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Days before school is scheduled to start for my two sons—one a freshman and one a senior—I am up early, preparing a lesson for the summer English class I have been teaching. My children are dreading the return to a normal school schedule—the early mornings and the late nights filled with practice and homework and other extracurricular activities, the insistent pace of to-do lists and reminders—but it is a rhythm that has insistently filled my summer.

And now summer is ending; it is our last day of class, and I have been trying to figure out what to teach—what message I want to leave my students with as we end the term and they leave campus to reclaim a few short weeks of vacation before fall semester calls them back to serious study. I teach classes almost year round, but it is the summer classes that I enjoy the most—the strange intersection of opposites that occurs during sunny days spent in cool air-conditioned rooms, of the leisurely pace of unscheduled months set against the push of deadlines and due dates.

This summer has been one of my favorites—I have had the opportunity to teach two courses in creative writing, so it is more like play to me than study. A chance to revel in writing prompts and workshops, to debate topics about which I am passionate, to mentor beginning writers with so much talent I am regularly astonished (and sometimes a little jealous). My students have been engaged and curious, and willing to work hard to learn everything they can in the nine short weeks of a summer term.

And somehow, through some quirk of registration, my classes have ended up being entirely female. This is a fact, not necessarily an advantage, except that it has created a unique environment; a curious intimacy in our small classroom with a sense that conversation can be less formal and more honest. As a result of this informality my students have been eager to ask me questions about my life, more so than any other class I have ever taught. As the summer progresses, I notice a consistent theme running through their questions, one that reveals their insecurities and anxieties about school along with a persistent sense of guilt for pursuing their educations.

Among the questions that my students have asked during our writing class this term:

  • How do you make time for writing with a family?
  • How do you balance school and family?
  • How can I become a better mother and still pursue my education?
  • Do you ever feel like working on your art (or your education) is an incredibly selfish thing?
  • How do we combat feeling guilty for spending time on things other than kids? For spending time being creative?

It is hard to know how to answer their questions, because I think that the question of balance is a difficult one, and one that is answered in a different way for every individual.

But here are some of the things that I know:

I know it is of vital importance to seek after knowledge and wisdom. And I know that knowledge is as diverse and different as my students are. It can take the form of a formal education at a university, or it can be a personal goal to strengthen skills we want to develop. When my children were young I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, but I was always open to opportunities for learning new things. I took classes at our local library, I enrolled in evening courses at the University, I went to workshops and conferences. And what I learned in those late nights and early mornings strengthened my abilities as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend.

I  know that as we increase our own understanding of the world around us we will be better able to inspire those around us, to teach and be taught in every encounter with our sisters in our communities and neighborhoods. When I was in high school, I played the violin in our school orchestra—I was always second chair, but I loved doing it; loved scraping tunes and melodies out of strings and wood and horsehair, loved feeling the community of the orchestra around me, the sense of being at one with something greater than myself, creating something beautiful. After graduation I kept playing, but only for fun or at church. Until my oldest daughter was in elementary school and the PTA asked for a volunteer to help get a school orchestra started. This was something I could help with, something I knew about. And being able to make a contribution to the school helped me to feel more confident as a mother and as a teacher.

I know that as we learn and seek after education we will be better able to serve others, better able to find within our own knowledge and abilities the unique combination of characteristics that will allow us to have an impact in the lives of those around us, and better able to provide relief to those in need. But sometimes seeking education is hard—there are other needs that take precedence, that push our desires out of the way for a time.

A student once told me that when she left a room she paused for a moment before turning off the light, hand extended, running through a mental checklist of to-do’s. Would she be returning to the room soon? Was there something else that called for her attention, or someplace else she should be at that moment? If she was not going to be returning to the room she would turn the light off, but if the answer was yes, that she had unfinished business in that room she would leave the light burning, a beacon calling her back to the tasks at hand. She got in the habit of doing this when she was in Japan, living in a tiny efficiency apartment with a roommate who was concerned with conserving electricity. The types of bulbs they used at the time took a while to cool down and heat up, making it more cost efficient to leave a light on if you were going to be gone for short periods of time. The impact of this habit, for my student, was more than simply a small savings on her electricity bill, but a habit of mindfulness, of pausing to reflect and ask the questions that would help her decide what she needed to accomplish in a day—to really consider the tasks ahead.

For me, seeking knowledge is like leaving that small light burning. There are times and seasons in our lives when we have more demands on our time than at others—when our children need us more, when we are taking care of elderly parents; when beds have to be made, and dinners cooked, and homework done; when the unfinished business of extracurricular learning is put aside and put off for other vitally important tasks. But when we leave a light burning, when we stop to consider what we want to learn and how we can work that learning into our everyday life, when we pause to reflect, we are liable to return sooner—to come back into the room and take up the threads of tasks we have left unfinished, weaving them into the fabric of our daily routines.

During our final day of class I looked around at my students and asked them the same questions they had been asking me all term. How do you balance a pursuit of creativity and knowledge with other parts of your life without feeling selfish? And they came up with better answers than the ones I had been searching for all summer.

“It helps me to know where my priorities are. When I make time for God and my family, AND my writing I feel like I am doing the best things with my life.”

“I feel like investing in my talents is something God wants me to do.”

“I feel like being creative offers such great ways to do good in the world, and there is nothing selfish about that.”

“It doesn’t have to be either/or. My family enriches my art, and my art enriches my family.”

“When I am learning, I feel like I am part of a community, a group that is searching for a larger goal, one that can benefit not only my own life and the lives of my family, but also my neighborhood, and even the world. And what is selfish about that?”

photo-2 Written by ShelliRae Spotts