One of my managers asked me the other day what are some of the differences between my old job as a teacher and my new job as a crew member at Trader Joe’s. I stared at her for a little too long, bags of salad in my hand and boxes at my feet. My brow furrowed into a questioning look. I searched for the right words that wouldn’t come out as smarmy or cliched. Nothing is the same. And that’s the whole reason I’m here. It is like comparing apples to oranges (oops, I used a cliche). Except I never received the round, shiny apple from an overly enthusiastic student hungry for knowledge at the beginning of a beautiful school day and the oranges here are in bags, stacked neatly in a bin waiting to be grabbed by hungry, overly enthusiastic customers.
I gave her some lame answers about not having to think, plan, or scheme ahead and deal with any teenage drama or angry parents. I mentioned how nice it is to not have to think about work or take anything home with me nor work late hours at home to get ready for the next day. She smiled. She is kind. She was reaching out to me and trying to connect with me and build rapport. I was grateful for her attempt, but I had to fight back tears in the middle of the produce aisle.
The rest of that day I was a bit rattled. I heard myself telling customer after customer that I “used to be a high school English teacher” whenever I was engaging in small talk and sharing the reason why I moved out here three months ago. I couldn’t give myself a new title of “writer” or any other creative moniker that distanced me from what I used to be. I haven’t fully untangled my mind from identifying as a high school teacher. I have not accepted that part of me is dead. Grief is settling in and it is manifesting in awkward places like when I am ringing up customers, eating my salad in the break room, or dipping up soup and slices of grilled cheese sandwiches in the demo kitchen.
My workdays are spent in pure physical labor tasks where my body is engaged and developing muscle memory. My mind is focused solely on the task at hand. It is only when I am prompted by a coworker to talk about my old job that I begin to let some of the old memories materialize into hazy mental images that have been tucked away in some hidden corner of my mind. I am surprised by how little memory I have of teaching after 18 years of the career. It worries me. I question if I have completely erased that part of my life. On break, I check my phone and see that I have two emails from former exchange students who are back in their home countries. They ask how school is going for me. They do not know what my new life is like, and they still have me locked in their memory as their English teacher who shared with them her passion for American literature and writing. Somewhere across the globe and in small pockets of the United States are young people who know me as only “Ms. Hoelscher” and either love me or hate me or remember to put a comma or a period in a certain place when writing an email because of my attention to grammar on their essays. I was once a high school English teacher. But what am I now that I have no one sitting in a classroom with me for fifty five minutes a day, five days a week for 180 days out of the year?
One afternoon, a coworker grabbed my box cutter out of my hand while I was stocking shelves and began to chastise me by saying, “Never, ever, ever. . .” Then she realized my safety was on and that I am left handed and have a left handed box cutter so my actions look “off” to her. I stood there and smiled and listened to her apologize as she handed me back my cutter. I went back to work knowing she was just trying to give me a veteran tip and help me adjust to my new job. A few minutes later, however, tears pooled up in the corners of my eyes and a sense of embarrassment and shame flooded over me. I wondered if this is how my students felt whenever I was harsh with them.
Another day I gave a break to a coworker who was working the demo kitchen area. She is very good at her job and did a great job training me on how to run a smooth kitchen the week before. She worried that I would be too overwhelmed for the 10 minutes she needed to use the restroom and eat a snack. I listened as she fussed and went over the small details on how to ladle the soup into the cup and put the grilled cheese slice on the plate. I nodded and smiled as she reminded me to fill up the cider sample cups and be friendly to customers.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this was an easy job in comparison to dealing with 100 teenagers a day, tolerating the loud noise in the hallways before and after school and during passing periods,working 12 hour days, mentoring emotionally conflicted students, calling parents and taking work home, staying after school for an extracurricular assignment, grabbing copies out of the run down copy machine while grabbing a snack, peeing before the five minute bell was up, answering random questions in the hallway, rushing to the classroom and beginning my lesson, and also managing bad behaviors and technical difficulties while still managing to teach a complex lesson on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” in under 55 minutes. I can handle 10 minutes of ladling soup into a disposable cup, placing a piece of grilled cheese on a paper plate, and smiling at customers as they wait patiently for free food.
Thankfully, I have moved away from feeling shell-shocked and fearful on a regular basis like I did in late July and early August. I am only now coming to terms with the fact that my old life is dead and gone and will never return to me. Pain is settling in and manifesting in places like my neck, jaw, shoulders, and upper arms. I’m sure the lifting of heavy boxes and scanning and bagging people’s groceries are the physical cause of this outer layer of pain. Whenever I find myself talking about my former life or reliving memories (good and bad), I feel my body shifting to this protective mode so I don’t start crying while I sweep up spilled tomatoes and onion skins off the floor around the vegetable and fruit bins.
I realized that my attachment to my old identity was a way to protect myself from feeling lost in this new skin I am starting to grow. I have no idea what to call myself when people outside of work ask me what I do. And I find myself feeling sad when customers find out I’ve lived here only 3 months and ask what did I do before I came here. I am stuck. Am I a writer? Am I a former English teacher who is on sabbatical? Am I a yoga teacher? Am I an artist/creative person? Am I a crew member at Trader Joe’s? Am I a dead beat (as one customer asked one of my managers when they asked about his former life)? Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? All of these questions swirl around me as I walk my dog down Weaverville’s Main Street or scan a box of Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s and cauliflower rice and cases of wine.
On Halloween, we were encouraged to dress up for work. I didn’t have a costume until the last minute when I decided it would be fun to follow the traditions of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and use humor and love to commemorate my old self. I dressed up as a zombie English teacher, complete with a bruised apple, composition notebook, and a Great Gatsby bag as accessories. I let her come out and play and be seen. I remembered her and remembered how good she was at her job. How she created solid and creative lesson plans and adjusted them according to her students’ various levels and needs. How she listened as a student came to her crying about her boyfriend and her fears of becoming pregnant. How she was yelled at numerous times by frustrated students and angry parents and stood her ground and took the verbals hits and then went home and licked her wounds and ate ice cream in front of the TV. I remembered how she once farted in front of a class of 30 sophomores and ran out of the room straight to the restroom to discover she had food poisoning from the Mexican restaurant she ate at the night before. Then, she came back to class and taught like nothing had happened and finished her day running to the restroom between the five minute bell periods.
I loved her. I still do. I am just not her anymore.
The next day, I decided to put her to rest and give her a beautiful ceremony up in the mountains in a tiny alcove of rhododendrons and Mountain Ash berries. I had bought a bouquet of marigolds, sunflowers, rosemary sprigs, and yellow and purple flowers. I brought it with me on my drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway up to Craggy Gardens, an elevation of over 5,000 feet.
In front of me was a semi-private dead end trail, no more than 20 feet away from the parking lot. There was a circular clearing. I spread out the flowers in a mandala. I said a prayer and thanked Ms. English Teacher for all the years of protection and lessons learned along the way. I sat down and closed my eyes and silently asked myself, “What needs to die and be released?” After a few moments, memories that had been stuck inside of me and that I was having troubles recalling, came flooding forth in a stream of chronological order: from my first days as a student teacher, to my first year as a teacher with her own classroom at a local junior high school, all the way to the old Belleville West campus to the new one right up to the day of my last goodbyes. It was like watching a slide show or a movie where my life flashed before me.
I would gladly share all of those memories, but they are enough to write a book. And who knows? Maybe one day I will. The more important thing is that a wave of bittersweet memories and a twinge of melancholy flooded through my mind and body and came out in the form of silent tears. I cried so much that my lungs heaved and snot dripped out of my nose. I wiped away the tears (and the snot. . .sorry grass) and inhaled deeply and exhaled out of my mouth while my chest shook. Something inside of me had broken and released and all of that tension and pain I had felt for weeks in my jaw, arms, shoulders, neck, and chest dissipated. I could finally breathe in the fresh mountain air and I took it in small gasps until I finally settled into a steady and calm rhythm.
I wiped away a few more tears, straightened my spine, and then asked myself, “What needs to be born inside of me?” Hints of the creative self and the written word came to me. Time in nature and a deep connection to the trees, plants, animals of my youth and the ones in front of me swirled around me. Some sense of teaching and communicating through creativity and movement flowed through my mind and body. Yet, no real answers came. Momentarily I tried to plot out my future, and that’s when the tension started to arise again in my body. I shook my head and settled back into my hips and legs that were connected to the earth. No need to know right now.
The next day, I went to my small writing critique group and got excruciatingly honest reviews of a piece of fiction I’m trying to write. I sat there and listened to the necessary feedback where I have gaps in point of view, too much telling and not enough showing of what the characters are going through, and awkward sentences that take the reader out of the moment (just to name a few critiques). I listened graciously and accepted the feedback (I mean, I did ask for it). I left not feeling defeated, but definitely feeling wounded. This is what it feels like to show off new skin that hasn’t fully formed yet, I thought as I drove back to my apartment.
It was way too soon to show that piece of work or let alone claim myself as solely a writer when I haven’t had enough time to work on old skills and talents that have been dormant for at least 18 years of my adult life. I am capable of teaching what makes a good story, but I’ve never really had time or gave myself a chance to write one. Besides, why only limit my skills to writing? I think I have a lot more creativity inside than just pushing myself to become a published writer and calling myself a “success” so as to justify why I left a comfortable life (even though that life felt like a tight, itchy sweater). I now have time to flex my creative muscles. I have a job that allows me to work my body and calm my mind. One in which as soon as I walk out of the doors I don’t have to think about until I walk back in those doors. I have money from the sale of my house and backup money from investments I made outside of the Teacher’s Retirement System. For now, I am O.K., and I don’t have to put a label on myself at all. And that is O.K. too.
I am like a baby giraffe on roller skates.
One day I will be something else. But for now, the transition can be awkward, messy, funny, strange, sad, scary, and down right mystifying and magical.
I’m working with what the Transcendentalists and Romantics call “mystery”. As Emerson once wrote, “What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within us out into the world, miracles happen.”
It is now a matter of exploring what lies within.