Three months into my first year of teaching, I had an exit plan. I would go back to university and be a journalist. I’d work alone, quietly, and have green tea or go to the bathroom whenever I wanted. The dream of that freedom was intoxicating. I was twenty-three.
As a brand-new English teacher, I had four different courses, lunch duty, and classes just shy of 40 students, with many of them boasting that they’d never read a book before. I was in survival mode – and I was sinking. Three of my students were booted out by winter break after getting in trouble with the law, but not before testing every ounce of my patience and compassion. I stayed up all night planning lessons and woke up early for the commute, waiting to apply my makeup in the school parking lot in case I cried my frustration out en route. I took long baths before bed and my husband would perch on the counter and try to convince me that tomorrow would be better, I just had to see the year through, didn’t anything positive happen…?
I was resolute. I just had to survive until June, and then I’d be gone.
Then I met Mary (pseudonym). Mary was a Grade 12 student I taught in second semester. She wanted to go to college to become a youth counselor, to help other kids who were in the foster care system, like her. She wrote about this in a personal essay where she shared her difficult upbringing after being taken away from her addict mother, separated from her siblings, and bounced around homes with no one ever wanting to keep her. This included her current “family,” who regularly reminded her that on her 18th birthday, which was quickly approaching, she was out.
I asked to speak to her about her essay and she waited at her desk at the end of the day. As I sat beside her, her eyes watered. “I knew you’d want to talk to me,” she laughed, embarrassed. I told her I loved it, had read it twice, and just wanted her to know that her work had greatly impacted me. I thanked her. I told her that her hopeful tone had really made me stop and reflect on my life, which is a mark of great writing. I asked if I could do anything to help.
She paused and considered. Then, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a lease. Her 18th birthday was nearing and she needed to find somewhere to live. Her social worker had set her up with funding to pay for a new home, but she seemed to be on her own to find it because her social worker, she sighed with an eye roll, “is useless and doesn’t like me much anyway.” She asked if I knew anything about renting an apartment, what questions should she ask, and was this a good price?
We sat and discussed what she needed and wanted, and what to clarify with her potential landlord. For the first time, I actually felt as though I was teaching someone and they were learning. We both leaned in and read together; she nodded, asked more questions, and seemed to leave feeling better about her upcoming meeting.
By the end of second semester, my exit plan was a faded memory. My new classes were repeats of the four I had struggled through the first time, so I spent my time tweaking and polishing lessons instead of starting from scratch. I didn’t teach any students who would eventually end up in jail, and a few of them even read on their own.
During the week before graduation, I overheard some Grade 12 students in the hall discussing party plans after prom, Mary among them. A popular boy turned to Mary and began pleading with her to “host a rager.” She peered up at him with disgust and retorted, “You have got to be kidding me. Like I’m going to let you guys trash my new place. There is no way – I just finished setting it up.”
When she walked the stage, I clapped so hard my palms turned red and stung.
Photo: Fatih Hoca (iStock)
First published in Education Canada, September 2015