My senior year in college, lo these many years ago, I had my path mapped out. I had majored in history, minored in English, and taken all of the courses necessary to get certified to teach high school social studies and English. I’d done my student teaching. I’d gone to educational job fairs, and I’d lined up a job at a school in a small town in coastal South Carolina (conditioned only upon my finishing the paperwork needed to get my SC teaching license, which I planned to do that summer).
And then, over Easter weekend of that year, Penelope dropped by campus out of the blue to visit. We’d been friends forever, but that weekend we became so much more… and as she was headed to Chicago to go to the School of the Art Institute, suddenly my moving to South Carolina was unthinkable. I went to Chicago too late to get my Illinois certification in order in time to find a teaching job that year. I got a job in educational publishing and hated it so much I was soured on the whole educational field, so became a lawyer instead.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And that has made all the difference, indeed. This is the time of year, every year, when I am most haunted by that road not taken. This is the time of year when my teacher friends (including my darling bride) are cleaning out their classrooms, planning their summer adventures, and posting Facebook updates about how much their students have grown and learned and how bittersweet it is to send them off to the next grade or school or university. (Penelope will be upset if I don’t clarify that she is not posting anything to Facebook, as she is a conscientious Facebook objector.)
Let me be clear: I am not just jealous of the summer vacations. (Penelope doesn’t even have summer vacation: she has a mere ten days off before she starts teaching the extended school year program.) I am certainly not jealous of the mountains of paperwork, tedious meetings, and bureaucratic obstacles teachers have to contend with. (I get plenty of that in my current job, thankyouverymuch.) There is plenty wrong with our nation’s public education system, and there is every chance that if I had taken that other road in the yellow wood, I might have quickly burned out and become embittered.
Here’s what haunts me; what I am, unquestionably, jealous of: the cyclical nature of the teaching profession. Every fall there is the anticipation of a bright new beginning, a new year “with no mistakes in it,” as Anne Shirley would say. -New students, new supplies (I love office supplies with an unhealthy zeal), new grade books, new unit ideas, new lesson plans: all the excitement of the first day of school, every year for one’s entire career! Every school year passes with a predictable rhythm, but always with the opportunity to improve upon the mistakes of the past, and always with new students to guide and influence. Then, every spring brings closure — tangible proof that the work you have done that year made a difference — as students write their final essays or exams and go on to the next stage in their lives, more mature, more intelligent, more skilled, more thoughtful, more inspired than they were when they first entered your classroom. Some of them may even pause on their way out the door to thank you for your part in that transformation.
That closure, that recognition, that sense of accomplishment — these are entirely absent from my work as a prosecutor. (Well, not entirely: I have actually had a handful of defendants thank me for my role in setting them back on the path to righteousness — but that’s a handful among thousands and thousands of cases.) The criminal justice system serves a lot of necessary purposes, but it is woefully inadequate to address many of the issues that lead to criminality: addiction, mental illness, poverty, family violence. In my line of work, “success” means I never see the defendant again — and success by that measure is, regrettably, all too rare. All too often the same faces come through the court room again and again, aging from adolescence to middle adulthood, always with the same issues, stories, and excuses. Most people seem to finally settle down some time in their thirties and stop getting arrested, but not because of anything I did, not because of any sentence imposed by a judge: no, they simply grew up.
This time of year, as the teachers are swelling with well-deserved pride at their accomplishments and those of their proteges, I always struggle more than usual to find the value in my work. I heave a great sigh and think of the road not traveled.