Teaching at My Old High School Helped Me Grow Up and Become a Real Adult

Despite the awkward start, something made me stick it out, and that was my students.
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Publish date:
November 1, 2016
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high school, teaching, writing a book

This is the story of how I finally figured out how to be a grown-up by going back to my old high school. No, I wasn’t playing a role in some sort of real-life Never Been Kissed situation. I didn’t go undercover as a journalist and inappropriately seduce an English teacher who thought I was 17.

I went back to my high school to teach there.

I graduated from Branksome Hall, an all-girls preparatory school in Toronto, seven years before I received the offer to work there. I’m one of those rare snowflakes who actually liked high school, but I never thought of them as glory days that I wished I could relive. After I graduated, I walked into university and didn’t look back. I focused on reading Foucault in undergrad, and then I read Foucault again in grad school, where I devoted myself to gender studies. Sometimes, though, life knows what you need better than you do.

When I went back to high school at the age of 25, it was to be a public speaking and debating teacher. I had recently begun a PhD in gender studies at Toronto’s York University, and was unsure of basically everything. Academia did not speak to me the way I’d hoped it would, disappointing me with its often inaccessible and elitist tone. I read countless theorists, from Judith Butler to Homi Bhabha, but while I appreciated the importance of their work, it didn’t inspire me to write my own essays.

I didn’t want to write theory. I wanted to write fiction.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved telling stories. I made up things that seemed truer than the truth I knew, and I derived strength from them. Back then, I was confident that my stories deserved to be told. By age 14, I had finished my own juvenile attempt at a novel, and I felt certain writing was my future.

Then I grew up, and, as so often happens, I grew insecure.

By university, making up stories seemed ridiculously aspirational. I decided it was a childish dream, like becoming a princess or a prima ballerina. Writing fiction was hard, and I was fortunate enough that school had always come easily. I gave up on my desire to write fiction and decided to analyse other people’s writing instead. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it felt safer to hide behind my critiques of others’ stories than to share my own with the world.

By the time I started my PhD, I was an angry person. Years of stifling my creative spirit made me tired and hopeless. I dated bad men who hurt me, I drank too much when I went out, and every time I sat down to write a new academic paper, I asked myself, “Is this my destiny?” Each night, before falling asleep, I fantasized about publishing novels and short stories. But I did nothing substantive to achieve these dreams. I treated them as dead relatives I thought of wistfully on occasion but knew I would never see again.

By my mid-20s, I was mired in extended adolescence. I felt afraid to take responsibility for myself — to get my life together and become the person I wanted to be. I called my mother in tears regularly, unfairly declaring that my state of unhappiness was all her fault. I stayed with boyfriends who cheated on me and forgot to get me birthday presents. I couldn’t feel joy because I wasn’t following my dreams, so I filled the void with bitterness.

Then my old high school offered me a teaching position out of the blue and everything changed.

When I was a teen, I had been a competitive debater and public speaker, and it just so happened my alma mater needed someone to teach these subjects. They had heard I was back in Toronto for my doctorate and approached me about the job. My PhD was fully funded, and I didn’t need the money. Nor had I ever really seen myself teaching high school students. And yet, the part of me that was desperate for a distraction said yes. It was the best decision I ever made.

When I arrived at my old high school for my first day of work, I wore black leggings because I was unaware they did not constitute business casual attire. I then mistook a high-tech projector that probably cost thousands of dollars for a dry-erase board and stained it with red marker while preparing students for a debate about climate change. It was not an auspicious beginning.

Despite the awkward start, something made me stick it out, and that was my students. While most of my 20-something peers had already retreated into a jaded cynicism, the girls I taught wanted to believe in a better world. They believed we could change society in both big and small ways, from banning plastic water bottles to ending economic inequality. They were lofty dreams, but their optimism renewed me. It made me remember that a pathological sense of positivity is often what it takes to make history. Their optimism made me love my work, and it made me love them.

As I got to know my students better, I began to see my work at my old high school as something more than a job. Sure, the money was nice, but it was the young women I taught who motivated me to get up in the morning. I had never intended to become a high school teacher, but teaching proved to be exactly what I needed.

The turning point occurred one day when I was preparing a supremely brilliant student for a prestigious international debate tournament she was set to attend. In our practices, she was one of the most poised and polished speakers I’d ever seen, but for some reason, in competition, she never seemed to live up to her potential.

Frustrated with her history of underperforming, she declared to me one October afternoon, “There’s no point in practicing anymore. I’m not going to succeed. It doesn’t matter.” I was shocked. I couldn’t understand why someone I thought was so fabulous couldn’t believe in herself.

Suddenly, as I sat in a plastic chair in a classroom where I, too, had once been a student, I knew what was holding her back. I recognized her story because it was mine too. “Do you think part of you is afraid of trying? Are you worried that, even if you do your best, it won’t be good enough?”

“Yes!” My student answered without hesitation. Her tone suggested she was completely freaked out that I had guessed her secret.

“Well, you don’t have to be afraid to try anymore, because I know you can do this.” And in that moment, I did know. I knew it as plainly as I know my name is Sarah or that the earth revolves around the sun. My belief in her was simply fact.

A few days later, I got a phone call from that same student. “Sarah, I won the tournament! You were right. I did it!” It was simultaneously the best and most ironic moment of my life. If I could get a teenage girl to believe in her dreams, why couldn’t I believe in my own? What was holding me back from pursuing my creative passions?

That was the day I returned to my dream of writing. Motivated by all the engaged, intelligent teens I worked with, my friend Shalta and I decided to write a feminist-friendly young adult novel about girls like them. We wanted to tell the story of young women who cared about politics and international relations as much as they cared about whom to take to prom. Multiple stories, actually — we wanted it to be a series of books about two very different young women who wind up as debate partners while attending an all-girls school in Boston. (Yes, I decided to write what I know.)

Shalta and I spent 13 months on the first draft, then six more months editing it. The day I finally emailed the manuscript to a publisher for consideration was the most terrifying day of my life. Here was a book my writing partner and I had written — a story I loved and wanted to share with the world — and what if it wasn’t good enough? What if my dream died when I finally tried to realize it? Would it not be easier just to keep the book to ourselves? After all, you can’t fail if you don’t try.

As my cursor hovered over the send button the day I got up the gumption to share our novel with a potential publishing house, I remembered my students. I remembered how I told them to believe in themselves. I knew that if I was going to inspire them to take chances, I had to call BS on my own cowardice. So I hit send, and then I vomited from nervousness for the next three hours.

That was 18 months ago, and today I am thrilled to report that I am a published author. Our novel, Good Girls, isn’t a perfect story. I know as I grow into myself as a writer, my prose may become more elegant, my characters more realized.

Still, I try to remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good. I believe the story our novel tells is a good one. And I’m glad we found the confidence to tell it.

When the book came out, I dedicated it to the teenage girls who changed my life. The inscription reads: “For my students. Always remember that you are strong, capable, professional women.”

Sometimes you teach the lessons you needed to learn. I don’t care if that’s cheesy, because it’s true.