Being an emotional cutter

My fellow Sex and the City fans know exactly what I mean by that, but for those of you who don’t, here’s a quick recap. In the movie, Carrie pulls out the article about her (at the time) upcoming wedding with all the pictures of her in designer wedding gowns, looking so happy…on Valentine’s Day, just a few months after being left on her wedding day, never getting married. Miranda asks her why on that day of all days would she choose to look at that article, and Carrie’s response is “I’m an emotional cutter.”

The idea is simple. Some of us don’t need weapons to hurt ourselves. We come fully equipped with brains that will cut us to the quick without a moment’s notice. We make decisions that we know are going to drive a stake right into our hearts and we do it anyway. That’s me.

I recently wrote about being out of alignment, and one area of that is within my current job. While it’s a good position, it isn’t what I’m meant to be doing and I know that, which makes it that much harder. Today, I grabbed a stake and took a walk back through the dream-I pulled out “the folder”. The folder is something that almost every teacher has that helps get them through the tough days, reminding them that they make a difference and that what they go through is worth it. It tells us that out among the faces of our students, we are helping someone more than we know in that moment. It’s my collection of letters, cards, notes, pictures, and every other thing that my students have given me over the years (except for actual gifts that don’t fit in a folder obviously).

I have honestly been blessed to have had the most incredible kids in my career, and even when all other things seemed to be a total mess- that was the one thing I held on to. But my career has been extremely turbulent, with something always pulling me away. I don’t usually tell this story because, well, what’s the point? It is what it is, but today I think I will. Why not grab the salt while I’m at it? Open wounds anyone?

I was called to teaching years after I had finished college. I was sitting in an office in New York, staring out into the void with a pulling on my heart telling me that I was meant for more. The only answer that continued to come to me was teaching. I decided to go back to school and get my teaching degree. The perks of going back as an older student were many: I was a much better student since I truly knew what I wanted, I had years of experience to draw on, I kept out of a lot of the drama and nonsense that arise during the first trip through college when we are kids, and it made me a better teacher than I would have been at 22. However, it was those years that proved to make my career quite a bit more difficult in some ways as well.

It took me a year after I finished to find a teaching position, and when I finally did find one, it required relocating. That was fine, I really didn’t mind. I liked the town I moved to, but I learned quickly that the school I ended up in was extremely toxic. My superintendent was volatile and would fire teachers on the spot in front of their students. We never knew if we would come home with a job. He had more money tied up in lawsuits than anything else, and hired administration that matched his vision (I’m still not sure what it was, but it wasn’t pro-education or pro-kid). If they came into your room, you knew you were slated for a verbal beat-down. We were the guinea pigs for Pay for Performance, and the way they handled not having to pay for performance was to make it impossible for their teachers to perform. Clever. All but two of my entire department left either during or directly after my first year, and those experiences would cause me quite a bit of PTSD in the years that followed each time an administrator would walk into my room, no matter how much positive feedback I would receive. To say it was a hostile work environment is an understatement, and yet it’s something I would have dealt with when I was younger. I would have put up with all of it just to be there for those kids, but it was not something I was going to subject myself to as an older adult. I had paid my dues with horrible bosses and jobs through the years; I wasn’t doing it again. So at the end of that year, when a better opportunity presented itself I jumped at it. I was sad to leave my students, but knew it was a healthier decision for me. That, too, is an understatement.

My next year of teaching was a complete 180 from my first year. I had an amazing administration, tremendously supportive colleagues, and a superintendent who was truly there to do what was best for kids. On top of all of that, I had phenomenal students. I was teaching psychology and sociology, which was the majority of my educational background- fully in my element. But there was a catch. My first year of teaching came with an $8000 pay cut. Moving to this new school came with an additional $2000 pay cut- for all you math lovers out there that is a total pay cut of $10,000. That’s a substantial hit considering I wasn’t making big bucks beforehand and my cost of living had risen due to the area I was in. Now if I had come to this position right out of my first run through college with no debt, it would have been ok, but I didn’t. I came with ten years of consumerism, a relocation, and a pile of new student loan debt acquired to get into this amazing career. And then I found myself not making enough to make the payments, in the middle of a district salary freeze, with no relief in sight. I struggled through that year while the creditors kept calling and threatening, believing for as long as I could that I could make it work. I finally had to admit to myself that if I continued on that path, the stress would infiltrate my classroom and take over my life, which would not be good for the kids or for me. I made the hardest decision of my career at that point- to leave and do whatever I had to do to get my finances back on track, and just hope that someone would give me another chance when I was ready. So I resigned. I spent the next year working two, sometimes three, jobs to get things taken care of so that I could go back to what I loved. It took another year after that, but I was finally picked up again by another school and felt that finally I would get to stay.

I’m not sure that year could have been more tumultuous. It began with a car accident that left me struggling to walk and breathe at my normal capacity for quite some time, with my free time spent in recovery- the chiropractor, massage therapist, and physical therapy- followed shortly after by my mom needing reconstructive leg surgery where I would be needed to help, though helping was physically difficult for me still. With time I grew stronger and was finally getting back to normal when I had a stroke (yes, you read that right and yes, I was way too young for that nonsense), spending my Valentine’s Day in the hospital. Luckily we had Monday off for a holiday so I didn’t have to take any time off from school. Making sub plans sucks and is usually more stressful than just being there sick. I went back to work on Tuesday, wearing a heart monitor for testing. I called it “the squid” and tried to help my students understand why there were cords coming from every which way out of my shirt and at the same time convince them that they didn’t need to worry about me- that I would be ok (I’m Super Woman right?). Again, I recovered for the most part and pressed on, never considering that I would leave, and at the end of that year I was excited that I was finally going to get to teach the same thing for a second year in a row, and be in the same place. Then I got the call- my mom was in the hospital. She called asking if I could come take care of the dog while she went through her own trauma. Luckily it was summer, so I packed a bag and home I went. In the first week I was at home, my mom had two emergency surgeries, a friend passed away far too young, and the woman I had always considered to be my second mom passed away. Emotionally, I probably wasn’t in the best place to be making huge decisions, but that’s how these things go I suppose. I stayed for another week and made sure that my mom got settled back at home and was ok to be left alone before I went back to my life and proceeded to spend the following week agonizing over what to do. It was clear to me that for that time, my place was at home with my mom, but I also recognized that by doing so could mean the end of my career because who would pick me up after yet another year in another district? But it had to be done, so once again I resigned and relocated home.

While I had accepted the fact that my days in teaching may be over, I wasn’t going to give up trying, and I was fortunate to get a long-term substitute teaching position for the beginning of the school year. I continued to sub through that semester, but I started to fear the worst- that I really would never be given another chance and would have to let go of my dream. And then it happened.

I was picked up! I had been given another chance, but of course there was a catch…it was a one-year only position. But I was again fortunate to be part of an incredible team. My PLC was amazing, my students were awesome, and I felt truly at home. The year did not come without its challenges though, as mid-year our principal decided to create an entirely separate program within our school that would pull teachers out of every department, teachers we desperately needed. On top of this, one of my teammates, our friend, passed away unexpectedly during winter break (remember all that loss I talked about?), taking a great emotional toil on us as well as our students, and creating a lot of stress. Adding to that was the knowledge that when the year ended there was a chance I would again be out of a job. Since I had continually been told that most one-year only people end up getting hired, I remained hopeful…until spring break. My principal came to me and let me know that my position was being absorbed by district budget cuts, and that was that. First I cried, and then I immediately applied for summer school, trying to stay in the classroom for as long as possible. But each passing day of summer school reminded me that my time was coming to an end, and just like that it was over. I have missed it every single day since.

For a while I started to wonder if it was a sign from the Universe telling me I was pursuing the wrong dream, but now I think it was life’s way of proving to me that I was chasing the right one. It’s exactly what a passion should be. Is it sunshine and roses every day? No, but it’s the one thing you’d do no matter how many times you get pushed down by it. It’s the only thing I’ve continued to fight for no matter what has happened because I know it’s where I belong. Helping kids navigate the chaos of life is what I excel at; building relationships of trust and respect is my gift. There are so many things wrong with education, so many reasons I should be running in the other direction, but I just can’t. I continue to pray I’ll get another chance and finally be able to stay somewhere. I have no idea how you tell a story like this one on an on-line application, which continues to kick me in the face, but I’ll keep trying, and someday someone will see me through the red flags, and they’ll know that I’m the right person for the job.

In the meantime, I’ll pull out my folder from time to time, remember, and cut a little deeper. I was never promised it would be easy, only that it would be worth it. I know everything I’ve experienced will have been for a reason. I have to believe that there is a place for me, a classroom in a school where I can call home, with kids that I can guide and be a light for as they trek forward on their journey. It’s my calling, and the emotional cuts tell me so.

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