sitting in discomfort
Five years ago, this summer, I was really struggling. Or, rather, I’d just made a huge decision that would change the rest of my life. For two years prior, I had done everything in my power to be a teacher. Or, rather, to be part of a movement that would allow me to teach. I was a passionate advocate of the cause–of being the change–gapping educational inequality…teaching for America.
When I first heard of the organization, I was in an equally hard place. My Mama had just died. I was working a really shitty job where I was treated like garbage and paid nothing. I was going to school to get my teaching license after deciding I couldn’t afford to invest in a long-term program. I, instead, went the quick and dirty route–choosing a school I knew would disappoint me. And, of course, it did. After 11 months of trying to make broken things work, I was on the verge of a breakdown–desperately looking for something to save me.
I watched a lot of Nightline back then. It was my connection to the world. I remember watching a story on a TFA corps member in NYC and being inspired to apply. I started the application while still watching the profile. Never in a million years did I think I’d get in. While a good student and overachiever, I hadn’t gone to a well-known Ivy League school. I was much older than most of my fellow applicants, and I knew that world–the world corps members invaded. But I had nothing to lose. I’d given up on my teaching program–and needed something to get me back on track. I still believed in teaching and my ability to make a difference. This program seemed like a great fit.
But things aren’t always what they seem to be.
The interview process was difficult, but I felt at home there. I liked the people who interviewed me and the people I interviewed with. Most of them had chosen Chicago as their first choice. At the time, the Denver corps wasn’t established. My first choice was Los Angeles. I was interested, particularly, in special education–which was the hardest option available and something that was in high demand. While I had studied it somewhat in my previous program, I really had no idea what that process would be like.
After several rounds of interview hoops and many weeks of waiting, I finally got news that I got in. I remember being so surprised–and completely ecstatic. So many people congratulated me and wished me well. So many people believed in me. It was overwhelming. I had an opportunity most people like me don’t get, and I wasn’t going to waste it.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised they chose me. I was intelligent, well-educated (maybe not at Harvard, but at a decent school), established in my career (even if the reality of it sucked), and well-traveled. I measured up to all those other kids, academically. But I also had the benefit of personal experience. I was resilient and tenacious. I had done everything in my life without any support at all. I had crawled out of poverty. And I was passionate about teaching. I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it.
Only things didn’t quite go the way I’d planned. There were hiccups. Problems. A visit to LA that convinced me I couldn’t live there plus a few life events that made the whole thing rather unlikely. By then, Denver was getting a corps. They let me switch locations. I just had to take a test. I had no time to prepare, and this test is apparently one that takes most people two tries to pass–with the science portion (my new assignment was focused on high school bio) being the most difficult of all. While I had a bio degree, it’d been several years since I’d cracked a book. Most of the questions weren’t about bio or chem. It was all earth sciences and astronomy–things I hadn’t studied since high school.
I missed the mark by a couple points. It sucked. I’d already quit my job and had to ask for it back. I got it back, luckily, and was fortunate enough to be given yet another chance. I’d join the Denver corps in its second year instead. Math and science. This time, I passed the tests in the top percentiles. I got hired on by a wonderful school, along with many other corps members and was teamed up with one of the corps’ more prominent members who’d been in all the local newspapers. He’d do English & Social Studies. I met “my” kids before Institute and pretty much fell in love with them. I loved the entire thing–that school, my partner, the staff. I was in it.
By the time Institute came around, I really thought I was prepared. But I had no idea. The whole thing was difficult for me. Being older and not being from a privileged background really made it difficult for me to connect with my fellow corps members. It brought up a lot of my childhood for me–things I thought I had dealt with decided to come up and clock me. In a normal situation, I would have been able to process these feelings. In this situation, I had zero time for myself, had no sleep, no support network at all, and was expected to teach on my first day–with no training. I was miserable. I was also struggling to deal with physical conditions my body couldn’t handle (and I got handed a really awful booby prize most of my fellow corps members didn’t get to experience–that the organization did little to fix). Pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong.
Keep in mind–I was an overachiever, and I wanted this more than anything. I’d spent two years of my life–and lots of my own money–trying to make this happen. I’d stared down bigger demons in the past, and I truly believed this was what I was put on Earth to do. And I loved those kids. I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself.
At some point, I realized that I could get through all of these struggles. But the more I learned about the organization’s tactics, the more I wasn’t sure those tactics made sense. The more I was exposed to the cultural realities of this organization, the more I questioned it. At some point, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Other things in my life supported me in changing course, so I decided to get out before I was part of something I didn’t want to be part of. I was given the option of returning later–and while I heavily weighed it for those two years–I ultimately decided this wasn’t my calling. If I wanted to teach, I’d do it the right way.
It sounds so easy. I left. But it was one of the most difficult choices I’ve ever made–as difficult, certainly, as deciding open heart surgery was a good option for my Mama. Coming home, I felt disillusioned. Everything I believed in was different than what I thought it was. The people I thought I could count on weren’t there for me. And now, I had to find new work–pay new bills–deal with a life I hadn’t bargained for.
The experience changed my heart. It changed what I knew about myself. It made me question my purpose. Suddenly, I didn’t know if I wanted to teach. It was the last thing my Mama knew about me–something she endorsed for me–something everyone I knew believed I could and should do. And here I’d just walked away from it and this prestigious program. Like some ungrateful loser. I was not going to be some kid’s mentor. I was not going to have chalk stains on my pants. I was not going to have lifelong friends who would be in my someday wedding.
I went through a lot of grief. Which was made worse by other things that happened after. Suddenly, after years of stability and achievement, I was in this nightmare of a life where I was alone, broke, completely unsure of anything–and trying desperately just to hang on.
I don’t talk a lot about that year now, mostly because I’m still sort of ashamed. And angry. And sad. But grateful. I needed to learn those things about myself. I needed to learn that my greatest fears would not kill me. That I’d still have a beautiful life. That I could change my life, over and over again. That I was, indeed, resilient and tenacious. That I could surprise myself. I made some more mistakes that year. But they were my mistakes. And I found a whole lot of self-love that I didn’t know I had in me. I found a lot more joy in just being alive. And I discovered that I am not a teacher–at least, not in this educational system. And that’s okay.
That’s when I started thinking about what life could be. And I came up with new dreams–dreams that will help the same kids and do even more for the world.
Nothing is wasted.
I share all of this because I read this article yesterday. I could have written in back in 2008–and I thought about it–but I was afraid of going against the machine. I didn’t have the inner strength I do now. I didn’t know about all the things the writer cites when I joined the corps. I had no idea about the actual reality of it. I was caught up in the romance of what I hoped it could be–sort of like those first loves we all have. I’m still an idealistic girl who tries to see the best in people and things. My experience isn’t exactly like the people quoted. My Institute experience seems more intense. I taught more and was responsible for children more in the time I was there. I found, at every juncture, I was inadequately supported–so that jives.
But I also can’t put all the blame on the organization. A lot of it is the educational system. It is immensely flawed and messed up. I do think the people involved here really do want to change the world and are believers in their abilities to do so. However, I think they are often delusional. While I liked most of my fellow corps members, they were much less prepared than I was–and I was totally unprepared. I struggled so much just being around them–knowing how naive they truly were and how that would harm children. I struggled to deal with my own stuff–but also with them. It was very hard for me to believe in us as a corps for that reason.
As someone who quit, I take no joy in it. I used to read these blogs and articles–especially the ones that were critical of the organization–to try to feel better about the choices I made. But I found no solace. At the end of the day, I want them to succeed. I wish I was wrong. I wish my desire to quit was a result of my own frailty–and not a broken system and a delusional approach to solving it. At the end of the day, I still want better lives for all those children–and I wish I could have been the one to help them. At the end of the day, I really don’t care who does it…just that someone tries.
So, maybe I do say, “quit.” Maybe I say, “don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” But don’t stop trying to change the world. Just quit the organization–not those kids.