The Light at the Center

Cristi Marchetti, October 2022

“It is the light at the center of every cell.”

Mary Oliver’s line from “The Black Snake” serves as a guidepost for me, especially regarding education. Last year, teachers around the world questioned the return on personal and financial investment of their work, wondered if their talents would better suit in other professions, and reflected on their personal reasons for staying.

I, too, sat in my backyard, mug of coffee in hand, and constructed my mental Pro/Con list. Within seconds, other options flew past teaching, like a carnival HighStriker game. However, the mug read: SNOW MUCH FUN. It was given to me by a student who still comes to visit and who still stays in touch with me on Linkedin.

“It is the light at the center of every cell.”

The physical manifestation of Mary Oliver’s line is the wool wrap from a senior “because I am always cold” and the note from a quiet sophomore tucked into the arm of my chair “because it’s easier to write” and the “Mom!” a ninth grader wanted to take back, but then owned it.

A few days ago one of my former advisees/students emailed me that she met with her college English professor, who told her “how well I integrated a quote into the paragraph and explained it” – somehow that wasn’t as large as my heart could grow, because for my birthday she arranged for the whole advising group to Zoom with me, even though they are spread around the country and it was a Saturday and for college students, it was early.

That is the light at the center of every one of my cells.

My seniors, including the Mugger and the Zoomers, get life advice as part of the invisible curriculum:
• Send a postcard to a friend. Everyone loves mail. Use Postagram so it’s easy.
• Set up a once-a-month call with your near and far friends because if it’s scheduled everyone will look forward to it and make time for it. Life is too busy to organize on the fly.
• Have a set salary in mind. You don’t need millions of dollars. You need to cover your expenses, your hobbies, and your interests. Do a calculation of those costs, and you’ll know how much money you should make. Don’t chase money for the sake of having money – chase life.

In my backyard this past summer, with my coffee, I took my own advice; rather than chasing money for the sake of having money, I did the math and realized returning to teaching this fall is part of the price of my happiness and sense of satisfaction.

Looking at colleagues who’ve taught for over 40 years makes me want to be a member of their club because they live life. They read, they golf, they swim, they travel, they talk, they listen, and they teach. Their sense of fulfillment is palpable; though I’m in my 21st year of teaching, I can see myself enjoying it for 21 more and welcoming former students into the fold.

The cost of my happiness is a bit more than my current salary, but I find ways to cut back on expenses, like
• Buying generic brands rather than name brand
• Doing meal prep instead of going to a restaurant or getting take-out
• Borrowing from Overdrive and the local library rather than buying books
• Doing errands in a loop to save on gas
Poshmarking instead of buying retail
• Using every single one of those sweet discounts via the teacher union, AARP, AAA, and store punch cards
• Investing spare change using Acorns

Tweaking my habits gives me the financial ability to stay in a job where I know I positively impact students and the community – and that brings me joy.

I want my students to leave my classroom at the end of the year knowing they are valued and needed. We need these students in the world because they are innovative and creative and vibrant and caring and earnest and without them, life is stagnant.

I don’t think I can afford not to teach. My “light at the center of every cell” is educating the adults of tomorrow. This realization infused my enthusiasm – I put down my coffee mug to pick up my 2022-2023 lesson planner, and this fall I’ll once again introduce students to Mary Oliver.

Cristi Marchetti teaches Upper School English at The Albany Academies in Albany, New York. As a 2016-2017 Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient, she researched community use of schools while based at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. She can be reached at marchettic@albanyacademies.org.

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