Ten years ago, at age thirty-nine, I stood in an eighth-grade Waldorf classroom in Minneapolis, lighting a beeswax candle. I placed my hands over my heart to say morning verse with the same students I’d been teaching for eight years, since they were first-graders. They were just months from graduating and leaving the school forever, and I found myself gaping into the jaws of my own future, jaws yawning open and shut, mouthing the brutish question of whether I would ever return to my dream of writing. Sure, I was freelancing for cash—cranking out magazine pieces, contract educational books, ghostwriting projects, the occasional grant—but that’s not what my childhood self meant when she proclaimed herself a writer. My childhood self meant novels, even if she didn’t know that word or its boundlessness.
As for teaching, that happened accidentally during the summer of 2000, when my children’s school announced a last-minute first-grade opening. My then husband and I were accruing debt at the identical rate of tuition payments for our children, who were ten, eight, and five. We couldn’t afford Waldorf, but teachers received tuition remission, and the school would overlook my lack of degree—I’d dropped out of college at twenty, with a half-finished English major, to get married and have a baby. We needed two incomes, and the parenting magazine where I’d been editor had recently been swallowed by a conglomerate. Our marriage was bruised enough without more money stress. Plus, I’ve always loved kids.
So I leapt.
Into the arms of a new colleague, my son’s teacher.
Metaphorical leap, metaphorical arms. But that didn’t matter. What mattered is that I pried open the tough fruit of my heart muscle and arranged its bright guilty seeds into a love letter, which my then husband found and shared with our son’s teacher’s wife, who was also our daughter’s teacher. They, too, had three kids at the school.
Lives split asunder.
But this is not about morality or affairs or what qualifies as either. It’s not about how, when I married just two years after aging out of foster care—my body a scarecrow of scars from childhood sexual abuse that started when I was four—I was so averse to sex I could barely tolerate my own serrated fingers between my legs. This is not about how that numb girl came back to her senses through a decade of birth, breastfeeding, motherhood, and therapy, or how those visceral experiences wrested her into her pulsing skin and bones just in time to meet a man she would recognize—recognize is the only word for this—as her lover of many lifetimes. This is not even about how that recognition collided with her desperation to be a good mother. In the end, this is about the unlikely grace of scratching through a thicket with no sign of the trail, and the glorious terror of blazing your own.
I loved my children’s father, despite profound loneliness. Seeing the bones of our marriage splayed under a mean sun, and walking in the other direction, was harrowing. I shudder just remembering. But I walked anyway, in the only direction I could. I would tell you the suffering wasn’t as bad as I feared—but in truth, it was worse. It took a long, long time to recover.
I quit the teaching job immediately, but the school said please, we can’t lose a first-grade teacher in August, don’t add harm to harm. Anyway, being suddenly single, I needed an income more than ever. So I pressed on, striving to be a good enough mother to make up for splintering my children’s family and a good enough teacher to make up for my grand entrance as the school slut. My son’s teacher left the school and his own long-estranged marriage. Five years later, we married each other, as my skin and bones sensed we would. The school community, including my students and their parents, made up most of our wedding guests. Over the next decade, our kids began leaping into their lives, too, landing across the globe from Portland, Oregon to Shanghai, China. My children carry my heart in their remarkably soft palms. Meanwhile, my former students—now in their twenties—and their parents remain among my dearest friends. As for my husband—you know the ocean. The ocean carries you. It rocks you while you live and while you die.
And writing. Well, I watched that sweet wax smolder ten years ago, and through the haze, I measured the rows of triangular teeth between me and what I most wanted. I loved teaching and the school—I had toiled to belong there. It was my world. To leave frightened me. But as much as Waldorf teaching ignited my creativity, it also devoured it. To write as I wished, I had to walk in the other direction, again. Once I finally resigned, I landed a university writing position within months, and soon after, I started writing a novel. Then I founded a small creative writing program and committed to finishing my manuscript before I turned fifty. To honor that goal, I applied to an MFA program that, like the Waldorf school, overlooked my lack of degree. Six months ahead of schedule, I’m scrabbling for an agent.
Still, fifty does loom, and time breathes hard through its mouth. Sometimes that terrifies me. But I’ve been terrified before, and kept walking. That, I know, makes all the difference.
Jeannine Ouellette lives in Minneapolis near the banks of the Mississippi River. Her work has appeared in Nowhere, december, Eckleburg Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Penn Review, and others. She is a recent winner in the Masters Review fiction contest, the Curt Johnson Fiction Awards, and Proximity’s Essay Contest. Jeannine teaches writing through Elephant Rock, an independent program she founded in 2012, and volunteers as a writing mentor through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
Jeannine would love for people to know more about the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, an organization that extends Minnesota’s vibrant literary community to state prisons, offering courses inside the state’s correctional facilities as well as one-on-one mentorships between writing teachers and prisoners.