Saturday, February 8, 2020

Never Not Broken

Art by Emily Winfield Martin

Part One: Love

What I hear is a very familiar outburst of “SHIT!” in a high-pitched child’s voice, trying out the power of that word. So familiar, in fact, that it barely registers at all except for the out-of-place surroundings.

She’d made a mistake, knocked some things over, spilled the coffee. It’s pretty much the only reaction you could expect if it were water instead of coffee, my classroom filled with middle schoolers instead of a posh organic grocery store filled with posh organic shoppers. I am one of them in many ways: Prius in the parking lot, well-crafted fingerless mittens on my hands, and the money to pay for a mini-cart filled with fresh organic oranges and cookies and grapes.

But in just as many ways, I am not one of them at all. I don’t look up or even grimace when she hollers “SHIT!” and spills the coffee. I don’t freeze up until I hear the stern man’s voice in response: “Go. Now. Without your coffee. GO!”

I only look when she strides right past me out the door, not a child but a grown woman, striding out the door and down the sidewalk screaming “FUUUUUCK! AAAHHHHHH!” like it’s just another Thursday at my job, except there’s no staff of loving adults who will graciously head her off; no quiet counselor’s office for her to take deep breaths and plunge her hands into some kinetic sand; no one to bring her a granola bar and ask her if she’s ready to try again.

In the posh organic grocery store, there is only nervous laughter and commiseration among the staff and shoppers. If they were my students, we’d unpack it. I’d insist on grace and respect for the person who is struggling, but I’d make a space for the others to share their feelings about it. We’d share stories about the times when we got angry and lost it. We’d even reminisce about the time when I got angry and lost it. (“You were SO MAD, Ms. Floor Pie! We thought you were gonna quit that day!” So did I, children. But I felt much better after I took a break and came back when I was calm.) And then I’d remind them that we’re not robots and that we all experience anger and frustration. It’s what we do next that counts. And we’d make a plan for how to welcome the student back in when they were ready.

But it’s a grocery store, not my classroom, so I just keep rattling my mini-cart up and down the aisles, taking the deep breaths I wish I could have coached that woman to take and feeling pretty certain it wouldn’t have done a damn bit of good anyway. People say it all the time. We’re doing them a disservice. What about the Real World? What will they do then, when there’s no kinetic sand and no breaks in the counselor’s office and no granola bars and only a cold world of consequences? What then?

“Sorry about that interruption, ma’am,” says the manager when I pause by the La Croix’s to decide on a flavor. He looks like a younger, more earnest Ron Swanson. He probably thinks I look so shell-shocked because somebody yelled “SHIT” in my favorite posh organic grocery store.

I’m supposed to tell him it’s okay, but I can’t find the words. So instead I just blurt, “I work with mentally ill children.”

This is a pretty big exaggeration, but not entirely untrue. Not to mention rhetorically effective. The flash in his eyes.

So I keep blurting, motioning to the fruit and cookies in my cart. “All of this food is for them. They’re having their Writers Celebration today and every single one of them, even the ones who hate school the most and always refuse to do work…every single one of them wrote a story.”

He nods, maybe wondering what my point is. There’s no real need to keep blurting, but there I go anyway. “And I’m so PROUD of them, but I’m so worried about them, too. That woman sounded just like some of my students when they get angry, and I feel like I just saw how the rest of the world will see them when they grow up…and I know that no matter how hard I work every day and how much progress they make, there’s really nothing I can do to…to keep that from happening to them.”

And then, because I can read true empathy on his face, and because I’m pretty sure he cares but has no clue what to actually say, I add “But I know you have a job to do and a store to run. I understand.”  And truly, I did.

“Thank you,” was all he said. But he really meant it.

 Art by Emily Winfield Martin

Part Two: Hate

Weeks later, during a particularly wonderful but also particularly challenging school year, I’m still pondering that episode. I’d meant to write it up as a Christmas-themed blog post, but something stopped me. Maybe I didn’t want to put a false glow on something that, in fact, is not as glowingly simple as that story makes it appear.

Weeks later, in fact, I found myself crying slow, calm, steady tears in a movie theater by myself on a Thursday afternoon instead of in my classroom, where I should have been.

I was at the movies because my principal had sent me home for the day.

My principal sent me home for the day because I’d straight-up lost it in her office, sobbing and sobbing because one of my students, in his disability-manifested anger, had ranted at me in the hallway in a particularly sexist and rape-culture tone, and because he’d recruited another of my students to join in, both of them braying the joyless laughter of white men reclaiming their power.

I was crying because several female colleagues I love and trust did most assuredly NOT have my back on it, in fact high-roaded and blamed me for it. (“He’s just a baby,” one of them is reported to have said in a department meeting the next day.)

I was crying because this is not the first time something like that has happened.

I was crying because every time it happens, the message is “Floor Pie, you’re just too sensitive. You need a therapist. You need to get your shit together on your own time.”

I was crying because, as rotten as it feels when stuff like this happens, I absolutely do NOT want to quit this job. I can’t keep myself from it. It’s the only thing I’m this supernaturally good at. It’s the only thing that makes me feel like I’m worthy of taking up my privileged space in this world. I’m called to it. I love it even when I hate it. I couldn’t quit it if I tried.

Art by Emily Winfield Martin

Part Three: Resolve

This story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, and neither does this work. I came to it with passion and ferocity, but that doesn’t mean I get to be the heroine of the narrative.  And, like I tell my students, I’m not just some right-doing robot. I get hurt and blow up too, just like they do. And when that happens, I take a break, maybe curse in the privacy of my own home instead of posh grocery stores and classrooms. I cry soundlessly in the back rows of movie theaters. Then I go home and watch TV with my kids, plan little vacations, order Indian food with extra samosas. I talk it through and through and through with my husband who tries to make me feel better by saying things like “Well, you work in public education. Public education is messed up.”

This work breaks me. But…this work builds me. This work lets me feel hopeful in an increasingly hopeless world; it lets me feel like I am doing something helpful for the people most likely to be steamrolled under the emerging dictatorship we’re all living with because we can’t bring ourselves to die for the cause just yet.

So, here I am. Hating what I love, loving what I hate, joyful and striving and so very, very tired. There are things I could do next. There are ways I could keep doing this but make the parts of it that suck at least suck less. There are good days, bad days, unmemorable days, and summer vacations. There are times – lots of times – when I feel connected to this world with benevolence and joy. There are times when I’m counting the days to the next school break. What’s next for me and this gloriously ridiculous career? One way or another, for better or for worse, it’s likely to be more of the same.

That’s not a happy ending. But I suppose it’s a hopeful one.

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