I enjoy new beginnings, and as a churchgoing educator, I get three “new years” annually: the first on Jan. 1; the second in August or September as the academic year commences; and the last with the arrival of Advent and a new church year. Each provides me with an opportunity to re-center myself, and as the new school year begins each fall, I always consider my call to be a teacher.
“A call”—it sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it? What does a call from God even look like? An announcement from a burning bush? Maybe sometimes. A tug in the soul, pulling you closer to something new? Sure, that seems more likely.
But could a calling come wrapped in the distinctive smell of a church basement, of cooked ham, chalk dust, old paper and spilled juice? At least for me, the answer is yes.
I first felt called to be a teacher in a preschool and day care in the basement of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Johnstown, Pa. To be sure, my experience wasn’t as impressive as a flaming shrub. In fact, it didn’t feel especially dramatic at all—more like the next right step.
I was the 6 a.m. opener, which is what happens when you’re laid off from your first postcollegiate job, you hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater and the only thing you have going for you is benign nepotism. In other words, I took the job because I needed it, and I was given the job because it’s hard to find reliable people willing to arrive at work at 5:45 a.m.—and because I was the pastor’s now-grown kid.
This doesn’t sound like the stuff of callings, does it?
But I’ve come to realize that, while some calls feel like thunderbolts out of a blue sky, others sneak up on you and can be seen only in retrospect. Although I entered into that work convinced that I would never be a teacher and that I would soon get back on track with my real work, the next 18 months of looking after preschoolers revealed that a teacher was exactly what I was going to be.
What I experienced was the slow awakening of my calling, like a plant turning toward the brightening sun.
Love as calling
What stands out to me most in revisiting that time is that, despite the many difficulties of the job, what I most often felt there was love. I suppose that to love really is everyone’s calling. I loved those kids, and they loved me back, so it’s right and good that this took place in a church building where I had so often felt love.
Like many people in my early 20s, I associated love with romance and desire, so it took me a while to see how love was manifest in a preschool. Eventually, I understood that in those classrooms—as in most places—love was action.
Love was helping someone change into dry pants after an accident. Or letting someone take the steps slowly enough to be able to say she climbed them herself. Or watching the pumpkins I’d brought to class and the children painting them turn an unphotogenic shade of mud. Or singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” for the fifth time that day.
But it was also accepting a pile-on of hugs after I stubbed my toe so hard everyone winced. And reading the scrawled but heartfelt words of affection on homemade Christmas cards. And feeling a little hand slip into mine as we turned around on our walk and headed back to the church. Love.
I doubt that I would have kept teaching without it. At that time, I didn’t know what my career would bring, that I would journey from Johnstown to South Brooklyn, from preschoolers to high schoolers, and from a relatively peaceful community to one roiled by hardship. I didn’t know that the work would get more difficult but my need to keep doing it would feel stronger and stronger, having lodged in my heart in that church basement. What I experienced was the slow awakening of my calling, like a plant turning toward the brightening sun.
This fall, this new school year, will not be like the others. As I write this, the University of Pittsburgh, where I now teach, hasn’t yet announced how classes will proceed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. I know schools, students and teachers everywhere are at a loss. But a new year brings change, and change brings the opportunity to reconsider and deepen calls, whether dramatic or mundane.
Finding the sun may be harder for us right now, but I trust that if we take small steps forward and act in love, we will feel its warmth—God’s warmth. After all, we are called to do so.
Why Did I Get a B?, Reed’s memoir about her 20-year teaching career, was published in June by Atria Books.