I had been promoted three times in three years, and the corporate ladder of the Cincinnati publishing company for which I worked stood seemingly endless before me. I was 26. Yet instead of taking the next step toward a life as publisher or vice president, there I was, dangling from a rung, questioning my ascent.
Why? Because in the back of my mind, the little 7-year-old in me was stomping the floor, pouting, “I never wanted to be a publisher.” So I quit—to appease her I guess, but more so to not fear looking back on my life 20 years from now and having this one regret: I should have been a teacher.
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher, and as long as I can remember, I’ve been told I’d make a good one. I thought that everyone who was “smart” (i.e. got good grades) was told this until one day I confessed my secret career desire to a fellow editor, who was very smart. “No one ever told me that,” she said.
Maybe that’s why I jumped ladder. Maybe. But I doubt life-changing decisions can be boiled down to one moment. Real life is a tangle of reasons, and in this case the reasons knotted to form the rope I needed to take a new direction. So I find myself back at Xavier, returning to the scene of my undergraduate years, pursuing the education I need to teach.
It is surreal to walk these paths again: to revisit favorite hangouts; to know my old regulars aren’t just beyond the bend; to navigate new buildings and spaces with what is now an outdated mental map; to realize that nearly 10 years stand between my youngest classmates and myself. The three years I spent outside of school seemed so small, but in reality they were a mountain.
During my time on that Everest, I learned a few cold truths about the climate of the real world. Exposure to things such as the bottom line, cutbacks and layoffs were stark blows to the idealism I carried around in my backpack during my undergraduate years. Ideals such as a belief in justice, honesty and the greater meaning of life lost their resonance amid the din of the working-world machine. But they weren’t silenced. I may have become more world-wise, and learned that faith alone in humanity’s ability to rise up and change the world would not make it happen, but I still could take action and change a little piece of it myself.
And where better to start, in my opinion, than at the age I was when I first formed so many of these beliefs: high school. I’ve discovered, however, a funny thing happens when one decides to be a high school teacher: Others question your decision. “Why would you want to do that?” Or “Why not kindergarten?” You’d have thought I needed therapy. No one ever questioned my decision to be an editor. I can’t blame them, though. I know they’re responding to the new world we’ve created for our high school children.
What they don’t understand, though, is that I want to reach out and affect lives. I want to discuss ideas and prompt students to form ideals. I want to inspire them to be the ones who change the world and make them realize the power of the imagination and the genius of creativity. I want to prepare them for the temperament of life outside school so they keep a firm grip on what matters most, such as treating others kindly and living a life you take pride in. I want them to know their lives are their own and no matter what rung they find themselves dangling from as they climb the ladders of life that they can, and should, stop and ask the all important questions: Where am I headed, and is it really where I want to go?
Katie DuMont Merz, Class of 1999, is a freelance writer/editor and a full-time graduate student at Xavier.