Lessons from a Broken Toe

I didn’t make the connections at first. I just knew it hurt. A lot. As I sprawled in agony on my just-made bed, my first thought was, “How in the world am I going to get to work today?” My second thought was to curse the large box of books at the end of my bed. The one I had just crashed into barefoot. The one full of magnificent books I have been meaning to read for a long time but just haven’t gotten to because, you know, I have to go to work. And then the thought came, “I have to go to work today because I have that meeting at 10:00 to go over my contract.” The contract I intend to sign in order to work three more years. Three more years in which I probably won’t get to read those magnificent books. You see where this is going…

On most days, I enjoy my job. I like the dedicated educators I work with. I love the students I work with and enjoy the detective work I do trying to decipher their learning issues, figuring out ways their parents and teachers can help them succeed. I love my little office with its twinkle lights, beachy art, and electric kettle where I brew my morning tea. I especially love when children I’ve worked with over the years stop by to give me a hug or visit with me and my crazy-haired stuffed-toy penguin. But let’s face it, I spend most of my time writing reports full of numbers and attending meetings where I talk about numbers, and reading other people’s reports full of stiff language and more numbers. I try really hard to remember that though I have to include those numbers in my reports, my real job is to tell each child’s story. Who is this quirky kid? What do they love? If they could do anything in the world, what would it be? That’s the part that gets me up each morning. That’s the part that makes me consider signing a new three-year contract on the morning I’ve just destroyed my toe.

My mother was a teacher. My father was a teacher. For both of them, choices were limited right after WWII. At the little college where they attended and met, and thus allowed me to come into being, my dad says the choices for the boys were to be a preacher or a teacher. He had no desire to preach. If he couldn’t run away with the circus, he at least wanted to have a farm, but spots at the big school, Ohio State University, to study agriculture were allotted to returning vets, and though he and his friend offered to live in a chicken coop they had built in woodshop, they had to choose a different path. My mother had even fewer options. I went into education also at the urging of my father who was concerned about my future, but my heart has always belonged to stories, poems, the creative life. I think my mother’s did too.

Though I loved working with my students in the classroom, all my creative energies went there. When I had children of my own, that also required enormous amounts of creative energy. But though I love being a creative educator and creative mother, those roles have never been enough for me. I have to write. I have to photograph. I have to live in wonder.

In recent years, I’ve made conscious choices to follow my dreams. I’ve taken the leap into writing seriously and finding homes for my work. I’ve won awards. I’ve completed my MFA. I’ve set goals in motion with a five-year plan. So why did I quaver on that morning of the new contract? Why did my rushing around to get to work lead me painfully into a box of books I had not yet read? Why do I not feel the same joy at my computer at work that I feel when I sit down to start a new poem or picture book or novel? Why does sitting in yet another meeting not provide the same rush as reading my work  in front of an audience or leading a discussion about poetry and art in our everyday lives?

A few years ago, I read a book called Whistle While You WorkThe authors, Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, included an activity in which you were to identify from a list :

  • Things that fit your gifts and talents
  • Things you are not sure if they apply
  • Things that don’t feel like you at all

Here’s my top five: writing things, exploring the way, shaping environments, seeing possibilities, adding humor

Here’s my bottom five: solving problems, analyzing info, doing the numbers, resolving disputes, fixing things

I think that morning my toe and that box of books had something important to say to me.

I’m walking more slowly now and looking carefully at what lies ahead. I signed the contract, but I’m also gazing forward to what comes next. And I intend to focus on getting more of list #1 in my life and much less of list #3. I have more options than my parents. My daughters will have more than me. But one of the best gifts I can give myself this Mother’s Day, and one I can give my daughters, as well, is to live an authentic life, to not always take the expected path, to not settle for what is, to live in wonder and gratitude, and to always be imagining the possibilities of  what can be. 

6 Responses to “Lessons from a Broken Toe”

  1. Amy Coombs says:

    A beautiful, heartfelt essay. No doubt your daughters are gifting you with living their authentic lives. I can’t wait to read what you write next for the children you care so much about.

  2. Donna Jenkins says:

    Delightful reading and wonderful insight,Cathy! Your mom would be so proud of what you have accomplished.

  3. Sally Stanton says:

    So inspiring, Cathy. I have thoughts like this, too, even though I love my job.

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