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I left teaching for a variety of reasons, but among them was this overwhelming sense that I wasn’t doing anything good. I had gone from feeling like I helped kids, even if was just a few a week, to feeling like I was forced to do more harm than good. The state had tied the hands of both the facility staff and the education staff to the point where they had been reduced to a cross between jailers and poorly-paid babysitters. The facility staff were miserable and overworked, over-tired, and over-stressed from back-to-back shifts and never knowing if they’d be allowed to go home to their families. Education had been reduced to testing, test-prep, and forced instruction from books the kids (by and large) weren’t up to understanding yet. We’d gone from a sort of triage system of meeting the kids where they were and trying on all fronts to piece them together as best we could before they left to an aloof sort of HMO that did what it wanted no matter what showed up and input codes to make our overlords happy at the cost of all the patients.

I also left because I had no “home” at work. After eight years, I’d been reduced to a sort of shuffling existence where I had to carry everything around in my hands because bags were prohibited, all the locks had been drilled out of the desks, and my co-teacher left her stuff in both desks — even contraband that I later had to answer for, either to her about what happened to it or to the facility about how a kid got their hands on sharp objects. I was supposed to use books that weren’t in the room I was using, but was told I couldn’t move them. I had once been a teacher of the year finalist and I suddenly had people who’d never worked in correctional education — or even a middle school — telling me I was doing everything wrong, constantly, tracking my movements on breaks, and telling students I didn’t know what I was doing. I had adults trying to create tension and drama with the students and I had support staff and administration doing things that created security risks.

Sitting in a cubicle performing useless tasks is one thing. Anyone can do that for years. Doing things in private that gnaw at your sense of justice or morality will eventually catch up to you one way or another. Being an introverted person by nature and having to lie “on stage” in between being berated and questioned is a recipe for exhaustion at best. So many people these days want to act as though that’s “just how it is” and that everyone should “be happy to have a job” and “suck it up.” Except, it was killing me. Slowly. I was depressed and it had sunk to a level I couldn’t maintain it through my usual exercise routine because I was too exhausted to exercise and as winter marched on and the days shortened to nothing, I started to feel I’d never escape the blackness.

So, I went back to the doctor. He and I had tried an assortment of antidepressants over the years and I generally respond terribly to medication, so it was no surprise that nearly everything available made me worse in some way: there was the one that made me more depressed, the one that made me narcoleptic, the one that made me manic, the one that did nothing, the one that made me much much worse. Good times. There was one that had worked okay, but insurance lapses over the years had caused me to stop and so we decided to give that one a shot. And a few days later, I already felt better except for a growing itchiness that grew to maddening. Halfway through the month’s dosage, I was clawing at my skin like I was possessed and had taken so much Benedryl, I was essentially a zombie, a very itchy zombie. Good times.

I ended up taking a leave of absence, but never went back. It’s hard to talk about how I was treated the last couple of years I was there without feeling like I don’t have the “right platform” to talk about bullying and depression. Without feeling whiny in the face of so much of the judgmental “suck it up” mentality that has turned into our national response to everything. Thing is, no one should be bullied and abused at work — not minorities, not LGBTQ people, not the mentally or physically ill. I mean, what the hell are we doing with ourselves as a country if that’s the message we want to send to the world? That we’re capable of no more compassion and nuance than hormonal sixth graders raised by pack animals?

I’ve spent the past year or so working intermittently for my husband’s company, but a lot of that work has dried up; making candles, but that’s a hard thing to sell in a market where everyone seems to be struggling to make ends meet; teaching karate a few times a month; and writing. None of these things really pay an income even high enough to pay my student loan anymore, so I’ve been looking for jobs. What I’ve discovered, though, is my resume is too sporadic, too varied, too something. I’m overqualified, underqualified, something. I had one interview where the woman made sure to let me know the industry didn’t pay as well as corporate jobs. To which I smiled and tried to figure out how to explain, after twenty minutes of examples and anecdotes from education, that not only does education not pay well, but my corporate job was in advertising which for nearly everyone I knew at the time paid just enough to get them to and from and eat a few times a week. Mad Men, we weren’t.

Thing is, after months and months of looking at job postings and applying for things, I’ve realized I’ll be doing good if I ever find a job that pays me enough to pay my student loan again. There are dozens and dozens of companies and cities looking to hire people with bachelor’s degrees who intend to pay what I made with a high school diploma in 1995. Not only that, but the compound effect of my many failures has left me feeling like I’m good at nothing. Except, that’s not totally true. I resort to Excel for all sorts of things and build linked multi-workbook documents with color-coded, self-tabulating spreadsheets. Last week I taught myself how to format an ebook with CSS. I’m still not happy with either of my WordPress sites and I can’t figure out how to fix the belt on my alternator by myself, but I got certified to teach both high school English and math (and passed the certification test for social science; I just didn’t add it to my certificate because once math is one there, it’s pretty much all a district will ever hire you do to). I make a mean vegan cookie and I helped the husband do well enough on the GRE to get into grad school at the University of Florida. I got a black belt in my late thirties.

But I’ve become shyer, more questioning. I always feel nothing I do is good enough. Timid. And I hate that. I was never timid. Introverted, yes, but I always said what was on my mind. I never feared going to new places. I need to find that person again. Because being what other people want, trying at least, isn’t working. People see through it or it still isn’t quite right and I fail and I add that failure to the pile as proof I suck instead of being my real self and letting the chips fall where they will.

I’ve been working on a Davis Groves story where she starts out feeling separate from others, where she tries as hard as she can to blend in and make her older sister happy by being “normal,” but in the end it all falls apart. In the end, the person she is breaks through even though the person she is is questionably socialized and rough not just at the edges. Seems obvious this is some sort of metaphor for my own battle with figuring how who I am and how to play nice in the world and while I’m beyond lucky my problems are no where near as bad as Davis’s, there’s something so obvious and natural in her arc that is a perverse kind of fun to spend time with.

So, how do you fit in? How’s that working out? When you pretend, do people know?