Thoughts for the expat spouse and substitute gym teacher
A young fifth grade girl walks to where I’m positioned by the bleachers watching the wiffle ball games. She sits down behind me, shoulder’s slumped, “I don’t want to play anymore” she says. Earlier, I’d set up the bases, counted fifteen paces between plates, placed polystar markers where the kids were to position themselves in the outfield and pitch. It’s not my usual day job, gym teacher…but here I am, subbing, doing my best to act the part.
As an expat spouse, we do a lot of things we normally wouldn’t do. It’s called adapting. Or more accurately, stretching. Gym teacher was a BIGGIE stretch for me, (like I may have pulled something, if you know what I mean). Dressing up in sneakers and a t-shirt, accessorizing with a whistle around my neck, teaching the fundamentals of wiffle ball, the mechanics of underhand throwing, and the rules of play—like when a foul ball is foul (a subject of dispute throughout the day).
Gym teacher was a refresher course in childhood—part learning, part remembering. It was also a lesson in culture. I taught kids from around the world. Kids who had never EVER pitched a ball in their life or hit a ball with a bat or ran bases. “First run to first base! First is on your right, not your left! Left is third!” You get the idea.
When I asked the girl slouched on the bleachers why she didn’t want to play, she said, “They’re yelling at me to get the ball. I don’t even see it when it goes by. Then I have to run waaaaaay far away to get it.” (Hand on forehead) Sigh.
Life as an expat spouse is a lot like wiffle ball. It’s hard at first to get the hang of things. What we intend to go one way, usually goes the other—or hits us right in the chest. It’s scary. We may feel like we’re never first at bat (as one child kept complaining). But what I told the girl with the slouched shoulders, is the same thing I tell other expats and myself (sometimes several times a day)—you’re learning, you’re doing well, soon you’ll get the hang of it and start having fun. Be patient.
And by the way, this advice isn’t just for expat spouses. It’s for everyone who’s ever tried to live.
After listening to the girl’s complaints, I blew my whistle to stop the games. “Everyone on the white line,” I said loudly. Confusion on their faces, they lined up. “Each of you,” I began, “turn to your neighbor, give them a hi-five and tell them something they did well today.” There were some smiles and a few giggles as humanity returned. “Now give me a lap,” I said, in a Mr. Woodcock moment that made me grin as they took off running.
Earlier that morning, after perusing the lesson plan, I’d glanced through a copy of “The Power of Our Words,” by Paula Denton on the teacher’s desk. It had led me to believe that if I said everything in a very positive way our school day would go perfectly. Yeah, no. I had the naivety of a first-time mother believing her child would never throw a tantrum, or the first-time expat, thinking living in another country wouldn’t be much of an adjustment.
I was clearly in over my head the first five minutes, but a few classes into the day, and I started to get the hang of things… like how to talk to fifth graders, anticipate questions and preempt disagreements over what constitutes a foul. In other words, I started having fun. And even though nothing went perfectly, it was still rewarding. And an experience I’d never have unless I lived abroad, trust me.
For most of us expat spouses, this is the position we find ourselves in, doing things other than our dream job. We have to get creative and find opportunities. And for every opportunity we say “yes” to, three wonderful things happen: we grow in confidence, life gets more interesting, and we make more friends! Pretty cool, huh?
At the end of the school day, after hauling the yellow equipment wagon back to the PE closet (bonus workout), I sat down in the gym teacher’s lounge to write my report. It was then I noticed the bobble head of Mariner’s coach Lou Piniella staring at me. Son of a gun, I remembered what Piniella said,
“You have to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
It was like Lou was right there, giving me a pat on the back. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable; it summed up my entire day (maybe most of my life, if you want to get technical). I’ve spent oodles of time feeling uncomfortable, and it’s helped me see the possibilities in life, and myself. Here’s another quote (bonus quote). This one I wrote all by myself. “Stretching ain’t just for gym class.” (Almost as good as Lou’s).
Everyone knows muscles need to stretch, but so does everything else if we hope to ever evolve and grow. And here’s the thing, every time we say “yes” to something uncomfortable we open ourselves up to uncovering the deeper meaning in life, in ourselves and in others. It’s empowering to do things we don’t think we can do! It’s like finding out we have this little Superhero Power we didn’t even know we had—it’s like finding out we really were special after all.
Driving home after school with the gym whistle still around my neck, it might as well have been a red cape, because this forty-five year old mom and gym teacher was flying high. I did it! I taught gym. (I couldn’t wait to tell my boys-me, their mama, taught kids how to pitch.) Like Clark Kent working at the papers, I knew gym teacher was just my side job, something to do in the meantime. The real work of the expat spouse, the most important work of all, is saving humanity—making dinner, taking care of our kids, and supporting our spouse. It’s a tough job, but you know what they say… somebody’s got to do it!