A student’s education is as good as the teacher who provides it. We are insane to put students into the care of teachers who aren’t cared for themselves; in doing this we drive quality teachers away from the profession, and those who stay shudder to remember those dark Novembers. Here is mine.
Three months into my first year of teaching, I had to remind myself to eat because I was too tired to feel hungry. I’d find myself leaning against the wall of the shower trying to remember if I’d already shampooed. My days became focused on surviving.
Near the beginning of the first report card period, I found myself crying on the way to school at seven in the mornings and crying on my way home in the evenings around eight. Not the kind of sobbing or grimacing cry that requires energy, but the silent weeping of one beaten by hours of lesson planning and endless stacks of marking.
The height of my desperation came in late November when I had to attend my first Network of Performance Based Schools meeting in a neighbouring city. At three o’clock, after a full day of teaching, I lugged myself and two boxes of marking into my leaky-roofed car. By three-thirty the sky was dark, the road slick with ice, and my face glossy with the now-routine tears. In gridlock at rush hour, in a winter sleet storm, I resigned myself to being late and turned my attention to planning the next day’s lessons, trying not to think that this was only Tuesday.
After getting lost in the city’s innumerable exits, causeways, and boulevards, I finally arrived at the convention centre, only to discover a table of crumbs and an empty punch bowl. Well fed, the meeting attendees were talking enthusiastically with one another, renewing old connections and catching up with colleagues. I felt like screaming at the thought of small talk with strangers. I felt like lying down on the stained industrial carpet and falling asleep in a puddle of tears. Perilously close to a total breakdown, I did what anyone would do: escape to the washroom.
Once safely locked into a stall I pulled out my phone and called Al, my man, my rock, my provider of sanity.
“Hi babe,” he answered.
I could find no words.
“Brooke?” sounding worried at the silence.
I exhaled a little to signal that I was actually on the line; then he, hearing the tears in my sigh, said something filled with such sympathy that I broke into the terrible shuddering cry I had been working to avoid.
“Brooke, honey, just come home. Just leave that meeting and come home. Dinner will be ready when you get here. You can eat, and then go to bed.”
“Al,” did he understand nothing?!!!! “I can’t do that. I’m the only one here from my school and … (sob) … and I’ve got 120 exams to finish marking for tomorrow and… (sob) … and I’m just so tired … and I don’t even think that I can drive home all that way…”
“Ok,” he said in a tone that implied he was about to take control, “take a deep breath. Wash your face. Go back in there and do what you have to do. When you get home we’ll eat and I’ll help you finish marking. I know you’re tired, baby, but you can do this. Pull yourself together and take it one minute at a time! I love you!”
If my life were made into a movie, inspirational music would cue here. After running cold water over my face, I looked at myself in the mirror and stretched my mouth into what I remembered as a smile. Okay. One minute at a time. Deep breath. Back to the meeting.
I must have looked manic as I sat in my discussion group with my eyes forced wider than normal hoping to look awake, alert, and interested. I smiled a lot and leaned towards people when they spoke because it was either that or crumple into a soggy mess at their feet.
You’d think I’d have felt better as I drove away from that meeting, but feeling anything takes energy and I had none. In fact, I’m surprised I had the sanity to realize that I was too tired to drive and needed to break my journey home into sections. So, in a stupor, I pulled into a restaurant for dinner, lugged one box of marking over to a small table in the back and went to work.
I might have made it home without more tears had I not become lost. The lady at the cold beer and wine store, where I stopped for directions, treated me gently. Maybe she’d seen me fall onto my tailbone in the store’s icy, unplowed parking lot. Maybe she heard my voice catch when I asked how to get to the highway. Whatever it was, she made me repeat the directions back to her, proving I had understood.
By the time I pulled up to my apartment building, the tears had left me numb with heavy, tired limbs and an unthinking brain. Al met me at the door to our tiny sanctuary in the city, took my boxes of marking from my arms and then wrapped me in his. And that was another day done.