Today would have marked the first day of work for my fourteenth year in public education. I would have driven to my middle school, parked in one of the three spots I’ve used for the last thirteen years, checked in to the office, and wandered up to my classroom. The same room that I have been teaching in (with a short interlude due to renovation and asbestos abatement) for all of my thirteen years in that building. The patterns would be familiar. Even my across-the-hall math teacher neighbor wouldn’t have changed for my entire tenure.
The idea of being a public school teacher never even crossed my mind until I was nineteen.
I was homeschooled for my entire life. Grew up 100% opposed to public schools and the entire idea of being trapped in a “brain factory” all day, all year. I had no idea what I would do to make a living, but my goals trended towards writing novels while working in a bookstore. Or perhaps I would open a bakery. A small coffee shop with home made treats and an attached bookstore. My dreams were pretty small, but very comfortable. I always had the backup of joining the Coast Guard, but I preferred the idea of being a happy hobbit leading a quiet life.
But how could I make a living like that? How would I pay my bills, or get insurance, or have a retirement?
I loved working at summer camp. I really enjoyed teaching Scouts how to do first aid, and tie knots, and sharpen axes, and generally do all the great awesome fun outdoor things, so clearly I would enjoy being a teacher. I graduated at twenty-two with a teaching license and a great GPA and a complete and abject terror of actually becoming a full time teacher. I’d just spent four months doing my student teaching internship and, despite receiving glowing reviews and only minor suggestions for areas to improve throughout the process, I knew in my heart that I had made a terrible mistake.
I hated being inside all day. And, while I was good at discipline, I just felt my heart break every time I had to be firm with a misbehaving student. Partly because I felt bad for them, and partly because I had zero confidence.
A month after graduation, I stepped through the doors of my first real middle school teaching job. I didn’t want to teach, but I did want to earn enough money to buy a new computer and rent an apartment of my own. So when I received an offer to teach seventh grade, I jumped at it.
And so began a thirteen year experiment in maintaining my sanity. Every year, including my first, I managed to fight through it, stay employed, and push my students to have the highest state-wide testing scores in the building (ok, some years I tied with one of the eighth grade writing teachers), and even match to beat the top rated schools in the city. I even managed to… and here come the sappy tears… inspire several students.
Not all of my students liked me… hell, some of my kids, and even their parents, threatened to assault me or filed false complaints against me because I refused to take “I don’t care” for an answer. Some of the hard cases would come back years later and thank me for getting them ready for high school. I remember one particular kid who was an utter pill. Who intentionally tried to get sent to the office every day in every class. Who screamed at me at least once a week, just to see if he could get a rise out of me. And then, five years later, came back and gave me a backslapping hug and thanked me for forcing him to work, because when tenth grade came along and the realities of graduation and career plans suddenly clicked in his mind, he thought back to everything I had said to him. He stopped being one of the jerks, started mentoring younger kids, and used the writing strategies which I had taught him to graduate with honors. He told me that day that he was already signed with the Marines so he could GI Bill his way through college.
And then there are all of the misfits, all the nerds, all the queer kids and cutters and lonely oddballs who repeatedly told me that my classroom was one of the few places they ever felt safe. Some of those students later tracked me down at nerd conventions where I was peddling my books and spent hours talking to me about their plans for college and beyond.
There is a lot I will miss about leaving public education, most of it tied to helping kids grow. And to giving kids who don’t fit in at home or in gym or wherever else a sanctuary from the world, if only for an hour a day.
But those thirteen years took their toll.
For at least four of those years I was on the edge of “something drastic” at least two days a week. Sometimes it was suicidal ideation. Sometimes it was spending almost an hour standing in the shower, imagining how I could disappear. I don’t talk about that period much. I couldn’t talk about it at work because I had to be the helper, the star teacher, the god-damn hero. It was hard to talk about at home because my now ex-wife needed support, so I couldn’t break down. I love my family, but no amount of their prayers and attaboys and “you’re helping so many people”s could lift the incredible weight I felt every day. The only things that did help were writing, role playing games, and a few very close friends who shared the journey with me.
I gained weight from stress eating, developed stomach problems from overusing painkillers, and literally broke my neck teaching. Ok… a ruptured disk isn’t technically a broken neck, but it still hurt a lot for over a year, was expensive to treat, and was caused by looking down all the time at papers and short students.
I eventually found my way back to joy. It was a long path and I should have sought professional help, and probably medication, but as Hamilton says, “I wrote my way out” instead.
Then my wife and I separated. And in the midst of our divorce process the world was clobbered with COVID-19.
I’m not going to write a whole essay about how the pandemic affected teaching. There are plenty of those already written, and by teachers who had a much rougher time of it than I did. But the fundamental truth is that a month into the school closure, as many of my colleagues were scrambling to work out how to teach online and begging for me to help them use Google Classroom, I was the most relaxed and happy I had been in years. It feels wrong to say and stands in terrible contrast with all the horrors in our world today, but when I put my work into isolation and block out images of asphyxiating in an emergency room because the wrong person breathed near me at Walmart… well… I was really happy. I had found a better balance. I could focus on teaching and writing good lessons, rather than grinding against the wall of classroom discipline and extracurricular assignments.
Then my best friend / room mate started putting her kids into classes on a homeschool website called OutSchool. She suggested that I try applying to teach there. After much hemming and hawing, I gave it a shot… and was accepted on my first try. A few months later I was having a blast teaching poetry and critical thinking and chess and role playing and… and… I was teaching. For the whole summer, even in the midst of a pandemic and multiple personal crises, I would spend two to five hours a day making kids go “hmmm… Ok, I got this!” and it fed my soul. The pay wasn’t too bad either.
But then the school year started to loom and my anxiety returned, worse than it had been in . And then, after two weeks of texting and emailing and calling and worrying… I quit.
I quit my job.
I’m not going to say that it isn’t scary, but the fear of having to touch my savings account to pay for my car (purchased before the pandemic) or health insurance (Medicare for all!) is significantly less anxiety inducing than walking into a school each day. I still need to scale up my hours a little bit more to be at my previous income, but I am safe and I’m a lot happier.
For thirteen years I rarely took a risk. I did my best and worked hard and tried to make sure that everyone I loved would be safe and happy. Now it’s time to take a chance and see if I can build a better, happier, more well-balanced, and possibly even more lucrative life for myself. If I fail… at least I’ll have taken the chance.
And I have a class-c RV, so I can always park that by a river and grind out enough cash to pay for gas, pop tarts, and honey bourbon by writing linkbait bait website copy.
I can’t wait to see where this journey goes.