All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I’ve always been a person with big dreams.  I wasn’t just going to be a novelist, I was also going to be a screenwriter, and I was going to win an Academy Award.  None of those things have happened–yet.  But I feel like they could, because I’ve had the ability to Make Stuff Happen for myself.  There’s a bit of good luck involved, but there has also been a lot of work.

The first time was in high school.  I was in Beginner Band, and drudging through dreary scales and dire renditions of “Hot Cross Buns.”  I had a friend who had been playing clarinet since fourth or fifth grade, and she was proficient enough to be in concert band.  She loved music, and she made concert band sound like the height of cool: they played in a concert and people came to watch (okay it was mostly parents, but even so), they played medleys to Phantom of the Opera and Aladdin, which sounded way better than the theme to the Magnificent Seven that we were playing.  After hearing her rhapsodic descriptions, I decided that would one day be me.  I was a freshman at the time, and I would spend sophomore year in Intermediate Band, and graduate to Concert Band by the start of junior year.  Then, for fun, I decided that the concert band would also play a Les Mis melody because that was my recent obsession.

So began a year and a half of hard work.  I borrowed the school flute several times a week and most weekends and played an hour a night.  I found out that I could take instruments home over the summer and did just that, playing on my grandparents’ deck until the neighbors shouted through an acre of woods for me to stop playing.  I bought every piece of sheet music I could.  The next school year I had Intermediate Band for an elective in the fall, and still practiced tirelessly.  I picked up one of the open hole flutes and trained myself on that.  I would have killed for private lessons, but my parents couldn’t afford it, and the honor’s high school I went to didn’t permit time for after school jobs.  In the spring, when I was taking creative writing, I gave up my lunch period to play with the Intermediate Band which fortuitously met at that time.

At the end of the year, it was time to fill out elective forms.  I had to get the band teacher to sign off on concert band, and when I nervously presented him with my slip, he smiled and signed me in.  It was so easy, and my friend Lisa got in too, so I thought he was just letting everyone in.  But our friend Greg was playing saxophone in Intermediate Band, and Mr. Lustig didn’t sign him off.  I realized perhaps this was dint of my hard work.

I spent junior year as a 3rd flute, but I was happy to be there.  By senior year, I had made it up to the first row with my stand mate since the beginning, Joanne.  Mr. Lustig passed out the medley we would be playing for the winter concert, the one which would close out the show.  It was Les Mis.

This may seem like such a small thing, getting into Concert Band in high school.  Don’t band geek jokes abound?  (Although in my high school, which was full of geeks and nerds and all sorts, it was actually semi-cool.  Or at least some cooler kids were in band.)  But to me, it meant the reward for hard work, and how much I could give to something I wanted, and how that moved me towards a goal.  I didn’t know I had so much power.

So when I got to college, and I saw and fell in love with Paris over a weekend my freshman year, I decided I would do a study abroad my junior year, and to justify said study abroad I would add a French major and double major in English and French.  I only learned afterwards that this wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d covered all my English credits, but that information didn’t bother me.  It didn’t matter to me that I had taken Spanish and Latin in high school and only a semester of college French.  I was going to major in French.  Again, I worked as hard as I could.  I skipped over the required Intermediate French II to take a literature course, which was required for the major, and got the signature from the chair of the Foreign Languages Department (it helped that she was my advisor).  My school didn’t have a study abroad program, they partnered with a school in Iowa, Central College.  I had to apply, and nervous though I was, I got accepted.  I arrived in Paris nervous, but prepared to revel in the year abroad I had dreamed of.  I had Paris as a destination since college, but even in high school I wanted to study abroad.  Once in France, I decided that while I tested into Level B at the Sorbonne’s course for international students in the fall, in the spring I was going to jump over Level A to Section Universitaire, which required writing a 20 page paper on French literature.  In French.  And I did it.  I spent a year wandering round Paris with virtually no money, and hours holed up in my unglamorous room at the foyer comparing the depiction of youth in Balzac’s Peau de Chagrin with those in Hugo’s Les Miserables, and I loved every second of it, from writing letters in front of the Fontaine des Medicis in the Luxembourg–it was the turn of the millennium and the internet was nowhere near as pervasive–to frequenting the homme des crepes, as I dubbed him, on the Boulevard Saint Germain just off the Boulevard Saint Michel, to reveling in the stationary department of Galleries Lafayette and the large scale paintings in the Louvre.

My senior year in college I finally decided I wanted to be a teacher…except I hadn’t taken any teaching courses, and I was up to my neck in student loan debt.  I took some admin assistant jobs and hated them, and managed to get myself fired twice in two years (though I had three jobs, in my paltry defense).  Clearly I was going nowhere with that, but I still wanted to be a teacher. I had dreams of one day going back to teach English at the high school I attended, which I paradoxically loved.  On the subway, they had ads for the New York City Teaching Fellows program, and I applied, playing hooky from work one day to finish my application.  Looking back I think that was the final straw when they were considering whether to fire me or not, but it turned out to be a worthwhile move–I was accepted to the program.  I got my Masters in Education for free and spent five exhausting but rewarding years teaching in some of the rougher schools in Manhattan.  I would have stayed on a couple years more, but a job at Townsend Harris opened up, and I seized the day and wrote an application letter, quoting our school’s Ephebic Oath.  They made us take an oath.  It was a weird place.  They called me in for an interview, and then I didn’t hear anything. I thought it wasn’t going to happen, so I left all my teaching materials at my old school and said I tried, and that I would try again.  But in July they called me in to do a sample lesson for some kids who had volunteered to come in.  Over the summer.  And off the back of this, they hired me.  Teaching there was very work intensive, but it was hands down the best job of my entire life.  I would have worked there until I retired if it hadn’t been for love intervening.

I’m bragging about these triumphs, but the thing is, I’m lazy.  Something has been holding me back from completing a novel and sending it off for publication, and I think it’s a combination of procrastination, laziness, and fear.  What if this is the one time I can’t make things happen by sheer force of will and hard work?  What if chance, which has helped me along, fails me?

I think though, this is where my propensity to worry comes in.  Yes, it might not work out, but when I look back and I really tried for something, I got it.  That’s a pretty powerful thing, so why be afraid?

 

Nine months was nothing, they said

I’ve just learned that the NYC Dept of Education, in all their wisdom, decided to cut February break short this year in order to make up for lost instruction time due to Hurricane Sandy.

My first thought is that this is abysmally stupid.  Firstly, in high schools, it just throws things off.  High schools run on semesters, and teachers plan accordingly.  Getting days in February will not help cover material needed for the January regents.  In my own classroom, this would have given the kids three more days on Things Fall Apart, but we still would have lost major time in the heroes unit that I do in November as a prequel to the Odyssey.  Also, I’m sure those days could have been found elsewhere.  Plus, I’ve missed at least two days out of the schoolyear several times before, and no one’s had to make up the days.  I’m mad on behalf of all my fellow teachers and all my students that they’re being punished for something they couldn’t control.

I’m mad because I know if it had been me, I would have been gutted.  I almost always used that February break to visit friends in England.  Over this past year, I used it to visit my fiance.

This takes me back to the time when I was embroiled in trying to make the decision of what to do.  When MR and I got engaged, we blithely assumed that it would be no problem to live together in either country, so long as we were married.  Arguably, it’s one of the reasons we moved so fast, although we can never know what might have happened if I was an English girl.  It turns out that we were only half right.  The UK would let us stay together, but the US was much more complicated.  If we wanted to live there together, we had to get married there.  To get married there, we needed to apply for a fiance visa, which would be given at an indeterminate date, taking up to seven months to process.  Once issued, we would have had to get married within 90 days.  Try planning a big wedding under those parameters.  It’s impossible.

Several people suggested the City Hall option, but that wasn’t an option for me.  I know a couple who were in our position–he’s Irish, she’s American, and that’s what they did.  She described her sudden City Hall wedding as an adventure, and I can absolutely see the appeal.  But it wasn’t for me.  I was one of those girls who had planned her wedding from when she was small, and I wasn’t about to give up on that once I had finally found the guy.  Plus, by the time we found this out we had already paid deposits and started planning our wedding in England.  I already had the big white dress with a train that was begging for a church aisle.  And I’m admittedly religious.  Not crazy evangelical or anything, but having a church wedding was really important to me.  And to MR–although he’s not religious, the pomp and circumstance appealed to him, much moreso than a clandestine city hall celebration.

We went to a lawyer, and she told us that if we got married in the UK, he would have to apply from there for entry, and that process could take nine months.  Nine months.  First, it would take four to five months to approve our marriage and decide that we actually did want to be together, and then it would take an additional four to five months to get his green card.  To add to that, during that time he might not be able to visit me.  UK visitors enter the US on a visa waiver program, but of course MR would be trying to waive his need for a visa while simultaneously applying for a visa.  In a post 9/11 world, such information comes up on the border control’s computers, and depending on which border guard he got and what mood they were in (95% chance of surly bordering on scary–nobody ever smiles at me at US customs), he could either be let through or put on the next flight back to the UK.

When we found this out we tried every possible permutation of how to get around this.  We asked every question.  People were constantly suggesting things to me–what if he got a student visa? (No, you can’t have dual intent with a student visa.)  What if he came in through Canada?  All of these were complex and none of them were really helpful. I myself tried to get a leave from the Department of Education for a semester to shorten the length of time we were apart and was given a resounding no.  Thanks, Dept. of Ed.  I can see you appreciate my years of loyal service.

After a couple of months of hemming and hawing, it became apparent that we had only two choices: either I give up my job, my car (I had a gorgeous BMW which I got by luck and some very nice friends), my apartment, my life, and move to England, or we spend the first nine months of our marriage apart, that I get married and go on honeymoon, and then fly back alone.

People were shocked that I might even consider the second option.  While the school secretaries were very kindly helping me with paperwork and scheduling meetings, I remember them saying “You have to think about this, honey.  Nine months is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to a lifetime.  You don’t want to give up a good job.”

It was true.  My job was pretty fabulous–I was teaching some of the brightest, nicest, funniest kids in the city.  I had great colleagues.  I even advised a program called TDF Open Doors which took kids to Broadway shows for free, because according to playwright Wendy Wasserstein, theater is every New Yorker’s birthright.  As the advisor, I got to go along.  For free.  To see Broadway shows which I would have shelled out hundreds for, and happily.  I was teaching creative writing, which was enormously fulfilling.

But we had already done eight months apart and it felt like an eternity.  Yes, I loved my job, but it didn’t compensate for how much I missed him.  That was a pang that was with me daily.  People said to me at least I had Skype, but I knew that.  We were already using every app available to us–Skype, email, What’sApp, gchat.  I will tell you this–nothing electronic can ever compensate for being with someone.  I didn’t know how much longer I could carry on.  Nine months didn’t seem like nothing.  In fact, the time frame seemed particularly significant when it came to being with my husband.  In nine months, I could gestate a baby.  And that started me thinking–I’m in my 30’s and just getting married.  What about having kids?  I knew I wanted them.  Three in an ideal world.  Would those nine months be crucial to the planning of my family?  Then I thought of getting pregnant during one of the few chances we’d have to see each other and doing it all on my own.  Not having anyone there for the baby’s first kick.  Not having anyone there to put together a crib or choose a carseat.  Not having anyone, and yet knowing there was someone who should be there, who would be, were it not for some really stupid immigration laws.

Well.  If you’ve been reading this blog, you know what we decided.  I’m sitting on a couch in Birmingham, typing away.  I won’t pretend it’s been an easy decision.  I miss New York a lot.  I miss my family.  I really want to go out for dinner and drinks with my friends.  I miss my students–the kids I saw enter as freshmen when I started teaching at THHS are graduating this year, and I would give anything to be there.

But when I see this news, that one of my few chances to see my husband would have been snatched from me, I feel the echo of the helpless ache I would have if I had stayed.  When even the thought of something that’s never going to happen causes me that much pain, I know I made the right choice.  Marius Pontmercy, indeed all of Victor Hugo’s characters, taught me well.  I have always been prepared to make big sacrifices for love.  I was so ready that when I was younger I left a world behind to go and live in North Carolina.  When that relationship failed, I thought it meant that I had been stupid to do that.  Indeed, when I got into this relationship at first, I vowed I wouldn’t move for him, that he would have to move for me.  My friend said, “It doesn’t work like that.  You have to be willing to do for him what he would do for you,” and I realized he was right.

Now I see that failed relationship wasn’t proof of my idiocy.  It was training wheels, to show me what such a sacrifice meant.  And it’s made this leap a lot easier.  This time, I have a real partnership, someone who loves me as much as I love him, and we are happy.  I miss home, but I’m building a new life here and making another home.  Now I know this for certain: I miss New York terribly, but not half as much as I would miss him if I were still there.