Space for Humanity: Breaking Free

I was a pretty carefree child. I remember loving life and just being a bright light. I loved to laugh and dance, talk and sing, tell jokes, do impressions, draw and color, and I loved sports. I was definitely a Liberal Arts brain child. Anything in the creativity Arena was my area to shine. I loved performing. Creating and performing came naturally.

I remember being extremely sensitive to critique and criticism at a very young age. Criticism, critique or penetrating questions about “Why I was the way I was” caused some emotional distress and I internalized and shut down. As far as other people were concerned, I guessed that their opinions of me, if negative, should elicit some sort of shut down on my part. I believe this is because even at a young age my actions came from a pure and genuine place and what I wanted most was a genuine, authentic connection with other people. I believe that truly connecting with and relating to others has been a lifelong struggle of mine, being trapped in my own mind, thoughts, or emotions.

This year past year, Feb 20, 2019 marks 22 years in education for me. I was in the classroom again for the second year in a row after having stepped away for three years to take on leadership roles outside of the classroom, and on Feb. 20, 2019, I grabbed my purse right at the end of 5th period and I left. I quietly gathered my personal items, secured the computers in the classroom to ensure they were out of reach of the students, made sure the room was tidy, locked the door behind me and left. I never came back. I sent an email to the assistant principal, lead administrator in charge at the time that read, “I need to go home. I have a medical emergency.” I had just shed tears in front of my students for the first time in 22 years. Twenty years of mental and emotional strength seemed now almost non-existent. The work of rebuilding myself was at stake. Anxiety attacks and mere heartbreak made their way past the secret rooms that I had tucked them away in and I had now come undone right before my class of 10th Grade Intensive Reading students. I knew enough about myself and needs to know that what had broken in me could not be put back together in the 5 minutes allotted to change class periods. I needed space.

I sent my email at the end of 5th period. My brain was so foggy, I did not even think to text the AP on duty. Email was the quickest way I could let others know that I needed to leave. By the beginning of 6th period, I had secured everything, locked the door behind me, and instructed the students to wait quietly outside the door because someone would be with them momentarily. I kept my composure the best way I knew how. When I got in my car, I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably the entire way home. I knew I was not coming back, that my 22 years in education had come to an abrupt, unfortunate end. I felt that I could not keep up. My bounce back from the daily emotional encounters of mediating fights and verbal battles was taking longer and longer. Things were beginning to stick to me. My daily dealings were not “washing off” when I got home and decompressed. The rapidly changing pace of education, the many different directions of curriculum and pedagogy and cutting edge research, the classroom trauma both diagnosed and undiagnosed, the racial unrest in the world, the school shootings, the evaluations and strained relationship with my immediate supervisor and colleagues, the conflicts with students cursing me out either directly or indirectly, the destruction of property and classroom materials that I purchased with my own money, the unpredictable temperatures in the classroom from frigid to blistering, the unsanitary environments and searching for a ‘decent’ restroom to use in 10 minutes and rushing back to the classroom, the multiple accommodations for learning, language, behavioral and emotional needs as well as cultural, the deadlines and lesson planning, the loneliness and isolation, the criticism and feelings of failure…constant failure and my own personal medical, mental, physical and emotional battles being played out in plain sight daily because I had used all of my sick days. I needed space.

There were 60 days of school left and I would not be getting any more sick days. There was no way I could earn any more. It was impossible. I asked the school secretary how I could earn more days to simply reset. She said I could not. I spoke to my administrator about creating a flex schedule where I could have a bit more time away from the classroom or someone, an assistant (even volunteer) inside the classroom. She said it was not possible. I had a plan in place, had filed paperwork for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guaranteed with my qualifying medical condition of diagnosed bi-polar disorder. I had planned to work 10 more days before taking my leave. I had spoken to administrators about my struggles and need for break. I need intermittent breaks. A respite. Impossible for a classroom teacher, I was told. I needed space.

Even though I knew my time was coming to an end, I wanted to leave more gracefully and not in a hailstorm. That day, Feb 20, I had arrived late to work. I wasn’t feeling well. I wanted to call off, but felt bad for doing so at such a late hour. I forced myself to go to work. My colleague and planning partner was on mandatory leave. She, reportedly, had lost control of her classroom, exhibited “odd” behavior, appearing disoriented and detached. A possible nervous breakdown. The kids recorded her decline and uploaded it to their social media sites. Meanwhile, on the other side of the cinder block wall, I was barely clinging on. Struggling to come to work daily, painfully aware that the incident could have easily been me. I could have been the star of the “snap” with my lowest moment being other people’s amusement. My distress being whispered about in corners by fellow colleagues, my humiliation being shared for shits and giggles just to make everyone else feel better that they were not me.

I was my colleague 22 years ago. Only, my students did not have social media, so it was not captured on video to be shared to reach 1 million views but I was the topic of gossip and object of pity. I was marked as worthless. Weak. Unable to cope. Can’t cut it. Done. First year teaching and I was cracked wide open. Spent two weeks in an inpatient care hospital. This is where I learned that I was fragile. That I could break.

I spent the next 22 years tip toeing and whispering, handling myself with kit gloves because I did not want to break myself again. This looming awareness of my vulnerability hovered over me, with me wondering always, “Is today the day that I break again?” and escalated to “Is today the day that I die?” So, on Feb 20, 2019 after I could not silence the sting from the barrage of conflicts that day. When I could not separate my emotions from my students’ displays of pain. When I could no longer “not take it personally” when my student said, “Fuck that, I’m not putting my phone away”. When I could not stop the tears from flowing until lunch time or during my conference period or after school. When I could no longer be in that box, I left. I left to find a space where I could be human. I needed space to be human.

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