When I announced my arrival at the school I currently work at on Facebook, there were shouts of surprise, especially from my old co-workers. It is called surplusing, and it is a transfer you didn’t request. Populations of students shift and the low-man on the seniority totem pole gets shifted with them, even when she doesn’t want to be.
It happened once from one school to another with matching numbers of minority and poor kids. I could still claim my title as a teacher in the trenches, but it was nothing like my first school. The administration was more supportive and the magnet program offered something for some of the best kids to be drawn too. While the schools looked the same on paper, I no longer needed to drink for a week after the last day of school in order to forget enough to return the next year.
But it was my second surplus that brought raised eyebrows and internet pats on the back. I was one lucky girl and God must favor me. I was being surplused to an affluent, whiter part of town. One of my friends from my first school left this on the announcement: It is as though you got a call that said, “You are no longer needed on the front lines in Afghanistan. Please report to rum tasting duty in the Caribbean.” Two school years later, I would say that about sums it up.
I’m supposed to be writing the hard thing. I signed up for Elora Ramirez’s story sessions, and this week we are writing the hard things. So, of course, I’ve been busy. Busy writing even, just not the hard thing.
I’m writing a book about inner-city teaching. It is my hard thing. I sit in a suburban school where the worst thing that has happened is a student has raised his voice, and write about the day a student threw me up against a wall. The emergency button was broken, the kid was never even suspended. It was the end of the year and even the administration was too tired to do anything. His mother was insisting I provoked him.
I’m sitting next to a printer that always works, with a copier machine right down the hall. Both of these things have never run out of paper, and I am writing about October of my first year of teaching. We got an email that said there would be no more paper, and a follow-up email quoting prices of cases of it at various office stores. It took me two years at my current school to learn I did not have to hoard offices supplies. Here, the things you need are always available.
It is hard because it would be easier to forget. It would be easier to wave around the scores I just received and tout it as proof that I am a good teacher. And I am a good teacher. It is the end of the year and I am tired, and I need to be told that I have done a good job, that I have served my students well. But those scores don’t prove that, and if I pretended they did I would be lying to myself and denying the truth of the work that my colleagues at different schools with lower scores have done.
Survivors guilt. I have heard people who come home from war often feel guilty that they were not the ones to perish on the front lines. They are grateful that they made it out alive, but they wonder if there wasn’t more they could do. People thank them for their service and they smile and nod, and keep to themselves how much more others have sacrificed, are sacrificing.
I still wonder if there was more I could do. I still sometimes search for my students on Facebook. There is one I can’t find. I have a story of hers that burned its way into my heart and I type her name in and pray that she made it out somehow. I’ve never been able to find her. Does that mean she is dead? I learned the hard way that victims of stray bullets in that kind of neighborhood don’t make the news.
I try to write this hard thing and am shocked by how angry it burns. I can feel my face set and my fingers press hard against these keys. IT IS NOT FAIR! I want to scream. I want to throw my body on the ground and pound my fists into the pavement and throw a fit so public that someone will pay attention this time. I know that in order to get someone to listen I will have to stand tall and speak evenly. I will have to lay my arguments out thoughtfully and carefully. But even and measured are not the way these words come from my belly to my throat. They come out jagged and angry. They come out screaming and raw. THIS IS NOT FAIR.
This hard thing that I am writing, I am trying to explain just what isn’t fair. I am trying to explain how people who want desperately to make a difference can’t. Not really, not in the ways they have been told they can. I am trying to combat the teacher memoirs people keep recommending I read. The ones where the kids are saved and the teacher sacrifices everything but still finds happiness. It is a gross misrepresentations of the good a teacher can do. I have worked at schools where everything is sacrificed, where every year a teacher ends up in a mental institution because they were willing to sacrifice it all. I know this sounds like an exaggeration; I promise you it isn’t.
It is the lie that won’t die. It is the lie that well-intentioned people believe. It is the lie that laws about my future pay are being built on and I am trying to write the antidote. It is my hard thing.
It is my hard thing because it is the lie that part of me still believes. I am writing an antidote to a lie that still has a place in my heart. I still believe I failed my students. I still believe that if I had just been able to do more, to give more, to stay later and come earlier that I would have been able to save my kids. In the midst of writing about an impossible system, in the center of explaining just what the storm of a forgotten school can feel like, I still hear the lie that I am trying to combat.
Maybe everything you are writing is true, the lie whispers, but if you were just a little bit better, you could have been enough for your kids. If you were tougher, if you were smarter, if you worked harder you could have made the difference you so desperately want to make. It is hard to admit that your best still failed.
It is my hard thing because I don’t understand why I got to leave. And I am ashamed that I feel lucky that I don’t work there anymore. I always make it a point to tell people I left that school against my will. I am too ashamed to tell them I no longer have plans to go back.
I wonder if I am writing this book to prove to myself that it was not my fault I failed.
It is my hard thing to finally admit that the teacher I wanted to be is a myth. It is my hard thing to remember where I came from and what that feels like. My friends are still on the front lines, and I am in the Caribbean enjoying the sunshine.