Sometimes I can’t figure out what matters.
It’s complicated, I think, defining what’s important in a life. It feels like packing a bag for the airport. If you cram it all in there, everything gets smooshed and unrecognizable, and it ends up a whole lot heavier than it looks. And then other times it’s like a rank order situation, where no two values can be tied for the same spot.
You can’t truly do good and make a lot of money at the same time. Choose one. You can’t have a successful career and a healthy family life. Choose one. You can do creative work you love or you can be responsible. Choose one.
These are the titans that clash in my head day in and day out. They’re the battles that keep me from settling, for better or for worse, into a stable, traditional career even though there are parts of me that long for that kind of consistency and feel guilty for not offering its comfort to my family. I hold out, and I hold out, looking for more. More creative freedom, more opportunity, more impact. Just, more.
And in the midst of all that brain pollution, sometimes a thing happens to usher in a sharper view.
Ms. Brenda wasn’t a huge part of my life, honestly. A preschool teacher and “an institution” at my twins’ school, Brenda’s and my life only intersected for a number of months. From November to May, two days a week, I would leave my Camryn with Ms. Brenda, knowing she was in gentle hands. And from November to May, two days a week, I would pick her up and hear Ms. Brenda say, “I love you,” looking Camryn right in the eye each and every time.
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I have yet to come across a stronger appreciation than the kind you feel for another adult who makes your child feel loved.
As kids do, Camryn moved on from Ms. Brenda’s preschool, she and her twin sailing boldly into kindergarten, armed with the love of a few new, wonderful people.
The following April, we found out Ms. Brenda, a breast cancer survivor, had been diagnosed once more with cancer, and this time, coming out the other side would look decidedly different. In Ms. Brenda’s last weeks, she would see a constant flow of cards and pictures delivered, and in true COVID style, a drive-by joy parade thrown in her honor. Those able to visit her described her as “funny, positive, and encouraging,” speaking about her kids, her work family . . . “about planting seeds and watching the children grow . . . She truly felt as if each of her students were handpicked, by God, for her.”
Roughly two weeks after receiving the news of her prognosis, Ms. Brenda passed away.
The first words I spoke when I heard the news were, “What a well-lived life,” and it got me thinking. Had I ever said that about anyone else in their passing? I still can’t come up with a single name. I’ve known others who’ve lived good, good lives, but clearly, it’s a life like Ms. Brenda’s that resonates with me most, and not solely because of her 22 years of kindness to children, but because she felt she had lived out her purpose.
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Her career wasn’t glamorous. It was a job for the humble, the patient, and for someone who does it long as she does, the extremely devoted. People probably didn’t hear pre-k teacher and say, “Ooh, so edgy. How’d you get into that?” There’s little fanfare and probably even fewer zeroes on the paycheck.
But in our corner of the world, Ms. Brenda is rich and famous.
She has left behind a legacy, the kind I used to only ascribe to society’s high achievers: the well-known, the academically accomplished, the “Lifetime Achievement Award” winners on the Grammys.
I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up, much to my husband’s chagrin. And no, although Brenda inspired me, I’m not talking about diving headfirst into preschool education. The truth is, I’m no Ms. Brenda, and I’m relatively certain parents wouldn’t appreciate their children coming home having studied the ancient art of sarcasm and the great hair and grunge bands of the 1980s and ’90s.
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But as all truly gifted teachers do, Ms. Brenda is shaping lives, even now, even the ones she never had in class. And if I can be molded to look just a little more like her, it’s bound to work out in the end. Looking more people in the eye and saying, “I love you.” That seems like an OK place to start.