By late summer of 2004 I had cried myself dry. Other women in their late twenties might spread their tears out a little more liberally, offering a few to family struggles, a few to financial stress, and a few (read: LOTS, but maybe I’m unfairly stereotyping) to boyfriend woes and bad breakups. Not me. I saved all of mine for work.
When I was twenty-six and an IDIOT, I finished graduate school and headed off for my first teaching job telling myself (and possibly, to my 36 year-old self’s great embarrassment, telling others) that I would approach this job like a marriage. I was going to stick with this job no matter what and make a lifelong commitment to it. I was going to view it as my partner in starting a family (then, as now, I had no real interest in getting married, but I did want children) and in building a secure future for myself. I wouldn’t leave just because I was bored or frustrated or restless. I would use my parents’ long marriage as an example, dig in, and commit to this place as if under sacred vows. “I’ll only leave,” I said with conviction, “if it gets abusive.”
Feel free to take a moment to laugh yourself silly. Need to wet your pants? No problem.
I began this teaching job in September of 2002, and I’d say that it was abusive by, oh, January. My department chair was a petite Mediterranean woman in her early fifties who never ate. Every time she spoke she seemed afraid that what came out of her mouth would wound her listener terribly. At first this quality made her seem sensitive. Later I learned that this appearance of sensitivity was designed to distract the listener from the cruelty of what she was saying. She flirted without restraint with the attractive young male teachers in the department. She had a husband and an ex-husband on the faculty. She spent every afternoon lifting weights in the gym with her little tiny body. Once, at a catered lunch meeting, I saw her eat a spoonful of cottage cheese – but she left the room shortly thereafter and I’ve always assumed that she threw it up.
I may delve more fully into these years in a later post, but for now I’ll summarize. I worked sixteen to eighteen-hour days, as all boarding school teachers do. I taught four classes a year, coached all three seasons – including two seasons of crew that required a daily hour round-trip bus ride to the lake and an endless series of heart-stopping misadventures involving freshman girls, expensive equipment, malfunctioning motorboats, and freezing temperatures – and lived in a dorm with 48 freshman girls. Faculty meetings and other events were at night and required everyone to be back in the school’s dress code. Somehow or other I ended up volunteering to drive a carpool of students to the other side of the state to participate in an extracurricular hockey league at least once per weekend. I once stayed up past two in the morning for three consecutive nights baking a three-tiered wedding cake for a colleague who was about to marry her online boyfriend in the dorm, while she was on duty. She couldn’t manage to schedule the wedding any other time.
And OK, I liked it. Or I liked much of it. My colleagues at this school were some of the smartest, funniest people I have ever worked with. There was a weary, curmudgeonly camaraderie among most teachers, young and old, that made me feel that I had been inducted into something great. The words “in the trenches” were used often. I remember some dining-hall dinners with a hodgepodge of other teachers where a cynical, nasty humor zigzagged back and forth around the round tables until my entire (pre-fibromyalgia) body ached with laughter. I lived in a spacious basement apartment in the girls’ dorm, where I traded off three bedrooms and the most luxurious kitchen space I’ve ever had for a constant mold smell and no true windows, only glass panels that looked out into brick wells covered with plexiglass. I used to joke that when the rest of the dorm had fire drills, I should practice bludgeoning my way out of my window wells with a baseball bat. Sometimes birds and rodents fell into the window wells and died.
I have a card from these years that I still carry in my wallet. One side is a business card for the Super 8 Motel in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The other side reads, in smudged, water-stained ink, “Luke’s dinner: Roast Beef on white, lettuce, and AMERICAN cheese (ONLY American!!!).” When I was an assistant swim coach, I was usually the first person called upon to run errands during lengthy meets. At the New England Championships, I always left about 45 minutes before the end of the meet to pick up pizzas for the swimmers, who would be famished at the end of the day-long meet and would need to eat immediately. One of our top swimmers was a picky eater and didn’t like pizza, so the head coach told him he could order a sandwich from the pizza place. He gave me his order on the motel’s business card, and I ordered him the sandwich: no problem. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It wasn’t until later that I found the card mixed up with a bunch of old receipts in my wallet and recognized it as symbolic of this time, when I had worked so hard to earn this job at a prestigious school – and it really was prestigious – and spent most of my time tiptoeing around making sure I attended to the minutiae of other people’s orders. I didn’t resent this student’s special request, and I still don’t – but I do look back at this time and wonder how everyone else’s particular likes and dislikes and needs became more important to me than my own.
By nationwide standards, my teaching load was luxurious: four sections per year, two each of sophomores and juniors. The school’s rotating schedule included eight one-hour class periods per cycle, so I had one hour of prep time free for every hour of teaching time, and other than my own reading and grading and the occasional student conference I had few demands upon that time. The obligations that suck the free time of public school teachers into an administrative vacuum – study hall monitoring, lunchroom duty, bus duty, paperwork – were nonexistent. While we did keep in frequent contact with parents and colleagues over student progress, in other ways the school ran like a college campus, with students moving freely from building to building and returning to the dorms, dining hall, or library during their free periods. But the standards we were held to, no, the standards to which I held myself, no, DAMNIT, I have no idea WHERE the perfectionism came from! Whom do I blame – the meticulous anorexic in the English department or the freewheeling voice in my head, a voice that was then and still is brilliant at generating ideas, not so consistent on follow-through? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that this perfectionism started during these two years.
At some point, probably in my second year, my department chair said to me as part of a longer conversation, “Don’t you think this is just a symptom of your own perfectionism?” I don’t remember what we were talking about or what “this” was; all I remember is looking at her teeny-tiny body and the gigantic bottle of Crystal Light that she balanced on her bony knee and thinking about the single-spaced, four-page, scathing evaluation she had written of my teaching at the end of my first year (and it really was scathing. You can say that I’ve dug most of my graves myself and you’d be right, but NO first-year teacher – and no human being who hasn’t actually molested a student or embezzled the entire financial aid budget – deserves an evaluation like the one she wrote in April of my first year) and said that there was no way this woman was going to call me a perfectionist. Are you ready for what I said? I said, “If I were a perfectionist, don’t you think I’d find a way to be PERFECT a little more often?”
Once again, I’ll give you a moment to laugh at me. Go on, you know you want to.
All my life I have been a teacher-pleaser. My essays were the ones the teachers read out loud and pinned to the bulletin board and submitted to outside contests. Even when I got the answers wrong on math tests or science labs I was often complemented for my creative ways of trying to solve the problems. My last two years of high school, I snapped up scholarship money by writing essay after essay. I won a speech and debate competition without actually being a member of the team and without practicing. Teachers lent me their keys and their cars and hired me to babysit their kids. In graduate school, I won almost every award and fellowship that was offered, including a year-long award that allowed me to work full-time on my own writing without teaching or paying tuition. That pattern ended, though, within the first few months of this first job. I did everything wrong. I was reprimanded because my grammar sentences were too boring (“Can’t you put some nuns in them?” she asked. “Or sex?”). I was reprimanded for speaking too much in department meetings as a new teacher, and then, when I was asked to be on a committee to strengthen the school’s writing program, I was reprimanded for “telling the committee members things that they already know.” I was told to be more like another new teacher, who, in my department chair’s words, “is just so sweet – like a little puppy dog.” Once, I was even reprimanded for getting Waterford crystal and Wedgewood china mixed up during a classroom observation. A student pointed to the word “Wedgewood” in the novel we were reading and asked what it was. I said that it was a kind of crystal, and immediately I saw my department chair’s lips purse as she began to write furiously on her legal pad. Shit, I said to myself. Wedgewood must be the china. This incident was included in my written evaluation as an example of “poor preparation.”
When I came to work at this first school, I had been a vegetarian for about a year. About three months later, I walked into the dining hall, put my things down at a table with a few other teachers, and growled, “I need MEAT. Somebody point me in the direction of something that BLEEDS.”
I never should have gone back for a second year. But again, I was going to stay at that job until it became abusive, and a classic symptom of abuse is that the victim fails to acknowledge that she is being hurt. Not for the first time in my life (but, so far, for the last), I allowed myself to be bullied by an institution. I could have walked away from my department chair and never come back, but I could not walk away from the institution that she represented – an old, storied New England prep school whose name you would likely recognize. Here are some things that happened during that second year: My department chair began to urge me to go into therapy under various friends of hers (“I told her about you and the problems you’re having,” she would say, sliding me a business card. “I’m sure she could fit you in.”); I began keeping a log of every interaction I had with her – every conversation, every email, every offhand comment – that I eventually compiled in a lengthy report that I turned in to the Dean of Faculty; Once, during a late-night grading session, I became so consumed with anger that I started screaming, and I remember thinking that the screaming wasn’t coming from me – it wasn’t something I could control or stop, and that if anything the screaming could kill me – leave it to me to think that anger could kill me.
What else happened? I DID put lots of nuns and sex into my grammar sentences, and the students DID learn grammar more quickly. I had such outstanding novice crew and JV swimming teams that I began to think that coaching might be where my real calling lay – a very strange realization indeed from someone who once faked a three-month asthma attack to get out of gym class. During a school-wide activity in which students had to wear armbands and follow different sets of rules in order to simulate racial segregation, I checked out a school van and circulated around campus, calling for any student wearing gold armbands – indicating the less privileged status – to climb in and then taking them to the movies. I slept very little. I got a cat. I cried between classes and while I was driving to the gym to meet my team for practice. I cried while I was falling asleep and before I was even fully awake in the morning. I continued to pluck dead robins out of my window wells.
In private schools we often use the phrase “not the right fit” when letting a teacher go and when counseling families to send their children to other schools. In recent years I’ve used this phrase myself. I was told forcefully that I was not being fired. “Think of it like a no-fault divorce,” the Dean of Faculty said to me (Interesting – he knew about the marriage analogy too!). Having been an administrator and a department chair, I can absolutely agree that there are times when a school and a teacher simply don’t match, and the school sends the teacher on his or her way at the end of the year without any animosity. From the perspective of a teacher struggling through her first job, though, “not the right fit” sounds a lot like being told that I couldn’t eat lunch with the popular kids because I didn’t wear the right kind of hair scrunchies. What is the difference, deep down, between “not the right fit” and the old sorority epithet “NOTD,” or “Not Our Type, Dear”? Nothing at all. Yet it’s fair. That’s the thing. It’s fair.
I left that school knowing that something remarkable had happened to me. I was less afraid than I had once been of getting in trouble. I was also very, very angry.
More to come.