In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a pretty busy woman. Between teaching 150-something students, leading an English department, coaching 6-12th grade ELA teachers, directing our district’s AP programs, advocating on behalf of students and teachers at the state and national level, completing a dissertation, blogging, consulting, scoring, mentoring, and enjoying my precious little downtime with my (very patient) husband, people are always surprised when I say that I cook dinner. Every night. And that I enjoy cooking. They’re even more surprised when I say I have it ready and on the table when my husband gets home from work. Strange looks are cast my direction, women have visions of placing a plastic bag over my face, people tilt their heads as if asking, “Are you for real, lady?” Even my students are astonished: “Bailey, you cook?! Real food??”
I feel a compulsion to excuse my errant behavior, a moral obligation to set their worlds right again, to somehow realign their perception of me, by making a joke out of it: “Of course I cook. I get to play with knives and no one questions it.” But the truth is I really do enjoy the creativity of cooking. My mother was the “utilitarian” cook, the one who put dinner on the table for a family of six during the week; yet, with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner when she truly seemed to enjoy the challenge, excitement, and hubbub surrounding the monumental task of cooking for immediate and extended family, she often was far too exhausted to make cooking anything more than a nightly duty. My father, however, was an incredibly talented and creative Sunday baker and cook. Sweet rolls, pastries, fresh baked bread, fudge, cookies, cakes, soufflés, as well as pot roasts, briskets, quail, and other menu items that take time, watchfulness, and coddling to pull off. I can’t count the times my dad, for no apparent reason other than boredom, would call us girls into the kitchen with him at 9 o’clock at night to roll dough for sweet rolls the next morning or punch puffy, yeasty bread that had been proofing on the counter for an hour or stir the sticky, bubbling concoction in the metal pot as he prepared the table for the inevitable spread of gooey goodness that would become hard candy in a matter of moments.
It is largely because of my father that I find inspiration in cooking. While cooking, I get to play with ingredients, spices, textures, tastes, even colors. Sometimes it works beautifully, other times some real stinkers have resulted. The wonderful part of it is that even if the meal is terrible, it isn’t life-altering. No one will be permanently scarred or affected by a bad meal. Experimenting with a recipe has no long term effects. Too, carefully orchestrated meals, ones that have multiple executions that require a certain finesse to time just right in order to complete the dinner with nothing burned, too dry, undercooked, or cold, are a bit like a ballet. The grace, the calm, the timing. I love that kind of beauty and it’s not that often that we get to be the creators of it.
But I also think my enjoyment in cooking derives from the careful planning and relative immediacy of gratification. You see, as an educator and advocate, I rarely get to see the final outcome of my hard work, dedication, tears, and joy. Certainly I am blessed that former students still keep in touch, still want to keep in touch, but as a teacher, you never really know what kind of effect you have on a student’s life until many years later. You can experiment with a lesson plan or a unit and you know fairly quickly if it works or not, but experimenting with an entire educational system can have long-term devastating effects on student learning and progress (as NCLB has shown us). Even worse is the fear of getting it all wrong; the fear of an offhanded remark inadvertently causing sorrow to a child; the fear of a child needing you, your guidance, a kind word, a hug, and of not noticing it because of the demands of 32 other students sitting in your classroom; the fear that what you do every day matters very much to someone else–these are the fears I have. These are the fears that drive my work, my passion, and my commitment to my students, my colleagues, fellow teachers, parents, community. And these are the fears from which I seek solace.
You see, cooking isn’t teaching. It’s something I do to reset. And sometimes we all need something in our lives that soothes our hearts, calms our minds, and allows us to see the fruits of our labors and know that we did it just right. At least this time.
What are your creative outlets and how you find peace in your chaotic world?