I read this in a chapter of a book I am reading at the moment as part of an online book club. The book “Booked: literature in the soul of me” by Karen Swallow Prior, is a kind of life story traced through the books she has read. The chapter is based on the play “Death of a Salesman”, a play I have not read. It is about not living your life trying to be someone you are not called to be. Someone else’s path to success and happiness is not our path.
I was thinking, as I was reading, of those moments when I knew for certain I was on the right path.
When I first came up to Inverness in September 1989 as part of a Gospel Outreach team I really wasn’t certain of how much the decision to be there was mine, and how much the decision was made on the basis of trying to please other people. We had travelled up over one very long day. The journey to Inverness is not a short one. I remember we stopped, in a large layby, possibly at the Drumochter Pass, somewhere along the A9. It was dark and the sky was heavy with stars. I had a sense of God telling me that just as those stars in heavens were always there in the night sky, He would always be with me. It wasn’t confirmation that I was supposed to be on that team, but that His presence was assured. We continued the journey to Inverness, arriving late, and tired enough to leave the unpacking till the next day, to simply fall on a bed and sleep.
The next morning I ventured out to see where I had landed. Inverness has the magnificent River Ness running through it, spanned by a number of bridges. There’s a couple of footbridges, little suspension bridges that cross the Ness. The Grieg Street Bridge is one of them and one lurches from side to side in a drunken motion when there’s people crossing in the other direction. I stood in the middle of the bridge looking down towards the castle and I knew I was where I was, for want of a better word, home. I was exactly where I was supposed to be, so I settled down to business.
The second of those certain moments was when I signed up for an evening class at Inverness College. I had intended signing up for a twelve week counselling course, believing it to be a useful skill to contribute to the church I was a part of. Next to the singing-up list was another list signing up to Creative Writing. My hand shifted across. Maybe my heart shifted too. When I sat down at the table in the class and wrote a story about a missing girl, prompted by a school photograph, I knew again that sense of coming home. Words and I had once been lovers in my teenage years and we rediscovered each other.
I have often questioned whether the vocation calling me to be “the person I was born to be” was really teaching. I can’t think of a time when I opted for it or made a conscious decision. Mum insisted that I lined up my dolls in the bedroom, all of given a name that began with the letter “R”, and taught them whatever I had learned at school. I don’t remember doing that – but I have a lousy memory anyway. I know that my choices of who to be were limited by the stream of schooling I had. The English class was deemed not bright enough to read some of the classics that Karen read. My “A” level, just the one, was Religious Studies – so I became an RE teacher.
If a vocation is something that comes easily to a person, then I wasn’t supposed to be an RE teacher – or any kind of teacher. I’m not, nor ever have been, outgoing. But that is not entirely true – put me on a stage, give me an audience, words to speak and I love the performance. I am a closet exhibitionist! I worked my way up the casts of numerous pantomimes in our local village. I never made it to principal leading lady. I like to think it was my lack of being pretty that stopped me.
My first teaching job was in London, in Walthamstow, where they went through RE teachers like pints of cold Guinness on a hot summer’s day. I vowed that I had given four years of my life to get my teaching degree that I was going to stick teaching out for four years, then, and only then, if I didn’t like it I would throw in the towel, the red pen, the stick of chalk, the piles of marking, the report writing, the parents evenings, the answering-back pupils and everything else.
I stuck it out for four years, plus another thirty one. Whether that was out of fear of admitting I had got it wrong or out of finding another “home” is sometimes not clear. I loved the interaction I had with most classes – I had my stage, my audience, my words and the opportunity to perform every day. But it didn’t come easy.
When words and I re-united after all those years I did wonder if I had been on wrong path. If my ability to earn money had rested on my ability to use words, would I have lost my joy in writing?
Karen, towards the end of the chapter, looks at the reason behind work. Martin Luther once said that before the Fall God created both men and women to work. We work not because work saves us or gives us a sense of “home” but because work meets the needs of our neighbours. We work because of an in-built, God-purposed need to serve others. There is enough of the narcissist in me to wonder if in teaching I am simply serving myself rather than others.
I am into the last few metres of the teaching race and see the finishing line of retirement ahead. I had cherished in my heart the notion of a part time job behind the counter of the local Co-op. I recognise it as something I want to do rather than something God has called me to do – but the one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other! I think of it as something easier than teaching but it might not be.
I also think there might be something that makes better use of the love between words and I. Perhaps it is there that I will find my next “home”.
(Not the “God knows” that translates as a shrug of the shoulders and an I-have-no-clue tone of voice, but the “God knows” that is confident that God really does know and will share it with me when I ask Him to.)