a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Everything Happens for a Reason

Having watched her latest DVD series this past weekend, my mind and my heart have been focused on Nancie Atwell and the Center for Teaching and Learning. 

My mind becomes alive, neurotransmitters fire across synapses from axon to dendrite, at the slightest hint of anything Atwell.  However, my heart aches every time I think of Atwell and CTL.  I think I am ready to tell why. 

I have wanted to be a teacher since before I can remember.  Although I also wanted to be an artist, a bus driver, a photographer, a horseback riding lessons instructor, and a host of other pleasure driven professions, I always came back to education.  I remember making lists as a student of what I would and wouldn’t do when I became a teacher.  I was lucky to have had many teachers I wanted to emulate over the years, and only a few who made the list of “don’ts”—mostly substitute teachers who were undoubtedly the enemy.

However, it wasn’t until my final year in college, during my methods of language arts class, that I met my true hero-teacher.  In a course where there is more to cover than humanly possible, my professor tried to give us every opportunity to find what we needed by providing resources for study beyond what her course could provide.  She introduced me to In the Middle by Nancie Atwell as a “must-have” if I were to become a middle school language arts teacher.   I was hooked.

Over the years, I paid out of my own pocket to attend workshops with Nancie Atwell every time she came to the Chicago area.  I saw her workshop on Lessons that Change Writers at least four times in its entirety and several times in smaller chunks through our state conference and the annual NCTE conventions (back when our district was still sending a select group of us).   I applied for an internship at Atwell’s school year after year after year.  After at least 5 years of applications, I was accepted in 2009. 

I had grand visions of being discovered, being noticed as worthy of existing as a colleague in the field of middle school language arts by Nancie Atwell herself.  However, nothing more came of that internship than four days of intense professional growth. And, in truth, it turned out to be enough.  In fact, it was perfect.

Then, last spring, I had reached a point of stagnancy in my current position.  I was hitting my thirties, quickly becoming the veteran in my department as an increasing number of teachers retired, and getting caught up in the unsavory politics of a public school system. 

That’s when I noticed an employment posting at Atwell’s school.  At first, I dismissed the posting because it was for a kindergarten position. 

However, that posting did not want to be dismissed.  It kept calling to me. 

Finally after some long and hard discussions with my husband, I applied.  I knew that I wasn’t capable of applying half-heartedly.  I knew I would have to genuinely want the position and genuinely want all that would mean for our lives.  I knew that to go through with the process of applying I also had to believe I was worthy of a position at Atwell’s school.  It was not easy to get to this place of wanting and believing.  But I did.

I dug deep and uncovered the desire to be a kindergarten teacher that I had tucked away in a corner of my heart so long ago.  I had done an apprenticeship in a kindergarten classroom daily for half of the day throughout my entire senior year of high school.  I continued to work part-time as an aide in that same classroom throughout my undergrad days.  I had started out thinking that was what I wanted.  Through some personal experience with a babysitting position and some clinical observations, I fell in love with middle school, and that is where my journey as an educator has taken me ever since. 

But I wanted to go back.  My heart was tugging at me, urging me to reconsider kindergarten.

So I did. 

And I was called to interview at Nancie Atwell’s school.  Because I was so far away (the school is in Edgecomb, Maine, and I am in a southwest suburb of Chicago), I was the first person they called.  We communicated back and forth to determine a date that would work.  I booked a flight and made travel plans.  My husband and I put in our paperwork for personal days.

I walked with a spring in my step and a flutter in my heart for days.  I calmly told the voice of reason in my head to shut up and let me enjoy the possibility of this new and exciting future as long as the possibility lasted.  Which did not turn out to be long.

I received a phone call.  A phone call I never saw coming. 

The head of the school called to inform me that the kindergarten teacher had decided not to retire this year after all.  The position was no longer available, and my interview was cancelled.  I was devastated. 

He was beyond apologetic and confirmed what I already knew to be true about the dedicated professionals at CTL: the kindergarten teacher had done some soul searching to decide she was just not ready to leave.  She realized that she was at the top of her game and still had more to give to the students of CTL.  I understood. 

I expressed that I hoped that I would still be considered in the future.  He made it clear “the future” would not be any time soon.  The teacher is not planning on retiring for some time now.

I am a big believer in the sentiment “things happen for a reason.”  I was left wondering what this experience was meant to teach me. 

At first, I pursued a move to the elementary level within my current district.  That proved to be a humiliating and fruitless pursuit.  It seems that it is not easy for an administrator to swallow a middle school teacher being able to transition to the elementary level with success (even a middle school teacher who comes sincerely, highly recommended by her current administrator).  Harumph. 

For a while, I fortified myself with thoughts of pursuing one of the many full-time kindergarten positions that will be available when our district (finally) begins to offer full-time kindergarten next year.  However, I know the reality is that I will be no less rejected for a transfer to elementary this year than I was last year.  The number of available positions is not going to make a difference.

And so, I began this school year with a chip on my shoulder, an ache in my heart, and the sense that I belong nowhere. 

However, watching the Atwell DVDs this weekend I was reminded where I am meant to be.  I belong in the middle.  And I want to be here.


  1. I'm with you things happen for a reason, and I just bet before this year is up you will discover that reason. It may come in the form of paper written by a student, a fellow teacher, or maybe Nancy herself, you just never know. Thanks for sharing, and remember most eighth graders act like kindergartners anyway! lol

  2. What a journey of the heart you have taken me through! You have such a wonderful and positive attitude and that will make the difference. Your students are lucky that you will be staying in their world. True middle school teachers are hard to find. I'm glad you have made peace within your mind.

  3. It sounds like the administrator in your current position values you. I think your students are lucky to have you! What a great piece of writing. You conveyed your emotions very well. I could feel your pain and your optimism.

  4. It was great to hear your story, about firming up your conviction that the middle is for you. While I love those little ones and working with them sometimes, I still value the energy and possibilities of the middle school students. It seems that you are working so hard to be that thoughtful teacher everyone would like to be. I'm sorry for the disappointment, but feel that things happen for a reason, and perhaps your journey will be fulfilling in a different way. How about a book about your journey with Nanci Atwell?

  5. Wow! I am going to start my journey looking for a full time position in about a year. Your story made me hopefully and horrified in one piece :)

  6. I get excited when I think about how circumstances will mold you and make you. You may have just had a "build where you are" moment, or a "you are not ready yet" moment, or both. As quickly as the door closed, another can open. We just don't know... continue to enjoy the journey!
    And if you DO ever come up this way...I'm only a hop, skip and a jump from Atwell's. I'll treat you to a lobster roll at Red's Eats!

  7. It takes courage to reveal your heart like this. Hope is fragile and disappointment is unpredictable. Yet you have to continue to dream and sometimes things happen that go beyond your dreams.

  8. You are a brave writer. Thank you for sharing this story. I couldn't read it fast enough, and yet I didn't want to read it to end either. Besides the fact that it is extremely well crafted, moving seamlessly between the outside and inside stories, it also let us into a piece of your heart. Thank you for that.

    I'm glad you find yourself in the middle, because the middle is a very good place to be. As a middle school teacher who often thinks she missed her calling when in kindergarten classrooms, I can understand your seeking. I look forward to hearing where your journey will continue to lead. So glad you blog (and I love the new look!).


  9. Christy, I taught 7th graders for years and loved every minute of it.. I miss this enthusiasm and creativity of them many days now that I am at the high school. (Unfortunately, there are no speech classes and contest speech at the junior high level! And that is my first love) I often envy you as I read your stories of middle school teaching. They are lucky to have you.

    I know I don't really "know" you, but I want you to know I am proud of you for the fact that you stepped out of your comfort zone and applied at Atwell's school and looked at other ways to be a teacher. But you and the many comments are right--some things are just meant to be. You are meant to be in the middle. It's a great place to be!

  10. Wow. What a journey. To jump in with all your heart. To be open to change. To have a dream. To share it so openly. Like Ruth, I couldn't read it fast enough!

    You should be so honored to be considered for a position at the school. It speaks volumes of you as a teacher, whether at a middle school or not. Things do happen for a reason. You have no idea what new door will open. Just keep your heart and mind open to all the possibilities.

    Thank you for sharing so much of who you are -- as a teacher and as a person. You are amazing. Stick in the middle for now because you are doing great things!


  11. What a powerful, powerful journey that I was hoping would end with a great climax, a photo with Nancy A. But instead, the courage and power of passion for the teaching profession at its toughest time.
    I'm with you, sending you my very best vibes from this side of the world , cheering you on,

  12. You have written the journey well, every twist, feather of hope, puddle of disappointment. The birthing process of "coming home" is evident.