- Imaginary Children
It’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning in December, and I’m waiting to see a matinee performance of that holiday classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with twelve of my AP English students. The drama teacher is next to me; she has brought her class also. The kids sit one row in front of us, but we don’t have to monitor them too closely. From where we sit, on steep risers, we can see the tops of their heads as they lean together to talk.
I’ve taught at a small charter school in a rural North Carolina county for three years; though the school has since grown, when I started there were barely ten students in most of my classes. Our principal has warned us against getting too involved in their lives, but the very structure of the school makes it [End Page 121] tempting to feel like the students are our own children—we drive them on field trips in our cars, eat lunch with them, counsel them about boyfriends, girlfriends, problems at home. The same principal, in years past, prepared Thanksgiving dinner for the whole school and their families. The students have our cell phone numbers; they know where we live and call some of us by our first names. They can get emotional, fighting with us over grades, attendance, wardrobe choices. Once a student called me a bitch for criticizing a project he was proud of; I sent him out of the room and he cried for an hour, truly remorseful, in the guidance counselor’s office. We know the things that motivate or upset them, and if they imagine that their teachers talk about them when we gather for casual chats, they’re right. Like parents, we constantly strategize about how to strike the correct balance between what they want and what they need. Today I’m worried about an earnest, religious girl who last year recused herself from several reading assignments because of instances of sex or strong language (when we read Huck Finn, another student helpfully blacked out the offending words in her copy of the book). I wonder if she’ll walk out on this performance, what I’ll say when I follow her.
I have loved this play since I first read it as a sophomore in college, though it means something different to me now. Back then, it was about the shock of George and Martha’s dysfunction—you make me puke—and how they made their way back, after all the fighting, the rounds of “get the guest,” to something approaching love. I suspect that is what interests my students—the verbal histrionics, the cruelty—but I realize that they must also recognize, from the literature we’ve read together, a familiar idea within this story of a childless, miserable couple: failing to have children has a socially distorting, morally corrosive effect on people’s lives, especially on the lives of women. Four years into my own experience with infertility, I can admit that I once saw this play through the same lens. Now I’m attuned to another part of the narrative: the missing child, and what they do to survive his absence.
A couple of months ago, I left these same students to drive twenty miles to the hospital in Chapel Hill where I’d been receiving fertility treatments for almost a year. No one knew where I was going—who would I tell?—only that I’d be back by lunchtime. I remember feeling hopeful and excited in the clear, crisp light of early fall, a time of year that reminds me always of childhood and fresh starts. This was to be my fourth intrauterine insemination, or IUI, as I’d learned they are called; after days of testing my urine in the school bathroom using an ovulation-predictor kit, I’d finally achieved the digital smiley-face that indicated I was about to ovulate, and made my appointment. My husband had already been to the hospital, early that morning, to provide his sample of sperm, which would be washed in a special machine that left...