Identity Crisis

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I’ve recently embarked on a 100 Day Project of writing six word stories. I’ve written six word stories before, but they’ve been exclusively about my school life, only written on school days. This time, I’m not sticking just to school, partly because of this piece I’ve been working on for nearly two years. I think it’s finally in a place where it can be published. I think.

I’m not entirely sure who I am anymore.

My social media bios and my website here succinctly declare: Teacher. Writer. Musician. Yet I am not sure that any of those monikers are correct.

Perhaps it’s a mid-life crisis I’m feeling, this unsettled mush of being unsure of what I want to be when I grow up. I fell into teaching a bit by accident, and it’s worked out wonderfully. But the times they are a-changin’, and I don’t know how many more years I have left in me. So while I’m still teaching, my most recent attempt at a book has stalled out multiple times and I no longer teach piano lessons. One out of three ain’t bad?

I’m left with this dilemma: if I’m not a teacher, writer, or musician, what am I?

And I’m not talking about how will I pay for my lifestyle–I’m fairly resourceful and I think I know enough people who could help me figure out private sector options if needed. No, I’m talking about who am I, if not a teacher?

This is a question I’ve been wrestling with, and most of time, I shove it to the far corner of my brain. But then I read a piece from the Harvard Business Review about the relationship between careers and identity.

Some of the article doesn’t apply to teaching because, well, no matter how many hours I work or service I provide to the school and district, I’m not ever bringing in a six-figure salary. But then, near the end of the article, these questions:

How much do you think about your job outside of the office?
Is your mind frequently consumed with work-related thoughts?
Is it difficult to participate in conversations with others that are not about your work?

How do you describe yourself?
How much of this description is tied up in your job, title, or company?
Are there any other ways you would describe yourself? How quickly do you tell people you’ve just met about your job?

Where do you spend most of your time?
Has anyone ever complained to you that you are in the office too much?

Do you have hobbies outside of work that do not directly involve your work-related skills and abilities? Are you able to consistently spend your time exercising other parts of your brain?

How would you feel if you could no longer continue in your profession?
How distressing would this be to you?

Reading these questions, I realized my identity is 100% wrapped up in “teacher,” and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Because I think I am–and I want to be–more than my job. And there’s never been a more acute time where figuring out what that entails.

I very well might keep teaching at my current school until I meet the Rule of 85 (nine more years) and can retire. I enjoy the content I teach, I enjoy my colleagues, and I enjoy my students. But what happens if one of those legs falls out from under me, and it’s time for something new?

A friend asked me the other day what my summer plans were. Other than a quick trip to D.C., I have no concrete plans, and usually I do. I’ve been thinking about summer ever since, and the beginnings of a plan are taking shape. Rest and read–obviously–and find one or two activities that I like to do, that I want to do. My summer’s goal is to start creating a life that doesn’t fall apart when I’m no longer teaching, and might actually grow into something far beyond the limitations that come with creating a life based on a career.

Will writing and music be part of that? I’m sure it will be; I don’t think those parts of me will ever go away. But I’m feeling a pull toward looking for more, and I think I’m ready to figure out what “more” looks like.

“How does this change how you see yourself?”

“Friendly reminder: we are Ukrainian. Our great-grandparents left Ukraine in 1906.”

I sent that text to my sisters the night that the Russian military invaded Ukraine, and I’ve felt heavy ever since.

As a child of the Cold War, I always lumped the citizens of the entire Soviet bloc into one category: Russians. While I always referred to our great-grandparents as Russian Jews, the far recesses of my brain would simultaneously process “Kiev” when I would say it.

I double checked a couple of nights ago, looked again at my great-grandfather’s naturalization record. His place of birth listed on the form? Kiev, Russia.

Except not Russia. Ukraine. 

I know so many scattered stories and histories of the various branches of my family tree, but a lifetime of conflating Russia and its collection of now-sovereign states as one has created a giant hole in that narrative.

I do not descend from Russian Jews, I descend from Ukrainian Jews.

I watch Finding Your Roots every week, and when the host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shares his findings with the celebrity guests, he often asks them, “how does this change how you see yourself?”

I’m feeling that question this week, deeply. How does it change how I see myself, how I feel about current events, to remember my great-grandfather was a Ukrainian Jew, not a Russian Jew? 

From what I’ve seen on the news this past week, it makes me feel a deep sense of solidarity with the Ukrainians in part because of my love of democracy. But I also feel deep sadness and fear, because they are, in part, my people. 

In times of crisis, people often want to find ways to help. Here’s a couple of ways to help, if you’re feeling so inclined:

World Central Kitchen: Jose Andres is at the Ukraine-Poland border, providing meals to refugees.

UN Refugee Agency: Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively are matching up to $1 million in donations.

International Committee of the Red Cross: Always a reliable group to send funds to.

January 26

113 years ago today, my great grandparents Joseph James Reginald Rowse and Jetta Butterfield married.

88 years ago today, my Gramps, Jack Rowse, married my Nana, Doris Wangsgaard.

And 50 years ago today, my dad and mom got married.

For the few guys who broached the topic of marriage with me, the one non-negotiable was a January 26 wedding date. I didn’t care if it was a Wednesday, that was the date I wanted. Because, you know…

I remember my Nana and Gramps’ 50th anniversary—we drove from Omaha to Phoenix for a huge reception, and as long as we were that far west, I am pretty sure we snuck in a trip to Disneyland too. 

When the coronavirus pandemic started in March 2020, I’m not sure any of my siblings imagined that we wouldn’t be able to do some kind of equal celebration for my parents’ 50th. Surely things would be back to normal in time for us to plan a reception for them.

Oh, the hubris of the young.

But here we are, coming off a surge from the latest variant of a virus that is definitely showing the world who’s boss, and tomorrow (and the weekend) will come and go without much fanfare about my parents’ marriage.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to fathom that my parents have been married for 50 years, because I sure don’t feel old enough to have parents who’ve been married for 50 years. I can’t imagine every day was a picnic, between moving all over the U.S. for the first 25 years, raising two fairly difficult children (at least the two Angel Children made up for it), cancer, demanding jobs and church responsibilities, and just the demands of everyday life. 

For good measure, toss in a broken neck and spinal cord injury. You know, just to keep things interesting.

My parents’ marriage taught me the importance of showing up for people you love. Showing up when tired, when sick, when irritated, when happy, when fulfilled. They taught me about the importance of the small details that lead to a longer game, and how to “enjoy the journey.”

I wish we could throw them a huge party, or at the very least take them to dinner tonight. But I’m sure they know, as a couple that have been married for 50 years, that most things can actually wait. We’ll grab dinner soon. My treat.

Happy Anniversary, mom and dad. I love you both.

January Appointment TV

Sometime last year I decided I was going to watch every episode of Guy’s Grocery Games. I love the show, though it always makes me hungry and envious of people with cooking skills, and I enjoyed spending mindless hours with Triple G on my TV.

As someone who teaches Popular Culture, I feel like I have an academic responsibility to at the very least read about whatever television programs are in the ether. If I really want credibility with my students, I need to watch them.

So I needed to make a break from Guy Fieri and started scheduling purposeful television. Every Sunday, I look at my schedule and I pick one episode of a TV show to watch for every day of the week.

(Except lately, to cope with well, everything, I have been watching 3-4 episodes of New Girl a day, and as of publication time, I have four more episodes before I finish the whole series.)

Here’s what I’ve been watching lately. The common thread in the first three shows? They are released weekly so unless I fall behind, I can’t watch the entire slate in one sitting.

The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+): This is the latest in the Star Wars franchise, and it is a bit over my head in terms of “canon” and “understanding what is going on.” But I always like my preconceived notions about people—real and fictional—getting blown up a bit, and so far, this series delivers.  That’s all I will say to avoid spoilers. 

Finding Your Roots (PBS): I’ve been a fan of this show for years and the latest season just launched. In my own genealogical research, I’m much more interested in the stories behind the names, and this show focuses on exactly that. Some weeks the stories are tame, and some weeks the stories are wild, but I’m always reminded of how my current life is affected by generations who came before me. 

Abbott Elementary (ABC/Hulu): This is a new show on ABC that I caught the first two episodes on Hulu, and didn’t want to wait a day to see episode three so I actually tuned in at 8 p.m. on Tuesday to watch it live, as in times of yore. It’s a sitcom in the style of The Office and Parks and Rec, but in an elementary school. It is the first show about public education that doesn’t make me want to throw things; instead I am amazed at how much the writers are getting *right* about teaching. 

Queer Eye (Netflix): The latest season dropped over winter break, and instead of binging it in a day, I’m reserving it for Monday nights, one episode at a time. The men on the show are life-affirming and loving, a departure from the cattiness of the show’s early-aughts. It’s a nice way to start off my week.

Creating my own TV schedule has been a helpful coping mechanism with the current malaise. It’s given me something to look forward to during the day, and it’s also ensured that I don’t really fall down a bingey rabbit hole. What else should I add to my list?

Semester Classes

Except for my newspaper class, I teach all semester classes. Which means the past two days have been a repeat of August for me: meeting over 130 new students, going over policies, procedures, and setting up needed technology for my classes.

And the August nerves are always there, too. I loved my classes last semester—what if this semester’s classes aren’t as fun? What if they don’t like the course content? What if my usual classroom management and general demeanor doesn’t work with them like it did last semester?

Then I think about a very important lesson I learned as a 12 year-old military kid. We had a 10-month assignment in Montgomery, Alabama for my dad to go to a command school. We knew going in we’d only be there a short time, with no option to extend at that base. What kinds of friends and connections could I make in ten months’ time?

Turns out, quite a few. Because when we left Montgomery, I was a wreck. And I was again when I left Nebraska, and again Montana, and everywhere I have lived since—I have found things to love about the place forced upon me and was monumentally sad to leave. 

Shout out to all my Enneagram 4s. Anyway.

I’m learning a similar pattern the longer I teach semester classes. Every semester is different, and I find myself thinking at the end of every semester, “No way can the next one be as good,” only to learn that it can, and sometimes the new semester is even better.

Two days into the new semester and I can genuinely say that I think I’m going to have a blast. And I hope my students do too. At least one student in every class so far has made me laugh, which is always a good sign. 

One of the “first day” activities I do with my classes is have them submit five things I can expect from them as students, and five things they expect from me as a teacher. Their responses are sometimes heartfelt, sometimes funny, and always hopeful.

The world feels like a dumpster fire most days, but I try my best to not get drawn up in the fray too often and focus on this: I’m lucky to teach the courses I teach and have the students I have. Every semester, every year.

And I will try to remember this in mid-April when we are all just DONE with ALL OF IT.