In five months, I will become a mother of a college graduate, a life change I have dreamed about since 1996, when my eldest son Casey arrived, red-faced and screaming. From his earliest months, I monitored his milestones for evidence of brilliance, becoming convinced even before he could talk that he was bound for distinction.
We always hope that our children will do better than we did, take the path we would have liked had life not gotten in our way. In fact, my son has by far already exceeded the meager accomplishments I could claim at his age, and yet I still want more for him—or possibly from him—partly because at one time I wanted more for myself. When he went away to college, I’d hoped that he would take up my dreams and turn them into a reality that I could experience, at least to some small degree, through proximity as his mother. I know I am not unusual in this regard, and I know that our children seldom grant us our wishes.
My father wanted his daughters to marry wealthy (he was of a time and place when this was about the best one might expect for daughters), and he wanted his son to be a lawyer. We did not oblige him. My mother, who had dreamed of being a ballerina herself, hoped that I might take up a life of pointe shoes and hours spent every day with my toes curled over a barre. Instead, she got a kid who wanted to be a professional trick rider (a career, I might add, for which I had about as much natural talent as ballet).
When I graduated from college, I had no idea at all what I wanted to do. I worked for a year as a waitress at night and a substitute teacher during the day. I found out that I liked teaching, and eventually I applied for the credential program at Fresno State. My father, who had dropped out of school after the eighth grade, did not have a favorable view of teachers, but over time he learned to accept the life I had chosen, though it was my marriage seven years later (not to a wealthy man, but to one who at least had steady employment, as a teacher) that truly pleased him.
Because of his extraordinary early promise, I had hoped that Casey might become the youngest person ever elected president of the United States, and that his career after graduation would mark the beginning of his meteoric ascent into the political sphere. Then Donald Trump was elected, and I realized that becoming president wasn’t really much of an achievement, and so I turned my daydreams for Casey to literature. I concluded that Casey should be a world traveler and writer, achieving greatness in the realm of adventurers such as Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson. Or he could be a criminal lawyer. Or an anesthesiologist or architect or pearl diver.
Anything but a teacher.
Anything but a teacher, not because I have a deep-seated antipathy to teachers, like my father, but because I am a teacher, and I hoped my son would do something more. Something that would support my earliest convictions about his brilliance.
Over the winter break, my conversations with Casey inevitably turned to his plans for the coming year, when he will no longer be a student but will probably not be fully employed, either.
“What about grad school?” I asked him. “Maybe not in the fall, but for the spring?”
“God, Mom. I really don’t want to do that,” he answered, not even looking up from his phone.
“Okay,” I said, remembering how I felt during those final months as an undergraduate, when the promise of never again having to study for another test hovered over my shoulder, so seductively close. “Maybe you could join the Peace Corps. You’d be great in the Peace Corps.”
The pause that followed told me that maybe my son did not want to join the Peace Corps.
“Well, you’re going to have to do something. You have to find some kind of job,” and then I added, because I could not help myself, “And you’re going to have to go to grad school at some point, you know. You can’t get by on just a B.S. these days.”
And that is when Casey put down his phone and said the words I was dreading because I’d had some inkling, ever since he coached swimming and taught sailing during his high school years, that I would hear them one day.
“I think I might want to be a teacher.”
So then. Not a pearl diver, I thought.
“Why do you want to be a teacher?” I asked.
“Because I really like teaching, Mom,” he answered. “And I think I’m good at it.”
He was right about being good at it. I had seen that from the beginning, when he taught sailing during the summer breaks during junior high school, and later, when he taught swimming and water polo during his high school years.
“You’ll never get rich teaching,” I said, even though I knew that, for Casey, this was a weak argument.
“So what,” he answered.
It was then I decided that my son should do whatever made him happy, a platitude I told my children the whole time they were growing up, and which I repeated to my friends and relatives over and over again throughout my sons’ formative years. But it was a sentiment I had never really embraced.
“Well, it’s an admirable career,” I said. “It’s brought me a lot of joy, and you get great benefits and a lot of time off to do other stuff.”
“Yeah,” he agreed.
“Like travel,” I added. And maybe writing about your travels, I thought.
“Yeah, I’d like that.”
“Well, if that’s really what you want. I want you to do whatever makes you happy.”
“I think teaching really will,” he said.
“You’re still going to need to get into a credential program,” I said. “And you’ll need grad school eventually.”
And then we made a few more plans. He’ll substitute for one year, just as I did, to see if teaching is really what he wants to do. He’ll get his credential. And I did not mention this to him, but I thought about other possibilities, too. Teach. Get an administrative credential. Become a principal, a district superintendent, California state superintendent of public instruction, secretary of education for the United States. And then, finally, president.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.