By Marjorie George
I have told this story before, so spoiler alert if you have already heard it.
When I was 38 years old, I went back to college. I had spent my adult working life as a free-lance magazine writer and decided I needed a steady job with a stable income. I would go and teach high school English and journalism.
I had finished only two years of college before getting married (oh, foolish girl) and now – with a husband and two middle-school-aged children – was determined to get my degree and teaching certification. It looked like a long road ahead at the time. And I was not at all sure I could compete in the college-kid arena. But I worked hard, studied harder, pushed through, kept up my determination, made good grades, until I was one semester away from graduation and certification. The end was in sight.
Now, at the time – it may still be this way – the last thing in the teaching curriculum was the student-teaching semester in which we aspiring teachers were put into the classroom with a supervising faculty-member. Usually it was at a local public school.
I was put into an eighth-grade-English classroom. Eighth grade. Thirteen-year-olds.
It was a disaster. I was awful. I was a horrible eighth-grade teacher. The students knew it. And my supervising teacher knew it. And I knew it.
I got my degree and my certification, but I never again stepped foot into a public school classroom. I was not a teacher. Two years, hard-fought years, down the drain. I was numb. I was heart-stricken. I screamed and hollered. What the hell happened?
I went back to free-lance writing and a few years later, I don’t even know why, returned to college again to get my master’s degree in communications. I had no plans to teach, but an opportunity arose for an adjunct professor in the evening division at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I was to teach Freshman Composition. And I did. And I loved it. And my students, who, in the evening division, were generally in their 30s and 40s, were happy. And I learned the importance of audience. I could teach, I just needed more mature students. I stayed at UTSA, happily teaching Freshman Composition, for several years. Some of the best years of my career.
Parker Palmer, in his extraordinary book Let Your Life Speak, talks about “way closing.” As a Quaker, Palmer had heard all his life that when we seek God, “way will open.” But at age 35, his own life seemed to be a series of mis-starts, doors closing, and bad career decisions. He went, one day, to an older Quaker woman known for her wisdom. “’Ruth,’ he said to her, ‘I sit in silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening . . . I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do.’” The old woman’s reply, says Palmer, was a model of Quaker plain-speaking. “’I’m a birthright friend,’ she said somberly, ‘and in sixty-plus years, way has never opened in front of me. But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.’”
When I graduated from college at the age of 40, with my shiny new degree and my hard-won teaching certification, I might have stuck it out in eighth-grade-English classrooms. I might have decided this thing was not going to beat me, that I had paid my dues, that I was entitled, or that if I only worked a little harder, thought a little smarter, I could become a good public school teacher. I might have muscled my way through. But there would have been bodies left behind. Including my own.
That way closing behind me was the pivotal event in my beginning to search for who I really was and what I was really called to do with my life. That closed door forced me to find new paths, to strike out on some new ventures, to notice a tiny little article in the diocesan newspaper that said the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas was looking for a newspaper editor, and to apply for that job. Twenty-five glorious years later, I still cannot believe how blessed I have been.
And that, my friends, I am happily sorry to tell you, is how the Holy Spirit works sometimes. It’s terribly inefficient and often distressing, with the value placed on hindsight. If I doubted that God was with me during the Great Teaching Debacle, I do not doubt it now.
Poor creatures that we are, our current vision is often clouded, our understanding often limited, by our own finite minds. We don’t even know what to pray for, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” Paul reminds us (Romans 8:26). Trusting that, even when we can’t see the way ahead, when nothing is opening and all seems to be closing must be our guide.
Hmmm. I wonder where I learned that. Must have been from a very wise teacher.
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline and Reflections magazine. Reach her at Marjorie.firstname.lastname@example.org. or leave a comment below.
The Spring/summer 2013 issue of Reflections magazine is now online with a focus on the Holy Spirit. Click here to read the entire issue or individual articles.
For your own reflection:
Think back on, and give thanks for, all the closed doors in your life that have brought you to understand that “way will open” sometimes means but only after “way” has closed.