Clawing My Way Back to the Fire
A few months into my first year of teaching I googled “what to do if you don’t want to be a teacher anymore.”
I had been sitting at my desk after a particularly rough class, the period which I’d dreaded every day (teachers you know the class I’m talking about). I’d mispronounced a word at some point during the previous hour and a know-it-all kid called me out. He was right. Ornery does not sound like on-ree. My cheeks betrayed me. My thoughts evaporated into the air, thick with that BO and Warm Vanilla Sugar musk that lingers in high school classrooms. I’d completely forgotten where I was and what I was supposed to be doing.
I’m a fraud, I thought. How can I teach these kids how to be contributing members of society, when I’ve barely interacted in real-world situations myself?
I’d lost everything I ever learned in my five years of studying English, Education, and Adolescent Development. That 20-second exchange held enough ammunition to send me running to my computer, desperate for an out. And, if I’m being honest… I’ve googled a version of that sentence more times that I’m prepared to admit.
I dove into the pool of teaching before I even switched my tassel from right to left. I don’t truly recall making the conscious decision to do it. All of a sudden I was wearing a blazer in the back of high school classes and scribbling notes on lessons and assessments and classroom management. My closet filled with Ann Taylor skirts from the sale section. I tucked myself into the covers at 9 p.m. while my roommates stayed up to watch The Bachelorette.
I was intimidated — not by the teachers, but by the students and their unpredictable moods. But despite that, teaching English seemed like the logical next step as my blissful university days melted away. I loved reading. I loved writing. I loved talking about reading and writing. And although it didn’t feel like it at the time, it was the right decision.
I grew up that year. I began learning how to trust my own authority. I made mistakes and I rethought my decisions. I made choices that I wouldn’t choose nowadays. I trusted people I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t have known that back then. I tested creative ideas. I snarfed down microwaved burritos in the dark quiet space of the bookroom. I accepted more weight than what I could carry on my back. I didn’t ask for help. I started drowning. My mentor got sick and didn’t finish the school year. I found it hard to trust my voice. I worked Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and Sunday afternoons. I accidentally electrocuted myself in the computer room. I laughed with students and listened to their music. I wondered if this job would be the rest of my life. My mentor passed away. I wasn’t confident enough to decipher the difference between sexual harassment and normal colleague behavior. I put in a letter of resignation.
When I left my first teaching job after two years in the classroom, people told me that I’d never find another school as good. I just couldn’t hear what they were saying through my desperation to find a new life. I used my partner at the time as an excuse to move away from a place I loved, a place that was my home for seven years — a place where I learned how to stand on my own. I didn’t trust my gut enough to walk away from it all, but I knew that I needed to try or I’d never be satisfied. We decided to move south of San Francisco to work in the Silicon Valley. For me, that meant accepting a teaching and mentor placement in East Palo Alto.
About a week before moving, I realized that I was making an irrevocable mistake. Not in leaving Sonoma County, but in living with a man who I knew was wrong. The relationship had rotted from the inside out and we couldn’t ignore the stench any longer. I’d been telling myself that I could “suck it up” for a year and then escape to Europe — blame the break up on long distance woes. Like my first job, I’d felt that I needed an excuse to get out of something that didn’t make me feel good about myself. The busier I kept my life, the easier it was to ignore. Inevitably, in a quiet moment one Saturday morning, I realized that I could stay in a life of forced smiles and walking to the grocery store alone at midnight — or, I could pull the cord and blow everything up, start my life over again.
I blew everything up. I stood in the middle of the smoking rubble of disappointed mothers and gossiping friends and a closed off path which led to a future I didn’t want. I was completely alone, but I was free.
Eventually I made it to Europe. I didn’t tell anyone my plan — I feared someone would talk me out of it if I did. By the time I announced my news to move to Madrid, I’d already sent a non-refundable deposit to an unknown bank account, found a teaching assistant job, and purchased a one-way flight. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds on paper. The year leading up to it was a blur of anxiety attacks and flying chairs in classrooms. It was being alone in a big city and creepy dates with strangers from Tinder. It was migraines and being too exhausted to fight for my students. It was needing to get away from life to figure out what I wanted to do.
I moved to Spain to forget who I was and what had happened to me. Another chance to reset. I moved to Spain to find a piece of myself that was missing. Turns out, my problems in Spain were the same as my problems in California. I felt trapped in a labyrinth with endless dead ends of anxiety, self-worth, and shame. My patterns repeated themselves over and over again. Like a broken record. Like my mother’s fears.
Now, six years have passed since my first teaching job in Northern California. It’s not as humiliating when I make a mistake in front of my students, in fact, I think it’s better for them to see me as a real human. I finally know what I want. I’ve seen my worth. I’ve proven to myself that I’m tough enough to survive, in spite of my sensitivity. I might have strayed away over the past few years, but I’m clawing my way back to the fire which kept me warm. I feel myself longing for that responsibility from that first job. I miss the passion and the need to prove myself. The exhilaration of 12 hour days and four cups of coffee.
It’s the dangerous nostalgia that surfaces once the pain of an old lover’s abuse wears off. You forget about the tight fists and the staring at the ceiling. You remember only how good it felt to be noticed, to be held. But that’s the thing about growing up. You learn the hard way how to teach others to treat you — in relationships and in careers. You master how to take up space and say, “Something’s not right here.” You learn how to fight for yourself in a setting where no one else will.
Years ago I set my life ablaze and fled the smoldering embers without looking back. I traveled to the north of Africa and backpacked through tiny cobblestone streets in Europe. I learned a new language (bueno, todavía estoy aprendiendo). I made a home in a place where I don’t truly fit in. And now, I can feel my feet growing cold again. I’m beginning to wonder what would happen if I eased my way back towards the ashes and started to rebuild.
It would be easy to disappear again. Assimilate into a new population and camouflage into the people around me. But instead of running away this time, I’m planning to stay. To fight for myself. To look conflict in the eyes, and offer my hand.