Or: upon leaving teaching.
As a teacher, I often found myself compelled to stop learning. Overwhelmed. Floundering. Forced to focus and compartmentalize. To survive. That lesson, PowerPoint or paragraph your teacher showed you against plagiarism? Undoubtedly stolen. I’ve stolen with great abandon and zero shame. Creativity and originality are great, in theory. But you have 30-34 students stampeding through your door in 15 minutes. So yeah, theft also sounds pretty good.
I want to write because I want to learn. To chase the rabbit trails, smokescreens, and mirages that appear endlessly (sometimes proving to be the real thing). To ask a question and detour to a meaningful answer. To ask questions that interest me and others, without worrying whether they align to year-end goals and learning objectives. To devote a year to things besides the Earth Science Reference Table and a test made by career bureaucrats in Albany and the full force of Pearson’s education behemoth.
Sure, I can see problems of economy arising. Can we eat tomorrow if I follow this footpath today? Track down one more detail to polish this story or article? Sacrifices will be made. Necessarily so. But I don’t believe I’m admitting defeat before even starting this campaign. Rather, I was quixotic prior to my previous one (as every teacher entering the classroom is, again necessarily so). Expecting too much of myself has propelled me to places I’d never have dreamed, never have predicted I could survive and thrive. But it’s also left me empty. Hollowed out and flayed open. Drained of whatever it was that first helped me awake at 5am, ready to work until the next day.
I’ve survived on adrenaline, drive, and guilt. But that’s no way to live. I saw a goal and a problem worth tackling, but I didn’t question whether it was mine to tackle–or how I might best be geared to attack it. I just did it. I’m glad and proud I did. And I’m glad and proud to walk away.
Am I leaving because the kids were too tough? Too mean and demoralizing? Sure, they were at times (Or, I should say, a few were most of the time). The pay too low? Hours too long? My wife and I have enjoyed a lifestyle these past few years I couldn’t have designed for us, and there were plenty of days I left within minutes of the final bell. But leaving work and leaving the day behind were invariably disparate things. Our evenings and even weekends, often shaped and molded by whatever had most recently happened at school.
As the years have gone on (that sounds melodramatic, considering there have only been 3), I’ve retained frustration and grown weary. I’m leaving now raw, just ahead of callousness setting in. I’d have said I’d never be that kind of teacher. Another few months in the classroom, and I can predict the roughened, chitinous shell that would soon form. My options: head down, steamroll ahead, or find something else to do. I’m glad to escape with my life. I’d never want to do that to the kids. They’re just kids, after all. Sometimes terrible people, at least as miserable as they’re making you. There were plenty that made me hate a particular hour or period of my day. But kids, nonetheless. No, it’s not their fault I’m leaving. There’s so much pain, so little progress.
I think that, more than anything, is what I couldn’t handle anymore. Not that Michelle was being disruptive on Tuesday, but that Michelle will fail her test on Friday, will fight and get suspended next week, will fail this marking period, will fail the semester, will squeak by in summer school, will continue not knowing how to read, will try again next year, and will be lucky to graduate high school. Knowing that, every hour of every day, for most every kid. That weight, I can’t bear it anymore.
You can say I’m defeatist or discounting her or not doing enough to change things, but you’d be wrong. I want nothing more than for Michelle to ace her test on Friday (without the help of her impressive cheating abilities) and for the rest of the ‘wills’ to reverse as well. And it’s not that any one of those things inescapably begets the rest. I don’t have that narcissistic or narrow view of my classroom. But that is what happens. 2 years in, I think I’d begun to suspect this. To see the patterns. I didn’t want to admit they were real. I can’t tell you exactly how I know where those observed events will lead, but I do. I’ve seen and heard the super seniors remark how much they wished they’d done differently. And I’ve seen that year’s freshmen making exactly the same decisions.
To want what’s best for them, and know the worst is just around the corner. To warn, cajole, convince, direct, advise, predict and otherwise flail your arms in universal signs of danger, and see the steady, precipitous journey to the cliff’s edge continue. To try helping those who try and don’t comprehend, who remain lost and confused, and see understanding remain out of reach. To dam up the cracks and still watch helplessly as many slip through. These are the burdens of teachers. Not exclusively–many other walks of life come to mind as I pen this. But this weight is in the classroom, and the stakes are heartbreakingly high in our neediest classrooms. The loss is real–and human.
I’ve struggled to reject the standards of success and value of our world–standards which many of my students will likely always be hard pressed to meet. Numbers on a transcript, college acceptances, scholarships, degrees, job offers, paychecks and passing on a better version of the American Dream to your children do not amount to a measure of self-worth. I know this. I believe this. I reject other philosophies and modi operandi. But I still find daily tension in this place. Yes, I believe that in general, but this kid has to have this or do that. They have to! Or else.
These measures are not definitive or self-defining. But the correlations are real. And the alternatives often bleak. The lines between my classroom and prison–between it and financial ruin, addiction and death–are thin at best and ever-greying. I’ll never forget the times I’ve seen those lines crossed. Nearly as bad are those more-frequent times when I’ve seen those lines toed and reluctantly backed away from–knowing that those toes will likely be back, more daring upon a return visit.
I should be reflecting on the victories. There were many. Many more than the defeats described above, in actuality. But the victories aren’t why I’m leaving. Nor would they be why I’d stay. A doctor is for the sick, a teacher for the ignorant, in the original Latin sense. Am I proud of every reason why I’m leaving? No, but I’m at peace with my decision–at peace as I grow in understanding of why now is indeed the right time to leave, understanding of why I’m leaving, excitement at where I’m going. Am I in flight, looking to leave and forget? Not at all. But I leave knowing it’s no longer for me to fight this battle this way.