Going to the Dark Side: Why I Miss Working With–gasp!–Teenagers

“Wow, you’re brave.”

That’s the most common reaction I used to hear when I told strangers that I taught high school.

I knew the images they were reacting to: sensationalized news bits about school shootings or violently defiant juvies. Welcome Back Kotter sweathogs. Or maybe just the mouthiness or sullenness or SOMETHING-ness of their own kids at home.

“I could never deal with that.”

My standard response, laughing: “Oh, the kids are fine. It’s the parents that you should be scared of.”

Kidding–sort of.

It has been three years and ten months since I left the other Wing’s World, my classroom in Tacoma (Room 1603), and I. Miss. Kids.

Has rosy nostalgia clouded up my memory, blotting out all the frustrations with ____, who was obviously brilliant but only ever turned in one piece of writing (about ComiCon, which his mom pulled him out of school for a week to attend)? Or ____, the cheerleader who helped me understand the finer points of what it means to be a Mean Girl? (The secret is in the curl of the lips when saying apparently sweet things.) Or ___, who was such an uncontrollable chatterbox I made him sit at MY desk just to get him far enough away from any potential gossip-mate? (He tried texting.)

(Oh, and don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten their names. I not only remember those, I remember where they sat in my room, and what their handwriting looked like.)

So…is nostalgia distorting my memories of my old career? Of course! Isn’t that nostalgia’s job? Who would do anything hard if the positive memories afterward didn’t outweigh the pain? (Tempted to use the childbirth parallel here…)

I’m riding that wave of nostalgia for real this week, because I GET TO WORK WITH TEENS AGAIN! Well, “work” is an overstatement. And only for a few days.

Next week is the official Launch Party for my YA novel, The Flying Burgowski. And since it’s a book about teenagers, I figured, why not spice up the Author Reading with…teenagers? So I invited four of Lopez Island’s finest young actors (whose work I’ve seen in our Community Shakespeare performances–but that’s another post) to join me in a dramatic reading. We got together twice last week for a read-through. I’m still a little giddy. Call it a contact high from all that open-endedness that teens emanate.

It’s not “energy.” Most normal teenagers, before noon, have less energy than your average banana slug. What draws me to that age group is their sense of possibility. They are walking intersections–the kind with a gazillion roads crossing over each other, some with turns so sharp they appear to be going the opposite way from what the sign indicates. Sullenness might be quiet superiority. Cheeriness might be fear. Inappropriateness might be hope. (Of course it could also just be inappropriateness. Teens are teens!)

(orig. image courtesy Shutterstock.com)

(orig. image courtesy Shutterstock.com)

You may, at this point, be wanting to ask the obvious question: Gretchen, if you like teens so much, and there’s a high school on your island, why don’t you go teach there? Or at least sub? Or tutor?

It’s a damn good question, although one my husband hates to hear. (He once famously told me, “I’d be more excited to see you without essays than without clothes!”) 

My answer is: When we moved here, I promised myself writing time, which does NOT fit with a full-time teaching job. (Believe me, I tried it.) As for subbing or tutoring: I know myself too well. I am #1, really bad at being peripheral–I like to be in the middle of things, if not running them. And #2, I’m horribly susceptible to being needed. So if any kid came to me saying, “I HATE history–Mr. So-and-so is BORING! Why don’t YOU be our teacher?” Ohhh…I’d be toast.

So I’ll make do with four kids reading aloud the various parts from Chapter Five of my novel. But inside, I’ll be soaking up those possibilities.

What do you think of my teenager metaphor? Do you have one of your own? (I mean metaphors, not teens–but you can share about that too.)

Oh, Life Crossroads, Why Are You Such a Terrifying Blessing?

Does this look familiar?

(orig. image courtesy Shutterstock.com)

(orig. image courtesy Shutterstock.com)

Been there. More than a few times. You?

Having just spent a Thanksgiving holiday with Son #1, aged 23 and working in his first full-time, post-college job, while Son #2, aged 21, spent the same holiday 3,000 miles away with cousins since he’s studying on the east coast this semester...let’s just say I’ve been thinking a good deal about those delightful life crossroads.

Son #1 is happy. Loves his job. But people are already asking him, “What’s next? Gonna stick with that? Thinking about grad school? What do you want to BE when you grow up?”

Son #2 has it worse. About to graduate in spring of next year, he’ll soon face that dreaded question, “So…?” (I’ll let you fill in the blanks.)

Thing is, even though I’m the same age as a pack of cards (without the jokers, thank you very much), I can totally relate to the whole transition thing. Walking away from my teaching job was the most terrifying and exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.

It wasn’t even because of finances. I’m lucky enough to be married to someone with a superb retirement plan, so we knew we could afford for me to take a huge, ginormous pay cut. It was the IDENTITY.

If I’m not a teacher anymore…what AM I?

Watching my kids begin that first, gradual accumulation of job-related identity, I wonder: which is the greater blessing: to be able to define ourselves through our work, or to be able to shake off those identities and see what’s underneath?

I sure know which one is scarier. But I think, given what we find beneath those layers accrued from years of work, it may also be the greater blessing, in the end.

What do you think? How many major job changes have you been through? Do you think the rewards are worth the terror? Let me hear!

Promotion? Careful What You Wish For…

I’m a head baker now.

No, this does not mean I bake heads. (Although if you prepped ’em for me just right, I would pop ’em in my oven & make sure the eyelids came out nice & crispy.)

Need I say more?

Need I say more?

Here’s what the Assistant Baker does at Holly B’s Bakery (where “Holly’s Buns Are Best”):

–takes dough made during the previous shift and fills, rolls, and/or twists it into cinnamon rolls, butterhorns, brioches & rugelach

–scoops or chops and presses cookie dough into flat rounds

–makes macaroons and chocolate chip cookies from scratch (these doughs don’t keep as well, plus our fridge isn’t that big)

–assembles & cuts out scones & biscuits with pre-made dry mixes

–makes brownies & bars….

…and puts all of the above on racks for the Head Baker to decide when to bake.

"You WILL be the most delicious croissants ever. Resistance is futile."

“You WILL be the most delicious croissants ever. Resistance is futile.”

Here’s what the Head Baker does:

–makes bread doughs & sets them up to rise

–rolls out, fills & assembles danish and about a zillion different kinds of croissants, working FAST so the cold dough doesn’t get sticky and refuse to roll

–shapes, rises and bakes all bread loaves, including our filled baguettes (can you say carmelized onion and brie? Mais oui!)

–bakes everything the Assistant Baker puts on the racks, keeping in mind a) how long each item might need to rise; b) how long each item might use up oven space; c) how hot said oven needs to be for said item; and d) when each item is needed up front.

Here’s what an Assistant Baker Worries About:

Am I making this right?

Here’s what a Head Baker Worries About:

Am I making this right? Am I rising anything so long it flattens? Are my ovens hot enough or too hot? Am I burning anything, or  underbaking it so it falls apart when de-panned? Am I missing any special orders that need to be picked up by, God help us all, 7 am? Am I noticing whether we’re running out of any ingredients that the next shift will need? Am I paying attention to my Assistant Baker’s work in case, God help us all, she’s as much a rookie as I am?

You get the idea.

Friends from my former life, who knew I walked away from 20 years of teaching high school into a blessedly, no, miraculously stress-free life of writing and assistant baking, are now a little baffled. “You want more stress in your life…why, exactly?”

Here’s all I can tell them, all I can tell myself: After three years on the JV, I wanted to join the Varsity.

Yep, it’s more stressful. I’m already starting to dream about those little oven timers going off like panicked baby ducks. (For the record, I still dream about trying to teach out-of-control classrooms too; guess that stays with a teacher for life!)

But it is WORTH it. If I was proud of my work before, now, as a HEAD BAKER, when I see those racks of bread that I BROUGHT INTO THIS WORLD FROM RAW INGREDIENTS AND DID NOT BURN, I want to grab the nearest customer and yell, “Hey! Aren’t they gorgeous? I MADE those! Eat them! Bow down to me!”

Of course, it’s only been a week. I’ll get back to you on the stress thing.

How about you? Ever felt like you’ve bitten off more than you could chew, workwise? Ever decided it was worth it anyway? Tell me your story. You know I’ll relate.


In my PROFESSIONAL Opinion, Holly’s Buns are Best

When I left the teaching profession, I told folks I wasn’t retiring, I was just graduating. “Took me 20 years, but I finally get to walk across that stage!” Cue laughter.

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September 1950, teacher at desk

Old me (just kidding). Courtesy George Eastman House

New me.

New me.

But really, that is how I feel. Who retires at age 49 except Microsoft millionaires? Sure, I have a new “job” as a writer. But I’m backing that up, financially as well as socially, with my job at Holly B’s Bakery.

Everyone I talk to thinks baking is cool. Everyone shows awe and admiration at how early we bakers have to get up (3:45, for me–make that 3:15 in high summer when we get super busy). And everyone jokes about how hard I must have to work not to gain a million pounds from all those fresh, hot, crusty croissants and scones and…OK, I’ll stop.


Point is, they’re right: baking IS cool, getting up early IS hard, and yes, I exercise my buns off (Ha! Pun!) to stay gorgeous.

But lately The World’s Best Boss, Holly B, has an ample supply of bakers on her payroll and not enough counter people. So she’s put me on counter this month, selling all those yummy treats that my colleagues have risen early to bake.

Need I say more?

Need I say more?

So the conversation’s changed a bit:
“What do you do?”
“I work part-time at a bakery.”
“Oh, you’re a baker!”
“Well, these days I’m just working the front counter.”

Apparently retail–even in the world’s cutest bakery, the heart of our village–is not cool. More accurately, it is not “professional.” That is the (unspoken) message I get from people who knew me in my old life.  Selling muffins? That’s all you do? With a Masters in History and 20 years of teaching? Why…?

The long answer is, Because my boss needs me to, and I adore her, and feel I am more part of a team than merely an employee. Because even though there’s not much skill involved (besides addition, and I’m kind of embarrassed to say how often I reach for that calculator, especially towards the end of the day), I love people and miss interacting with them. Writing is lonely. And because, at the end of the day when I’ve mopped the floor, turned off the lights and locked up, I feel just as much pride in my work as when I tucked a dozen perfectly-twisted butterhorns into the oven.


But more and more I feel inclined to give the short answer: Work is work. I don’t feel any less “professional” selling cinnamon rolls and asking folks how their day is going than I did grading essays. If you care about your job and give it your best attention, you are, in my opinion, a professional.

My esteemed colleague, DianaMy esteemed colleague Diana

I know some of you must have experience with this. Tell me about a time when you felt a huge gap between how YOU felt about your work, and the reactions of other people. How did you–or how do you–handle that? Let me hear!