Last fall, my mom convinced me to enter Real Simple’s essay contest. I had never entered a writing contest before, and I knew that I wouldn’t win, but I am glad that I went through with it. It was good to have to develop a thought to a 1500 word length, and to work around a deadline, and to put my writing out there for better or for worse.
They published the winning essay recently (no, it wasn’t mine) so I figured I would pull mine out and “publish” it here…for your reading pleasure. And if you want to read the winning essay, you can check it out here. It is really quite good…
Here’s my attempt…
Under the Dust Ruffle
I can still see my high school bedroom in my mind’s eye, complete with burgundy and cream striped wallpaper, pink plastic stereo, and wood veneer bookshelf full of my favorite books. My parents made sure I kept things picked up, but the smallest corner of a piece of paper sticking out from underneath my bed would betray me. Peek underneath the striped dust ruffle, and you would see piles of books, school papers, and half filled journals stuffed floor to bed spring. Whenever I cleaned my room, I jammed all the odds and ends under my bed, so when anyone came into my room, it appeared to be neat and tidy.
It wasn’t just in my old bedroom where I tried to appear perfect. That was how I lived my life. I worked hard to make my outside look picked up like I had it all figured out, and kept the real part of me tucked away, reserved for only my closest friends. I’m sure any well-respecting psychologist could tell me why I was wired that way, maybe because I was the oldest of three, maybe because I was the youngest in my class at school, maybe because I was worried about what others would think if they knew the real me. To those who didn’t know me well, I came across as distant and maybe even a little cold, as I kept the self-reliant, confident, and strong part of me at the forefront.
Five years after graduating from college, right after I found out I was pregnant with our first child, I got a job working part time as an adjunct professor. I was only 26, and in some cases, not much older than my students. Even though I was terrified that no one would take me seriously, I reasoned with myself that if I stayed professional and kept my distance, the students would respect my authority. They wouldn’t have to see any of the weakness or insecurity that I kept stashed inside.
When August rolled around, I squeezed my newly pregnant body into my best power pantsuit, packed my laptop loaded with my perfectly coordinated powerpoint, and headed to my first class. It was a muggy day, and after climbing two flights of stairs to my classroom, I was already sweating inside my rayon cocoon. Beads of sweat trickled down my back as I fumbled with the projector cords, straightened my pile of syllabi, and flashed a nervous smile at the students who dared make eye contact with me as they filed in.
The last two minutes before class started seemed to drag on forever as I stood at the front of the room sizing up the crowd. There were students sitting eagerly in the front row ready to pounce on any question I asked, and there were students slouching in the back row already plugged into Facebook. I even spotted a student that reminded me of myself when I was in college. Sitting off to the side of the room, she was booting up her computer for class. She was put together, prepared, but averting her eyes from the rest of the classroom. Perhaps she felt like she had nothing to add or maybe she didn’t want to say the wrong thing.
Did I want to reinforce her belief that her true self wasn’t good enough? Did I want my unborn child to believe it was more important to look good than to speak her mind? Was I willing to let go of my own comfort to let my students see who I really was instead of a carefully sanctioned version of myself?
I never imagined I would be strong enough to expose my imperfections, to lift the dust ruffle on my life, but as the clock tower began to chime, signaling the beginning of class, I decided that it was worth the risk. I took a deep breath, took off my jacket, revealing my sweaty cotton shirt underneath, and said, “Hi. My name is Rachel. Welcome to Speech class.”
Over the next five years, I stood in front of my students and gave them a look into the tangled mess of my life. I let them see my imperfections, as they watched me go through three pregnancies, bloated, hormone riddled, and sometimes positively cranky. I shared my constant struggle to keep my life in balance between work and home, so they heard when I had been up all night with a crying baby and that their papers weren’t graded because all three kids had the flu. I cried with them when a student was killed in a car accident, and I cried when I told them I was leaving my teaching job.
I told them about my journey to share my true self, challenging them to do the same. I reminded them that risk sometimes means taking one small step in a different direction, but it can have a far reaching impact.
One semester, I asked my Business Communication students to send me a persuasive e-mail. They had to assume that the class was full, and they had to persuade me to add them to the class. As I clicked through the couple dozen e-mails, jotting down some feedback, most of the reasons were standard: they needed the class to graduate, it fit their schedule, or they wanted to be a better communicator.
Then I came across an e-mail I wouldn’t soon forget. It was from a student that I had previously for Speech class. He said, “In Speech, I learned many things, but I also learned about loss. The death of Kendra helped me learn to trust you as a teacher and friend. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you, and this helps me stay focused during the class. I feel that taking Business Communication with a Professor that I trust and respect is the best environment for myself as a student.”
Two years previously, one of my students was killed in a car accident. I attended the funeral, and took a few students that had become friends with her during class. I guess I figured there was strength in numbers, and I wasn’t feeling so strong. It was a beautiful service, and we spent the ride talking, remembering, even joking around a little bit, reaffirming life even in the face of a terrible loss. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but it obviously made an impression.
If I had stuffed the less than perfect parts of me away, deciding it wasn’t worth the risk, I would have missed out on countless opportunities to make a difference in the lives of my students. I would have missed out on the car ride to Kendra’s funeral, which imprinted a memory on each of our minds. I would have missed out on the transformation that took place in my own life.
As I walked out the door on my last day of class wearing khakis, flip flops, and carrying my Vera Bradley backpack, I couldn’t help but think about how far I had come since that first day in my power pantsuit. I still stuff things in closets and drawers when company comes, but when it comes to the things that matter, I try to keep my life strewn out on the coffee table for all to see. I want my kids to see that I am willing to admit my mistakes and my friends to know that they are not alone in their struggles. No hiding behind dust ruffles, no trying to look perfect, just me.