I’ve been watching Ted Talks while at the gym, and I watched one the other day about vulnerability and its importance in finding real connections with others. I was thinking about that yesterday when, alone and crying in my car, I reached out to text a friend, then Newman, and then to call my mother.
I didn’t want to reach out at first. I didn’t want anyone to know why I felt so sad. It was silly, pathetic, self-indulgent, even shameful. I knew it was all those things, yet I was still completely, utterly sad and dejected, crying my eyes out like, well, like a sad little baby who wanted its mommy.
It was the end of the school day, the start of vacation. Why was I crying? Not because terrible things had happened to me, not because they are indeed happening to others.
I was crying because I didn’t get any gifts from my students for the holidays.
Go ahead and say it. Pathetic. Stupid. Get over yourself. I’ve said it all to myself already. It didn’t matter to me when I was crying. What mattered then was that it seemed like everyone around me was crowded with gifts, thank yous, baked goods, and well wishes, and all I could think was, “what am I doing wrong? I’m trying my best every single day; what more can I do?”
I’ve since told myself that adolescents are generally terrible gift-givers, which is true, and their parents aren’t that much in the picture after elementary school. Free’s teacher got $300 from her class for the holiday. She has an official “room-parent” whose sole job is to coordinate gifts and donated supplies to her classroom. I, on the other hand, steal tissues from the library to stock my classroom.
I know this is part of the deal. So I set my sights low each year; I hope for one gift. When I get it, or two or three, I’m overjoyed. I thought it was a good strategy, until this year, when my quota remained unfilled. It wrecked me.
My friend texted back to tell me she didn’t get any gifts either. She reminded me that the ones getting the most gifts teach juniors and write recommendation letters. I felt a tiny bit better. Newman texted that he hadn’t gotten any. I knew he was lying; he’d gotten two gifts, but it was nothing near his old haul when he used to teach juniors, and it is a fact that he is the most popular teacher at our school. I felt a tiny bit better. My mom listened to me venting and said “I know you’re the best teacher there.” I knew she meant well, but that actually made me feel worse.
What did help is when I called her back later to tell her I’d gotten over it, and to report that I’d driven home to find a gift waiting for me from Newman. I was not only cheered; I felt extremely blessed. I had let myself be vulnerable to those who love me, and they had reached out, accepted me as I was, and lifted me up.
My mom had some wisdom to share. “Honey, when we’re upset, we say things that are true, and you said two things that are important. You said ‘I know I’m a good teacher.’ But you also said ‘I know this isn’t the right job for me.'” She (or rather, I,) was right on both accounts. I’ve been teaching too long to question whether I’m doing a decent job; I may not be teacher of the year, but I know good practices and work hard to keep improving. At the same time, I have become clear on the fact that it continues to be difficult for me to find peace and satisfaction in this job.
My reality right now is that it I have a good job, and I need to keep it, at least until I have something better lined up. In addition to this all important fact, there is the stark reality that the last five years have been incredibly stressful for me and Free, and I’m just not up for any more upheaval right now. I am clear on the change I need to make eventually, but I am not quite ready to make it yet.
For now, the knowing is enough. My mom heard me out and understood how I felt. It was great to say it, to own up to the reality that has been staring me in the face for a while now. It frees me up to stop spending energy denying the reality and start putting that energy into finding my new path. The great thing about surviving my divorce and finding a (happier) reality outside of my marriage is that it has given me courage to go after the life I want, even when I’m afraid of giving up the security of the status quo.
My friend called me last night to check on me. To paraphrase her, she said, “You know, some of your students came to my class after yours, and they were all abuzz about the activity you did with them. They were so excited about it and kept begging me to let them do it again with our class. They said it was so nice to see all the good stuff people thought about them.” I was stunned. I had asked my kids to do affirmations for each other, and while it was a nice way to spend twenty minutes, not one of them had said anything to me about it after we were done. They had just gone on their way.
We hear all the time that teaching is a thankless job. There are lots of days when that is true, and it is hard. We have to tell ourselves what we do matters and help each other through it when our kids don’t have the wherewithal to say it to us. It’s not really their job to validate and affirm us, and it’s only ego that drives us to need and want them to. I’m lucky enough to have friends and family and a partner who are there for me when I need a pick me up. I have it pretty good.
I did walk away with my own list of affirmations after the exercise I did with my students, and I saved it, placing it in the “happy drawer” in my desk where my thank you cards go. It said some lovely things, including “you are the nicest teacher I have,” “you have a great fashion sense,” and my favorite: “you are so chill, and I feel like I could tell you anything.” I should kick myself for wanting more.
I’m here to tell anyone who has a thankless day that you’re not alone, that it’s ok to be sad about it, and that sharing that vulnerability can open you up to connection with others and to reflecting on what really matters and on how many blessings you have to be grateful for.
When my last class left yesterday, one girl stayed behind. She did not have the paper that was due, the one that was originally due on Tuesday but I extended until Friday. She is a sweet, creative, intelligent young woman, and she suffers from depression and severe anxiety. She tried not to, but she started crying, telling me eventually that she couldn’t do the work I’d asked her to do. She has struggled all semester, and she’s made a supreme effort to do work because I know she feels safe with me and likes me and wants to do well in the class. She feels bad when she has nothing to give me. Most of the work she has turned in has been work done in class when I can encourage her and help her. She is an artist, and she doodles her way through most classes, but she has also found her voice and shares her insights with the class frequently because her peers are patient with her and give her the space and time she needs to participate. Last week, she did a presentation on a song and sang it for the class in Japanese. It was a victory for her, but it was also a victory for me, if I can allow myself to see it.
Yesterday, I comforted her and told her I understood what it was like to have depression take away your ability to do things. She looked so relieved, and we set up a time after break to sit down together so she could write the paper. As she left, she smiled in gratitude. I may not have gotten any gifts, but I have to trust that her smile is the real deal–a better gift than any homemade cookies or gift-card that might have come my way.
The truth is, I hope I won’t be a teacher for the rest of my life. At the same time, I want to be the very best teacher that I can be while I am one; it is the most important thing to me other than being a good mother, a good partner, and a good friend to the ones I love. And so I will continue to do my best and hope that on most days, it will be good enough.