Just weeks after moving into a house for the first time, we had to take down a massive Sweet Gum tree that stoically stood in our front yard. It’s large branches stretched across the front of the house, providing shade and privacy. While previously, my sense of appreciation for the forest was tied beauty and ecosystem support, it was now tied to utility: cooling the house in the summer heat, shading the office, creating a sense of seclusion from the streets.
Despite being new residents, my roommate and I both bore a sense of loss for the tree. We were looking forward to gardening for the first time. Helping things grow. Digging in the dirt to reach some sort of primal feeling of stewarding the earth. Catharsis when we felt discouraged about the growth of our students; encouragement when growth occurred. To have something ancient and living removed from that experience so early on was disheartening: a foreboding metaphor for the closing of the school year. A literal turnout for our gardening ventures. A reinforcement for many of the negative feelings I was having at the time.
Oh, how narrow-minded I was.
A few days later I walked by the tree stump and noticed two saplings whose growth stretched towards the new-founded sunlight. This light, provided by the absence of the Sweet Gum, would allow these trees to grow. Not only that, but it provided an entirely new area for us to plant things that required sunlight: a rarity in the woods of north Georgia. New growth from old. Healthier. Stronger. Though, it will take a few years.
They say that forest fires are necessary. They clean up dead or weakened plants and undergrowth to make room for the new.
They prevent more vicious fires from occurring by ridding the forest of debris. Again with metaphors.
As summer approached, and the school year came to a close, I attempted to find my footing: what I lost of myself this year. I had known for a while that I was not me. The (often) overzealous confidence and pride that I normally carry gave to demure shyness, anxiety, and lack of certainty. The extroversion I base my joy around submitted to isolation (I am still apologizing to my friends for that). I think much of this was because my life became focused on surviving the school year. I went from being a Type A perfectionist in my work to navigating the foreign rituals and ways of high school teaching. And just navigating. Just that. Not steering well. Not growing. Not fulfilling a leadership role that I typically strive for. Not paying attention to the needs of my students. Stagnant on some floatation device. Not helping. And that pained me so much. I was more than that.
I am more than that. And I knew I needed to sit down and reflect on my year to prove to myself that despite all of these feelings, this forest fire, this loss of a tree, growth occurred for both myself and my kids.
However, my first few weeks of summer disputed my attempt to stabilize and reflect. Reflection, after all, requires you to step outside of yourself. But high cortisol levels tattooed to my brain kept telling me that I had to prepare for next year. Plan to avoid future stress. Be anxious about the future. You have so much to do. You will never get it done. You will never have time to do the things you once loved in your life anymore. This is adulthood. This is real life. There are no such luxuries.
And yet now I find myself sitting in my sunroom, a coffee cup steaming next to me and the summer rain pattering on the leaves of trees, writing. Not writing for school. Not making an assignment. Not writing a journalism piece. Writing for me. And my thoughts evolve as words enter and leave my head and I realize that this is how I reflect. Pen to paper. Cursor to blank screen. It took a while, but I am finally at that point. I gave myself permission to not focus on school for a while and do other things I love. I hiked. Paddle boarded. Rode horses. Had dinner with friends and reconnected with loved ones. Sat with a glass of wine and a book on our porch swing I so longed to use. Gardened. Wrote. Ran. Relished in nature and in the present. And those little pieces of me. The extrovert. The optimist. They came rushing back… or maybe they were never truly gone.
And, just like a piece of writing that you walk away from to gain a new perspective, I returned. The trails only lead to improvement. I was ignorant to think that I would be an expert within my first year. And so, as I sit here, I am not stressed or overwhelmed at the thought of this past year and my future… but humbled. There was a purpose in everything; there is a purpose for most. But, that purpose is what you make of it: a tree stretching for light. I know I wrote in my last post that I am hopeful for next year, and that hope has grown because I have found myself again. Perhaps my reflection was delayed because I needed that first part of summer to realize the importance of balance. That teaching should not be a sacrifice of identity outside of the classroom. That the best and most sustainable teaching comes from maintaining yourself so you can focus on your students and listen. To meet them where they are. To do what I love with what I love… to push for change and work in a collaborative creative setting. God, I cannot wait for next year.
Our new house, while quite the upkeep, is filled with reminders of this sort of renewal. Our basil and porch plants are currently providing nests for finches and wrens. The orchids I clipped are displaying new stems. A yearling often accompanies its mother in the meadow out back. Lightning bugs flutter in the evening light. Nature is not always calm like this. Always quiet and peaceful. It can be violent and cruel; but, that cruelty creates life. Creates peace. Humanity is part of that fulfillment of contrasts and growth. That shift from shade to light. Happiness and sadness. Hopelessness to hope or purpose. Those contrasts, when juxtaposed, highlight each other. They fill us with gratitude and drive–part of the experience unique to humans. Every now and then I have to remind myself of that. That we need to be uncomfortable. New teacher advice: balance and grow. You will find yourself in a good place again. I definitely have.