On This Day…

Just like today, minus a line or two.

Just like today, minus a line or two.

It was a bright, clear, mild Sunday morning. Thousands filed into a modest, rectangular, urban-gray building known as the GSU Sports Arena. Most were there to commemorate the end of a journey begun four or more years before.

I was among the number, capped and gowned in black, waiting for my full name to be read at near-auctioneer speed. Proceed in line, right hand shake the president’s hand, left hand receive from him what I’d worked all those years for. Some deride it as “just a piece of paper,” but I’d never say so. That morning in downtown Atlanta, 15 years ago today, I became a Bachelor of Arts. Today, I’m just a bachelor, doing precious little to practice my art.

I had just begun a job as a repographic engineer (that would be someone who makes photocopies all day) working at a large downtown law firm, making $8.00 an hour and feeling rich. After all, gas sold for a mere $0.699 a gallon that week. The future was bright; what could be better than having just earned a degree in English at the height of the dot-com boom?

Oh what a difference a decade and a half make. The end of the year and the beginning of a new one is always a reflective time, but thinking of this milestone today has me feeling even more introspective than usual. Coincidentally, I received perhaps my last-ever paycheck for teaching public school today. Seems I have much to write about…

Next time. For now, enjoy the #1 song in the USA the week I graduated:


The Worst Choice May Be Not Choosing At All

When you’re running headlong in lead boots across a minefield in pitch black darkness towards a wall called 40– that is the certainty, or lack thereof, I feel in my life right now.

As I alluded to in my last post, I made not one, but two life-altering decisions this year. In June I packed up all I could into a Hyundai hatchback and took off for Texas, never looking back. In the rear-view mirror were ten years in Colorado, divorce, estranged stepchildren, and the first seven years of a career in the classroom.

I was determined to re-invent my life. I planned to change career paths as part of that re-invention. Inevitably, I gave in to being lazy and complacent, and took a teaching job.

That was a mistake. There are few moments in my life I genuinely wish I could have back; this was one. Here I was, already burned out on teaching, even though a part of me will always feel it’s my calling. I’ve never been good at managing a classroom. I have been good at teaching, but that is only one element of the job. I was lucky to land in schools where you could spend most of your time teaching and not on behavior and discipline. Even there, the kids were starting to exasperate me. Middle school; need I say more?

My luck ran out. I walked into teaching 6th grade language arts at a Title I (which, essentially, means the majority of the students are living in poverty) school. New grade level, new school, new district, new state, and an entirely new socio-economic-cultural dynamic than I was accustomed to. I realize (sadly) that schools like this are more the norm than the sort I came from. I realize there are excellent teachers who have spent their entire careers in schools like this.

I’m not one of them.

Over the summer, I had run out of my anti-depressants, and I didn’t refill them because I decided I was “OK.” That, of course, was idiocy. Now I was here, feeling like a first-year teacher again, at a school working under assorted federal grants, trying to become approved as an IB middle years school. One of those grants involved incentives paid to teachers of up to $10,000 per year; the only catch being, you had to still be there the following November to collect.

I can handle this, right? A colleague who regularly stays until 9 or 10 p.m., whom I have to rely on for nearly everything as I don’t know the first thing about curriculum, or standards, or grading philosophy, etc. here. We took sub days to plan together and still never got ahead. She’s got a reputation for being infuriating to work with; the principal has a reputation for driving off teachers; the school has, well, not a desirable reputation even among those who work for the district. I’ve lost any real chance for control in my classroom by Labor Day. By early October I miss almost a week when I get sick, but to confess, I stretched out that week to avoid going back.

I want to get away, more than I’ve ever wanted to get away from any workplace in my life. I tell myself, you can’t, you can’t. But I’m crying. Crying in the morning when I pull myself out of bed. Crying when I was supposed to be eating lunch. The dread that came over me made me feel like I was going to vomit every time I brushed my teeth in the morning.

Weakness. It’s weakness and you’re a man and you can’t be weak. It’s not allowed. Suck it up. Late October I finally see the doctor and get back on antidepressants. I’m trying, but it’s too little, too late. Halloween, two boys in my first period class spring out of their seats and start throwing fists. I rush between them. I’ve never, ever done this before. Not outside, not in a hallway, much less in the middle of class. The boys get two days of after-school detention. No suspension at all. Fights happen all the time here. The very fact that statement can be made so dismissively disgusts me. Maybe I’m just not a realist. I have no desire to be in this case.

The next day, I’m meeting with the assistant principal. Due to my ineffective classroom management and “lack of engagement” in my teaching (the principal literally told me, after observing a lesson, that “if I were a student, I’d be stabbing my eyes with my pencil”), I’d been put on an assistance plan. I was a TINA– Teacher In Need of Assistance. That was certainly a first. I told her that I have to be honest. I’m thinking about quitting. Since it was a Friday, I’d think about it over the weekend.

I did. Monday, November 4th, I submitted my resignation form. Apparently Texas is pretty liberal about such matters; even though you’re technically under contract for the school year, if the principal approves your resignation, that’s all you need do. I agreed to work out the week (from what I was told, there were some in the history of that school who marched in on a Friday afternoon and said they wouldn’t be back Monday). Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and finally Friday, I was talking to myself in the mirror. One more day, one more day.

It struck me as funny that no one was mad at me (at least no one expressed it to me). Several people told me they understood. Everyone wished me well. Even the principal and AP assured me they’d give me a positive reference. A few were rightfully concerned that I didn’t have another job to go to. But I felt I was at my breaking point. I say that without any exaggeration. My emotions, my mind, neither were going to hold intact much longer, and of course that manifested itself in my physical health as well. I was headed either for a nervous breakdown or slamming a kid into a wall when I finally snapped, either of which would have taken the choice out of my hands.

I’m sad it came to that. I do feel weak. I do feel like I failed. I do feel scared of the future, of what the hell do I do now. At the same time, I have felt so utterly relieved these past four weeks. Somehow, I’m going to make this work.

There’s a lot I can’t control. One thing I can is my writing. I guess it hasn’t been much to speak of for a long time. I won’t let it go though. This post was entirely self-indulgent. I’ve been needing the catharsis of putting it out there. If you want to judge me, go right ahead. I thank you for taking the time; even if you feel inclined to call me an idiot, it still means you read.