About Me

My Life as a Reader

published January 2, 2012

I’m Mary Jo, and I’m a reader. Ever since I learned to read, I have loved books. My best childhood memories are reading with my mother and siblings, making trips to the library and toting home stacks of paperbacks, and spoiling my eyesight finishing a book after bedtime. When I was in elementary school, I would read the textbooks from cover to cover just to have something to do and to be able to say I did it. When I was in high school, I felt cheated when I discovered that my sophomore English teacher was teaching us straight from Cliff’s Notes. “Isn’t there more to these books than these rote questions and responses?” I wondered. The following year, AP English Lit was my favorite class, where my favorite teacher of all time, Mr. Jim McDonough, who looks just like the British comedian Rowan Atkinson (or Mr. Bean) taught me close reading. I followed my reading bug to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, a small, rigorous liberal arts college where I majored in English and Spanish. At Centre I dove into classes on Shakespeare and Austen, the Romantics, Transcendentalists, and Southern Agrarians, Arthurian legends and Greek philosophy. I also got to spend a semester in Merida, Mexico. I lived the life of the mind and loved every minute.

When it came time to figure out what to do after graduation, I decided to pursue a dream. I figured that no matter what happened later, even if my dream utterly failed, I would feel better knowing that I set out to try for it at the first opportunity, rather than settling early and putting it off. (That might have been a slightly fatalistic way to think of it, but I told myself I was mixing my wildly idealistic optimism with a healthy dose of reality.) I wanted to write, and being the risk-averse, academic-oriented, school-loving 21-year-old I was, I figured the best way to do that was to attend a writing program.

Why did I want to write? Idealizing books had led logically to idealizing their writers, and I thought that the most high and noble thing anyone could do was to create fictional worlds to gift to others, to help them escape whatever they needed to escape and to fill them with joy and make them think, even for just a moment. Ever ambitious, I wanted to try to do the thing that I thought was the greatest and most important thing in the world. I didn’t think much about whether I liked it or was good at it. I wanted to do it because of the value and esteem I held, and mostly still hold, for writers. At that point I actually didn’t have much experience writing fiction. The only short story I wrote in the four years I spent in college was the one I used in my grad school applications. Before that, the only short story I wrote in high school was one that I was assigned to write as a freshman, using a very specific prompt. The one kind of writing I did have plenty experience with was journaling. I have been journaling since I was about twelve. There are boxes of notebooks in my parents’ basement, I think, full of teenage drama. By now, over half of my life has been committed to paper. (Hopefully, this experience will prove useful for blogging.)

I applied to a handful of programs in my senior year at Centre, and was accepted at the University of Cincinnati’s program for a Masters of Arts in English, with a creative thesis and a concentration in fiction. I spent two years there, teaching freshman composition courses, taking classes with intimidatingly intelligent and accomplished professors and classmates, and writing overly serious short stories about shy young women with relationship issues. Also, living in my parents’ house, waiting tables, and traveling to Tennessee about every other month.

At the end of my time at UC, I decided I was moving to Nashville to be closer to David, who was my long-distance boyfriend at the time, and who is now my husband of 17 months. I made some halfhearted applications to Vanderbilt’s MFA and PhD programs, but by then I could pretty much tell that my time in academia was over. I knew I didn’t have the heart for cross-country moves or the academic job hunt, and I doubted I had the intellectual focus or endurance. I figured the bargain I had made while applying to grad schools initially had been fulfilled. I had tried for the dream and failed, and would now be happier in a settled life for having at least tried it. God, that was a bleak way to think of the rest of my life. How about this: more optimistically, I had decided to make a life and a living now, rather than putting off love and gainful employment any longer, and, besides, I could write anytime, and now grad school had given me some of the skills, discipline, and judgment I’d need to make something out of any worthwhile idea I might have later on in life. Whew. That’s better.

So I taught for English composition for freshmen for a year at Belmont University. That was a part-time gig, so I was very, very poor. But it was great to be in a classroom where the students were intellectually engaged and enthusiastic. The low pay created an unsustainable situation for my bank account, though, so I applied to the Nashville Teaching Fellows program, which trains alternatively licensed teachers and places them in urban classrooms. I ended up in McGavock High School, the largest high school in Tennessee, teaching Spanish II and English III. My English classes were all male students from the “STEM Academy,” which in our school meant auto shop. You can imagine how excited those kids were about writing five-paragraph persuasive essays. At the end of the year new teachers were let go in budget cuts, and I ended up at Glencliff High School, the most diverse school in Tennessee. I taught English III and English IV to students in the “Hospitality Academy,” which in our school meant cosmetology and culinary arts. I liked Glencliff because the students were more respectful than McGavock students and the faculty was young and vibrant. But again, at the end of the year, new teachers were let go in budget cuts. Luckily, I had 4 offers, because 97% of my students had passed the TCAP writing exam. I chose the Academy at Old Cockrill, a nontraditional high school which only accepts students ages 17-21 who are making up credits to get their high school diplomas. Classes are small and students are screened through an interview process in order to get in. This is my fourth school in four years, but I want to stay here. It’s challenging, but in a way that I feel I can handle. Because there are so few students, I feel like I’m actually able to create relationships with them. They’re interesting people.

There have been times in my recent history when I stopped reading for fun. Late high school, most of college, all of graduate school, and my first year and a half teaching in public school. It was no fun. Reading is very important to me. But in the past year or two, my reading habit has come back in a big way. I’m reading more than ever, and more widely and systematically than ever. And I have some things to say about what I’ve been reading.

Recent Posts

What I’ll do differently this time

Half of the reason to have a second child is to correct the mistakes you made with your first one. I’ve been thinking a lot about what will be different about this birth, this baby, and what I bring to the experience now that I didn’t have before. Of course, the biggest difference is that I’ll have to do all the same things I did for Cogan, except that now I’ll have to do them while also caring for a toddler at the same time. God help me. But there are a few lessons I learned through my mistakes and my few victories.

The timing of my first child’s birth was almost ideal. He was born on the first day of summer vacation, and I didn’t have to miss a day of school for the entire pregnancy. My maternity leave was the first 9 weeks of the next school year, and that was very convenient for everybody. I thought I couldn’t hope to repeat this dream scenario, but somehow I seem to have gotten even luckier. This birth, as long as it’s full term, will be timed about as perfectly as possible, especially for our finances. My due date falls during spring break, so I hope to just skip the last quarter of the school year and enjoy an extended maternity leave during the summer. When I go back to work in August, the baby will be 4 months old. My first maternity leave was partially unpaid since it was at the beginning of the school year, and I planned this pregnancy’s timing to avoid that situation again. This one will be paid for as long as 6 years of accumulated sick and vacation days last, then with short term disability, then with deferred summer paychecks I was entitled to anyway. (Of course, the fact that I’m forced to do these calculations is ridiculous. We all need paid maternity and paternity leave.)

I’m not as physically fit as I was going into my first pregnancy, and I won’t be able to work out as often or as hard this time. I’m also three years older and one kid busier. For this reason, I expect to gain more weight and to bounce back a bit slower than I did the first time. I hope I can be patient and kind with myself about this and not let body image issues get me down.

During those last miserably uncomfortable weeks of pregnancy, I want to get massages and to see a chiropractor who specializes in pregnant women. Anything to alleviate that awful back and hip pain. I don’t know why I didn’t try this three years ago, but this time I want to give it a shot.

I want to keep things as normal as possible for as long as possible. That was my philosophy the first time, and I think it worked well. For example, when I woke up on my baby’s birthday showing signs of early labor, David wanted to stay home from work, but I sent him off. I wanted to continue my comfortable routine as long as I possibly could, down to the hour. I also hope this intention will also make the transition as easy on Cogan as possible.

I want to hire a doula because I had a volunteer doula for my first birth and she was great. I guess I could use the volunteer doula program again, but as far as I know there’s only one doula on call, so there’s a chance I might not get her. I think it’s a service worth paying for, and I wouldn’t want to deprive a needy first-time mom of the volunteer doula if she wants her.

When I came to the hospital to give birth the first time, I didn’t expect not to be given a room immediately. Instead I was in triage for two hours waiting for a room to empty, and that was something that didn’t even occur to me when I was writing my birth plan. Now I know it’s a possibility and how to deal with it.

As soon as I see a midwife and it’s determined that I’m actually in labor, I want my nitrous oxide. If it slows down my labor, I don’t care, as long as I spend all of the extra time sucking down that laughing gas. Last time, this nurse told me to walk the halls while I was in triage, and I did, hating every minute. I was a hospital gown in the most intense stages of labor, making horrible groans while people in waiting areas looked on. I felt exposed and wanted privacy. No way will I listen to anyone telling me to parade myself around when I feel so vulnerable. Give me a closed door and a gas mask, stat.

Nursing will probably suck (ha!) again. I’m convinced that until babies are about 3 months old, their mouths are just too little to suckle without hurting their moms (although my experience might have something to do with the size/shape of my nipples or something too, so maybe it’s different for other women). Hopefully my skin will still have some residual toughness from almost two years ago. But I think knowing that at the 3 month mark it gets better will help in itself: the first time around I thought I was looking at a solid year of that torture. I’ll also know a little better how to deal with that initial engorgement and what a proper latch looks and feels like. I also want to try what I’ve heard is called “natural breastfeeding,” which seems to mostly be about a different idea of proper position.

I won’t bother trying side-lying nursing until the baby is able to roll over. But once he can, that’s probably all I’ll do.

This baby’s baptism will be in Nashville. Family can come to us this time; we come to them often enough. (Hopefully the new house will be ready to be seen by then…)

Nursing at night was my very least favorite part of having a baby, because the sleep deprivation made me a little crazy for a while. As soon as the doctor says it’s ok, I want to night wean. I’ll keep asking about this as often as possible. Maybe I’ll even make weekly calls and ask for weigh-ins between appointments to make sure we don’t delay night weaning a single night longer than necessary.

When I go back to work, I won’t freak out when my supply dips and we have to supplement. This was a real struggle for me with Cogan. I felt like a horrible failure for not being able to pump as much milk as he guzzled down ever day, and in a panic, asked our babysitter to feed him less, which resulted in more night nursing and less sleep. For this reason, November 2013 was a bit of a low point for me. I really don’t want to repeat this drama, so I hope I can keep my emotional reaction in control when I inevitably run into the same problem again. I hope I can remember this whole experience, and how it turned out fine in the end, and chill.

My favorite stage of nursing was when we were down to only 2 or 3 feedings a day. That amount of nursing was so easy, it felt like a total joy and not a bit of a burden. I want to get to that stage of nursing as fast as possible, and maintain it as long as possible.

I want to try to listen to my husband more when he encourages “cry it out,” if that’s necessary. I am glad we waited as long as we did, but once Cogan started sleeping all the way through the night (I define this as ‘from when I put him down at night until after I wake up in the morning at a normal hour.’ None of this ‘4 straight hours’ BS.) life started to feel much easier.

One thing I think I did well with Cogan is his language development. He’s a big talker for his age, and while some of that is surely his personality, some of it might be the way I talked to him constantly. Even before he could respond much, I tried to make sure he was hearing words. (I talked to myself a lot.) We developed a kind of call-and-response way of communicating, where I’d repeat what he said (or what I thought he was trying to say), and after a while he followed suit and tried to repeat my words. It gives him lots of practice speaking with a model to try to copy. And we read a lot, of course.

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