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Searching for another life

When I left university I worked in a completely different field, in New York, in a costume and textile gallery on Madison Avenue.  Although I hated that world of antiques and posh people and snobbery, I really liked New York.  I took off from there and went travelling in Asia, and got more interested in development issues, I suppose.  Then one day I was doing this Spanish class, and met these teaching assistants doing their bilingual teaching qualifications.  I thought that sounded great, because I’d been searching for a job or a career where I could make a real contribution to a community, and work in development but doing something a bit more hands on.  And I just decided that I wanted to be a Spanish bilingual kindergarten teacher – but I didn’t really speak Spanish and I wasn’t a teacher, so it was a long plan.  I signed up to do a Spanish class in El Salvador and went down there for a month, but I travelled over land, down through Guatemala and Mexico.  I really liked it and decided to stay in that area, and ended up doing some voluntary work in Guatemala for about eight months. 

I decided that I wanted to do something very practical, something that I could do here in England or in America or travel with, and teaching really works for that.  I worked in Oakland for a year and then San Francisco for a year as a Spanish bilingual kindergarten teacher.  It was amazing, absolutely fantastic.  The first year was very hard because I was at a very difficult school, and I was commuting and job sharing and studying at the same time.  But then the second and third years I worked at another school and just absolutely loved it.

It took me a long time to consciously choose what I wanted to do.  I’d never really had an ambition before.  When I was growing up I’d never had an ambition to either be this or that and I’d never really thought of being a teacher, and I’d decided in this very abstract way ‘I want to be a teacher’, without really having any experience with children, or anything else.  I just went and did it eventually; it took quite a long time to get there.  But I really did love it, so it’s strange that you can have that happen.

However, even though I was in America for nearly eight years, I never felt that I’d put down roots there.  I had lots of friends, but still felt slightly dislocated… Lots of my friends were immigrants from South America, and I saw them all put down roots, and I saw all the people that worked around me at one point or another just stay.  And I could never quite work out how it happened, why it happened to them but never really happened to me.  Somehow I always kept myself slightly detachable.  Every big purchase I made in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘will I take this with me?… I just never quite let go of this English thing.  It was a really strange experience because I loved my job, loved where I lived and felt at home there, loved being in San Francisco and yet it wasn’t my life, it was a life I wanted to have. I was teaching in a language that wasn’t my own, living in a community that was immigrants – most of my friends and my boyfriend were from South America.  I was part of a community but I’d adopted another life that wasn’t an organic thing from my own history.  I’d just gone somewhere and found it.

Also, America’s a really weird and scary place.  And thinking about the future, I thought about the politics, and the consumption and certain things really started to get to me – the amount of waste, consumerism, and environmental stuff. The car culture, all of that.  I was at that point in my life where I’m not an idealist, in that I want to go out and tell other people how to live their lives, but I do want to live by my own principles.  I want to have lived by my own principles and let it affect those in my immediate community by practice and doing, not telling.  So I thought I’ll give it a go back in England, and that’s what I did – quite a big thing for me really.

When I came back to England from America I was depressed for at least a year or more.  I hated it, but I was determined to stick it out.  At first, I lived in London, worked in primary schools and was really miserable.  For about a year I used to wake up every morning and cry for half an hour before going to work.  I had to grit my teeth and say right, that’s it, go to work now, stop being so self-indulgent.  At the end of that year they offered me another job but I didn’t want to be in London.  Instead, I had this image in my head of this little cosy life in Oxford and how nice it was going to be, teaching in a little school, teaching about hedgehogs and foxes and being close to my family, and having my own family and a house.  So I did other things for a term and then got a job in Oxford.  From then it’s been a lot easier. 

I worked in one little school teaching Reception class, and that was very nice, but it was a Church of England school and a bit too middle-class for me.  On the first day of the first term I had reception, five year olds, and I was doing the lunch time register.  It was packed lunch for school dinner, and I was asking if they were meat eaters or vegetarian. This little kid put his hand up, a really nice kid, and said ‘I eat meat at home but Mummy says I’m only allowed to eat organic meat, so at school I have to be a vegetarian’.  I thought, ‘welcome to East Oxford!’  Also, the job there was only two terms, and I wanted a permanent job.  So I moved to another school which offered me a permanent position, and which is a bit more mixed about, a bit more ordinary.  I really like it.

I believe teach what you’re interested in as much as you can, because it’s a lot more valuable.  Being able to balance curriculum based teaching with personal interests… that’s why I want to be a teacher, to influence young minds (as long as you do everything else as well).  I once had a discussion at work with a teacher about the Queen Mother and her birthday. She was saying we really ought to do something on that, and I said ‘why?’  She said ‘because that’s the sort of thing we should be teaching’. And I said ‘no, I became a teacher because I don’t want to teach about the Queen Mother’.  It’s meaningless to me, and I don’t feel I have a social responsibility to teach these kids, half of whom are of Bengali or Pakistani origin, about the Royal Family.  I don’t think it’s a worthwhile institution so I’m not going to teach about it.  She seemed to think that a teacher has a responsibility to teach about that.  Maybe she’s right, or maybe I’m right; maybe none of us are right.  I used to go on demonstrations, and campaigns, and do political work.  But ever since becoming a teacher that is my political work, my social work, my contribution to society, and I do feel like it’s a lot.  I’ve found that I don’t want to go out and help a little old lady down the street.  I think I’ve reached that point where now I differentiate… I have different sections of my life, and now helping people has become much more of a job.

I have good days and bad days, wonderful children and irritating children; it doesn’t ever change in that sense… I think I’m probably struggling a little bit more this year because I’m breathless, literally [what with being pregnant].  There are still some fantastic kids.  Every day, class, child, family is different; it’s incredible the diversity you get, and the characters and discussions.  I sat with two little girls at lunchtime today and they were having a bit of an argument.  One little girl said to the other, ‘so, do you have a Dad or don’t you?’ and she said, ‘no I don’t’.  And I said to her ‘well you probably do have a dad, but he might have gone off somewhere or he might have died’.  And she said ‘no I don’t have a Dad’, really matter of fact – she’s five.  And I said ‘I did have a dad, but he died’.  And she replied ‘well, there is a picture of my Mum and me when I’m a baby and there’s a brown man in the picture, and he might be my Dad’.  So I said, ‘maybe you should ask your Mum some time’.  And she said, ‘yeah, ok’, not really that interested at all.  Both girls were mixed race, and the way they talked about it was so natural and not uptight.  It’s just really nice when you witness those conversations.  It was their topic, not my topic.  She’s just reconciled to the fact that it’s just her, her Mum, her Grandmother, a real matriarchy, and that’s how it works.  There are some good moments, and those are the ones you capture – and they don’t usually come out of a teaching activity.  They don’t come because a child said ‘oh, I learnt how to use a ruler today’, that’s not interesting to me. It’s the other stuff…

The other reason I like working there is because it’s really culturally mixed.  There are a lot of Bengali and Pakistani origin children, Afro-Caribbean, mixed-race, and white.  They do segregate themselves, though, on the playground and in the classroom.  They are just aware of race, even though they’re very young.  It’s a good learning experience for them.  They are aware that they can swear in their own language and know you won’t understand.  But they just do break up along racial lines, which is indicative of the society we live in, in Oxford and in England.  Although we’re very multicultural, if you go back to the family unit or the community, people very much keep to their own ethnic groups.  People will mix in the work place, and in the social world, but when they go home the divide remains.

Sometimes I’ve asked the kids what country they come from, and they say we come from Muslim.  They get very muddled between speaking a language that’s not English, like Urdu, being Muslim, going to the Mosque, having parents who are from Pakistan… they won’t understand that one’s a country, the other’s a language and the other’s a religion.  But maybe that’s a natural thing for that age group.  They just get really muddled.  They know they go to the Mosque, they know they worship Allah, some of them know how to pray, and they will show you, but they get really muddled… they are a real culture in transition.

I have done TEFL teaching adults, and I have taught in summer schools with teenagers, but I’ve never wanted to teach older pupils.  They were Korean, Polish, Italian, and discipline wasn’t a problem, but I just found the general attitude annoying, a bit bratty.  And the children that you get who can afford to come over here to learn English are the kind of children who are from fairly well off families, so I wasn’t that interested in teaching them anyway, just so they could get a better job in business when they’re older.  Actually, having said that, you can have some interesting conversations with them, and also you can get into more interesting stuff. The intellectual level of my teaching is very basic.  My mom always said, ‘you’re going to get bored of teaching after a few years, it’s not stimulating enough for you, it’s not intellectual enough for you’, thinking that I’m this great intellectual.  And actually, I did a degree, and I did a Masters, and they were possibly the most boring things I’ve ever done.  In terms of my life experience, they are the things I would value the least.  I’m not this great intellectual who’s interested in these philosophical abstract ideas, I’d much rather ruminate on why this child kicked that child, how I got them to make friends, the dynamics of the class, or how I could make a Divali lesson interesting… all the time, you are problem solving in your head, and with teaching you are fully absorbed in daily this that and the other.  You don’t have time to think about the meaning of life, which is just far too abstract for me. 

I like learning to do things practically.  For example, last year I took a carpentry class, which I really liked.  I really liked learning to speak Spanish.  I like learning things that I can use and apply.  But I’m not really interested in abstract theories and things like that, academic knowledge, things that I can’t really use in a practical context.

I know this sounds really boring, but I wish I was more knowledgeable with things like curriculum and teaching methodology… I’d love to know that I would continue to develop as a good teacher, and I’m not sure that I am anymore… But, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with it.  Even if you do crack the curriculum, in terms of everything being very smooth – even if you do crack that side of things you are still always going to have little personalities popping out all over the place, and other things to do.  When I first started I found it frustrating that to be the perfect teacher you have to have things in place – at the end of each day there was always something I hadn’t done.  But now I close the door and say that’s that, and there’s always tomorrow.  You just have to get used to that sense of not finishing everything, not everything will be perfect; it’s all just a work in progress really.   My expectations have changed, for the good.  Although I do think sometimes I might have been a better teacher when I started than the one I am now, because I was so dedicated, keen and completely committed.  And I felt that the teachers that I worked with were as well.  I do think people in England see it as more of a job than a calling.  You don’t get those incredible teachers who you totally revere.  I haven’t really met any in England, and I used to think that a lot in the States.  Maybe I’ve changed, or maybe the nature of teaching has changed.  I do think people are more matter of fact here, less inspired. 

I bought my house two years ago, and have kind of been struggling with it ever since.  Then I met B. last year and things just kind of accelerated.  Once you’ve built foundations – and I think it took me a long time to build foundations again after coming back from America – for some reason everything else does just slot into place.  I mean I know this house is still a nightmare but it doesn’t really matter, we just kind of cope with it.  I don’t have a vision for the house – I really didn’t know what I was doing when I bought this place! I just knew I had a certain amount of money.  I saw this place, really liked it, and bought it.  It’s small, little, seemed to suit me, but there was and still is a lot of work to do.  This room [loft bedroom] here – there was no hatch when I moved in, so there was nothing up here at all, except some dead pigeons that had fallen through a hole in the roof.  So, bit by bit, getting people in, doing some stuff myself, we made it into a room.

Right now, to make my life complete, I need to finish this house!  I know it sounds very unmetaphysical, but yes, probably that would be the thing.  And then we’ll see, because there will probably always be something.  I’m not one of those people that thinks ‘I need to do this’ and once I get that ‘I need something else’.  I’m not that materialistic really.  I just think I need to have a kitchen and a bathroom, that would be nice!  Also, I do think life can be complete – now, probably, now more than ever.  Because obviously there’s still things to do, and things I’ll want to do; it’s a permanent human state to create need and create want.  But I don’t feel that so much in my life really.  Ask me in six months time, though, and I’ll probably say something else. 

Because I was so peripatetic for so long, and was so uprooted – ‘I’ll go there, that sounds interesting’ – when I came back to England I forced myself to settle, to stay here no matter what, no matter how depressed I was, or how cold it was… it was almost like I had to catch up with myself.  It’s taken a few years.  Now I’m really happy to be here, and my life is really good.  I get tired and frustrated, but it’s what I want to be doing, and I’m in a place I want to be, having a baby and in a really good relationship.   Having said that, I don’t necessarily see us living in this house forever, or think that I’ll be at this school forever.  I very much doubt it, in fact.  Even up until last year, I hadn’t ruled out going back to San Francisco.  I still have dreams of being there, walking on the beach, with my friends; it’s one of those things that will probably stay with me forever.  It’s like that ‘I lost my heart in…’ cliché.  I’ve got American citizenship… but I don’t think B. would like to live there.  I think he’d hate it, and possibly I’ve changed without necessarily knowing it. 

We’ve talked about going and living in another culture, and B. has talked about getting some land and living more on the land. Living on the land frightens me a little bit because I’ve always been such a city person.  The idea of being in the middle of the country scares me because I’ve never experienced that, although I might love it.  Living in another culture would be great, it doesn’t really matter where.  I speak Spanish so Latin America would be great, but B. loves Asia, especially China, but I think learning Chinese would be really hard, so I’d prefer somewhere where the language is a little bit easier.  But I’m open, really open, to anywhere else in the world.  Somewhere that’s fairly undeveloped, not a city – not Bangkok, or somewhere like that.  A rural place, I suppose, but doing something useful, not just going there for a holiday.  I think if we decide to go and live in another country again, I’ll have B. this time so it’ll be a lot easier.  It’ll be exciting, but it might be quite hard packing everything up and taking it into the unknown… I have done it so many times, though, I know I’ll cope.

I think many other cultures have better ways of living than we have in our culture. More humane ways of living, more environmentally friendly, more sociable, more constructive ways of living, and those cultures function more effectively.  Our society doesn’t, there’s lonely people, for instance…  On the other hand I am from this culture, this society, this way of living and you can’t really ever escape from that.  I think the rat-race, living for yourself, working for yourself and creating your own little empire, means that you don’t necessarily have a community.  I did have a dream which was to live in a community of some kind, and to share child rearing and house things and community, but I also know that can be a kind of hell, too, depending on the people.

I don’t know if travel has made me a more interesting person.  I certainly have been very lucky and have had a wide experience of different places, but I also think that to just travel doesn’t necessarily make anyone a more interesting person.  We’ve talked about my travels a lot this evening but it’s not the sort of thing I ever talk about anymore, because it’s not really that interesting and a lot of people I know have done it.  Oh, I’m sure it did change me – it opened me up to whole other ways of life, and also helped me interact with many different kinds of people, which I probably didn’t do before I went off travelling.  I would hope it’s helped me… given me more confidence probably.

I don’t feel lonely anymore, I really don’t, and I definitely have done in the past.  I think being in a relationship makes a huge difference to having those feelings of loneliness.  I do spend and I have spent a lot of time on my own, not necessarily feeling lonely, but there have been other times when I’ve felt lonely.  Often it would be going to a place that I went to with someone else, but now on my own.  Also loneliness is one of those ‘feeling sorry for yourself’ emotions that you can fall into, and wallow in.  There were lots of times when I was in America, however much I loved it, where I did feel lonely, or travelling too, you can feel very lonely… but I think now, I just don’t feel that.

I definitely used to have the ability to get myself into a spiral of negative thoughts – ‘what am I going to do with my life, I don’t know what I’m doing, when am I going to have a relationship, why am I living in this country?’... real spirals of negativity.  And the only way I could escape from that was falling asleep or stopping the thought and not getting into it – which I suppose is a healthy thing… Now I’m much more in the present, whereas I used to be a lot more in the past or in the future.  ‘What’s going to happen to me, I need to get this done or that done, or why aren’t I still there, that was such a beautiful place?’…I used to always be in another place, worrying or hoping about the past or the future, and now I’m just dead bang in the middle, the present.  Which is good, but maybe sometimes I need to think about the future too.

I am looking forward to the changes [which having a baby will bring].  I haven’t got to the birth stories yet.  When you are pregnant every woman who has any reproductive history will tell you their experience… it’s amazing really… but when they get to the birth bit I’ve said I don’t want to hear it! I haven’t even got to that chapter in the book yet; I’m reading my book a month at a time.  I think there’ll be a lot of baby stuff that I really don’t know.  And it’s funny nowadays because you get it all from books, whereas in the past you’d get it from the folklore of the family and all that…

I’m really looking forward to having a break from school too, which sounds awful because I do love it… but just having that time to be really devoted to my little world and my baby.  It will be something completely new and unique to me. But probably after nine months or a year I’ll be screaming bonkers and will want to go back to work!  I think it may be a struggle after that, balancing working and having a child, in this kind of world we live in.  B. has a lot of flexibility with his job, but my time is really prescribed.

I feel like my life has gone through quite a big shift in terms of my general situation in the past year.  I don’t go out as much, definitely because of being part of a couple.  Mind you, I used to go out a lot because I had no heating!  I used to play Ultimate Frisbee once or twice a week in the evenings, and I used to play a lot of Squash.  I found that I was getting so tired with teaching that I needed to do more exercise.  Now I see a lot of people, go on walks in the countryside… and a lot of energy goes into the house.  Also, now that I’m with B. we spend a lot of time at the farm and I help him a lot.  On Thursday evenings I go and help him pack his boxes, and on Friday I help with his deliveries, because he likes the company more than that he needs it.  In spring and summer we were doing a lot of work at the farm, planting and keeping the tunnels going.  Because our relationship is in one sense new, we do everything together.  Even though I should say B. you go to the farm and I’ll do this’, I go to the farm with him and then he does things with me.  Everything takes twice as long.  I don’t tend to spend a lot of time sitting at home although I do vegetate in front of the TV from time to time.  I think it will make a big difference when the house is finished, because at the moment it’s not a great place to hang out.

I still really miss a lot of the friends I had in San Francisco.  Those were really good friends that I valued and respected.  In Oxford I don’t think I’ve got the kind of friends I had there. I think I was very lucky at that time and place in my life to meet good people.  Also, I had two really good friends who were teachers, and here I don’t, which is kind of funny.  But I have got really good friends here.  My female friendships are with people who I can just talk to about anything.  It’s not like we have to go out and have a wild and exciting time together, we can spend quiet, reflective time together.  I hear about their lives, and share my life, it’s very simple really. At the moment one of my closest friends has a two year old daughter and is pregnant, so the conversation is a bit limited!  ‘How’s the constipation, indigestion, how’s the back?’  They are really useful friendships, mutually supportive.  In the past I’ve had more friends to go for a walk with, or to the beach, things like that.  Now I spend so much time with B. I don’t need that kind of friendship as much, but I do want to maintain my friendships.  Interestingly enough, I have found that though I’ve kept my female friends I’ve lost a lot of my male friends since being in a relationship.    They weren’t sexual relationships – I wonder if they think now I’ve found a bloke I don’t want to be their friend anymore or something?  I do feel like I’ve lost three or four good friends.

I have seen a lot of different ways that the two sexes do relate to each other, in many different people.  You see bad relationships, you see good relationships, you see respectful ones, you see relationships where there is no respect, or there was, but isn’t now… I just hope that I am around respectful ones.  It doesn’t matter what the context is – work or friendship – you want to see respectful and loving relationships, not spiteful, vindictive ones… I think I do get that kind of respect in my relationships. 

My Mom and I have a difficult relationship.  We know how to rub each other up the wrong way.  She’ll ring me on a Saturday morning and start going on about something, and I’ll get off the phone all angry, and think ‘what am I going to do?’, and B. tells me to just chill – it’s that level of detachment that I haven’t got.  B. is much better at chilling out, taking a few days off, relaxing, and just being.  I’m much more ‘we’ve got to get the house done’, or aware that I’ve got to go to work on Monday, that Protestant ethic of keeping going.  I’m sure I’m much more like my Mom and he’s like his Mom.  In a way I think we’re a very good balance for each other, because I give him a kick up the arse sometimes, and he gets me to chill out. 

My Mom has always been determined and won’t let go. You can see her like a dog, with something in her mouth, chewing it and not letting go of it.  She won’t let go of me and my brother.  I don’t know if my Mom consciously tries to control me, I just think that’s how she is, she’s a very strong-willed, determined, woman.  I let her control the first twenty five years of my life, by the subjects I chose, what I chose to study at university, and my first few jobs… she controlled my life until I was twenty five, directly or indirectly… I think I spent the next five years running in every direction to get away from that.  I only really established my own world, identity, life, in the last eight years since then.  I was really determined not to let her tell me what she thought, what she wanted to do, lend me money.  I really have kept her away.  I think she’s obviously come to terms with that, and I think she’s really happy with who I am, but I think she had a way she wanted me to be and it took me a long time to establish my own identity. 

I’m happy I’ve managed to break away, and be who I am, and I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t gone to America.  Going to America was really how I did that.  And even in those first few years I was still influenced by her world.  I still had to carry on fighting to get myself away from it.  I think when I was living in San Francisco after my father died, I had some of the worst times with my Mom, because she would come and visit me once a year, or twice a year, and there would just be so much unspoken resentment on her part, and guilt on my part, that we had an awful time.  Once we met in Cuba, and we didn’t actually speak to each other for a day, as we were getting on each others nerves so much.  That was a really terrible time with her.  She doesn’t bring stuff up, she’ll just be upset and not talk about it, she keeps it all in and I always want to break through that…

I am fairly close with my brother.  He lives in Oxford, so I see him quite a lot now.  We have quite a functional relationship.  If either of us needs something we will ask each other, favours, babysitting, lifts, or whatever.  Also, he’ll come over and talk about his week. He’s in a big transition in his life, because in the past few years he split up with his partner, and is now a single dad, chasing women about town, adapting. We don’t rely on each other emotionally, we rely upon each other practically – if I ever needed money, or to borrow a car, I’d ask him.

I’ve learned that there’s family love, and the love you take for granted, and then there’s love in a relationship or potential relationship.  And I’ve learned that some forms of love can be very painful, and difficult, and unrequited or unfulfilling, and those are the loves where you never quite get what you want, but that keeps you going, yet ultimately doesn’t make you happy.  I think for me, the love that I have now with… it’s not a very big, intense, fiery thing, we just have this way of being together that we just really appreciate, enjoy, love being together.  It’s not a passionate thing, necessarily, that might go up and down, it just seems to get stronger and stronger and stronger, and I suppose that’s where I am now really… and sometimes I will feel real love and affection for the children in my class, very occasionally, and appreciation, respect, things like that too…

I think I have created a narrative of my life, and more chapters get added to it as I go through life, and I don’t think it changes in any fundamental way.  Maybe at some point I might think ‘oh my god my whole life’s been an illusion and here I am’, but I feel like I’m the same person now as I was five or ten or even twenty years ago, with the same kind of perceptions about myself and the same story.  I’m a very linear person, so maybe I look at things as a historian, chronological order, that’s how I’ve made sense of things for me.

I think I’ve done a lot of what, for me, were courageous things in terms of giving up a job or giving up a way of life and going off somewhere else by myself to find a new life.  I’ve done that three of four times and for me that was quite scary and difficult, something challenging and courageous.  I’ve done it, and it doesn’t necessarily make me happy.  And I’m not really looking for any new challenges at the moment