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Five years ago, I made the decision to go to graduate school.  I gathered my transcripts, went fishing for letters of recommendation, and took the GRE.  I applied, and was accepted.  I began studies in the fall of 2006, scarcely 2 months before I was to be married.  It was an exciting time, full of change, new experiences, and I was bursting with untapped potential. 

It was not the school I thought I would be attending.  It was not the program I had planned on pursuing.  It was not the career path I had tried to lay for myself.  Instead of becoming a speech-language pathologist, I was going to apply my artistic inclinations to my analytical skills, and become an architect. 

I did not, however, do so.  This week, in a fit of regret and seemingly doomed to an eternity of suburban sameness in an unending career (spear-headed, of course, by my “well intentioned” sister-in-law, who chanced to ask if there was any opportunity for advancement for me in my field/place of employment), I pondered the decisions that sent me to SLP school. 

It seemed a logical choice – given my background in linguistics, my high verbal abilities, the ease I feel working with children – and I made it sincerely.  But it followed another, more difficult choice: the choice to put architecture away.  From time to time, as Mr. Apron and I discuss our unrequited interests, we speak of doing all these things “in another life” – his becoming a police officer, my opening a “cupcakery”, my studying/living abroad, his pursuing a life as a professional actor, and my becoming an architect. 

It seems as though my peers have found their callings.  The one who was a gifted flautist in high school is touring with the Manhattan Symphony; the one who never really was into teaching is finally feeling fulfilled pursuing music therapy.  I keep waiting for mine.  I wonder if I appeared to my friends or teachers to have a calling, and if so, what it is. 

I thought it might be architecture. At least, I can see myself doing speech pathology, but I don’t want to be “stuck” with it.  I began to think of my parents and my in-laws.  We sat around my in-laws’ table for dinner recently, and I lamented with a shudder how I can’t imagine staying in the same job for 20 years.  Of course, my mother-in-law then offered that she will get her 20 year plaque at the library next year, my father-in-law has been working for himself in essentially the same field since 1987, and my sister-in-law started working for him 17 years ago.   My own parents have changed jobs many times in my lifetime, but they are not so different.  Their careers have been set since before I was born (yes, the Beginning and End of Time is my lifetime, thank you), and I can’t see them starting over in any life, least of all this one.  I think my father would really enjoy teaching high school math, (as he never seemed to forget his calculus) or organizing a non-profit that provides quality musical instruments to promising student musicians.  My mother has always professed an interest in rabbinical studies, but for them both, the careers seem set in stone.

 As I saw on the couch this evening, sobbing to my therapist, she asked why I had given up on architecture.  I considered.   I had all the intentions as an idealistic undergrad. Though I didn’t have the foresight to apply to a school with even an architecture minor (Who at 17 has foresight when applying to college?), I did bother taking the recommended prerequisites that could be needed for a graduate program.  As linguistics major (with music minor) I found myself taking architectural history lectures, drawing classes, physics, and calculus.  Calculus, voluntarily!

By the time I was ready to apply to graduate school, it was 4 years later, and I’d had my head cracked open by then.  It took a little longer than I’d planned, but I needed to relearn how to walk, tie my shoes, and stop drooling first. 

I went to an open house at Penn.  I filled out applications; I collected work for my portfolio.  And I got very, very intimidated.  Though the brochures say “applicants from other backgrounds, such as liberal arts, are welcomed” I felt awash in unfamiliar terminology, ashamed of my lack of drawing skills, and deeply insecure about my potential in a career in design.  I never even applied.

I lied to myself and others, saying that the program would take too long (3 years + 3 year internship), the field was too competitive for me (deadlines, projects, competitions for work), and that the lifestyle of an architect wouldn’t be compatible with the family I hoped to have soon.  All these reasons may be true (though I never actually talked to a real, live architect about them), but the most valid was my own fear of failure.

Or even success.  If I applied, if I was admitted, if they said I had enough potential or talent or creativity, it would mean a huge time commitment, new ideas, and hard work.  I was afraid of it all.

That’s why I gave up the closest thing I had to what I wanted to be when I grew up.

But based on our discussion tonight, I tried a new perspective. I am not “stuck” in my career for life.  I do have a career, but nothing says it has to stay my career until I retire.   

I came home and pulled down my dusty architecture school materials.  I guess I saved them for a reason.  A reminder?  A hope?  A bookend?  I perused updated websites, scanned for degree requirements, and was immediately disheartened again.  There’s not just one school in the Philly area for people with “other backgrounds” to pursue a MArch; there’s just one school in all of Pennsylvania (oh, and the tri-state area, for good measure). As I looked at the Penn website, saw the daunting list of admission requirements and prerequisites, and tried to begin to understand the coursework, I experienced déjà vu.  My dreams were dashed again. 

My specific dream, perhaps.  I’m hung up on nuts and bolts, on logistics of full-time/part-time, tuition, studios, GREs, and portfolios.  Maybe architecture won’t happen, at least for now.  Maybe I still don’t know if I’d be any good and that will continue to haunt me, but I did have one realization that just might hold me over:

I only get this one life. (I know, I’m Sally Field for Boniva; give me a break.)

 I can’t redo where I went to college or what courses I took freshman year or why I didn’t spend one moment in the career counseling office, but I can do more with the remainder of my life.  If I wake up one day and decide I’ve had it with being an SLP, I can change that.  It doesn’t have to be architecture, either.  I can pursue one of my Plan C or D career paths, if I really want to.   If I can get past the mental blocks I have chaining me to routine, sameness, comfort, and stability, I might be able to think about continuing my education in a different way than the CE credits offered in speech pathology. 

I need to stop looking disparagingly at people my age who are already changing careers.  I need to stop judging people who “don’t use” their professional degrees, or people who won’t finish schooling until they’re 35.  I need to let myself acknowledge my regrets about my career path, and realize I am not done yet.  I am most certainly not done learning, and I may not be done schooling either.

This is my last day of work at my old job.  I will start my new job on Monday, assuming a seamless transition between old and new, right?  Wrong.  I am terrified.  I will be leaving the world of preschoolers, leaving behind playing with play-doh and focusing on whether children could let you know they before they peed their pants.  It’s not that the standards are low.  Quite the opposite – modern preschool programs are positively bursting with standards aimed to ensure kids are getting a variety of stimulating experiences and developing across different domains.  But you can only expect to get so far with a preschooler.  You can only develop a 5-year-old’s language so far before discharging him.  While most kids have mastered the basics of language itself by the time they head off to kindergarten, language itself remains fairly basic.  No one is expecting a preschooler to explain the Treaty of Ghent, nor where didgeridoos come from.  More likely, preschoolers who can explain where the blocks go and how they got dressed that morning are the star pupils.  That’s enough.  As kids get older, more is (rightly) expected.  And that puts more of a burden on the adults supporting them.  

As I move onto my new job, I will still keep details (incriminating and otherwise) private, but I can bet I’ll still be needing a forum to tell stories about my students and vent about the adults I’m working with.  (It’s always the adults who cause the problems, no matter where you work.)  I’m going to be moving up, graduating from preschool and being promoted immediately to middle/high school.  On hearing this, most of my current coworkers, as well as friends and family, have one of two responses.  The first is that they’ll be taller than I am.  How comical.  Imagine the 5-foot-tall speech therapist looking up at the towering 12 year old.  Insert amusing mental image.  They were taller than me when I was their age, too.  The second comment is one of genuine curiosity.  Most people do not know what kinds of “issues” adolescents can have with their speech.  Are they still dealing with lisps?  Am I working on stuttering?  The misnomer that kids who seem to walk and talk okay, are okay, is quite pervasive, and frightening.  It shows me that most people have no idea what higher level language skills are, and what they’re used for.  It shows me they’re still mentally separating out the classroom work of reading, writing, math, science, and history, from the language skills used to comprehend, listen, sound out words, scan text, break down scientific vocabulary, and retell narratives.  

Ironically, when I would tell people that I worked with preschoolers on their language and speech skills, a comment I would often hear was, “What do you work on with a kid that young?  What could be wrong with them already at that young an age?”  Only the foundations of spoken and written language.  Only the fundamentals of communication and self-expression.  That’s all. 

The issues become more complex, the academic stakes higher, in middle and high school.  The kids don’t stand much of a chance of being “cured”, or “fixed,” as one could hope an articulation disorder might be.  More likely, they’ll develop strategies to help them organize their thoughts, mnemonics to work on classroom concepts, and many many visual supports to reduce the verbal load and cognitive demands of school work.  I had a professor in graduate school, who was so scatter-rained as an instructor she would often forget to give us quizzes, but who had brilliant therapy ideas.  Though she taught preschool and school-age language disorders (focusing on birth through elementary school, usually), she worked with middle school-aged students.  

Speech therapy is a pretty cool thing when you’re in preschool.  You get extra attention from an adult, you get to work on silly words or sounds, and there are often motivating toys, games, or prizes involved.  Right around third grade, being pulled out of class to go work on /r/ or /s/, or receiving extra attention in the classroom ceases to be cool and starts to be mortifying, for myriad reasons.  Because of this shift, my professor, in her work with middle school-aged students, began calling her work “Strategies”.  She would pop her head in a classroom to extract a student, and tell him it was time for “Strategies”.  I like this term not just because of the stigma-decreasing acceptability to the child, but also because the student really will be learning strategies to help him make it through school; to help him adapt his learning style to the way his class is taught; to help him tune out the distractions that plague him so he can focus on the lecture; to help him communicate effectively with other kids so they can work on a group project together; to support him to be able to approach school with a toolkit of strategies, so he can succeed.  

I am extremely fortunate in school.  The teaching paradigm that prevailed until fairly recently, worked for me.  Reading and sounding out words just made sense to me.  The way math was presented jived with the way my brain worked.  With my high verbal skills I understood math, English, science, French, and social studies as they were presented to me in school.  It wasn’t until an in-service on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, at my first teaching  job, that I had a revelation.  The presenter at the in-service put up a word problem on the overhead, and we were all given some time to solve it.  I had, of course, written out an algebraic equation, and I reached the answer quickly.  She asked us not just what answer we’d come to, but how.  And there were at least three different ways people had arrived at the same answer.  While my textbook algorithm worked for me, and was the most efficient way for me to solve the problem, it wasn’t the natural choice for others.   Previously, I’d thought that everyone who didn’t “get” math in school was less intelligent than me, that kids who didn’t pick up differential calculus on the first pass just weren’t able to grasp advanced math, and were just stupid or something.  

As I moved through the grades in “advanced” reading groups, I wondered what it was about reading that was so hard for the kids in the lowest reading group, or, worse, the ones who went to the resource room.  I can’t begin to get into their brains and understand how difficult it must be to read if you cannot sequence sounds, or struggle to remember when the C sounds like an S and when it makes the K sound.  I have a better respect, though, when I see the euphemism of kids who learn “differently”.  While in a traditional school setting, with a teacher who only presents one way to approach a concept, these kids may indeed look like they have a learning “disability”; however, if a skilled teacher is able to teach fractions with manipulatives and mnemonics, and break down the steps in finding least common denominators, then a child may be said to truly learn “differently”, if he can still grasp the concept.  

These are the students I will be working with.  They will present new challenges to me as I recall from my language development class those advanced language concepts we’ll be working on together.  I hope I’m able to work with them to support their ability to excel in the classroom, to help them be successful teens and achieve their highest dreams.  Even if they tower over me physically, I hope we’ll be able to see eye-to-eye.

Each day I come home from work spent.  I am grouchy, worn-out, tired, and I don’t have the energy for my husband or my dogs.  Basically, I’m so fed up I want to punch a kitten.  Don’t get me wrong — work’s not all bad.  I have pleasant interactions with many children; I get to feel special as they all crowd around me in their chaotic classroom for a little piece of order and preschool magic.  I have pleasant interactions with many of my coworkers; we brainstorm new ways to support the kids and work around the paperwork jungle that threatens to engulf us more each week.  Overall, though, I can’t take the good with the bad.  I’ve blogged about my commute, the time-clock, the soon-to-be-locked supply closet, the stupid new paperwork and policies that take the emphasis away from supporting children with special needs.  I’ve bitched about it all, and I just can’t take it all in stride.

I want to be that worker who toughs it out when things are icky, the one who barrels through new transitions with an eye towards what good will come from re-organization, the one who proves herself with iniatives and innovations and the one who makes her own path.  I’m just not.  Or just not here, at my current place of employment.  I don’t feel enough loyalty to stick it out through the tough times.  I don’t feel the good is enough to overcome the rotten.  I had a breakthrough with helping a little boy write the first letter of his name today.  I faded support as, together, we went down, and around to form the capital D, over and over again.  He looked up at me in pride, clapping his hands together as we both shrieked “YAY!”  I don’t care that I’m not the occupational therapist.  I dragged her into the classroom to witness the breakthrough — she was so proud.  Yet sitting through a 90 minute staff meeting chock full of the usual too-little, too-late policy changes, bullshit new regulations on time cards, time clocks, health appraisals, performance evaluations, staffing arrangements, and state recertification, I just shut down.  I couldn’t hear well enough over my tittering neighbors and the air-conditioner, so I stopped trying.  At least 95% of the meeting doesn’t apply to me as  therapist anyway — it’s meant for classroom teachers — and the therapists end up feeling, at least as though our time were wasted, and definitely unacknowledged for our contributions to the school anyway.  I stormed out of the meeting with two minutes left to punch out of the assembly line they call being a speech-language therapist, and drove home with no internal resources for how I’m feeling. 

I cannot detach, nor can I expend enough energy to care.  I’m left in some no-man’s land of apathy and resentment.  I guess these are all symptoms of why I have submitted my notice of resignation.  I have a new job starting mid-September, one that I hope is very different from this one.  I’ll be working with older children — adolescents mainly — in a different setting.  I’m hoping the majority of the teachers know what they’re doing.  I’m hoping the entire staff is highly trained and educated and treated by the adminstration as adults.  I’m hoping I get to be treated like an adult. 

In this state, my resignation period, I’m just counting days left.  I’m scratching tally marks into some imaginary cinder block wall, until I can pack up my desk and fully detach.  Until then, I’m stuck caring, but not caring, listening, but not processing, angry, but without recourse. 

I’m also incredibly fearful.  I do not like change (hence my reaction to endless new policies), and I do not seek out risks, employment-wise.  I want to understand what’s happening, in a predictable fashion. I like to know where things are, and where things go.  None of that will happen right away at my new job.  None of my desires line up with jetting off to seek other employment.  I’m scared to leave what I know and start something brand new.  I’m scared of all the new things I will have to learn — names, faces, paperwork, policies, regulations, communication, e-mail, dress-codes.  I’m scared they’re going to have the kids call me Mrs. SLP.  I’m scared of all these things; yet I must move on. 

I know that getting a new job will not solve all the problems.  I know that a person who has continual problems in relationships, living situations, jobs, and daily interactions is probably herself the problem.  I’m hoping I’m not that type of person.  I desperately need to believe, though, that this new job, whatever promises it may hold, will allow to come home feeling like a human being, not a spent cog in a decrepit machine, and be able to greet my husband and my pets with the joy they deserve.  I often say that I don’t like working, that work is something that keeps us away from those we love, so that we can earn the money that allows us to be at home with those we love.  It helps if it’s something meaningful, something one enjoys, or at least can tolerate.  It’s no good, though, if it chews me up and spits me out ready to rampage at the first sentient being I speak to after 4:00pm.  It defeats the purpose. 

I hope my new job treats me like an adult, and allows me to feel like a human.

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November 2020