How Tornadoes and Teaching Helped Me Rediscover My Calling

I was standing outside the student media building getting ready to produce my first newspaper as an editor when I got the news.

Our house was gone. As in, my roommate survived the tornado by covering herself with a mattress in the only room of our house left standing.

You see, I lived, and still live, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In April 2011, my junior year of college, I lived on the corner of Forest Lake Drive and 16th Street in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that became woodchips as one of the biggest tornadoes in state history tore through our city. It was a little more than a week before the end of finals, a little more than a week before graduation, a little more than a week before I would officially become a senior.

The summer between one’s junior and senior year of college is already a trying time between second-guessing the plans you’ve made yourself and the crazed frenzy of actually trying to make those plans come to fruition. But add a tornado to the mix, and it becomes a damn-near crisis.

I had always been a writer, and I planned accordingly. That summer, I had even planned on staying in Tuscaloosa to work as an intern at a nearby magazine. My internship was scheduled to start at the beginning of May, a mere two weeks after I learned that I no longer had a place to live. Given the choice to write while spending the summer sharing a bathroom with three college-age boys, or not write and go home to Texas, I chose to write. Writing was my plan, my calling.

And then, out of the blue, it seemed, I forgot it. In and amongst the writing, the three months of seeing my byline appear in a magazine with more than 50 years of history and thousands upon thousands of readers, a strange thought began to fester: What’s the point?

I had always appreciated the tangibility of journalism. You wrote a story, submitted it, and days later it would appear in a form that you could touch, that you could show to people. See what I did? That’s my name, there. See how I crafted this story? Those are my words, there.

Most writers save everything they ever write—papers they wrote in high school, essays they write in college, articles they publish in the local newspaper. I was no exception. It’s just that mine became dust and landed in pieces somewhere between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

The tangibility of journalism, the very thing that drew me to the industry, I began to hate, not because I had lost something valuable, but because I had thought those pieces of paper valuable in the first place. “What’s the point?” was really, “How selfish of me to care about pieces of paper with my name on them? What do those pieces of paper matter to people who wake up without homes not just on days that tornadoes strike, but 365 days a year? What kind of impact can anything make if it’s capable of being destroyed in a matter of seconds?”

Teaching in the Trenches

So, my plans changed. Quickly. I randomly, perhaps divinely, received an email from a Teach For America recruiter in September. I met the recruiter in October and, never having considered joining the organization, told her I was looking to be less selfish and wanted to do something for someone other than myself. I learned about the organization’s mission of ensuring that kids growing up in poverty receive excellent educations, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty that might otherwise dictate their lives. I applied. I interviewed at the end of November and was accepted in January to teach in Alabama, a place that was slowly becoming my new home after years of sweat and life-changing moments like the tornado.

When I started writing my “story of self,” a required part of Teach For America’s training process in which you explain your journey to the organization, I talked about my draw to Teach For America’s mission and the potential I had to make a long-term impact. I also talked about tangibility and how the work of a teacher, the work of improving kids’ lives, can’t be destroyed by things like tornadoes. I talked about how I had lost faith in writing, a selfish profession, I called it, while at the same time I, ironically, spent hours slaving to make my one-page “story of self” as perfect as it could be, enjoying every minute of the writing I said I didn’t want to do. It was like I felt compelled to craft the most persuasive message I could muster in order to convince myself that I needed to be a teacher. And it worked, for awhile.

I’m not quite sure when I realized that maybe, just maybe, I had been wrong. It wasn’t when I worked 80-hour weeks (which was a lot); when I realized I had to make take-home study guides and worksheets because my school could barely afford a full set of books for each subject; when a student threatened me; nor when a student slammed a door in my face. All of those things reinforced the reason I was there—to help kids who had been dealt an unfair set of cards realize their full potential. To help them become the success stories that very few people expected them to be. To be less selfish. To do something that wasn’t about me.

If I had to guess, I’d say I started realizing I was in the wrong profession when I began waking up with knots in my stomach, when I began skipping breakfast and lunch five days a week because I was too anxious to eat, when I lost 15 pounds (that I didn’t need to lose) in less than two months, when I started spending the majority of my Sundays fighting back tears for reasons I couldn’t explain, when I began feeling drained even on good days, when I began averaging three hours of sleep a night because I spent Sunday through Thursday tossing and turning and never really sleeping. I couldn’t explain any of these things. All I knew was that I was very, very unhappy, and something had to be done, even if that something was going back to my old standby and working for a newspaper or a magazine until I figured out what I wanted to do, until I figured out how to be happy while also helping others and making the impact I so desperately wanted to make.

When I got “pinked slipped,” or told without explanation that my contract hadn’t been renewed, I knew. I had agonized over the idea of quitting for weeks, and the pink slip made me feel like a 2,000-pound weight had been lifted. My decision had been made for me.

I stayed through the last day of school and the last teacher work day, and then I calmly, coolly, collectedly left.

Rediscovering My Call to Write

My story took an interesting turn after two weeks of job searching, two weeks of remembering how much I enjoyed writing, and four callbacks for interviews, which seemed to me to be another sign. Four callbacks. In 2013. When 20-somethings all across the country were begging for jobs.

My superintendent called me. He realized he had made a hasty decision. He was calling to offer me my job back. (This, technically, was my fifth callback.) I told him I wasn’t sure. I knew my fellow teachers and principal had rallied for me, told him that they needed me, and despite my year from hell, I felt indebted to them.

“Can I have some time to think about?” I asked.

“Well, you don’t have to take the job if you don’t want it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me whether you take it or not. We can always find somebody else.”

I lied and told him I needed more time to think, but his response to my question was like the pink slip. I just knew. It was the dagger in a long line of stabs that told me very painfully, despite my misgivings about quitting, I needed to run.

What had kept me going throughout the year, a small group of seniors, I no longer had. The students in my Advanced Placement statistics class had graduated. Daily, that class had made me smile when, minutes before, all I felt like doing was bursting into tears. They had worked so hard, in fact, that I willingly gave up my 23rd birthday, a Saturday, to bring them to an AP study session more than an hour away from our school, so they could increase their chances of earning college credit.

But I no longer had them. They had graduated, and despite having poured my heart into my work and sacrificing my health and happiness for the last year, my superintendent told me I wasn’t needed. It was a message I could swallow coming from my students, but not from a grown man whose job was to lead and to listen.

Two weeks later, the very day I interviewed for one of those four jobs, I received an offer to write for a weekly newspaper, and I accepted it. I started the job a mere three weeks later, a little more than a month after my last day as a teacher.

After I quit teaching, many of friends, including my then-boyfriend now-husband, told me that they were surprised I ever wanted to be a teacher in the first place. They didn’t understand how someone as introverted as me could possibly enjoy a job that made her the center of attention of 100 some-odd people every day. And at first, I was really angry with them. How could they not tell me something like that?

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“Because you were going to do it no matter what anybody told you,” they said.

And you know what? They were right. I had become so disillusioned and so bored with my gift that nothing could have prevented me from leaving it behind and running in the complete opposite direction.

I had run so far, in fact, that even as I started writing again, I still didn’t believe I was a writer. How could I justify writing when, really, nothing had changed? Magazines and newspapers were as destructible as they had always been. And while I had tried to convince myself that my byline no longer mattered, I couldn’t suppress the swell of pride I felt every time I saw my name in print. I was happier, but for the wrong reasons.

And then I wrote this article about a 6-year-old boy fighting an aggressive form of cancer, and I finally found the conviction I needed: Writing, though often attached to a name, is not always about the person producing it.

In this case, I wrote to make a 6-year-old boy’s day better by giving him the opportunity to see his name in print. I wrote to capture the optimism he radiated despite the uphill battle he faced. I wrote to share his story with the community so they could do something, anything, about it.

A “calling,” I realized, is an instinct, a natural talent, an impulse, an inclination. But that impulse means nothing without the conviction to keep you in it for the long-haul. Me, I was wrapped up in my calling without even knowing it. I was so focused on the paper, the ink, that I forgot that writing is about so much more than that.

I write to give voices to people who aren’t being heard, to share messages that need to be shouted from rooftops, to recognize people for efforts that are often ignored, and to inspire change in people and places that need it most.

I rediscovered my calling by getting away from it, by re-realizing the joy I feel when I find the perfect word, when I write a story that makes someone else feel special, when I write a story that makes my readers think the person they’re reading about is a hero. I rediscovered my calling by thinking about the tornado again. It had destroyed every single book on my bookcase, but the stories those books told had stuck with me, and will continue to stick with me, forever.

Part of my determination to be a teacher stemmed from the fact that I am human, that I have this silly notion that I can do absolutely anything when in reality, I can, it just may not be that good of an idea. We can do anything we want, but our greatest successes are going to arise from our greatest strengths.

My greatest strength, I have discovered, is taking what I see and hear and feel, and transforming that into words that allow someone else to see and hear and feel the very same thing. It is my gift, and I got bored with it. But sometimes, the only way to feel joy is to feel deep, deep sorrow, and that is exactly what happened to me.

Are you bored? Good. Go do something else. Something else hard. Really hard. And don’t let my year of teaching scare you. It was awful, I admit, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It taught me how to pray and how to appreciate the simple joy of eating lunch alone every day beneath trees and sunshine. It taught me that I was already doing what I was meant to do in the first place.

I leave you with this: Go find your calling. It’s waiting for you. And so is the joy that comes with it.

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