My Vocational Autobiography (Part 1)

At Caroline’s request . . . This section covers birth through 12th grade.
This weekend, I read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers for the first time at my husband’s urging. “You’re from pioneer stock!” he said. “You pride yourself in your strong Mormon feminist heritage! You still love Little House on the Prairie, for goodness sake!” I quickly found a shadow of myself in Alexandra, who settles with her family on the unforgiving high plains of Nebraska in the late 1800s. She loves the land and feels trapped by it; embraces her heritage and yearns to transcend it.

I am a fifth generation Mormon, with ancestors on both sides who crossed the plains to Utah in the 1840s and 1850s. My mother grew up on a farm in Idaho, the only girl among six brothers. Her father was a rancher but occasionally served as principal of the small town school. Her mother was trained first as a teacher and then as a nurse. When she married my grandfather, she submitted herself to the thankless work of a keeping house in a remote farming town while serving as the unofficial town doctor. All of the children left farming behind, but not the farm ethic.

I grew up in Provo, Utah. My parents both worked at Brigham Young University. My father was a scientist, my mother an English instructor. The Mormon Church both encourages higher education and explicitly preaches the “ideal” of father as provider and mother as primary caregiver. Outside of my teachers, most of the women I encountered were fulltime homemakers. Working was generally viewed as something women did out of necessity – or after the kids were raised – not as a matter of personal desire. However, these women tended to be extraordinarily involved in providing service wherever service needed to be rendered – at a degree I have not witnessed since leaving the state over a decade ago. This ethic made a lasting impression – particularly on my sense of duty toward others. As I have made key career decisions, I see both the influence of my analytical, independent father and the sway of my religious heritage as personified by my mother.

K-12 Career Goals

I was born into this cultural and family milieu in the mid-1970s, the youngest of five children. When I was two, my mother returned to work at my father’s urging; while she was somewhat reluctant — even resentful — it provided her with an outlet for her creative talents, and she soon cherished her work.

Despite growing up in a patriarchal society, I did not circumscribe my early career goals according to gender roles. Instead, I first chose careers based on what I perceived would please my father and later based on my own interests and skills. In the fifth grade, I announced my intention to become a geologist. My father, thrilled to have a daughter who was interested in science, brought home college textbooks, took me on geology fieldtrips, helped me memorize the layers of sandstone, introduced me to a geology professor at his alma mater, Caltech. While I quickly realized this might not be the profession for me, I reveled in this attention and maintained a verbal commitment to it through the first half of eighth grade.

In 8th and 9th grade I spent a few months as an aspiring anthropologist, specializing in East African cultures. Without missing a beat, my father bought me the complete works of Richard Leakey and took me to an African art museum. As I began to work on the high school newspaper, I explored the idea of becoming a foreign correspondent. This desire to study journalism sustained me through tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. I became editor of the newspaper, won several writing contests, and spent a summer at the University of Indiana, Bloomington studying at their young journalists institute.

The desire to teach emerged my senior year. The journalism teacher was taking a maternity leave and I effectively took over the course. My mother was teaching an additional section of technical writing, and I spent many evenings proofreading her students’ research papers for grammatical errors, allowing her to focus on argument and content.

And in December of that year, to “beef up” my college applications, I asked my former 6th grade teacher, Mrs. P., if I could teach a creative writing workshop to her fourth graders. At the end of the first hour, I felt more intellectually on fire than I did in any of my high school courses. The children were interesting. They said unexpected things. They didn’t ask about grades. They weren’t reluctant to share, and when the conversation turned unexpected directions, and I somehow knew how to follow them there and return again. The next semester, I signed up for an “internship period” and returned to the elementary school three afternoons a week to teach writing.

When I announced my decision to study education, the reaction of the women in my life was swift and decisive. My favorite high school English teacher was ecstatic, exclaiming, “I knew you’d make this decision.” While my mother had never disapproved of my other plans, she verbally lauded this choice. My father was characteristically supportive – though I wonder if he wasn’t privately disappointed — and began to look for books on teaching science to children.

However, Mrs. P. was visibly distressed. Teaching was not her great love – she had majored in geography and still talks of teaching abroad and touring the world — rather, it was and economic necessity after her divorce. Especially in a culture that views teaching as a traditional profession for women, Mrs. P. had hoped for “greater things” from her pupil. She did insist that I pursue a double major, advice that has served me well.

Similarly, one of my best male friends, and something of an iconoclast, pleaded with me to reconsider, noting “you’re too smart to get stuck being a teacher” – a statement that I still feel reflects the lack of esteem society holds for teaching profession. However, at BYU elementary education was one of the most popular majors for female undergraduates — and one of my friends in the program frequently complained that too many of her classmates were pursuing the degree not out of real interest but because it seemed like a good “back-up plan.” I became increasingly relieved that my father had encouraged me to apply out-of-state . . . (To Be Continued)


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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