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By Emily Stueven
I sat at the end of a conference table, mulling over a question posed by a panel of half a dozen educators, including a couple (kind of intimidating) high school principals and a few (wise and veteran) teachers. I was interviewing for an English-teaching position, my dream job, after spending a semester student teaching, seven years getting my degree, and 15 years hiding the fact I am a high school dropout. What sets you apart from other applicants, and what would you bring to the classroom that others cannot?
I am surprisingly good in interviews. I am nervous about most other important, ostensibly life-changing events. For instance, I’d rather be subjected to ten job interviews than one first date. With interviews, though, I’m cool; I stick to the plan that I should simply be myself. Before going into this particular interview, however, I wondered how and when the opportunity would arise to come clean about my own failed high school career, and, if when it arrived, I would take it.
What sets me apart? My heart started to race.
When I was 15, I dropped out of high school. That time is a blur of sadness, of prayers for change, for mercy from a God I thought was punishing me for something I did not understand, or for death. I was severely depressed. I think I have suffered from depression most of my life, though I never sought help for it until I became an adult and worried about it interfering with the stable life I’d worked so hard to build for myself, worried about it dismantling all I had achieved while overcompensating for fucking up my life during my adolescence.
When I was six, my dad died. If you want the whole sad story, he died the day after my sixth birthday. We were supposed to have a party; instead, my dad had a brain hemorrhage and was rushed to the hospital. I remember finally opening my presents after he died. I got a pack of markers; the box had a smiley face and a cutout for an open mouth—the markers peeking through were the colorful teeth.
His death made me into a sullen, frightened child, perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop—that is, for my mother to die. I remember fearing her being blown away in windstorms, and other improbable deaths. Though my family moved to a new state, to start a new life, I only got sadder. When I became a teenager, the sadness became almost unbearable.
I was full of self-loathing. I hated, especially, the way I looked. At 5’7” and 110 pounds, I thought I was fat. I wanted only to be small and unseen. My pimpled skin filled me with shame, and, again, made me feel too noticeable. A boy catcalled me once in the hallway; I wanted to throw up. A classmate told me I had pretty hair; I didn’t know how to say thank you. My friends weren’t friends, but kids who, like me, preferred to spend the lunch hour voraciously smoking cigarettes. I was in unchallenging classes, but didn’t have the confidence to say I was smart or to try to carve out an academic path that would be personally fulfilling, that would make school worth attending. I hated life. I was filled with anxiety and dread. I skipped school constantly, nearly failing some of my classes. The summer after freshman year, faced with having to return to school, I told my mom I would not go. She, so exhausted from tragedy and the hard work of raising three children alone, couldn’t do much.
The next few years of my life were spent in virtual isolation in my bedroom. There I cried, wrote maudlin poems and tearful letters to no one, listened to PJ Harvey and Neil Young and Nina Simone, and reasoned I could not kill myself because what if my little brother was the one to discover my dead body.
But this is not a story of depression. Well, it is, but it isn’t.
So, at 19, after lying on an application, saying I had my GED, I got a night-shift mailroom job. It was physically tough, and though still a kid, I felt prematurely old, sleeping away my days and laboring under fluorescent lights all night. I felt aimless, too, and knew as a dropout I was a stupid statistic without a future. Occasionally, I had nightmares about being back in school, escaping through a window in the girls’ bathroom, then walking home along a long country road, praying I wouldn’t be caught and forced back. I hated having to lie every time someone asked me what school I’d gone to, what year I’d graduated, and did I remember so-and-so. I started thinking I needed to go to college.
I studied for the GED, and, at 23, I took the test and got my so-called “Good Enough Diploma.” Six months later, I started taking classes at the community college.
I’d never written an essay before, never taken a math class beyond pre-algebra or a science class other than the earth science I’d nearly failed. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Also, I was still painfully shy. But somehow, I did well. Mentors found me. There were people there who believed in me, teachers who could read on my face that I had something to say but was too afraid to speak up; they wouldn’t let me disappear in their classes—they called on me, forced me to share, to use my voice, quiet and quavering as it was.
I didn’t know what to pursue as a course of study or as a career—other than the English literature I loved so much—but I felt such relief when, after four years, I got an associate’s degree. The bad dreams about bathroom escapes stopped. I transferred to a four-year college. And there it came to me: I should teach.
For my student-teaching semester, I was placed in my old high school—the one I’d dropped out of after freshman year, the one whose long hallways of lockers, whose cold bathrooms figured into my anxious dreams. It was surreal. Some of my former teachers were still there, and every day I hoped to God they wouldn’t recognize me.
Though I created some great lessons, connected with a lot of students, and made a good name for myself while student teaching, I often felt like a big fake. My college supervisor, familiar with my past, once asked me before I started student teaching how I knew I wouldn’t just give up teaching the way I’d given up on high school. I said I guess I didn’t know, but that I hoped I’d grown stronger over the years, and that I had worked so hard to redeem myself and didn’t want to screw it up.
What sets you apart from other applicants, and what would you bring to the classroom that others cannot?
Seconds feel like hours in an interview, and the longer I took to decide how to answer the question, the more nervous I got. Would I ruin my chance at getting this job if I let them know that what set me apart was that I was a student who had fallen through the cracks, who had become almost undone by mental illness, who, unable to cope with life’s difficulties, had dropped out? Would they believe me when I explained that, because of my past, I refused to let my own students hide at the back of the class, to spend 50 minutes with me unnoticed? Would they understand how angry I was still, angry no one had cared enough about me to plead with me to stay in school, to tell me how I would spend the next 15 years of my life trying to get it all back?
I smiled and looked into the waiting faces, some encouraging, some seemingly indifferent. And then I told the truth.
Two weeks later, I was offered a teaching position. At the high school I had dropped out of what seemed like a lifetime before.
The back room of the high school library houses all the old yearbooks. One day during lunch, I pulled one out from the year I attended.
I found my picture. I remember that picture day, feeling ugly and hating sitting in front of the camera, exposed. In that picture, my hair is beautiful—long, dyed black. An ancient picture of me. And yet not me. A sad, hopeless girl who wanted to be invisible but could’ve almost died from the invisibility. A girl like any number of my students. A girl who fell through the cracks. A dropout. A statistic. Someone should have fought for her. I closed the book and put it back on the shelf. The bell rang and I walked back to class, to greet my students as they walked into our room.