A special feature from guest writer, Kayleigh Wanzer.
When people talk about teaching, it’s never just a job. It’s more of a calling. People speak of being called to teach, called like one is to the clergy, called like one is by a higher power. I never felt that way with teaching. It was more like a hole that I fell into, a path I took because it seemed the least treacherous. Because what else is one supposed to do with a English master’s, right? You’re not supposed to say that, though. When people talk about teaching, there needs to be an element of sacrifice. Something has been given up.
Conversely, I guess, calling yourself a writer seems to happen with more ease. When I self-identified as a writer (when my twitter bio said “writer), strangers would tell me they were writers, too. “Oh! Yeah! I’m dabbling in writing too! I guess you might call me a writer, ha ha, in fact, I have this idea for a nov—” That doesn’t happen with other careers. No one ever tells a surgeon they’re dabbling in surgery, no one ever tells a teacher they’re “thinking about taking that up some day when I retire.”
And maybe it’s an American construct to define yourself by your career. I don’t know, and I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but before I was called to teach, being in graduate school was my identity. What a terrible identity, right? Yet still, I called myself a writer. I attended workshops and readings in the small, Upstate New York town my university was located in with an air of self-importance. I was doing things. I was writing things, or at least talking about writing things, with frequency. I went on dates and said things like I’m writing my master’s thesis. And when people told me that they too were writers, I faked a smile. I nodded politely. Not like me, I thought. I’m a real writer. But what was a real writer? All that made me a “real writer” when I was in graduate school was the debt I accumulated to have dedicated writing time.
You can probably see where I’m going here. Of course, I finished my master’s program, and I left academia. I didn’t go on to get my doctorate (another story in and of itself) and instead, began to teach. Notice that I don’t say that I was called to teach. No, like many other over-educated white women before me, I went to teach abroad. And when I came home, I kept going. I moved to Boston. I settled into it.
In my first year of teaching, I drew distinctions between myself and other teachers. I didn’t study education–I studied writing. I wasn’t here because I felt compelled to teach. I was here because it was something to do while I figured other things out. But then a shift happened. Suddenly, I wasn’t calling myself a writer who taught—I was calling myself a teacher. I was talking about curriculum, I was getting licensed in my state, I was spending my free time lesson planning. “Where do you make time to write?” I asked my friends who, like me, had left graduate programs. No one seemed to know. Is writer an identity that goes away if you don’t renew it? Is it something with an expiration date? If you’re not talking about writing, telling someone you’re writing, or actually writing, with any frequency, what gives you the right to call yourself a writer?
If you’re not talking about writing, telling someone you’re writing, or actually writing, with any frequency, what gives you the right to call yourself a writer?
I unpack my new apartment. I pull out my creative writing master’s degree. I stare at it, unsure what one is supposed to do. I used to dream of framing it, placing it next to my eventual doctorate, referencing it in interviews after my first book comes out. And now? Now I worry about my students’ state test scores, my performance reviews, I research how to get my students to read the books I’m teaching. I try to write on vacations, or during free time, but nothing comes out. It doesn’t help that I only write creative nonfiction, and that writing is, for me, a process that feels like how I imagine leeches would. Each paragraph a parasite, sucking, swelling, needing more blood.
Last October, a journal put together a collection of their favorite pieces in a book, and they chose one of my essays. It’s a real book, sold in stores and everything. My name on the cover. I’d just started teaching at a new school—high school English—and don’t really want to tell people about it. While it feels surreal to hold my own words in my hand, to feel them against the tips of my fingers, it also feels silly to discuss my own writing. It feels like an indulgence, a secret that I should keep close to me. The enormous importance of working as an educator makes everything else feel microscopic. Who gives a shit about my essay in some collection? The journal interviews me during press for the publication and, truthfully, I talk more about teaching than anything else. When the interviewer asks the question they always do, “what are you working on?”, I don’t know how to answer honestly.
Teaching is not unique in its ability to swallow up your entire life and make everything else seem unimportant, but it certainly breeds that environment. Teachers who have special handshakes with each student or who spend thousands decorating their classrooms to look like Harry Potter may go viral, but almost every teacher I know has a complete and total lack of work-life balance. Especially with younger teachers, there is almost an element of a “who cares more” competition, a faculty room story swap about who spent more time staying up lesson planning, who dedicated more of their weekend to buying new classroom supplies.
I tread lightly when speaking about my teaching, especially when specifically talking about the population that I teach in Boston. There are many acceptable euphemisms to use but all of them make me itchy, skating the thin line of sounding like the “white savior” teacher, that problematic trope that’s been done and time again in television and movies. There is still, though, something to be said about how little importance I feel like my own writing has. How can my stories feel important when I see students come to school wearing the same clothes as yesterday? When I’m consoling them after their parents have died?
In the pull-quote the journal decides to use to promote my interview, I’m praising how teaching pushes you outside of your head, forces you to think of others aside from yourself. I believe this, truly and sincerely. I believe that teaching has made me grow as a thinker and as a person.
But with all of that being said, how am I supposed to care about my writing? How am I supposed to even write?
And how, then, or why should I call myself a writer?
Kayleigh Wanzer is a high school English teacher in Boston, MA. You can read her piece “Thirteen Weeks” in the SWFP annual, sold where books are. Follow her on twitter: @heyirony.