Follow your bliss. Find your joy. Find something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Follow your passion, not a paycheck. These are things you hear in commencement speeches, but are they true?
For 20 years I worked in the legal field, and for most of that, for a major real estate developer. I represented the landlord in lease negotiations with tenants moving into shopping centers. While my job involved writing legal contracts, the bulk of my day was spent arguing — often in a very contentious environment — with lawyers representing national and regional tenants. I became very good at arguing. I also made a very good living doing it.
It didn’t take much for me to kick into negotiator mode. I could take down a customer service representative for a cell phone service provider without breaking a sweat. Served something I didn’t order or prepared incorrectly? No problem, it’s on the house. My “specialty” was getting extra mileage or points for poor service from airlines and hotels. Yes, I was good, but eventually it began to wear on me, in the form of knots of tension in my shoulders and back.
In 2002, my family moved to Belgium for my husband’s work. Quitting my job caused me great anxiety. As thrilled as I was for the travel opportunities and life experiences, I had never not worked, even through two c-sections and back surgery. So, after getting our house in order and our daughters settled, I reported to the school’s library to volunteer, which led to helping high school students with research, substitute teaching and being a part-time teacher’s aid. When we returned to Maryland in 2004, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: become a teacher, which required graduate courses and teaching certification.
Teaching middle school language arts is challenging. Tweens and teens have unique personalities, and not everyone loves reading and writing as I do. I grade papers every night and do lesson plans on Sunday. I’ve taken a huge cut in pay. I joke that I’ve traded arguing with lawyers for arguing with 8th-grade boys, but the truth is I love teaching. I make a difference in how they view literature, their relationships with others and the world around them. I love hearing success stories from my students who have graduated from college. I see the high schoolers by going to their plays, concerts and games. I get emails requesting recommendations for scholarships. They tell me how I inspired them, how well prepared they were for higher education and how they loved my classes.
I sometimes still get knots, but they are aches from a hard day’s work, a job well done, rather than anxiety and tension from arguing all day. Even on tough days, I’m happy. Every fall as I set up my classroom with new novels and fresh bulletin boards, I am revitalized and inspired to spread my passion for reading and writing. I find my joy every fall.
Michelle Blanchard Ardillo is a freelance writer and middle school language arts teacher at St. Jude Regional Catholic School in Rockville, Md. Follow her at michelleardillo.com.