My mom agreed that I would attend Baylor, but she revised my future career: she said that I would be a teacher instead.
Eighteen years later, I graduated with a degree in English and a certification to become a high school English teacher. That life I thought I had been living on my own had been carefully designed for me long before I’d realize it in my heart.
I had fulfilled my mom’s prophecy.
I once worked as a merchandiser for Blue Bell Ice Cream. My job was simple: twice a week I would go around to all the stores on my route and re-stock the freezers in the store from the supply in the back. During weeks when we advertised three half-gallons for $11, I’d go round and round through the stores all day, replenishing and renewing the stock.
I loved that job. Driving around by myself, pulling out cartloads of ice cream, hurriedly stocking freezers amidst the frenzy of value- and Blue Bell-loving customers. I especially loved when a customer asked for a particular flavor that wasn’t regularly stocked. I’d go to the back freezer and find the carton of chocolate chip or blackberry cobbler, walk through the grocery store to find the customer, and personally set the ice cream in his or her basket, sometimes even tracking the customer to the register line. I wasn’t trying to accumulate praise or appreciative smiles. I simply wanted the customer to have what she wanted. It was my pleasure to serve the customer in this little way.
I used to be a horrible teacher.
When I first started teaching high school, I accepted a full load. I was given the duties of six classes who had already gone through two teachers by Christmas. I was approached to be the cheerleading sponsor for varsity and junior varsity, and I accepted. I was asked to teach summer school, and I accepted, though it meant a fifteen-minute lunch between classes and twenty minutes to change for cheer practice in the evening.
People, and teachers especially, often think time is the ultimate sacrifice one person can offer another. Sitting at a desk, handing out worksheets, filling out rubrics: these were all my time fillers. More often than not, I wanted nothing more than to be done with the school day, week, month, six weeks, semester, year. To be done giving my time.
I devoted my time to the school, but I held back my love.
From The Mexican, a movie starring Brad Pitt as Jerry, James Gandolfini as Winston, and Julia Roberts as Samantha:
Winston: I have to ask you a question. And it’s an important one, so I want you to think about the answer before you give it to me, okay? When two people love each other—really love each other—but they just can’t get it together, when do you get to that point where enough is enough.
Samantha: Um, you know it’s over when… Well, here’s the thing about me. I’m a product of my emotions, not a product of my environment, like him, which he is, exactly, just that environmental… I-I need sunshine to grow. That’s who I am. And with the projection of… I have goals.
Winston: That’s your answer?
Winston: That’s not right. I mean, there’s a right answer here, but that’s not it… Look, when two people love each other—totally, truthfully, all the way love each other—the answer to that question is simple, especially in your case. When do you get to that point where enough is enough? Never.
I have a friend who has two children. When I first knew her, she was a teacher, and now she is a mother. I was in awe of her classroom: blackboards filled with lessons, walls completely covered in her students’ work, books stacked on her desk and in shelves along the walls, half-finished projects resting on every available inch of space just waiting to be carefully crafted by her eager students. Her classroom was dedicated to her students.
My own classroom was decorated with work reflective of my personality: cartoons, posters that reminded me of my dad, pictures of myself and my family. The books handed down from teacher to teacher in my classroom were locked away in the closet to make room for my own personal bookshelf. Because I spent so much time at school, I reasoned, my classroom should make me feel at home. When my students walked into my room, they would know me. My humor, my interests, my life. Me.
My friend maintains a blog about her life as a mom, and through it, I’ve come to know and love her children as if they were a part of my family. Because of some medical situations, my friend often details instances that aren’t common among most mothers: spica casts, surgery recovery, responses to people who aren’t sensitive to the words they use or the things they don’t understand.
Through my friend’s blog, I have learned about servitude. While I have read plenty of memoirs and essays and blogs from other women who trivialize the entire play of motherhood, my friend has entered into these acts of her life with a grace and love that I have seen echoed in my own mother’s acts of love, a woman who chose to give her life entirely to her family. My friend writes about nursing her daughter when it had not been possible to nurse her son because of his medical complications, about how that seemingly simple act of nourishment taken for granted by so many mothers became a moment of grace for her as a mother. She writes about holding two children in her arms when it had not been possible to hold the first child she conceived, about how that seemingly simple act of embracing her children has taught her about mercy and sacrifice. She writes about looking down at her daughter’s smiling face while she maneuvers in and out of a spica cast—a casing covering the baby’s hips and bottom, so wiping and powdering and switching from dirty to clean is not simple—to change a diaper, about how this difficult task of cleaning a baby’s bottom without seeing it could be stressful and taxing but that her daughter’s recognition of a mother’s loving touch has taught my friend that she can serve her baby, even in changing a diaper. She writes about comforting and soothing and answering questions honestly and gracefully because her children deserve to be served by a mother who has given her self to them.
It seems in vogue to think in terms of one’s self these days. Look up any Pinterest board of affirmation, and you will find any number of self-centered expressions:
The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own.
It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.
Surround yourself only with people who are going to lift you higher.
Do what makes you happy.
Always stay true to yourself because there are very few people who will always be true to you.
Know yourself and love yourself.
Your life is your own.
Everything is about “you”, who, of course, is the “I” we’re all so centered on. That’s what we’re taught. No longer should we care about anyone more than, or before, we care for ourselves.
You you you you you you you.
When we were first dating, my husband drove one hour and a half north to pick me up from my house, one hour and a half south to pass back through his own town, and one more hour and a half farther south to take me on our first date in a quaint little town. A four-hour-and-a-half trip twice that weekend because he heard something in my voice when I said I didn’t want to drive to his town by myself, some need he wanted nothing more than to fulfill.
And still wants to fulfill.
He does not know how much he has taught me about loving someone so much that her happiness is more important than his. He patiently gets me a napkin and a glass of water every day at dinner, even when I’ve forgotten to set his own place at the table. He eats pizza at the same ghastly pizza joints I love and serves my steak to me well done even though he knows I’d love the flavor better if I would just let him cook it correctly. He asks me how my day is going halfway through the day and again at the end of the day, even after days on end of me never asking how he is.
Every day he repeats the same gestures of love and sacrifice, patiently waiting for me to realize the depths of his happiness in my happiness. He teaches me over and over again, in those seemingly rote gestures, what it means to love someone enough to serve them.
Samantha: I’m gonna ask you a question. It’s a good one, so think about it. If two people love each other, but they just can’t seem to get it together, when do you get to that point of “enough is enough”?
Jerry (simply and quickly): Never.
My mom still serves her family.
She has my favorite meal ready when I travel across Texas to home and stocks the cupboards with my favorite snacks.
She drives into town whenever one of her grandchildren needs to picked up from school, even if she’s only been home for fifteen minutes to eat.
She sews a skirt for me in the middle of preparing dinner.
She buys perfect gifts for everyone, even when we all give her the same thing every year.
She has never asked me or my brothers or her grandchildren to help her wash dishes or mop floors or do laundry, trusting that one day we will grow up in the realization that to love someone is to serve them.
Rubrics, fellow teachers tell me all the time. Rubrics, one of my schools pushes on me. Rubrics, the students ask for. An across-the-board standardization of grading which will “make it easy” on me, will cut my time down, will give me my life back.
As though my life is not teaching.
What life is there to give back but endless hours of free time to be spent doing what? Watching the dogs nap? Washing dishes? Writing letters? Wrapping gifts?
Am I, then, to concentrate on me? Am I to sacrifice meaningful commentary on stacks of research papers for my own ten hours of sleep? When I have children, am I to strategize a way around grading in order to have my nightly cup of tea and just-let-me-read-one-chapter-damnit after putting them to bed?
I will write on your papers in addition to circling an abstract comment on a rubric. I will mark every single comma splice and punctuation error, will ask questions and write paragraphs of notes on the first two papers. I will read your emails detailing how difficult your life is and respond with sincere hope for your comfort. I will guide you to the pages in the book where you can find additional resources for run-on sentences, fragments, and other common errors in your writing. I will ache for the story you told me, whether it’s fiction or not, and wonder if maybe I should just offer the entire class a new shot at the paper just so you won’t be so alone in the revision process. I will comment on areas that need work so you can see for yourself where a reader might be confused. I will pray for you silently, though I can’t share that with you. And if, by the third paper, you still don’t understand why a comma is misplaced, I will gladly review and replenish your resources. I will gladly give up a night, a day, a week, a month, a quarter, a semester of “my time” to help you learn those pesky comma rules, those bizarre MLA entries, those transitions, those stories.
Because I love you.
You you you you you you you.
Jo Anna Gaona Albiar enjoys a good pair of cowboy boots, Texas country music, classic rock, planting flowers, driving across Texas to visit her family, painting (walls), and eating pasta from Olive Garden. Her writing career began when she tried out a Memoir class at Texas Tech University where she received a Master’s in English and fell in love with telling all of her secrets in a secretive way. She teaches English, mostly research papers, and reads trash. She used to teach high school students and now teaches college students, which is very different but almost the same. Teaching was pegged as her calling when she was five years old by both her mother and her piano teacher. If you knew her personally, you might not warm up to her very easily; but if you saw her in a classroom, you’d want to be her friend. That must mean she loves it.