Nestled in the back corner of my classroom, perfectly adjacent to my much nicer, high-back teacher chair, is a tattered, blue office chair. Before the chair’s sad and shabby state, it lived in my extra bedroom, the room I temporarily deemed an “office,” while patiently awaiting a whitewashed cradle, changing table, and pastel rocker that were never needed. The chair comforted me and took a beating as I immersed myself in the life of an English teacher and was transported from new house to new house before permanently residing here, in its cinderblock, academic abode, for the past fifteen years.
It’s a comfortable swivel chair—cushioned and adjustable, with just the right give for teenagers rocking themselves into a state of peaceful, if somewhat resistant, contentment. That chair has held students struggling with college essays, and students fighting with parents. It’s heard stories of learning disabilities, failing grades, unexpected A’s, and unplanned pregnancies. The dingy armrests and faded upholstery have supported the most confident and most vulnerable—those reveling in their teenage years and those contending with them.
Somehow, I became a mother to many of the chair’s inhabitants. Give me a kid whose problems I could solve with the skills acquired through my English degrees, and I’ll give you my new project. Family struggling financially? Have a seat and let’s open a Google Doc. We’re going to have fun writing scholarship essays. Math teacher giving you a hard time? Let me take a trip downstairs and schmooze him a bit. First love break your heart? I have tissues, chocolate, and a free afternoon of grading procrastination. I hold their hands, wipe tears from their eyes and snot from their faces, and love them as my own. This is the side of teaching they don’t tell you about—the side that makes the headaches, heartaches, and the dual caffeine-wine addiction worth it.
My own son, Evan, a grown man now, spent many childhood years watching me compose research papers, literary analyses, and later, lesson plans in that very home office and from the tattered, blue chair. He recently graduated from college with a degree in vocal performance, and he’s trying to adjust to the life of a young, struggling artist. My husband, Ryan, and I, having had him at the oh-so-grown up age of nineteen, sometimes wonder where this child came from. He was a funny little kid of intellect and creativity, but also possessed an introverted nature that embraced the adult world, dismissing childhood frivolities.
As he got older, Evan became increasingly contemplative. He’s a skeptic—a thinker and a worrier. He holds his cards close and most days you need a chisel and a pickaxe to reach his softer side. But, it’s there. In moments of either sheer happiness or extreme disillusionment, when only a mom can suffice, he lets me in. And I love it. These moments are rare though, so when I come across students who I connect with, students who need me, students whose doubts and fears spill out from the safety of that chair, I can’t help but make them my own.
I never believed I was supposed to be a mother. How I got pregnant in the first place, the odds were ridiculous! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear of all the fertility treatments my friends have had to endure, while Ryan, in his dashing potency, barely sneezed on me and low and behold, it’s a boy! As we juggled the new and peculiar responsibilities of young parenting in a sea of our own college antics and anxieties, we treated Evan as more of a sibling than our child. He attended concerts and parties with us, watched Friends and Seinfeld on Thursday nights, insisted on calling us Jen and Ryan during his entire second year of life, and learned to tap a keg at the age of three. Even in our youthful naiveté, he was loved, intellectually stimulated, and a tad spoiled. But I was also the mom who forgot about show and tell, felt frozen chicken nuggets qualified as a suitable dinner, and spent more time on my career than playing in the yard.
Despite our unconventional parenting style, Evan was still a sweet boy. I read everything to him, from Mother Goose to Shakespeare. He’d climb onto my lap as I worked, sucking his pacifier, curling my hair around his fingers, and ask me to read what I was writing. “Well, you see Evan, once upon a time there was an old king, King Lear, who really wanted people to tell him how great he was. Two of his daughters lied about how much they loved him so that they could get his land, but the third kind and lovely daughter remained loyal and true.” His brown eyes would glance up to my face to gauge my seriousness. I’d wink, and he’d go back to weaving his chubby fingers through my hair.
My career progressed and years seemed to merge, along with many student faces. I devoted the majority of my time to them, whether it was helping with assignments, attending their games, or listening to their problems. Time passed. At the age of thirty-four, my window was closing. I knew if I wanted another baby, I couldn’t wait. I read books, I talked to other mothers, and I went off the pill. But instead of a baby, doctors found a ten-pound tumor in my uterus—a mass slowly taking over my body, and destroying a decision I had put off for years.
It hasn’t been until recently, after turning forty, when I started pondering that closed window once again, paying attention to this older body, hearing the whispers I’ve tried to block out—aged eggs that I still possess haunting me from the very ovaries I decided to keep when the surgeon took my uterus. I can hear them, small baby voices, ticking off every hour, every day, every year, trying so hard to team up with errant sperm. Those baby-ghosts love to whisper, hypnotizing me every time I smell a newborn’s head or look at Facebook posts of toddlers splashing in bathtubs and playing in pumpkin patches. But the truth is, those whispers are small echoes of a life that wasn’t supposed to be, a life I unknowingly abandoned when I stepped foot in a classroom and used my time to start caring for other people’s children.
Those whispers taunt from some innate, ancestral, maybe even mystical place of wonder that, surely, I’ll never understand. What I do understand is the transformative value—how to use those voices to repair others and bring meaning to my life. For every Chloe, Anna, Brian, Andrew, and Alex rocking in that blue chair, I have purpose. I am able to fix the naïve transgressions of young motherhood with a kind of cosmic redo. I take in their doubts, their pain, their love, and relish their comfort and happiness when I console and dole out advice. They hug me, and thank me, and tell me that I’m the one who got them through.
I laugh. If only they knew.
If only they knew that at night, when I contemplate all of my inevitable graduation goodbyes, all of my children who will leave me, I wind up curled in Ryan’s arms. He strokes my hair and reminds me that I’m loved, that there will be other kids who need me, that this isn’t the end. If only they knew that in the dark hours of sleepless mornings, I sometimes find myself sitting in my home office, the room I had hoped would be a nursery, and I stare out the window thinking that while I do love my students, all 2,323 of them, I’m no hero. I’m just a mom looking for a way to quiet the echoes.
Jennifer Rieger is the English Department Chair at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and teaches 12th grade Advanced Placement and creative writing courses. An advocate for her students, she dedicates her time to empowering young people through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jen holds a BA in English, an MA in Literature, and is currently finishing her MFA with a hybrid concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction. She has been published in BUST Magazine, The Sigh Press, Role Reboot Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. Jen lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and two tiny dogs.