I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah
Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)
I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.
I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.
I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.
Ah, how the mighty have fallen.
So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.
I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.
It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.
I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?
It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.
I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.
What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.
I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.
Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.
The Unknown Citizen W. H. Auden (To JS/07 M 378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State) He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be One against whom there was no official complaint, And all the reports on his conduct agree That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint, For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. Except for the War till the day he retired He worked in a factory and never got fired, But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc. Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views, For his Union reports that he paid his dues, (Our report on his Union shows it was sound) And our Social Psychology workers found That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink. The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way. Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured, And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured. Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan And had everything necessary to the Modern Man, A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire. Our researchers into Public Opinion are content That he held the proper opinions for the time of year; When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went. He was married and added five children to the population, Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation. And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education. Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.
It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.
Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.
And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.
That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.
(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)
When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.
Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.