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When I was eight years old, my parents told me that if I wanted to go to college I’d have to pay my own way. They wanted to pay my tuition in full or put a dent in the six-figure bill, but my mother was chronically ill. She struggled to provide around-the-clock childcare for three children, and my father busted his ass working two full-time jobs.
I took what they said to heart. For the next 10 years, I became an academic machine, the proverbial teacher’s pet, cranking out A’s and B’s. Nevertheless, I was neurotic, a heap of raw nerves with severely underdeveloped social skills.
I spent half of my school life cooped up in the guidance counselor's office because I cried sporadically, refused to speak (for over a year), or couldn’t deal with my childhood bullies, who accused me of everything from being a lesbian to practicing black magic. My teachers told my parents that I was dancing between genius and insanity.
If my teachers could have seen that I sometimes stayed up until midnight doing my homework, they’d have known I wasn’t a genius or a perfectionist. In fact, I was far from either.
When I was 16, my primary doctor diagnosed me with obsessive compulsive disorder. (If you don’t have OCD and you want to know what it's like, download a song you despise and repeat it for at least an hour a day.)
My parents weren’t surprised. After all, before my father was treated for OCD, he tried to commit suicide because praying or rebuking the devil couldn’t squelch his persistent thoughts about smothering my mother or having sex with God.
My OCD was slightly different. Until I learned cursive — which I secretly thought was hideous — I spent my recesses lining up my print letters on wide-rule paper. I spent endless hours drawing and writing, striving for the most realistic pictures, the perfect sounds. I’d hide while counting and rubbing my hands together until they were raw. I’d wash my face until the skin was falling off. I brushed my teeth so hard and often that my gums started to recede before I even hit my mid-20s.
I also emailed and texted my professors daily to make sure that I had each assignment’s details right, and I spent over an hour every day thinking about sex, especially rape and masturbation. Even though I knew it was irrational, I thought that if I wore the color orange, someone I love might die, so I checked on loved ones at a nearly constant rate. I was also compelled to be overly polite. I’d thank people or tell them I was sorry dozens of times a day.
Worst of all, I suffered from comorbidity. I had agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces), depression, and generalized anxiety. My mental illnesses became my secret shame. Medicine, specifically Sertraline, and in-school counseling eased my symptoms.
By the time I was admitted into a private, four-year, liberal-arts college, I didn’t scrape by. I excelled, especially at my part-time job. I was the person my boss went to when she wanted something done at a breathtaking pace.
I garnered nicknames like Madam President and the Statistic Buster. I worshiped the almighty god of education. I studied my guts out. I never attended a dance, went to a party, or cheered on my football team. I continued to be a 4.0, straight-A student. I was on my way to becoming valedictorian, and I had only one hurdle left: student teaching.
I was ecstatic when I found out that I’d be spending five months teaching second and fourth grade at an inner-city, open school. (In an open school, there are not individual classrooms. Students are shoved into the one large room, and classrooms are divided with movable objects like rolling bulletin boards and large desks.) My parents were bursting with pride, which they shared with anyone who would listen, because I was the first person in my family to go to college.
I knew it would be hard. I didn’t have a car. There wasn’t a bus system for over 20 miles. I’d have to walk or bike on the greenbelt or through a rough part of town 10 miles to school.
However, I figured that telling my cooperating teacher, Heather*, about my OCD would make the final stint of my journey easier. I felt that my confession would help her craft me into an impeccable, indestructible teacher.
However, spilling my guts about my OCD turned my student-teaching experience into a nightmare. Before my first day was over, Heather told me to shut up. She said that she couldn’t stand to hear the words “I’m sorry” again.
During a curriculum meeting with other second-grade teachers, she put her hand in my face when I offered lesson ideas for African-American history month. She forced me to tape myself teaching and then slammed the computer screen in my face when I actually tried to watch it. She’d openly chastise me in front of students because I let them take too long (over two minutes) in the bathroom or because I helped tie their shoes.
She barred me from helping an ESL student, Alexis, with reading and mathematics because she felt he was snowing me. Apparently, this seven-year-old, who could barely mumble a coherent English sentence, was a master manipulator, and I was too stupid to see it. She’d even stop my lessons, in front of the students and other teaching staff, to point out their structural flaws.
She’d tell me how much better I was doing and then call my professor, who was one of her personal friends, and bitch about how god-awful I was. (When I brought up my cooperating teacher’s behavior to my professor, she said that Heather was just frank.) Heather demanded that I act tougher, but when I did, she told me I was "a Nazi."
After dragging my bike through three feet of standing water on the greenbelt to make it to class, she screamed that I got water on her carpet. She told me bullying had exponentially increased in her class because of me. I felt like bullying had increased because the students were imitating her.
I was powerless, working for free under the worst of conditions. I felt a half-inch tall. I couldn’t say anything because I was afraid that I would be kicked out of the licensure program. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to graduate. Heather gave me an F, but my student-teaching coursework bumped me up to a C. I still graduated Magna Cum Laude with a 3.83 GPA.
However, Heather’s discrimination taught me several things. It was time to stop bowing before the altar of education — experience matters more. I also realized that I’m more than my grades, and regardless of what I’m doing, I deserve respect.
I decided to break away from the world of education. I was living my teachers’ and parents' dreams — not mine.
I was afraid to tell my parents, but they were actually happy for me. At 25, I had finally started living. I’d begun to discover who I am without paper, pencils, and grade books.
I still have OCD, but I am not my OCD. My heart beats on my sleeve, but I’ve learned my mental illness doesn’t have to be a well-guarded secret. I can still do anything anyone else can. Other people can knock me down, dehumanize me, and count me out. It doesn't matter. I'm free.