In the middle of the night in March of 2021, someone was banging on my door in a dream. I opened my eyes. I could hear the burglar break the window of my bathroom and make their way into my apartment. I sat up in bed and called out, telling them as gently as I could that someone was here, that they could take whatever they wanted, but they should probably get going because I had called 911.
The interloper peaked his head in my bedroom door. I knew him, I realized. He had been trying to get a hold of me, and when he couldn’t reach me, he’d become desperate. I tried to keep the anger and fear out of my voice as I asked him why, why. He told me he’d been doing better, actually, until that night, until he’d driven sixty miles, weaving in and out of lanes on the highway. He didn’t think he’d make it here, he told me as he followed me through the rooms of my apartment. He’d thought he’d die.
I asked him to leave. When he tried to comply, we discovered he had broken the doorknob attached to the only entrance and exit from the house. I went to my room and returned with two masks. Together we waited in my kitchen for the police to arrive, our faces covered, the scent of alcohol emanating off his skin. I kept my eyes on the floor.
The next day, my alarm went off at five. I thought about calling in and asking for a sub, but I realized that no one had told me my employee ID number, which was required by the district to put in such a request. I drove the 30 minutes to school across the Kansas prairie, hunched over the steering wheel as the sun rose, windows down to the morning chill to keep me awake. Between cleaning the students’ desks after every class and finishing off lesson plans I was creating day to day, I had ten minutes of free time, and I used it to cry.
The other day I helped my neighbor arrange rocks in her garden. I started with the largest rocks and spiraled them until they got smaller and smaller. Then I took colorful, smooth pieces of glass and placed them in the gaps between rocks, careful to make the colorful pieces appear placed by chance, careful to not make them into a pattern. I didn’t stop until the sun was high in the sky and sweat soaked my back.
Ever since the break-in, sleeping through the night is rare. In pockets of sleep, I move in and out of dreams where I am responsible for a group of people. My job is to herd them away from some giant monster or mass shooter or weather event. Sometimes I am subbing into a basketball game at the last minute, or stepping into a play to fill a role, squinting backstage at lines of text that swirl and rearrange themselves, stepping past the curtain mid-scene and following the rest of the performers, hoping I am not failing the production.
Two floors below me, the central air leaps on with a muted bang, and my body siezes in bed, my eyes open before I know why. I wait for an intruder. Listen for him. Put on TV so that every noise no longer turns into a footstep, fall back asleep until the next moment of waking, until the footsteps happen again.
In the weeks after I quit my job, I make elaborate lunches from fresh vegetables I get from a CSA, which I pick up every Monday from the co-op. There are always too many tomatoes. Sometimes I am so tired or distracted I can’t conceive of an appealing way to cook the tomatoes so I just pick up one of the ripest and eat it raw, like an apple. It tastes like something proto-human, like water and earth itself. The juice and seeds pour down my chin and neck.
My nightmares make sense to me, especially those about subbing into basketball games or performing in last-minute plays. I often volunteer for things before I fully understand the rules. Then, when people tell me what the rules are, I don’t care for them, so I either attempt to change them, or I see myself out. Sometimes it works, and something mutually beneficial arises out of the interaction, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Ironically, the jobs I have most enjoyed have been supervisory, where I was slated to act as a buffer between one party and something I deemed valuable. I like answering questions, explaining why certain policies are in place to maximize pleasure. Chorizo is a spiced sausage, I’d tell customers with satisfaction at my former restaurant job. To my college students: A comma is a breath. Into a microphone, proud, at the children’s theater: ten minutes until curtain. In these spaces, no one has to be convinced of the value of what they’re about to do or see.
This was not the case in high school, where the value in learning seemed to be rendered useless by technology. Unless my students felt obligated to attend college, they saw no utility in reading and writing about the world. I get it. I would feel the same. Why learn about the universe when machines do it for them? What use is curiosity in the face of an algorithm that delivers information customized to one’s interests? It was supposed to be my job to instill value in what I was doing for the students, and most of the time, I felt like I was competing with the devices in their hands. If that was the case, I could never offer more dopamine than a phone.
I use my job-free days to ride my bike along the Kaw River and try to take note of anything beautiful I see. Sunset-dipped branches. Changing leaves. The murky water in brown and pink ripples. The train comes by every day around 2:30, rattling along in a chain of rust-colored boxcars, and every day I’m startled by the exploding horn and clatter, clenching my handlebars.
In bed, I write about the things I’m grateful for in an old University of Mississippi Department of Writing and Rhetoric notebook: the branches, the river, the pages I’d written that day, text conversations that went well. I put a limit on my phone so I’m not allowed to check my bank account after 9:00 pm. While my friends get shitty adjunct jobs they have every right to complain about, I can’t get a call back. The paranoid part of me thinks my future employers know something about me that I don’t, the same thing my certification program knew, the thing that follows me as I quit job after job, the thing that brought out the madness of the burglar, the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night. Something fundamental about me that I can’t or won’t change.
Sometimes in my nightmares, I’m gathering my clothes into a suitcase in a hotel room, rushing to beat some invisible foe who knows I’m there, who’s coming for me. I push the pedals on my afternoon rides with the desperation of an outlaw, listening to Death Grips and podcasts about conmen exposed by investigative journalists. As summer turns into fall, I get better at taking hills, go further down the river with ease. One day, my bike gets a flat tire and I have to walk three or four miles back to my apartment. Shortly after the blown tire, my headphones run out of batteries. I am forced to listen to my feet plod on the gravel, the occasional twittering of birds preparing to migrate. I take the trail a footstep at a time. There’s no reason why I need to be home. No pet, no person, no plans, no papers to grade. This is freedom, and it comes with an untethered, unspecified grief. This time I see the train coming.
In Kansas, those who attempt to transition from their current field into education are required to pay $1500 a semester to attend certification programs in addition to their full-time jobs. Often the assignments we are required to complete involve watching YouTube videos of effective teachers. Between grading papers, I watched these videos on my nights and weekends, read the assigned sets of suggestions about how I might make such a miracle happen in my own classroom, and wrote online posts repeating the suggestions in the context of my subject matter.
My actual teaching job never resembled the pedagogy videos. My students were tired. Their relatives were dying, their stomachs were growling, their world was collapsed into screens. They asked for games, and when I didn’t give them games, they watched videos on their phones. To please them, I became what my pedagogy YouTube videos called “an activities teacher,” where the goal of each period was to complete a task for an extrinsic reward. Do this standards-based worksheet and you can watch videos on your phone, I told them. Read this paragraph in our standards-based textbook and we can rest for five minutes. This was bad teaching, but I was tired, too. I began to input most of the required information for their standards into online games, in hopes they would realize the colorful points they were accumulating were actually essential tenets of reading knowledge, and then they would take up the mantle of what the pedagogical YouTube videos called “independent learning,” of teaching themselves whatever it was that interested them within the bounds of Language Arts.
Independent learning did not happen for my students. I did not know how to invite them to be curious about a subject from which I had never been estranged, about which I had never not been curious. What is milk to a baby? What is air to a balloon? I’d never asked questions about the utility of language; I’d simply been filled. To backtrack and approach the subject from this perspective took a lot of labor, both literal and intellectual. I relied on the lesson plans of people who came before me, but I didn’t always understand the reading and writing outcomes toward which I was supposed to be steering the group. I got mixed up about the gaps between what they were capable of and what they were supposed to be accomplishing.
One week, I gave up and told them the truth. I told them I knew that I sucked at this, but I was just as befuddled as they were. All of the standards seemed to be aimed at encountering language as its own little complicated world, rather than using it as a tool for communicating and telling stories. Why sit around talking about the effectiveness different types of hammers when there were nails to be hit with the hammers they’ve got? So, I began to ask them to write in a journal about sensory experiences they’d had every week. Did you smell anything new? Did you hear anything interesting or strange? Did you see anyone you haven’t seen in a long time? I read everybody’s journals and made sure to comment on them. I learned about the carpet in their rooms, the cries of their nephews and nieces, the smell of their grandmother’s red beans and rice. From the journal prompts, which got more complex as the months went by, they began to write their own stories. I had them pick incidents from their lives that they had learned from; along with the narration of these incidents, they were required to introduce characters, lay out choices and consequences, and most importantly, use sensory language to build a world. They did beautifully. Their stories were honest and funny and heartbreaking.
To this end, to the project of helping students communicate what was in their hearts, I was fully, deeply dedicated. I read and gave feedback on the writing of roughly 120 students every week. I fell behind on my certification. It seemed that every week I had to choose between planning interesting lessons or watching YouTube videos of other teachers. My fellow teachers told me it would get better, that next year would be more normal, that in three years from now, when all the certification was over, I will have seen it all and be ready for anything; I will feel like a real teacher. I liked that idea. I saw myself in a pedagogical YouTube video squatting next to students’ desks, asking them the right questions, smiling as they smiled. I had felt patches of it already, especially when I read their writing week-to-week. I saw their paragraphs get longer, their musings get more uninhibited, their reflections get more precise.
In the meantime, I wasn’t writing anything for myself except for an occasional morning ritual I called “Dark Screen.” I would dim my laptop as dark as it would go so I couldn’t see what I was typing. In the dawn-soaked 20 minutes before I had to hop in my car, I typed as many words as I could, paragraphs that turned into a funhouse of dystopian scenarios about a society that didn’t speak, that communicated purely through intuition and empathy. Their intuition, I wrote, gave them the ability to communicate with all the plants and animals that thrived on the edge of a mountain-sized landfill. These 20-minute pockets were the highlight of my days, along with, of course, the occasional wildly creative piece of student writing.
I am pretty sure my nightmares were simply my brain taking the only unoccupied time available to have the emotions I was suppressing in order to function. Between teaching, grading, and taking the required YouTube classes at night, I did not process what was happening day to day. For a couple of months, I was dating a defense lawyer with two small purebred terriers. On dates, he liked to take me and the terriers for walks around his neighborhood, pointing at houses he would have bought if he hadn’t bought his current house. He ended the relationship after I kept waking up and wandering his halls, occasionally paralyzed by random neck pain or fits of sobbing. My friends and family were suffering physically and psychologically. Students were having stress-induced seizures in my classroom, threatening to die by suicide in their journals, and teachers were having public mental breakdowns. And somehow, everyone was still trying to do their jobs.
Administrators called us into their offices one by one, asking us why there were so many Fs, and what we planned to do to minimize the amount of Fs. Then, in the same week, another administrator would tell us that despite the lack of learning, there should be little to no Fs earned, especially in this exceptional year. If we did decide to give Fs, we were told to call the parents of each student who had an F, and keep our own records of whose numbers worked, who had already been called, and how the call went. To avoid Fs, we were told to make custom lessons for each type of learner, depending on their challenges and history, and not to worry about the standards. Meanwhile, my teaching certification videos were telling me that all standards were carefully written and upheld for a reason, that they worked, and that every student who didn’t hit those standards should receive an F for their own good. Young, dedicated recent graduates volunteered to lead workshops on a new, more restorative grading system, which, unfortunately, meant you also had to learn to game the calculations of the old grading system, translate the new grades to the old grades, and enter each grade twice.
We were told to tell ourselves at the end of the day that we had done everything we could, that the students had to do their part, too. We were told to keep up the normal expectations, that rigor is a form of care. We were told to make sure and leave every day before 5:00 pm so that we weren’t overworking ourselves. We were told to show up to extracurricular events, to display school spirit in a particularly hard year. We were told to keep single-serving snacks in our bottom drawers for students who didn’t have food at home. We were told not to ask students about their home life. We were told to make everyone turn on their cameras so they were held accountable for their engagement, and to count them absent if they refused. We were told to allow students to come and go from Zooms as they pleased, to grade them only on the work that they did, not their attendance. We were told to be more relaxed so that students would relax. We were to told our bring our full selves to the classroom, to share and relate on a human level. At one point close to the end of the year, I was informed by my teaching certification program that I was close to being fired for saying the word “bullshit” in my classroom, and that though the administrators at my school did not want to let me go, I needed to make my demeanor more professional, as many first-year teachers had been fired for less.
And what was it all for? For the kids, of course. And I loved the kids. I loved making writing accessible and even enjoyable for them. I loved seeing their faces when they read something they wrote aloud, that look of pride and power that can only come from sharing a piece of one’s consciousness. When I watched the seniors walk across the football fields in their caps and gowns, I celebrated with my colleagues, told them that this graduation would be the first of many. Over the summer, I took extra trainings, tried to plan whole semesters in advance, and interviewed experienced teachers in my field. Even as I knew how much I was sacrifcing by abandoning writing, how much time and effort it would take merely to keep up, I wanted to stay. I hated the part of me that kept doing this, that kept leaving things I had committed to because I didn’t like the rules. The more I missed writing, the more hours I committed to being the best second-year teacher I could be. There was an endpoint, I kept telling myself. The sooner I reached my full potential, the sooner I could have a steady, normal life, and finally make time to do what I set out to do, and only ever wanted to do.
It was a Friday in August. I had spent all week setting up my classroom for students. I updated my roster, put up posters I designed myself, and uploaded my lesson plans. I was ready. I waited to feel the thrill of purpose I had prepared to feel all summer, the jolt of potential, even that small rush of satisfaction of having gotten things done. I felt only dread.
Colleagues told me that the feelings would soon fade in the hustle and bustle of the semester. They might have been right, but I was starting to realize that I didn’t want them to be right. You have to let things go, some of them told me, keep pushing forward. Some of them said, if you think too hard about it, you won’t be able to make it.
Here I am, thinking too hard. Here I am again, fixating on the ways in which reality disappoints me. But it wasn’t any set of rules that were the problem, it was that these rules seemed to be revised every day. I couldn’t quite reconcile the difference between the hours of $1500 YouTube videos and the actual learning that brought students’ eyes up from their phones; probably couldn’t keep the word “bullshit” out of my mouth. Teaching was supposed to be merely a thing I could do, a task at which I was fairly apt that would sustain my need for shelter and food while I pursued my spiritual purpose. This is all I have ever wanted from a job, and perhaps what anyone ever wants from a job. Jobs are not supposed to shake your very core. Jobs are not supposed to confuse and consume you, at least not beyond the level of a particularly challenging jigsaw puzzle that you can put down and pick up the next day. Jobs are supposed to contain tasks that are achievable. Either the system wasn’t functioning, or more likely, I was a dysfunctioning part. Whatever it was, even if I worked 80 hours as opposed to 70, I would have never been able to do all the things my job was asking me to do. In this way, teaching is not a job. It is a spiritual quest. Teachers are seekers. Teachers can be ascetics. Teachers must reach and never grasp. My colleagues seem to know this, and perhaps they could accept it. I couldn’t.
So I did it. I’m good at it by now. Before the students could memorize my name, I requested a sub, printed out lesson plans for two weeks, put my security badge in a drawer, and left.
Now I write at the library until the air in my mask tastes stale. I like a seat by the window where I can watch the intersection below. I listen to the same experimental electronica-jazz playlist until I begin to associate the synthesizer riffs with certain corners on the tables, saxophone sounds with lines in the walls. When I’m thinking of plot points, my eyes land on the titles of books. Gardening for Sustenance and Pleasure. God and You. You Are a Badass. When I finish each day, I copy and paste what I’ve done into a text-to-speech app on my phone and walk home, listening to what I’ve written for gaps and errors. I pace my house in the spots where the wood creaks, eat dry granola from my hand while staring out the window above the sink.
I miss teaching. I miss forming relationships with students and helping them get excited about things. I miss reading their stories and thoughts and getting blown away by hands-down, smack-the-table talent. I miss my colleagues, who are some of the most intelligent, compassionate people I’ve ever met. I miss the school, which caught light on its art deco corners and echoes of laughter in its elegant curves. But in my lonely, daily practice at the library, I never fill with dread, rarely get tired, constantly seek new challenges. I lose myself for hours, obsessing over craft, lavishing loving attention on little contradictions and technical details that would have me pulling my hair out and calling “bullshit” if it were any other field. I scoff and groan and sigh, but because I have finally stopped pushing myself to the brink of depletion, because I have finally given myself time to feel what I need to feel, I never, ever want to quit.
When I lay my head on my pillow at night, lulled to sleep by the humming TV, my head is full of stories. These stories have turning points, dark nights of the soul, emotional climaxes. For the first time in a long time, these daily fluctuations in fate are not my own. Nightmares still come, but they dissolve in the silence and steadiness of the day. I bask in the freedom of nothing much changing. This may shift as my bank balance drops and I’m forced to commit my time elsewhere, but at least now I know what it feels like. At least now it is on my map if ever I’m able to return. When I wake in the middle of the night, I remind myself that the window is repaired, the door is locked twice, and there’s a knife in the drawer. The sun will rise in the East, set in the West. My heart is beating. My breath is coming in and out, right on schedule.
None of these rules will be broken. In the morning, I will write.
I was alarmed and dismayed that an unbalanced acquaintance entered your home in the middle of the night and scared the hell out of you. I am thankful he did not become crazier and more aggressive (than breaking in, for God’s sake) and that you were able to manage the situation until help arrived. Jesus Christ Almighty!
This is a very difficult experience for anyone to just “get over.” It can permanently affect your sense of security, and I worry about how it is affecting your sleep. I hope you have a therapist with whom you are talking about this.
I know you found your first year teaching at the high school level difficult. That’s classic. You gradually uncovered some hard won strategies for engaging the students and you enjoyed their response, but teaching is a constant performance, and newcomers (who can’t fall back on a wealth of lesson plans and experience) worry about how effectively they are fulfilling their mission. It can be very stressful.
In the end, as it seems you always do, you returned to what is most satisfying: pursuing your art. You love the act of creation within the self-imposed requirement of striving for artistic perfection. It’s a solo pursuit, and probably only people who love both the creative process and their own company can do it.
It can be a lonely pursuit, but you derive energy from it, and that is one of your life’s gifts.
Thank you for reading, Aunt Sue! And for your words of encouragement about my compulsion back to this (admittedly lonely sometimes) path. Getting share my thoughts and hearing from you makes everything worth it.
This is captivating and familiar. Thank you for sharing it. It contains the best description I’ve ever found of my relationship with work; defending something I deem valuable, and leaving when that’s disallowed.
Something about being well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
Thank you so much, Rebecca. I am so pleased this idea of working for what you deem valuable resonates with you, too. And yeah, I worry for our schools. For all our institutions. Let’s hope this suffering is not in vain, that all this crumbling is making room for something new.