Last year at this time I was a disaster. It was the beginning of the school year and I should have been just falling into a routine with my students, diving into the chaos of teaching Shakespeare and enjoying my day to day responsibilities as a high school English teacher. Instead I was teetering on the brink of a serious depression.
That spring I had been laid off from my full time teaching position. I spent the majority of my summer applying for jobs and eating my weight in chocolate ice cream. I felt like I was a failure; I couldn’t come to terms with the idea that I wasn’t following my well thought out “life-plan” and I spent a good portion of every day crying. I tried to play it cool, hiding my feelings under sarcasm, scathing remarks about my bosses and funny jokes about unemployment. My friends from work tried really hard not to complain about their jobs or their students in front of me, and I tried really hard not to take my bitterness out on them despite the fact that I was regularly monopolizing conversation with tales of self pity. My relationships with loved ones suffered, my romantic life started a serious downward spiral, I ate a copious amount of chocolate, always had plenty of beer on hand and suddenly my dryer started shrinking all my pants. I slept a lot, I cried a lot, and I didn’t spend any time counting my blessings, but rather cursing life, God and anyone else I could blame for my dreams being dashed.
I signed up for the Susan G. Komen 3-day, which is a 60 mile charitable walk for breast cancer research. I started training, and had something to look forward to. This helped my mental outlook immensely, but I still felt like I was missing something. I cried less, and ate less, (good thing because buying a new wardrobe when one is unemployed is incredibly difficult) but I wasn’t feeling fulfilled or happy or productive. I found myself becoming increasingly antisocial. I preferred laying in bed most of the day, rather than risking having to explain to random people and neighbors that “No, I didn’t take a sick day today, I was laid off in June”.
Shrinks and doctors and other smart people align being laid off to the same emotions one suffers when coping with the death of a loved one. I don’t think that’s true, but I did feel pretty crummy for an incredibly long while.
In late December last year, I took over the position of a colleague while she went out for maternity leave. I wasn’t overly thrilled about the position, I didn’t agree with the classroom management in place, I didn’t think I liked many of her students, and I wasn’t thrilled about getting up before 5am to make it to a zero-period class. Before I started I was convinced that I wouldn’t like it, but would suffer through for the paycheck and how nice it would look added to my resume. I was cranky that it wasn’t “my” classroom, bitter that I didn’t have a “real job” and not excited to be spending days away from my couch. I did not intend to like this temporary position; I was not prepared for the whirlwind that was the next 6 months.
I am 100% convinced that the Writing Studio where I began working was one of the circles of hell. That first week or so I continually felt like I was in the middle of a tornado, or a high speed police chase. I had small groups of kids, no more than 15 or so to a class, and six classes. But there was nothing small about these kids. They lived with the intensity of running with the bulls. To make matters worse, I couldn’t really tell them apart at first, they were a swirling mass of matching hoodies and unwelcoming faces. To be honest, I planned to make it through the year and then pretend they didn’t exist. Even looking over the class rosters made me shudder, so many kids I didn’t know, or didn’t like.
The classroom was a free-for-all when I arrived. Students would come and go as they pleased, never asking for permission. There were no real rules, no set curriculum, and no lesson plans. There were no consequences for bad behavior, bad language or late homework assignments. Students freely ignored me, lay on the floor and slept, or came to class 20 minutes late. They would text during class, leave early and skip other classes to sit in the studio at a computer. It was bedlam. It was their norm, many of them had been taking studio classes for years, and their expectations were to “work at their own pace” and “make their own decisions for success”….which loosely translated to “do jack-shit-nothing”. Students who had previously gotten A’s in class couldn’t tell me on what their grade was based, they could show me no previously graded work to which I could compare their current work, and they couldn’t explain what criteria in their day to day classes accounted for their good grades. Students who had been failing for their previous teacher were doing quite well for me, and yet they weren’t doing anything differently than they hade before. And just when I had decided not to care, and to let things just continue to fall apart something happened, something happened to me.
I had gone home one night in early January to discover that everything at home had literally and figuratively fallen apart. There was a hole in the ceiling below the shower which had been leaking water all day to the laundry room below. My dog had eaten my incredibly expensive, Nine West, knee high, stiletto boots. I had a melt down. My life was not at all what I wanted it to be. I was not where I wanted to be in my relationship, in my home or in my career. I was not being fulfilled professionally or personally. I think I dug through the stacks of books on my book shelves until I found my Bible that day. But I didn’t read it. I have no idea why I even looked for it. I just held it, in my lap, like a cat. I certainly hadn’t been relying on God lately, only blaming him for life’s shortcomings. I hadn’t been praying, or faithful, or interested in what God’s plan might be for me. Somehow though, I knew I needed to change that. I wasn’t ready to accept that I might need his help, or feeling like I could **gasp** have faith that things would be ok, but it was that acclaimed turning point, that moment that everyone looks for in which you realize that something’s gotta give. I went to my mom’s that night, tucked myself into the bed in my childhood bedroom with a number of well worn teddy bears, and prayed for help for what may have been the first time in months and months. I started to change my life, my outlook, and my future. One, tiny, babystep at a time.
I decided that it was time to kick ass and take names. I began to revamp the Writing Studio. My rules were simple: 1) Do your work or I will pick on you mercilessly. 2) Yes, we are going to read this book even if no one, including myself, likes it. 3) You will not make me look like an idiot because you know nothing. 4) Don’t lie to me. 5) If you are annoying or lazy you may not spend your free periods in this room. If you are quiet and/or productive you may stay. 6) Chocolate will win you brownie points. These rules did not go over well. There was mutiny for a while. I hated my life.
Then, suddenly, somewhere between going through my purse and talking about tampons, in hearing too much about their sex lives and not enough about their homework, in between their breakups and break downs, amidst their crappy writing and their whining, they burrowed into one of the deepest parts of my life and my heart. These kids were interesting, and heart wrenching. They needed so much more than the half-assed crap I was giving them. More time, more honesty, more support, more reality, more of me. They morphed from the monsters I thought they were into something between friends and little sisters, some mixture of student and an extension of my own, younger self. My thoughts and schedule became more and more wrapped up in their problems and successes, their papers and prom, and the writing studio was not only more productive than it had been before, but still remained that safe landing place for this strange and swirling hurricane group of kids.
I began to love them, not because they were the most upstanding group of kids in the school, because they weren’t, but because they were mine. In loving them, I slowly began to love me too. These kids reminded me why I am me. They brought out the good teacher in me, they forced me to stop moping around and start living again. These kids want to be successful and they dream big dreams and make big mistakes and they love fiercely, they’re honest and smart and funny. They make me smile. Sometimes they’d tell me everything, and sometimes they’d try not to tell me the things they didn’t think I should know, but then the other kids would tell me anyway. I think by now I know all the things they think I don’t. I love them more than they know. They changed my life, and I didn’t expect them to.
That bizarre and lovely group of teenagers who let me in on their secrets and fears and who cared about mine, changed the miserable path my life was taking. They uncovered something good in me that had begun to get grown over with adult fears, mortgage payments and bitterness. They taught me way more than I taught them, they gave me more than I gave them, and I am eternally grateful. I was totally unprepared for the way in which these kids impacted my life, but I’m so glad they did.
Some of them are high school seniors this year and I know that they will be successful because of the triumphs they had last year. Most of them are in their first year of college, and embarking on the exciting journey of their “real” life. I’m so excited for them, and proud that I have had a tiny part in their lives.
Even though I find myself still unemployed, I take pride in all of their small successes, I love that they continue to inform me of their lives’ twists and turns, and I have hope for the future, because of them. They told me about life as they saw it, which was a lot more beautiful than the way I was seeing it.