#walkmyworld: Identity

For this past week’s #walkmyworld, I spent a long time thinking about various possibilities and events for sharing. I’ve been many different people over the course of becoming the professor I am today, but I’ve thought of myself as a teacher for many years. My first teaching gig was as a teenager, when I taught horseback riding. When I abandoned my original graduate school plans to study education policy — by writing an undergrad thesis, I had learned exactly how much I disliked reading and writing that kind of research — I went with something that felt plausible, comfortable, familiar. I decided to become an English teacher.

harvest-manipIt sounds too easy when I tell the story like that, though.

One thing I’ve found is that there’s very few people have easy, straightforward career stories. In the midst of this unrelenting winter, my methods students have been interviewing for their full-year certification internships. As they jump into planning their own careers as teachers, I can see the tension rising. They’re seniors, soon to be graduate students, and they want to know that their plans will resolve into solidity, too, eventually. So, I’ve been trying to talk through my own life more often. It’s complicated, even in hindsight, and I have to laugh at myself.

I wanted to be a teacher, but the path of my life was almost entirely set by boys. No, really. I don’t like to admit that, but Ian wanted surprising facts, so there’s mine.

The first year I taught, I was the William Penn teaching fellow at William Penn’s original elementary school just outside of London, England. Each year, they hire a graduate of a Pennsylvania Quaker college to come to the school to teach in her specialty area and “serve as a representative of American culture,” and it was one of the best and most intense experiences that I’ve ever had. (I often called myself the school’s “pet American” and when I did return to the States, I came back with a strong English accent and a serious phobia related to writing the date on the board. I’ve been back for 15 years and I still often have to think about the order of the numbers.) But I got there because of a nasty split with a friend. We were going to live together and student teach in Philadelphia, and then we weren’t, and it broke me, and I started applying for jobs in places that were as far away as possible. I was lucky enough to finally turn up in Essex.

When I got to England, I found that even halfway around the world wasn’t far enough. Every time I listened to myself, I heard things that we’d thought about together. Going far away taught me exactly how tied I would always be to my old friends, family, lovers, places, times. Like the old clichéd saying goes: Wherever you go, there you are. You can try to graft yourself into a new place and culture, but the past remains.

I started writing this poem that year, and reworked it (again — it’s seen a lot of periodic revision) this week. For a visual component, I chose a photo that I took this past spring, largely because I like the knobby, steady black of the magnolia branches. They aren’t grafted like the poem’s tree, but they look like they could be. I ran the photo through Tangent, a new-to-me IOS photo editor app, looking for possibilities. When I found the triangle hexes, I liked the way that the grid imposes rigid structure (like I tried to do when I left the country), but the clouds and trees interrupt the pattern with their own natural logic. Finally, I added the bits of handwriting using Adobe Ideas, another IOS image editor. Here’s the poem – enjoy!


When mapleleaves glow red, I will write you
to know myself; I will write us to uncover
your roots, grafted neatly into mine.

You scarred me lovingly – wrote
long scions into the curve of my trachea
for remembrance, bound the wound tightly
and waited. My throat aches each time I speak

the syllables you embroidered through
my language, and I want to know if you feel
identical pangs where I marked you

with soil and blood and grammar.
I used to think I lived alone within my skin,
but I cannot write without finding you curled
there, leafing out within my sentences.

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