Monday, August 24, 2009

"The Road Not Taken": decisions, decisions

I’ve done all sorts of crazy things in my life, but at the time they made perfect sense, probably because I was enthralled by the prospect of doing something “different” from everybody else. In hindsight, I question the practicality of two decisions in particular because in the end they turned out to be life altering. Today I'll explore the first of those decisions.

In the spring of 2003, I was teaching English and French at an all-boys catholic high school on Chicago’s north side. I’d been there for three years and prior to that had taught summer school there for seven years. Overall I’d been happy, mostly with the amazing students I was fortunate enough to teach, and it was where I met a teacher who, to this day, is one of my very best friends. 

When it came time to sign my contract for the following school year, I had a meeting with my principal (a genuine prince of a leader--the best I’ve ever had) during which he informed me that the board had decided to shrink the World Language program due to lower student enrollment, which meant that I would no longer be teaching my two French I classes. Instead, I would be a full-time English teacher once again.

I couldn’t blame my principal, whom I will call Joe, for taking away the two brightest parts of my day; budgets are budgets, and I was fairly certain that his decision had nothing to do with my performance. But still I had the nagging feeling that something would be missing from my life if I would not be able to speak French for those two forty-three minute blocks every day. 

It didn’t take me long to confront Joe about my reservations. In fact I think I went to him the very next day and simply said, “Joe, I really think I want to continue teaching French, so if I can’t do that here, I’ll probably go elsewhere.”

And so it began. The first of two ill-fated decisions that were made more than impetuously. Within a day or so there developed in my head the crazy idea not to merely teach French but to move to France for a year or so, with the intention of working as an au pair while perhaps also studying there. Yes, it was a pretty stupid idea for a thirty year-old single woman to uproot her fairly stable life in exchange for an au pair’s position that paid close to nothing in a foreign country thousands of miles away. 

My family immediately had mixed reactions: I heard everything from, “Wow! You go, girl!” to “Where will you store all of your furniture?” and “How will you pay all your bills?”

Some very good questions, all of them, but I ignored each and every one. I was in the throes of a startling epiphany--a voice of sorts in my head--that could not be quieted. I was moving to France for ten months. Period. I would be living with a family, taking care of their beautiful children, taking long, leisurely strolls down the Champs-Elysées, casually chatting in French with the new fascinating friends I was bound to meet. 

This is the romantic fantasy I'd conjured in my head as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy I was determined to see through. Sadly, my jaunt in France left a little something to be desired.

To be fair, my time in France did include a little bit of that fantasy. After all, I was able to study there and take a stunning road trip to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches. Other than that, the fantasy fell pretty flat because in planning this escapade I did not factor in the possibility that I might be completely and utterly miserable. I did not consider the possibility that the famille d’accueil might be more dysfunctional than my own; I didn’t consider the possibility that the children might take to making bowel movements at the dinner table while rocking themselves back and forth in their chairs like an overloaded washing machine. I failed to consider the possibility that the family would impose upon me a teenager’s curfew of 9:00 PM on weekends; worst of all, I never thought the parents would request that I speak only English to their children, thereby negating the whole purpose of my mission: to be able to speak more French!

There’s much more to this story that I’ll share at another time. The upshot, though, is simply that I embarked on such a serious pursuit absurdly naive to its consequences. Do I regret having done it? Absolutely not. But I do wish I had done it differently so that I might have been able to pay my bills while I was there, communicate more effectively with the famille d’accueil so that I didn’t grow sick at the sight of them, and continue the insurance coverage I’d had with my former employer. If I’d acted like a grown up, I could have lived like one while I was abroad. Instead, I acted like a broad who needed to grow up.

When I returned from France in the winter of 2003, six months earlier than I’d planned, I was in a state of ecstasy, not over the glorious time I’d had while I was away, but because I was surrounded by my family again. The ecstasy soon faded and I sank into a deep depression over what I would do next in my life. Because I’d returned over Christmas, I wasn’t able to secure a full-time teaching position like I could have if I’d come back in the summer as originally planned. So I did the next best thing: I subbed and worked part time at a learning center. 

I was living with my parents, and that did not go well. I felt like a loser and technically I was when you consider what I gave up to take that stupid trip. I gave up a rewarding career (which is what it was for me at the time, I guess), I gave up solid benefits, my apartment, my family, my boyfriend (who waited for me, thank God!), and I gave up my dignity. A lot has happened since then, some good, some tragic, but once again I find myself searching for something to do with my life.

Who knows? Maybe this is it.

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