When I told my mother I’d made the decision to accept a job teaching English/Language Arts to eighth graders in rural South Carolina, her grief rolled in with the typical five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, eventually, acceptance. Every conversation, no matter how mundane, was saturated with emotion.
“Will we go to your new house for Thanksgiving this year?” she’d whisper, long after I signed my South Carolina contract, “Once you start teaching in New Jersey or Maryland?”
Then it was the family wedding in July, where she hit the amaretto sours and howled at me in the elevator about how my loved ones would die before I could hop on a plane and see them in a hospital.
When anger didn’t elicit the desired response, that’s when the bargaining kicked in. “If only your sister never sent you that job posting, you wouldn’t be leaving me. I’ll do anything if you stay up North.”
The tears followed shortly after, in bursts, in torrents, soaking through my hair, dripping down my collar bones. Skype conversations ended quickly when her voice crackled and face crumpled.
I think she finally accepted my absence around Halloween. I hosted some new friends at my apartment, we watched some scary movie that was filmed a few miles away in our town, and I made some grape jelly cocktail sausages according to my mom’s recipe. I remember her sounding happy that I made some friends, and telling me that I was lucky to have such nice plans for the night.
After that point, phone conversations and FaceTimes became less heavy, less serious. She laughed with me about the ridiculous things my students say, asked to see videos of my new kitten running around in the apartment, and warned me that if I didn’t stop gorging myself on Southern soul food buffets I would die of a premature heart attack at thirty-five. (I have finally come to terms with that last part.)
I’ve had adventure in my bones since childhood, but college and graduate school kept me tethered to Pennsylvania for seven years after my high school graduation. Stupidly, I never studied abroad, never took opportunities through school to travel, and I found myself twenty-five, landlocked, and deeply unhappy. I’d say, “Oh, I’m going to move out to Colorado, or Oregon, or I’ll explore the South for a few years, or maybe even the Midwest,” but I don’t think anyone took me seriously. Nobody really expected me to pick up and move hundreds of miles from home. When I got a phone interview callback for this job in South Carolina less than twenty-four hours after applying, all at once I was faced with the chance to leave, the chance to experience new people, new landscapes, new culture. Within a month, I visited, signed a contract, and started scouting out apartments.
My mother always told me that the most important thing at the end of every day was whether or not I could look in the mirror and say, “I’m happy with myself for the choices I’ve made today.” After six months, have I ever questioned why I’m here? Hellllll yes. Have I ever wished my job was easier, and wondered what it would be like to not be teaching in a high-poverty school with rampant behavioral issues? Probably on the daily. But I came here because I knew, somewhere within me, that I needed to be teaching these students while I was young, while I had energy, before I burned out. Sure, I could have applied for a higher-paying job in the suburbs of New Jersey, outside of Manhattan, but would I be making as much of a difference? As Albus Dumbledore once said, “We must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
I miss my family every day. But when I pass by the mirror hanging in my bedroom, I feel satisfied. Even though my mom still cries sometimes, and even when I wish I could buy booze on Sundays and that everything wasn’t so flat and that I could see a damn snowflake every once in awhile, I know I’m in the right place for now.