Ten years ago, I was a college freshman, obsessed with the plan I’d made for my life. I wanted to work in an inner-city school, then go to law school, and then figure everything else out. For some reason, I believed the first two goals were stepping stones to a promised land of self-knowledge.
Actually, I know why I made this plan: because programs like Teach For America and graduate school are a great way to spend years of your early adulthood not doing something else. I really wanted to be a writer—original, I know—and I didn’t know how.
In the meantime, I majored in English and Education. I balked when I got a B in a class. I never drunk-dialed anyone. I didn’t even really drink until I was 21! But my worst college offense—besides being really boring—was that I financed it all by myself with scholarships, loans, and work study, yet I still let other people influence my choices. Any time I mentioned the writing bug (and really, it’s no bug; it’s an incurable disease), someone dissuaded me. Didn’t I know that being a writer was a hobby, not a viable career? And most people with creative jobs have no insurance and can’t afford to ever own their own home? Why get an expensive university diploma, if I was going to make less money than someone who’d completed a welding course at the local technical school?
They had me at “poor.” I wasn’t going to be a high-rolling schoolteacher, but that job was noble and would look great on law school applications. I should also make it clear that I loved teaching, especially when I got to make creative lesson plans. I worked as a literacy tutor for a year before interning in different classrooms around Austin. My student teaching semester was completed at a local high school, where I taught “Antigone” and “Julius Caesar,” and no one fell asleep.
The Teach For America application process is competitive, but I got accepted in the first round. I got placed in New York City, my first choice. I ended up with an English Language Arts position in a Harlem middle school. Until this point, I’d always had a supervising teacher, even if he or she wasn’t in the classroom with me. Now I didn’t.
You know what else I had? Thirty-four students. And thirty-two desks. And only twenty-five textbooks. I was told I’d never have a full class, so things would work themselves out.
The majority of my eighth-grade students were fifteen and sixteen. They’d been held back for not passing the state test. Some just had too many absences to get promoted. These kids were high schoolers in a middle school classroom reading at an elementary school level. Someone had neglected their learning needs early on, and it was too late to play catch up.
People asked if the kids were bad. I’d usually say, “They’re more sad.” But yeah, they were bad, too. Like many new teachers, I struggled to manage my classroom. At some point, the only way to focus on the kids who want to learn is get troublemakers out. My school didn’t work that way, though. There was no place to send students who were misbehaving. Parents weren’t receptive. Many wouldn’t pick up the phone or attend conferences, even though most of my students lived in a housing project on the same block as the school.
I only worked in my own classroom a few weeks before I knew I had to get out. I was offered a classroom support role working with kids on the cusp of passing the state test, and I took it. I still worked with difficult students and experienced plenty of meltdowns, fights, police visits, etc., but I worked with small groups.
After a year of nightmares and going to work nauseous every morning, I took another teaching job at a smaller charter school. The situation wasn’t as dire, and no fifteen-year-old there ever threatened to hit me or told me to eat his ass. It still wasn’t an easy job. The kids were still troubled, the parents mostly uninvolved, and the administration not that supportive. This particular school had a strict curriculum that catered to the state test. You don’t need to have seen Waiting for Superman to know that this is a sorry excuse for a real education.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t fleeting moments of success with my students. I had some breakthroughs. There were a few good days. Mostly, though, I felt like my students weren’t reached early enough. They’d grown hard and were biding their time in school until they could get out and run the streets. Every time a student did something amazing, another two got suspended. Most of my job was social work and crisis management, not teaching.
I’m not a teacher anymore. I got the hell out of education and started forging my own path. I still want to be a writer when I grow up. My resume would say I’m already there, but I’m not convinced. The writer Anna Quindlen once said, “They say it’s never too late to become what you might have been. But it’s never too early, either.”
She’s right. Now I feel like I’m playing catch up. But at least I don’t regret having gone to law school, too.