The Hard Thing, Survivors Guilt, and Rum Tasting in the Caribbean

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.

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28 thoughts on “The Hard Thing, Survivors Guilt, and Rum Tasting in the Caribbean

  1. This is stunning.

    And to write this… THIS… is what you are given.

    Push back against the lie that you needed to be more. And the lie that you were enough. Both are equally false. To be enough in a broken system is to perpetuate the system.

    Maybe one day you will be called back to the frontlines, maybe you won’t.

    But write what you saw.

    People who have actually experienced raw, brutal war rarely want to go back. Those who do have hero-complexes or are trying to prove something. The only ones I know who went back well are the ones who went back both knowing the cost and knowing that they went not to “do good” but to make sure that the people under their care didn’t die because of the inexperience of the person who would replace them. (And I speak of true war, here, and armed forces friends who have felt the cost of death and loss.)

    Your arena is no less real. No less full of death and dying.

    To write what you saw, to live in that place again, requires you to be in the place of safety that you are—you cannot write well within that storm. You can only send dispatches (and those dispatches matter). But to come back from that war zone and to tell it’s story—the real story, the real pain, the brokenness of the system—and to refuse the easy answers is to ACTUALLY affect change.

    Write through it. You will find the truth in the midst of the lies.

    Thank you.

  2. What, they don’t expect you to buy your own paper? Next thing you’ll tell me they provide markers for the white boards, too!

  3. You’re right. It’s unfair as hell. You get transferred across town and your ability to get your kids to pass the eoct has just skyrocketed! Clearly you are a better teacher than you ever were before and a better teacher than I ever was at all. Or than all those teachers with the PDPs that I admired so much, yet there was a principal gunning for them, and for me. It pisses me off just to read about it.

    It is so hard to fight that lie. There was so much more those kids needed. There was so much more that somebody could have given them, so why not you? Why not me? The problem is that there is a true part. They DID need so much more, and they still do. There was REALLY always more that could be done. The lie is that any teacher would be able to do it. The lie is that the county, the principal, the administrators who decide who gets to have enough stuff were perfectly fair.

    The lie is that you and I and those other teachers were the ONLY VARIABLE that could be changed, and whatever we DIDN’T do was what destroyed the children. All that other stuff is engraved in stone–whether the kids ate, whether they had any parents at home, whether they could read when they started high school. That’s the lie. Everything has to be the way it is except for what a single teacher might knock herself out to do. If it turns out good, she’s a hero. If not, nobody expected anything of those kids and it’s the teachers fault because she didn’t sacrifice enough.

    Can you tell I’m kind of emotional about this?

  4. This may be your hard thing, but I think that God put you in a place to see what was going on and then He put you in a place where you could write about it. If you were still there, would you have the time to sit and write about it? Probably not.

    Good luck in your writing. It may be difficult but those are the things which are most worth it.

  5. Abby, I agree with all of the comments here… and my heart feels the daggers you describe, in the form of grief, doubt, regret, and more… the loss of your vision – the dream – what you thought you could be and do.

    You’ve identified my own feelings, too, in writing this: “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..”

    That’s exactly where I’m at, too… still emotionally tied to the pain. My prayer for myself today is “Write through me.” and I pray that for you, too, Abby… that Holy Spirit is writing through you. God bless you!

  6. Wowsers, girl.
    That’ll preach.
    (Can I pull off that saying? Sounds a little American from my British voice – but it’s what I want to say.)

    And thank you – it’s made me realise what my hard thing is, too.

    We do think alike, you and I… 🙂
    Lots of love to you x

    • We are cut from the same cloth you and I. Sisters in so many of our patterns. So strange how that happens, huh? And yes. I am going to need you to that’ll preach me to my face one of these days because it is perfection in your accent. Thank you.

  7. Wow, Abby. This will be swirling around in my head all weekend and then some:

    “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.”

    How many variations of that lie have nearly undone us? Thank you for truth telling. It needs to be repeated over and over again until we can confidently and clearly shout, NO! I DID MY BEST. THIS IS NOT MY FAULT.

      • Schedule – that is the key. (That’s a typical Mom response.) And maybe some help with kids a couple afternoons a week so you can leave the house and write.

  8. I love your heart for those you couldn’t help and I can relate to believing the lie. Yet I have to remind myself and you that in any of life, we do not have the ability to save anyone. That is for Jesus to do. The prayers you prayed and continue to pray for those children, and the things you modeled will help them more than you know.

    No it didn’t rescue them from life’s circumstances, but it offered a witness to them that there is hope. Yes you could go back and help, but not wanting to doesn’t make you a monster. Because in reality, you will never alter their reality with education alone. But in your witness that others care, that Jesus loves them, that they can rise above, those lessons are powerful.

    I can’t wait to see the book that you are working on, because you are right, people need to realize that being in a better neighborhood does not equal having better skills or helping more people. Yes, society likes to think that teachers make a huge difference and rescues all the kids, when in reality kids get lost daily. Children don’t always survive their lives circumstances.

  9. “I wonder if I am writing this book to prove to myself that it was not my fault I failed.”

    Ahem. Failed? Really, Abby? Just because you’re no longer in the school where the need is so great it’s overwhelming, where the mere thought of teaching there would make most people (myself included) run in fear, does not mean that you’re someplace where there isn’t a need. Just because a kid grows up with money and resources doesn’t mean they’re okay, that you can’t be a servant to their heart.

    I was in my office one day last summer, crying my heart out because I had just gotten some bad news. A coworker came in to ask if I was all right. I vented to her, and then mentioned that I felt guilty for being so upset because I had also recently found out that my cousin’s little girl was at St. Jude’s with a rare type of cancer, the same rare cancer that had already taken her older brother. In comparison, my problem seemed small, because while it was painful for me, it wasn’t a matter of life and death. My coworker looked at me and said that I didn’t get to compare pain like that. We each get to have our own pain, and my cousin’s daughter being ill didn’t mean I hurt less. I was in a more fortunate situation – but I still wasn’t okay.

    I’m passionate about the need for gifted education (probably not a surprise there), even though with budgets being tight those programs are getting cut right and left. The argument is that the smart kids will be fine no matter what and that those resources are needed elsewhere for the kids who are struggling. While I see the point – why give more to those on the lowest difficulty setting (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/) when you could help those with a harder road – I think the point is shortsighted. I don’t know how I would have gotten through elementary school without LEAP. Being in a regular school most of the time still made me retreat inside myself; I didn’t start crawling back out until college. Without LEAP, I don’t know how far inside I would have gone or if I’d have ever come back out. The critics are right – I’d have always found a way to succeed (my parents made sure of that), but I still had a need that that particular school program and those teachers could fill.

    You’re a teacher. You signed up for all the crap that goes along with that because you wanted to make a difference to kids, and wherever you are, you can make that difference. You don’t get a prize for “I Helped the Neediest Kids in the Hardest Situations.” Just help. Period.

    • Yes,. I know all of this in my head, but remember when fifteen year old Abby would first have to FEEEEL everything before she could think straight? Turns out fifteen year old Abby is still in me!

      I completely hear what you are saying about gifted kids. There is a reason that giftedness is placed in the category of special education. It is imperative that those kids are serviced too, or else they are hurt. Even if I don’t really think of them as my specialty, there are some AMAZING honors and AP teachers in my department who have the ability to push for better and better. It is exhausting, but the kids come out having really learned, some for the first time in their life.

      Wherever I can make that difference is right. I know I am making my difference where I need to be, but I also know what gets said about teachers behind their back when they leave. I am trying to get that out of the way. Make sure I am not saying it about myself. Thanks so much for reminding me those things aren’t true. I still think of whatever you have to say as super smart, cause it is, and you are.

  10. Abby,
    You’ve got nothing to prove to anyone. I love your story. I love this post. Were you a fly on the wall of my heart?!? This is exactly the same thing I went through too. I thought I was the only one weary of those perfect little stories of “special” teachers who made a “Hollywood” difference. I quickly gave up the foolish notion that I could ever be Disney teacher of the year. Instead, I dug in my heels and came alongside my students because they needed me and I needed them – not is some twisted way, but in the way of I’m here for you and I’m going to do what ever it takes to make you successful!

    Where are the more stories of those teachers like us duking it out in the trenches? ( I think perhaps you have stumbled upon a hidden truth to many are afraid to bear. I will bear with you because you are NOT the only one). You don’t hear about those teachers very often. Sadly we don’t all make it. We give, give, give. We cry, cry, cry. We hurt, hurt, and hurt in the midst of what seems to be no payoff. BUT It matters. What we do matters. Each one of those children matters whether in the inner city or on the outskirts or dangling lazily in between. Every student deserves the best we have to offer.

    Don’t you dare think you work is anything less than precious and favored and loved in the Kingdom. In the hard place, I know you made a dent. Even in the new place, your work matters. Maybe it is reprieve – I don’t know. I have know answers. I only have shared experience.

    Perhaps you could not and cannot save them all – God is still bigger and His reach is grand. Perhaps you get those second backhand glances – no matter you’re working for the glory of the One. Perhaps it is only an illusion that you’re not making an impact now – we know that can’t be true because look at the in roads you’ve made this year. You’ve taken real world issues and turned them into teachable moments to the kids who needed to hear it!

    For such a time as this, perhaps you are their Esther – if you perish, you perish. But you Woman of Valor are called – a minister of the reconciliation even in the hard place – isn’t that the Gospel anyway? Go ye therefore. Perhaps you are in the “therefore.” I stand with you story-sister. Let your voice ring out, sing out, shout out – fearless!

    And that book?!? Yeah, we need it. We need your story, your hope, your light, and your voice.

    Love and love to you!

  11. Wow–I feel like between the blog and the comments there is soo much I want to respond to…like I need to blog a response to this blog haha. This is truly awesome stuff, Abby–I, too, am excited for that book. Thanks for your willingness to be vulnerable, friend.

  12. Just because you feel as though you are in the Caribbean instead of the front lines of teaching does not mean you are failing your students. These students need you just as much as their underprivileged peers, perhaps in different ways. You can’t see it now, but some day you will.

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