When Life Looks Nothing Like You Planned

Maybe the ‘meantime’ has always been my time. Maybe this was the trajectory predestined in the stars, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Over two thousand students have walked across my classroom threshold. I have counseled and consoled as they’ve stressed over research papers and graduation projects, evaluated poignant and disastrous essays, and conferenced with them regarding the beauty of a clear, eloquent sentence. But none of this was supposed to happen. Really. Those students were not on my trajectory. They weren’t a part of my plan.

I was supposed to be a college professor and publish great poetry that scholars and academics would clamor to read. I was supposed to travel to writing conferences, rub elbows with Sharon Olds, Phillip Levine, and Kim Addonizio, and wear clothes hand-woven by hippies in island communes. This was the plan. But it didn’t happen.

Right before a psychology exam my sophomore year of college, my 19-year-old feminist self peed on a stick and received the most dreadfully perfect little plus sign I had ever seen. The irony of my situation didn’t go unnoticed. There I was, studying the greatest thinkers of the women’s movement, supporting and promoting women’s reproductive rights, examining the confines of the patriarchy—and choosing to keep my baby. I was in love, after all. I was also an idealist. What’s the big deal? We’ll stagger our classes. We can still make it.

We had our baby. I traded my courses in Medieval Women’s Literature, Shakespeare, and the Modernists for childbirth, lactation, and parenting classes. We married a few months later and played house. He graduated on time and made it; I settled. I needed to find something to stay afloat and succeed. I needed something in the meantime.

After slowly attaining my Bachelors in English Literature, I took a job at Upper Merion Area High School as a writing instructor. I wasn’t even a real teacher. Students composed thematic essays in their English classes, and then we conferenced on a range of skills from avoiding the hated run-on sentence to finessing the art of voice and tone. Much to my surprise, and contrary to even my own high school memories, teenagers were fun, and odd, and needy—a pubescent mishmash of potential, bright-eyed and acne-scarred. I was compelled. I’ll teach high school in the meantime. Just long enough to save some money for my Masters.

Seeking some sort of regimen to balance my ad-hoc high school career and toddler play dates, I made my way to Cabrini College and enrolled in secondary certification courses. I immersed myself in the coursework. If, in the meantime, I was going to be a public school teacher, I might as well be an awesome one. I could do it all—investigate classroom management and evaluation practices and cuddle up at night reading Goodnight Moon; observe master teachers in the most struggling and difficult classrooms and play the supportive company wife to my husband and his growing team of colleagues; student teach, with surprising ease and success, and make it home in time for sidewalk chalk and backyard bubbles; dictate lesson plan notes into a handheld recorder while squeezing myself into a slinky evening gown for a stakeholder’s dinner. I was unstoppable.

For all of my success, the stigma didn’t disappear. The other moms, 15 years my elder, interrogated, the company wives looked down their noses, the co-workers whispered. But she looks too young to be a mom. It was fine. Hurt feelings couldn’t exist in the limbo of the meantime. I had a job to do, there was money to make, there were goals to accomplish.

My meantime, somehow, turned into 17 years. I received a contract position at Upper Merion, and they paid for my Masters in English. Instead of sending out résumés and applications for college positions, I delved deeper into high school life. I even eventually became Department Chair. I attended my students’ activities, made collages of each graduating senior class, perfected the fine art of the college essay, celebrated each college acceptance, and dried tears when the rejections rolled in. I also used the literature to instill meaning in their strange, transitory existence—to remind them, as Walt Whitman does so eloquently, that they will, most definitely, contribute a verse.

But none of this was supposed to happen, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t get in the way.

Every time I think I’m ready to move on, something or someone pulls me back in. I never aspired to the Hollywood-cliché classroom, but sometimes in twelfth grade English, where we discuss the meaning of life, the dramatic just naturally occurs. Students’ lives are murky, and I adore that. All of their strengths and all of their flaws meld into this wondrous grey of reality.

The student, who appeared to be a lost cause, manages to graduate; I win over the passive-aggressive asshole who, by all accounts, ends up not being an asshole; a mother, plagued with cancer, hugs me at graduation and asks me to look after her son when she dies; the pregnant girl, who needed someone to hold her hand in the doctor’s waiting room, ends up with Ph.D; a former student calls one night to say that she became a teacher and we discuss art, life, poetry, and death until the sun rises; a class collectively tears up over the beauty of “Do Not Go Gentle” and composes a group poem for me; a student lingers after class to tell me he once hated poetry, and now composes sonnets in his free time; a boy loses his dog, stays after class to ponder life’s mysteries, and becomes a second son. And then there are those I have lost—those whose lives were cut short. Their ghosts remind me how I love them all like my own. How I fear for them when they leave my classroom. How I didn’t have any more children because of them.

Today, the memories seem like a blur. It’s almost as if there’s a suspension of time, in the meantime. Maybe I’m still that young girl trying to figure out 17 years of faces, moments, days, classes. They all start to merge. Some days I can’t believe I’ve taught over 2,000 of them. I take hundreds of pictures to remind myself that they’re real—that they were actually in my grasp for a short time. When I learned the content, designed the lessons, wrote my thesis, and attended countless workshops on standardized tests, nobody explained how to handle the sorrow that comes with this beautiful, frightening job—the letdowns, the bureaucracy, the losses, the goodbyes. But they also didn’t tell me about the joy.

Maybe the meantime has always been my time. Maybe this was the trajectory predestined in the stars, if you believe in that sort of thing. Maybe I won’t be recognized for the hundreds of poems I’ve composed. It’s OK. Maybe my kids are my poem—some free verse, some structured, some with short line breaks, and some with enjambment that continues well past graduation day. All contributing a verse to my life. All making my time here worth it.

Jennifer Rieger is the English Department Chair at Upper Merion Area High School and teaches 12th grade Advanced Placement and creative writing courses. An advocate for her students, she dedicates her time to empowering young people through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jennifer holds a BA in English, an MA in Literature, and is currently working on her MFA at Rosemont College with a hybrid concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction. She is also the Poetry Editor for Rathalla Review Magazine.

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