Blogging is narcissistic, but I hope to encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.
I don’t know why it’s frowned upon to dabble. As a high school teacher, I try to encourage my students to dabble. Dabble away, I say! Not to mention, the word dabble is fun to say, although maybe its sound is a bit too close to dribble, which makes me picture myself as some kind of idiot, running around aimlessly, saliva dribbling out of my stupidly cheerful smile. But I still like to say it.
I recently encouraged dabbling to a student in one of my most generous moments: “Not into Spanish?” I asked him, putting on my best I-understand-you face, masking the feeling of having the wind knocked out of me at the very thought of someone not loving a language that so changed my life. “Why not try French next year?” I suggested, once more masking my distress, struggling to suppress a memory of a French man who sat next to me on a long wooden bench at a picnic style restaurant in Cambodia. In an attempt at small talk, I pointed out to the French man that we had ordered the same dish, only his had beef in it and mine had tofu. (Not my proudest social moment.) He acknowledged this fact, then added that he was drinking beer while I was drinking water, explaining in the thickest, most cliché French accent, “I eat meat, I drink beer, I enjoy life.” Ugh. French.
But still, I can prioritize a good dabble over my love of Spanish and my unrealistic expectation that my teaching methods will somehow transform my students into hispanophiles as well. However, in this case my generosity was trumped by the principal who corrected me: “Our policy is that once students choose a language, they have to stick with it.” Oops! But come on, life is not like that. There is a place for people with a clear direction of course, but there is also a place for dabblers. There are, in fact, lots of places for dabblers. So here are some highlights from my years of dabbling, which I hope will encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.
Fresh out of college, I took a job working at an afterschool program for at-risk teenagers, which on paper sounded fun and even noble. Working there, however, felt like being in middle school again, only this time I felt like the new kid, the chubby kind with braces and acne. Whenever I approached a group of girls, the chatting and giggling would stop abruptly, they would shoot me looks of annoyance, gather up their things and walk away. I had a 13-year-old informant on the inside who told me that the cool girls called me “Poodle”. Oh yeah, this is what I look like.
It’s hard not to take these things personally.
I simultaneously worked at a mommy-and-me music school. You know, the kind where you sit in a circle, toddler in lap, clap your hands, stomp your feet, spin around, etc. In theory it was my dream job. But it turns out, one can only sing, “Elephants have wrinkles, wrinkles everywhere” so many times before wanting to break things. And this is coming from someone who loves elephants. My boss said I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, to which I almost sang, “Goodbye, goodbye, thank you very much!” and put a sticker on her hand. Almost is the key word here.
At night I semi-actively pursued a singer-songwriter career, playing shows at coffee shops and bars in San Diego and Los Angeles. Whatever you are imagining, you are probably right. Sometimes people love you and show up at all of your shows. Sometimes they can even sing along to your songs. Other times you are singing as loud as you can, but no microphone in existence can drown out the conversation and laughter coming from an audience that doesn’t even know you’re there. And sometimes there is actually nobody there at all except for one person who is listening very intently because he is next up on stage and hopes you will return the favor. The bartender offers you both condolence cocktails, and your new friend gives you a flier for his upcoming show.
At some point, possibly out of desperation for meaning in my life, I found myself in Santiago, Chile where I worked with more troubled teens. Please interpret the word “more” to mean that there were more of them, but also as a qualifier of their level of troubled. Being called “Poodle” was tough, but even tougher was confiscating hedge-trimmers from a Chilean boy who snapped them in the air as he chased a girl around a cramped classroom. Why were there hedge-trimmers in a classroom? That’s a great question.
Back in the USA, I believed my skin had thickened sufficiently to work once again with at-risk youth. I was hired by a nonprofit organization that offered free tutoring to kids in a neighborhood I never knew existed: Southeast San Diego. Type those three words into Google and it will promptly suggest “gangs” to finish your search. An amateur YouTube video even breaks down the gangs for you by neighborhood, and claims this area to be the murder capital of San Diego. Lucky for me, I had no idea, I just knew it was far from where I grew up, and seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.
The non-profit was disorganized, as they tend to be, neglecting to inform me that one of my students had severe special needs, for example, an area in which I had no training or experience. The organization also sent me to the wrong address not once, not twice, but three times. In Southeast, you do not want to knock on the wrong door. The first time, someone peered at me through a brown metal screen door, the kind in which the holes are so tiny it’s basically a solid metal door. I could not see the frightened woman inside the home, but I realized that she could see me, which is a really strange experience, it turns out. It’s hard to know what to expect when someone who does not trust you is looking at you, yet you can’t see them. It’s eerie. Like being hunted maybe. And in this case the woman behind the door had the right to be on guard because I was a stranger at her home, after all. (Castle Doctrine, anyone?) I asked if the student I was looking for lived there, and she said in a terrified sort of voice, “Who? No, no, thank you, no!” and slammed the interior door in my face.
The second time I knocked on the wrong door I was looking for a recently immigrated Mexican family, but a large white man with tattoos on his neck opened the door instead. He squinted at me almost aggressively, as if to say, You want something? You gotta get through me first. “I’m Enrique’s new tutor,” I said with rising intonation, almost as a question, forcing an I-come-in-peace kind of smile. His features softened, he looked me up and down and then said in a gravelly voice, “You have a beautiful body.” Gross. And scary. But I admittedly think I was at a low enough point with my self-esteem that I almost said, “Really? You think so? Oh my gosh! Thanks so much!” Almost is again the key word here. What I actually said was, “Oh wait, wrong house, sorry! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The laughter of course being as awkward as humanly possible. I set off in no particular direction, hugging a binder full of 9th grade math activities to my chest. He shouted something after me but I don’t know what it was. I came to a four-way intersection and frantically crossed the street, scurrying into a liquor store with barred up windows. I bought myself some condolence cacahuetes. I later learned that that intersection I crossed is known as the Four Corners of Death due to the number of homicides that have occurred there over the years. And all of this basically in my own backyard, and I had no idea. I should say that I loved that job, though. Or at least I loved the kids. I even convinced one of my students to play a “game” that I completely made up called “The Squish Face Game,” which is pretty self-explanatory. He had the chubbiest little cheeks!
Once that contract ended, I accepted a job with a title that is something like Childcare Expert or Youth Specialist or who knows what at a sort of boarding school for foster kids. I left after maybe the sixth or seventh F you. I empathize, but it turns out my skin is not so tough.
One of my favorite jobs at which I stayed the longest (read: one year and a half) involved giving stop-drop-and-roll presentations at schools across San Diego. Yes, I was the stop-drop-and-roll lady who taught the eight-year-old-you what to do if you ever catch on fire. I speak with no sarcasm when I say it was so much fun! Whatever that says about me is unclear, but I loved it. This job also involved interviewing juvenile firesetters, the oops-what-did-I-do? kind, and the habitual I-wanna-watch-this-burn! kind. I also got to install free smoke alarms in senior citizens’ homes, which was oddly empowering. I admit I enjoyed carrying a heavy drill and picking through a box of screws, even if it meant boring holes into popcorn ceilings and letting the asbestos flutter into my hair and onto my goggles. Much like working in Southeast, I loved the overall experience of this job from the seniors to the pyros, but even stop-drop-and-roll has its limits. Plus, I discovered an intensive Spanish program in Panama that I couldn’t pass up.
If you have read this blog before, you may know that I recently spent some time working with kids in Peru. I did that as a one-year hiatus from graduate school because two years of anything is too long for me.
And now I’m a high school Spanish teacher, which I love even more than being the stop-drop-and-roll lady. I love it more than the Squish Face Game. But I still sometimes find myself searching for jobs in places as unrelated as Santa Cruz, California and Cork, Ireland. Because who knows?
Sometimes I think back to when I was one of those teenagers for whom artsy and angsty kind of blend. I had the capacity to find poetry everywhere, and used to write inspiring (or sometimes dark) phrases and quotes all over the place. I would paint them on my bedroom walls, write them into my notebook rather than writing down math formulas, and scribble them into my glasses case. Some of them were stupid. But some of them were nice. A nice one that I still remember is: “Chase your passion, not your pension.” My passion keeps running around, and I hope I never stop chasing it. And you shouldn’t either. Even if that means you look like an idiot, saliva dribbling out of your stupidly cheerful smile.
Oh yeah, and I’ve also learned to eat meat, to drink beer, to enjoy life.