It’s back to school season, but I won’t be heading back into a classroom this year. I have a lot of thoughts swirling in my head in connection to that statement, that fact, but I can’t find one that’s regret. Not even a small one, hidden under a pile of the others. Or maybe blown up under one of the eaves of my mind.
I know, in our judgmental, “do it for the kids” society, I sound like a monster. Teachers are supposed to care. They’re supposed to nurture and support and they’re always supposed to want to keep coming back for more.
But teachers are also supposed to just keep taking it. Because they’re all lazy and greedy. Because they just want to hoard supplies and take the summers off. They need to be watched and constantly assessed and graded and monitored like prisoners. And Star Lord help them if they complain because they’re the ones who signed up for the job, right? They could have been doctors or lawyers or engineers or stock brokers, but “those who can’t do, teach, ha ha ha.” Amiright?
They’re Joan of Arc with a nuclear death cannon.
I sometimes feel like having “teacher” on my resume is a little like admitting my past job was with the mafia. Perhaps that might even make me a little more attractive to certain industries. “Oh, it says here you managed money laundering. Just so happens we’re looking for a new branch manager here at Bank of America.” Whereas teachers now occupy some twisted social realm between martyr and supervillain. They’re Joan of Arc with a nuclear death cannon.
So, if I’ll never be able to get another job without first joining the mob, why am I not going back to school? What kind of lazy, entitled bootstrap-less monster am I?
The short answer is that I couldn’t. The long answer takes us through the recent tragedy of Robin Williams and the hundred thousand posts about depression with a detour through episode six of The Mindful Creator podcast.
My first few years teaching, I worked tirelessly to find creative ways to reach students who were not only non-traditional, but were locked up — literally incarcerated — during the time they were in my classroom. Some students I saw off and on for years until they aged out of the system. Some I saw once, for a few days or weeks, and never again. Some students went to programs and thrived only to fall apart again once back on the streets. Some may have made it. I’ll never know.
I’ve known teachers who worked in correctional and/or alternative education for years, sometimes whole careers. I worked with several of them. The light and effort in their eyes slowly died during the time that I knew them, though they still did as much as they could, or were allowed. These are teachers who have memorized stacks of supplemental workbooks and materials because they either don’t have enough textbooks, don’t have the right textbooks, or aren’t allowed to use the textbooks (for a number of reasons). They can design a month of lessons adapting mid-year algebra concepts so kids tenth graders with barely-third-grade math skills can understand them. Teachers who can get murderers and gang leaders to carry on an intelligent discussion on Of Mice and Men or get excited about They Iliad.
But the last three years I worked with them, I watched them die a little inside every day. New standards, unreasonable expectations, requests that compromised safety and security, a revolving door in facilities that left classrooms unsafe, the constant insecurity of the staff that remained, rumors, teachers moved across the county in the middle of a semester… It wore on them. And they stopped talking and joking in hallways and around the copier in the morning. They started counting down the days until retirement or retired early or just went home each night to drink until they passed out.
For many years I did a good enough job of compartmentalizing. My coworkers and I made the sort of terrible jokes you hear from cops and firefighters and EMTs and coroners. We found the humor because it’s how you cope with being surrounded by darkness. And having a never-ending stream of children who rape and steal and kill; who abuse drugs to dull their pain or who molest little brothers the way someone molested them; who sell weed for their grandparents or steal pills from their grandparents or beat the crap out of their grandparents; who climb on furniture and scream or tear their hair out at the root and laugh; who interrupt lessons to ask if it’s okay that their boyfriend is forty-five or to explain how that the problem with crack isn’t that it might lead you to being nearly killed by a John you stole from but that it ruins your looks; who want to stay clean so the state won’t take their next baby or who need their GED already so they’ll be done with high school before the next baby comes…. You know, that kind of thing. So much of it is common stories in schools these days. But like police officers and firefighters and EMTs, you need to know your coworkers have your back. And if you know they don’t, it’s a level of stress that makes the job unbearable.
We’re a country obsessed with the idea of “manning up” and some level of personal responsibility and survival-ship that assumes life must be, not a daring adventure as Helen Keller once suggested, but an arduous battle. If one is not at constant war with sloth (while yet somehow celebrating by binge-watching on Netflix and eating anything with the phrase “meat stack” in it) and privilege, one is doomed to be entitled and whiny, a “pussy.” (Because to be feminine is to be weak, we’re told, which might be why so many hate teachers as their clipart image is a wizened crone of a woman, not “hot” enough to still have use, but that’s another kettle of ranty fish.)
Yet we’re also a country devastated by the loss of Robin Williams (and countless other actors and musicians and artists in general who have fallen prey to mental illness, something damn near impossible to battle alone forever). So we’ll tell each other “you’re not alone” and post the suicide prevention number on all our Facebook statuses. And we’ll turn and bite the head off a blogger who suggested people pick up the bigger pack of markers for their kid’s teacher. (Seriously, the comments in that post explain a lot about how we, as a nation, view our teachers.) We’ll scream to send refugee children back across dangerous borders to near-certain death. We’ll tell young mothers to “get a job” and decry food subsidies (even for the working poor) and we’ll threaten succession and revolution over the idea of supplying citizenry with basic health care. Which tells me what we really mean is: Why didn’t you get help, famous person I was entertained by, but please just go die quietly, anonymous poor person I don’t know.
Let me reiterate that one.
What we basically say to one another, collectively is this:
Why didn’t you get help, famous person I was entertained by?
Please, just go die quietly, anonymous poor person I don’t know.
This is the message we put out there. If we don’t mean it, we need to change it. Collectively. Starting now.
So when Berni Xiong talks about walking away from her corporate job because she wanted more, because she felt she had something else to offer, but that it left her full of doubt because she broke free without a trust fund or a venture capitalist or a reality show backing her up… I find part of me nodding and part of me horrified. I know too well about walking away from a “sure thing” I know was killing me. I know, too, there’s no such thing as a “sure thing” anymore, whether it’s in teaching or corporate sales, that we’re all on shaky ground. And maybe it was the shaking ground that made me step away without a solid road map.
I stepped away because I was surrounded by broken, paranoid, drowning people who would pull me down with them if I stayed. Because it’s just too hard to wage a war on all fronts at one time. I stepped away because I was allergic to my antidepressants and I wasn’t getting enough exercise and I left each day so exhausted from bad* stress that it was a struggle to get through basic chores and errands. I stepped away because I had to.
See, I’m actually very good at a lot of things. I’m no expert. My interests are too varied to be an expert. I have a degree in business and a degree in criminology. I’m still certified to teach both math and English and I’m qualified to teach martial arts, too. I write. I make and sell candles. I shoot photos and, after almost twenty years of trying to talk me into it, the husband convinced me to mat and sell some of those, too. I paint when the mood strikes. And one soon, I’m going to finish sewing those dresses I started.
It’s easy to forget you’re good at things when people tell you daily how terrible you are at existing. Anyone who didn’t make the superlatives list in high school can probably understand that. And, of course, if you have previous experience with being told you’re not good, it gets easier to believe.
For now, I’m going to go knock out some of my to-do list.
And if my bootstrap pulling isn’t up to your standards, well, it’s because I mostly wear flip flops.
*Note that I distinguished “bad” stress because it’s quite different to spend a day busy doing something you care about or that holds meaning and spending days being degraded by administrators, literally threatened by students, the subject of a rumor mill among some coworkers, and a sounding board for other distressed coworkers. When my job was filled with the “good” or “normal” stress of finding the best materials and methods to reach my students, of remembering all the accommodations for each new kid and adapting to each new mood swing from the students, I felt energized.