"So, what do you do?" he asks, taking a sip of his drink.
"Oh," I said, hesitating. "Well, right now I manage a company. But I used to be a teacher."
I used to teach high school. I don't know if this is the case for everyone who teaches, but for me, being a teacher was an essential part of my identity. I felt like it made me who I was. What am I? I am a teacher. What else?
This is the story of how I stopped being a teacher.
I am standing in the lobby of the high school with two other teachers. We are standing in front of the police office, which is empty -- unbeknownst to us, there is a meeting upstairs in the principal's office regarding a potential fight between two students -- and student traffic is moving through as usual. Not a big deal.
Then suddenly, it is a big deal. Two students face off and start swinging.
I look at one of the women and say, "Get help."
The teacher's handbook -- and teacher training, at least in my experience -- doesn't tell you what to do when two teenage boys, who are bigger than you, are fully engaged in battle. However, it is often stressed that student safety is vital and important. In the small section regarding fights, it does tell you to clearly identify yourself as a teacher.
I think I did that. I knew both of the students, so I knew it was a moot point, but I think I remember saying "You need to stop! I'm a teacher!" before I stepped in.
When I step into the fray, the student in front of me looks me full in the face and smiles. And then he swings. I take the blow in the side of my head. At the same time, the student behind me also swings. I take that punch in the kidneys. The pain is unbelievable. I am knocked to the ground.
I reach out and catch the legs of the boy in front of me. I am being dragged across the floor. I get kicked, mid-body and again, in the side of the head. Somehow, my glasses don't fall off.
The principals and police officer are meeting upstairs about THIS fight. They had advance warning of it, but we weren't notified.
The students involved had a grudge against each other, but they planned out where they would fight. They chose the lobby for exposure, I found out after. They WANTED to be seen. They wanted to be talked about.
I knew that to be the case the instant that the student who first punched me smiled at me, though.
One of my students is built like a wall. He wades in and catches the student in front of me, locking his arms behind his back. "That's enough!" he says, and it gets quiet in the lobby.
I manage to get up. The student who was behind me is corralled into an office. Brandon -- my current hero -- marches the other student into the police office.
I go into the cafeteria -- keeping an eye on the door of the police office -- to get more help. One of my co-workers sees me and says, "What happened?" I tell him and ask for assistance.
Then I start to cry.
The administration made me go to the nurse's office and then sent me home. I was a teacher who got sent home for being in a fight. It was very, very odd. The principal called to see how I was, but had to leave me a message.
I press charges, but am told that it is unlikely that anything will come of it. Two days later, I am in the dean's office, talking to the secretary. One of the deans -- a woman I considered a friend, who had been in my wedding -- comes to me and says, "Who have you been talking to?"
"What happened the other day is all over the community." She looks angry.
I have a moment of speechlessness. "It was in the LOBBY," I finally say slowly. "There were a lot of people there."
"You need to protect the school," she says, and walks away.
For the record, this is what happened when two students kicked my ass:
They were both suspended for five days, for fighting with each other. They would be back to school in a week.
No one told me.
I am walking up the stairs when the student who first punched me in the head appears. It is my prep period, and the corridors are mostly empty. He leans in -- way in -- and corners me at the landing. I have nowhere to go.
"You pressed charges," he says, "and it's jacking up my probation. And now I'm not going to graduate on time." He is in my space. I am leaning back against the railing and then I notice one of my students -- William -- standing watch from near the learning center. He is not doing anything but standing, and I know it's because he's worried.
I might say something to the student who is trying -- and succeeding -- to intimidate me, but I don't know what it is. I do call out to William, casually, conversationally, and then push away, careful not to touch the student who is in my face, so as not to be accused of anything later -- and walk over to where he is standing.
"I wouldn't let him hurt you," Will says.
That moment -- where a young man stood up for me when he didn't have to, because he wanted to make sure I was OK -- will always be one of the things I remember when I think about my teaching career. When a teenager took the time to make sure that I was safe.
And when the school that I worked for did not.
In the next few weeks, the student who smiled before he struck me, who cornered me at the top of the stairs, began hanging out in our classroom area, cutting through it between classes, always making sure that I saw him there. I reported it, and was told that he would be spoken to.
They might have spoken with him. I don't know. It didn't stop.
The other student didn't appear in my classroom, but instead sent his sister and his friends to complain to me that I was lying, that he hadn't struck me, that he had nothing to do with it. His sister told me that I should know better.
Better than what?
I am walking to my car after school when I see the student who's been stalking me in the teacher parking lot, just hanging out. He waves to me and says, "So THAT'S your car."
I have finally had enough.
I turned in my resignation. I would not be finishing the year, but would leave permanently at April break. The principal asked me if this had anything to do with the fight.
I should have told the truth, but I lied. I lied because I thought I might want to teach somewhere else, and didn't want to be labeled a troublemaker. I lied because I was done. I was tired of being scared, I was tired, period, and I was worn down and wanted it to go away.
I'm not proud of it.
"No," I said. "I'm just looking for other opportunities."
He sat back in his chair. "Well, I'm glad," he said. As though it was perfectly normal for a teacher suddenly to quit mid-year. As though neither of us knew that I was lying through my teeth and that I would be looking over my shoulder every time I walked out of my classroom between that moment and my final day there.
It is my last day. My students and co-workers have thrown me a party. The kids know why I am leaving even though I have told them the same lie I told the principal, and have made me a book with kind, brilliant notes and well wishes. It is beautiful.
Walking away is one of the loneliest feelings I will ever have.
I still have the book. I look through it at the beginning of every September when I feel amiss, like there is something that I should be doing, when school supplies go on sale and my friends who are still in the classroom talk about prepping for the academic year.
It makes me proud -- of who I was, of who my students were and who they've become. It also makes me sad, because I feel like something was stolen from me, something I loved and that I can't get back.
So if you ask me what I do, I will tell you: I work from home. I manage a small company.
And I used to be a teacher.