the students in my class. I use the names of real classmates, to be sure, and I file them in the deep filing drawer of the desk on the left. I alphabetize the files, too.
I still do that first, in any job, in any endeavor. I get organized, my pencils in order in the zipper case, books lined up and even. I like to have my files in order.
Then, I stand to face the class – the full-length mirror – a luxury! – that graces the back of the door. I teach.
I suppose I have always been a teacher. Always. I emulated the teachers I knew from school, imagining them, how they dressed, how they walked back and forth, how they projected their voices, to teach. They were my models to another life, another path, a reality I did not know in that flat, but that beckoned to me, by purpose, by expectation, by education, which I would have to learn how to traverse, step by step. Sometimes, I had role models – like those teachers in their navy and white polka-dotted dresses – and sometimes, I did not. Sometimes, I made the path up on my own.
Though shy as a young person, it has never been difficult for me to speak to a group. I discovered that in high school, when we were privileged to have forensic societies in my large urban school. For me, those privileges of public education in the 1950’s and 1960’s began to shape my life. What teacher could have imagined that shy girl, big green eyes taking in every movement, every word, challenged by new ideas, would make her life as a speaker, a preacher, a teacher of the inner life?
What did those teachers see in each one of us, some of us hungry to learn, some of us not able to speak a word out loud in class, some of us abused at home, some of us hungry – for food, and for knowing? What did they see – and not see?
Now I see that the gifts that are mine have been mine all along. I only had to discover them, to have the privilege – a privilege, surely – to live the gifts out in my life. I suppose we all do.
The little girl who dreamed – and didn’t even know she was dreaming – in that little room at the back of a Milwaukee flat – is a teacher, still. She always was…