I think the best essay that I wrote in high school was about my mother. I talked about how she wanted to teach English, but it was the 70′s, feminism was really coming to the foreground, and her own teachers thought she shouldn’t waste her potential when she could do so much more with her life. She never ended up in a classroom. But she was a natural educator, and growing up in her house, I was always her student. It was her influence that inspired me to go into education myself. The essay was heartfelt, honest, and emotional to write, and even more so to read aloud to the class.
A few weeks later, I was chatting with the teacher that assigned that essay. She had read it, and she had also heard me read it. Over the course of our conversation, she asked me if I really wanted to teach when there was so much that I could do. She told me that she didn’t want to spend her entire life in a classroom, and she wondered why I was selling myself short. I was rather thrown by this comment, and I didn’t quite know how to respond, so I didn’t. It was the first time I’d heard such a remark.
I’ve gotten plenty of practice with that conversation since then. I’ve grown accustomed to having to explain why I only want to be a teacher. Sometimes the “only” is said explicitly. Sometimes it’s in the tone, the words used in a way that they aren’t when the question is about business or science. Either way, it’s always there, and always italicized, because we learn from an early age that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. What they’re asking, really, is not “why did you go into teaching?”, but rather “what makes you unable to do anything else?”
So I’m used to feeling like I have to prove myself worthy, as a future physics teacher, to be in the same room as aspiring NASA engineers and particle physicists. But I am worthy, and I know it. I’m confident that, if I wanted to, I could help send a man to Mars or discover some of the universe’s secrets. But that’s not what I want to do, and feeling the need to validate your existence wears you down eventually. Rather, it hollows you out; trying to maintain your principles becomes less important than trying to maintain your emotions. I’m not always the noble educator. Sometimes I can’t do it. In certain circles, it’s easier to leave that part out, and tell people that I’m a physics major and stop there. I let them think I’m all about those secrets of the universe so I don’t need to feel another “only.” It’s not because I’m embarrassed, but if you knew that you would be thought inferior because of such a detail, would you always be so keen to share?
I don’t want you to pity me for my career path. It was my choice, and I would make the same choice 100 times out of 100. I don’t think that I could do more with myself than teach: anything else would be a waste of my potential. That doesn’t mean that hearing that I am wasting myself will ever stop eating at me. Educating is part of who I am, and no one should ever be looked down on for that.
I can’t wait for the day that there are no more educators who wish that they were doing something else. I can’t wait for the day that children are raised learning that those who can, teach. I hope that I can see this happen. In the meantime, my peers and I will work to make sure that your kids have what it takes to earn millions, win a Nobel prize, write a classic novel, and teach their kids. More than anything else, I can’t wait to see what they become.