The Right Risk by Joy Preble

I started teaching high school English when I was 21 years old. I liked it. I found it challenging. I found it exciting and fun.

I did not always love it.

I said I loved it. I thought I loved it. I sometimes loved it, but there were many things I did not love and that is not the same at all.

The truth was that I was afraid of risk and because teaching well is not an easy task, I mistook this for risk. Don’t get me wrong: There is indeed an inherent and often large amount of emotional and intellectual and at times even physical risk in teaching 6 classes of 30 10th graders a day, especially if you’re doing it right. But it was not the risk I needed—which was the artistic and personal risk that comes from telling stories and writing stories and creating them in a way that other people who don’t even know you feel compelled to pay you cash for them or otherwise compensate you for what is essentially you, sitting in dirty yoga pants, eating peanut butter and making stuff up.

It took me a long time to understand that. Periodically, I’d quit teaching for other jobs or for different teaching jobs, each time thinking that I was chasing the risk. Always during those times, I’d coincidentally plot out novels or non-fiction books that I planned on writing. But it never occurred to me that WRITING THOSE BOOKS WAS WHAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE DOING. Yes, I am slow that way.

So the Powers that Be or Fate or Karma or Whatever You Personally Call It finally intervened. They gave me the worst school year ever while I was writing one of those books—the one that would become DREAMING ANASTASIA. It was the kind of school year where each day during lunch you eat your yogurt and you think about walking to the car and driving away. (There is a scene like this in a John Updike short story. The guy walks out of the building with just his umbrella.)

Instead, I finally finished writing the darn book.
I am sure that the PTB heaved a sigh of relief. They were running out of cosmic anvils to heave at my head.

I’d quote Thoreau to you here – that line about ‘lives of quiet desperation,’ but I don’t think that’s quite right or fair especially since many days I miss teaching, just not the paperwork and endless standardized testing that sucks the life out of everybody, and the occasional administrator that would make me think of that line from the Trouble with Tribbles episode of Star Trek where Scotty tells Kirk that the Klingons called him a ‘tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood.’ 

Either way, I think I’m risking the right stuff now.
Hope you all are, too.
Would love to hear your 'Groundhog Day' repeated it til you got it right stories!


  1. I can so relate to this. I was a teacher too and I also liked it (when I didn't hate it). I remember gazing past the heads of the kids out the window in the back of the classroom and imaging myself climbing out and walking up the hill. It made me laugh just to think about it. What would the kids do if their teacher jumped out the window? What saved me was having a second child and my husband's job transfer. And another fifteen years. I'm a slow learner too.

    1. ha! Jump out the window. Maybe that's why they build so many schools now without them. :)

  2. *nods* Oh, I do relate to this -- just not in teaching. I was a secretary for many years before they starting calling us 'admins' and everyone assumed you were there to serve the boss's needs -- any need. I'd been chased around desks, talked down to like I was a maid in an old historical novel, snapped at, leered at, even told my voice was grating.

    And took it.

    I had no choice - I needed the money.

    But I was filing away all these nuggets of truth-being-stranger-than-fiction, only half-conscious that someday, I'd use both the bad jobs and material they provided as fodder for my vivid imagination.

    It took me years to walk away from those jobs. I went back to school, finished my degree, found better jobs and found my voice.

    1. "talked to like I was a maid in an old historical novel" Great line -- and sadly you are probably not exaggerating. I am glad you found your voice! It's a powerful one. :)

  3. Another former teacher here. I taught freshman comp courses while I was working on my master's. I now think a big part of me not really liking to teach then was that I'd yet to really figure myself out as a writer.

  4. I'm admiring your deft use of that apt Star Trek quote. ;-)

    1. I love that freakin' line! And I love that moment because the Klingons don't tell it to Kirk directly but he hears it through Scotty which makes it so classic. And it is absolutely always the thing that comes to mind when someone is acting like, well, you know.

  5. Former Special Education Teacher in the house and I love how you described how it was the wrong risk--because it's an amazing job--it just wasn't the right job for me either. (((hugs)))

  6. Another former teacher here--special ed followed by regular ed. Loved many aspects of the teaching part; loathed the rest. Seems you and I had the same principal, too. :)


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