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In the fall of 2010, I was a freshly minted Ph.D dropout with a master’s degree in English Language and Literature, and like so many others, looking for employment in a tenuous economy.
In a chance encounter with a friend of my then-fiance’s, I learned that the private high school for which she was an administrator was scouting for an English teacher.
I was a bit hesitant to apply — something about “all-girls private Opus-Dei-affiliated Catholic school,” especially in the aftermath of The Da Vinci Code, screamed RUN AWAY IT’S A TRAP. Especially since one of the school's major “selling points” was that Rick Santorum’s kids attended it.
But beggars can’t be choosers, and with about $7 in my checking account, my 25-year-old self showed up for my job interview.
I distrusted and disliked the headmistress on sight. She was a poised, well-spoken woman of about 50, and I believe one of the “consecrated virgins” (nun-but-not) that are so popular in Opus Dei.
Something about her too-polished affect and condescending demeanor made me mentally sort her into Slytherin. (Hereafter I will refer to her as Dolores Umbridge.)
Still, I swallowed my misgivings about her oily used-car-salesperson persona and continued the interview.
In retrospect, I’m shocked I got the job — I recall cracking jokes through most of it about where they kept the self-flagellating albino monks (which is based on actual Opus Dei practices, by the way) and asking a few questions about Bob Hanssen. But for some reason I was offered a position teaching 10th and 12th grade English as well as coaching the debate team.
I was offered a salary in the mid-30s, which I found incongruous given that tuition was close to $20,000 a year for both the middle and high schools, its location was one of the most affluent areas of northern Virginia, and the administrators and Board of Directors were all swimming in wealth, Scrooge McDuck-style.
But I began in August anyway with high hopes of transcending all the bullshit and having an impact on the lives of some of the girls.
Behind the scenes, however, my life was falling apart. I was trapped in a toxic and emotionally volatile relationship with my fiancé, living with my schizoid-spectrum mother, and struggling with my own eating disorder that had been an ongoing issue for 10 years.
I had been in outpatient therapy for some time but knew that I would soon require a higher level of care if I couldn’t improve. I had been to inpatient treatment in 2008 and now badly needed to go back to residential treatment of some form or another.
The trouble with seeking residential treatment as an adult is the hefty price tag: $1,300 a day if you’re lucky, times a minimum stay of six to eight weeks.
A vicious catch-22 emerges: In order to seek treatment, you need health insurance, and in order to have health insurance you need a job. But once you acquire a job and health insurance, most employers don’t look kindly on you taking off for two months to seek treatment.
There is just no way for the average person to seek residential treatment unless they have a job with exceptional mental health coverage and a very understanding employer.
None of these concerns, mind you, were reflected in my job performance. I taught my full load of classes and still found time to not only grade endless papers and coach the debate team for their first-ever Lincoln-Douglas competition with other schools, but to chaperone school trips on my own time, assist the drama club in their offerings, and privately coach students (one of whom won, I might add) for the Shakespearean monologue contest.
I often worked long, long hours helping set up for whatever the fundraiser du jour was, tutoring students one-on-one, and offering a compassionate ear to whatever student needed one.
I was, I maintain to this day — and I keep in touch with many former students who say the same — a damn good teacher.
I don’t think I ever missed a day of work that first semester. A week before Christmas break, Headmistress Umbridge even sat in on my classes and gave me an outstanding performance evaluation.
But the day before Christmas break, I was hauled into the headmistress’s office with several other administrators present. They informed me that several colleagues had voiced concern about my eating habits and rapid weight loss and suspected me of purging. I cried with shame.
They further informed me that I was in violation of the Christian integrity contract I had signed in which I promised to be a good role model. (Please note that the contract only specified no criminal activity, substance abuse, or premarital sex. Parts of it were fascist, sure, but there was nothing about mental illness in there at all.)
I tried to protest that I didn’t think having mental health issues violated my standing as a good role model, but was summarily shot down.
At no time during this conversation was any concern or empathy offered, and no one mentioned that I might need professional help.
In fact, I was expressly told by Headmistress Umbridge that she did not care how I personally handled the situation as long as I did not restrict, overeat or purge anywhere on campus during business hours. (Roughly translated: “We don’t care if you get better so long as no parents or potential donors find out you’re sick.”)
Christmas came and went, and I continued to struggle, winding up in the hospital for severe dehydration and hypokalemia.
Not only was I sick, but I was now officially a “bad role model,” and the burden weighed on me.
By the time I returned to school in January, I had decided that I needed to go to residential treatment.
Given my first ugly encounter with Headmistress Umbridge, I was afraid I wouldn’t have the school’s support in doing so.
In February, I finally conversed at length with Umbridge about the possibility. I was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to let me take a 6-to-8-week (unpaid) leave of absence and arrange for a long-term substitute to cover my classes. We agreed that I would return by early April and resume teaching my classes again.
And so with some blood, toil, tears and sweat, I finally made it to residential treatment at Timberline Knolls, just outside of Chicago.
I made some serious recovery strides there (even though my fiancé dumped me over the phone while I was in rehab, but that’s another It Happened to Me for another day).
About six-and-a-half weeks later, as I was leaving treatment, I called Headmistress Umbridge to finalize plans for my return to my classroom. It took six or seven attempts to finally make contact.
“I’ll be back in Virginia in about a week,” I told her once I finally got her on the phone, “just like we discussed. What day should I return to work?”
“Oh,” she said vaguely. “It’s too close to the end of the school year for you to come back.”
(It’s six to eight weeks from when we first spoke. You knew six to eight weeks ago that six to eight weeks later would occur approximately six to eight weeks later, right?)
“…,” I said.
“I think it would be best for you and the girls if your long-term substitute just continued teaching your classes for the remainder of the schoolyear. You need to rest. Thanks!”
“But I — ” I said.
“Click!” her receiver said. I sat staring at mine on the other end, baffled by what had just happened.
I made the most of the extra time “off work,” enrolling in an intensive outpatient eating disorder treatment program in the DC area for a time.
I attempted to make contact with the school repeatedly, so I would know whether I should be applying for other teaching positions. It was already pretty late in the game to secure a teaching position elsewhere for the following year.
Neither Headmistress Umbridge nor any of her underlings ever returned my calls.
Finally, approximately two-and-a-half months later, well into the summer and far too late to apply for any other teaching positions, I received a brief e-mail from the assistant headmistress:
I hope this email finds you well. It has been a while since I’ve heard from you and I am sorry we weren’t able to see you toward the end of the school year here at [school redacted]. My prayers are with you. I am writing to ask if you have a moment to stop by [school redacted] to pick up some items that belong to you from your desk and if you can return your keys? I am here this week until Thursday. The office is open M-Thursday from 10:00-1:00 and we are closed on Fridays. Please let me know. Sincerely, [name redacted].
Scratching my head, since I had never been officially terminated, I responded as follows, being sure to CC Headmistress Umbridge:
I will make every effort to come in around noon on Thursday. Am I correct in assuming that turning in my keys and cleaning out my desk signifies that my contract is not being renewed for next year? I have never received any official word on my status. I am eager to discuss, as I have been unsure as to whether I should be looking for employment elsewhere or not, etc. Thank you and see you Thursday. Donna
I received a reply back from Headmistress Umbridge herself, stating:
Dear Donna, good to hear from you. [Assistant Headmistress]’s request is standard end of the year check out for all faculty, whether they are returning or not. If you are planning to come in on Thursday for this check out, perhaps we could set a time to meet to discuss your question about next year. Let me know when you are planning to come in and I will check my schedule.
Curiouser and curiouser. Now feeling like they had gone out of their way to make me believe that my contract was possibly renewed, I showed up on Thursday not knowing what to expect.
I met with Headmistress Umbridge in her office, and asked her my question again.
“Well, of course we can’t have you back as a teacher next year,” she said, as if entertaining the notion was preposterous. “You know why, don’t you?”
I sat there in utter silence, shocked that in the summer of 2011, my character was actually being called into question — and not even subtly — for having a mental illness.
“Well, you never articulated it one way or another,” I said, feebly.
And she laughed at me. An ugly, caustic laugh, the laugh of a villain in a Disney movie.
“You didn’t really think we would have you back, right? You didn’t really think we would ever have someone like you working here after all this?”
Someone like me.
I didn’t say a word. I reached the boiling point in my brain and walked out of the office and never looked back.
I don’t know what recourses, legal or otherwise, I might have had. I just knew I needed a new job pronto. I didn’t have the money to consult an attorney or anyone else about the situation, and life went on.
I remained in the nearby vicinity, working as a copyeditor before I eventually moved away and began working in behavioral health/social services.
But the worst part was when I would receive frantic Facebook messages in the middle of the night from various former students who had heard through the grapevine of my reasons for leaving, and confessed to struggling with disordered eating themselves, looking for help, or trying to help friends whom they believed were struggling with eating disorders.
I would try my best to suggest resources, but it killed me to not be able to be there in person to share my own story and point them in the right direction and toward treatment…because I was a bad role model.
The kicker was when I met up with some of my former students at California Pizza Kitchen about halfway through the following school year.
They both told me that eating disorders had run rampant amongst the students since long before I had arrived there, and that they wished I had been able to return after getting help to share my story.
It would have been so helpful and meaningful, the girls said, to have an advocate to speak out publicly and openly about the real dangers and risks of anorexia and bulimia, and an ally in the hope of recovery.
I apologized to them for having been unable to be that advocate and ally. I would have been if given half a chance, I told them. But the administration had fired me for having an eating disorder.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. What we needed around that place was someone like you,” said one of the girls.
Someone like me.
I smiled, then sighed, then finished my piece of pizza.