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What she said was irrelevant. It could have been anything: c#*ksucker, motherfu#*ker, fat whore -- in my seven years as an inner-city middle school English teacher, I’ve heard them all. Thirteen-year-old Brenda screamed at top volume, across the class:
“Mamajuevo!” (translation: ballsucker)
My face burned, my throat tightened, and things spun, but in a calm, stern voice, I got the class back on track. Twenty-six seventh graders managed to finish the assignment despite their teacher being called a ballsucker in the middle of class.
Maybe it was because another teacher witnessed it, happening to walk into my room at that exact time. Maybe it was because the principal was outside. Maybe it was because I worried that if I started screaming, I’d start crying. For whatever reason, I held it together.
Maybe I held it together because it was Brenda who said it, a volatile, rebellious, yet passionate adolescent girl who is a joy to work with. Oddly enough, I’m able to separate what she said from the fact that SHE said it. She is a victim in this, too, born to a father who hits her and a mother who threatens to send her back to an abusive uncle in Guatemala. But I can’t unhear it, she can’t unsay it, and I can’t unfeel the emotional atom bomb that followed.
I talked to Maria, our union rep, who told me to file a sexual harassment complaint. My first thought was that it’s only harassment if the person being harassed perceives it as such. And I didn’t, right?
I viewed my thick skin as a strength, because I loved what I was doing with my life that much. It was a point of pride that when a pregnant eighth grader called me a c**t, I didn’t flinch, and when a sixth grader’s brother waved a gun at me in the school parking lot, I merely raised my eyebrows, and when an eighth grader in a gang vandalized my car, I walked into class the next day like nothing had happened.
I dealt with all that and more because this job fulfilled me in a way I hadn’t thought possible. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be a memoirist, but always struggled with the question: What made ME so important that MY story should be told?
As a middle school English teacher to inner city kids, I figured it out. My story was the writing journey my students and I went on together. And they wrote about everything. They wrote about walking to the US from El Salvador, putting drunk parents to bed, and visiting siblings in prison. They wrote about waiting in line overnight to buy video games, lusting after gorgeous shoes, crushes, sex, and unwavering devotion to Niall Horan from One Direction. They wrote about rape, neglect, and how afraid they were to have dreams for themselves because they knew the odds were stacked against them. They wrote with honesty and heart, and I knew the most meaningful part of my story was helping them tell stories of their own.
But teachers can only do so much. These students needed parents to teach them discipline, read them stories, help them with homework, and force them to turn their cell phones off and go to sleep at a reasonable hour. They needed a school that rewarded hard work and good choices and constructively disciplined negative behavior.
What they got were parents with no idea what to do and a school motivated only by numbers: standardized test scores, AYP, minutes of literacy versus math versus enrichment per day, and number of suspensions per year (At one point, the principal stopped suspending students because having fewer behavior problems “on paper” made him look good. He just sent students back to class after they verbally attacked peers, teachers, or both).
Teachers in broken, inner-city school districts complain. It’s a way to cope when so many bad things surround us every day. It is our water cooler, our support group, our whiskey-fueled bitchfest. And it’s usually the first place we are asked, “Why don’t you leave? It’s clearly a bad situation. Why don’t you find something else?”
I stayed because I love teaching adolescents in impossible situations to make meaning of the madness surrounding them. I stayed because for every bad moment there were five good ones. I stayed because it was so rewarding to have a student thank me for changing her life that the rest of it didn’t matter. Until it did.
At the end of that class, 20 minutes after being removed by security, Brenda raced back into the room and interrupted, saying, “I was suspended for two days for what I said to you. Can you give me the work to makeup at home? I really want to keep my grade up.”
Right then, I knew it was never going to get better. Twenty-six students watched her sexually harass me, and she got to come back to interrupt class one more time. In 48 hours, she would return and send the message loud and clear that it’s OK to say things like that as long as you go away for a 2-day suspension, after which you can come back like nothing ever happened. After security removed her from class for the second time, I saw that she’d put a note on my desk.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I said that. You’re the person I care about the most in this school.”
I’m not sure when in the last seven years the bad began to outweigh the good. But that day, for the first time, I began to think maybe I should replace "well-adjusted" with "in denial" when describing how I dealt with all the stress.
When you love your job, you’re willing to overlook a lot. But this time was different. I finally understood how hopeless it was. The thick skin I used to brag about dissolved, and I felt sick, like I’d been hit, but internally. I imagined things crawling around my stomach and slowly eating me. I pictured my insides rotting. This is what it’s like, I realized, to feel violated.
The school year was worse than any other by far. The students were wildly out of control, and neither the school nor the district knew what to do with them. We had no support. We were completely unprepared.
The stress hit me like a truck. I was sick all the time, and I never felt like I fully recovered from anything. My hair fell out. My skin looked sallow. By mid-December, no amount of makeup concealed the circles under my eyes.
I had every test run multiple times, and all my doctors said the same thing: The stress was compromising my immune system and making me sick. When humans encounter extreme stress, our instincts kick in and we enter something called “fight or flight mode.” It’s how our ancestors survived. In my case, the stress was not as a result of a threat to my physical safety, but my body didn’t know the difference. The stress didn’t let up, and the only way to fix it was to get rid of the stress, but I couldn’t, so my body stayed primed for battle, my cortisol levels remained through the roof, my immune response was continually repressed, and I never healed.
It made sense, but I didn’t believe it until my psychiatrist said it. This past year, he has been my savior. He saw through my bullshit, squashed my denial, and ignored my excuses, month after month. He told me to leave over and over, because no job was worth this price, and I said no, I couldn’t, I would just tough it out until the end of the school year and then find a better teaching job for the next year. I couldn’t take the risk. Quitting mid-year could very possibly ruin my teaching career. I had to make it through.
I tried. I really did. The students got worse, the administration did nothing, the district blamed the school, and I continued to fall apart.
One Saturday in April, I spent the night in the ER after puking blood. I hadn’t slept a full night in months, and I was on a first-name basis with many hospital employees. The next Wednesday, Brenda called me a ballsucker. Thursday, I walked into my psychiatrist’s office and said, “I want out. I don’t care if it ruins my teaching career. At least I’ll be healthy. At least I’ll be alive.”
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “You’re going out on leave. You have post-traumatic stress disorder. Except it’s not technically ‘post’ yet because you’re still very much in the trauma.”
It’s hard to explain what followed. I felt relieved I was getting out, guilty for leaving my students in such a hopeless situation, ashamed for not being stronger, and disappointed in myself for giving up. Denial was the worst. I didn’t go to war. I had no right to say I was traumatized.
“Your school environment? What you’ve been describing? It’s a battle zone. I have seen many teachers as patients over the years, and nothing comes close to the chaos you’re describing. If you were in a terrible accident, confined to a hospital bed, both legs in traction, would you be trying to finish out the school year? Would you be trying to leave on amicable terms? Would you be worried about your principal being angry at you? No. You’d be spending all your energy trying to recover. Which is what you’re going to do now.”
I knew he was right.
The more time passed, the more I understood leaving was the right thing to do. I exercised, read, and tried to relax. I returned to the summer job that led me to teaching in the first place, as a day camp swim instructor. The structure, positivity and sunshine helped. I have the most wonderful people in my life, and their love and support helped put me back together. Some days, I’m filled with hope for the future, and other days I’m consumed by doubt.
I miss my students horribly. I miss their smiles, their laughter, and their questionable fashion choices. I miss their enthusiasm, their sass, and the writing communities we built together (the writing I did in college was nothing compared to the writing I did with them).
I miss their stories. After seven years, their names fade, but I remember their writing.
“You don’t know my name, do you?” a 20-year-old former student says to me as she begins scanning my produce at the grocery store.
“No. But I remember your writing,” I say.
“You’re lying,” she says.
But I remember perfectly. She wouldn’t personalize the cover of her writer’s notebook, choosing instead to take a zero because “writing’s stupid.” For weeks she sat silently, a blank page in front of her, until someone mentioned 2Pac and she began scrawling memorized lyrics into her notebook. I remember her hesitance to start writing something all her own, the way she glared when I offered to help, her frustration, and then the look of disbelief her face when she finally found the right ending.
“Dancing with my Grandfather,” I say, and her mouth drops open. “I’ll never forget that story.”
I will take their stories with me wherever I go. I will keep teaching and writing and helping adolescents tell stories of their own because it’s what I love most, and what makes my story matter.
And my story is far from over.