Being a Teacher Led Me to Authenticity

I began teaching in the fall of 2003. I was relieved and thrilled. It was a long process of finishing college later in life and finally arriving at this decision. I'd always had an interest in teaching English when I was younger, but other career paths interested me more, like fashion and travel—both of which I did make a career of for awhile (fashion much longer). The teaching was always there, waiting. At around age 28 or 29, I decided to go back to school to complete my undergraduate degree in English. When I began school, I was convinced I wanted to teach younger kids, but I quickly learned I did not want to teach anything but English, nor did I want any of the physical requirements I imagined came with teaching little ones. High school was the choice. No backup and no regrets. I was officially an English teacher, fall of 2003.

Some of my favorite students and me. Graduation 2014.

Some of my favorite students and me. Graduation 2014.

I chose this career for all of the conscious reasons expected—I wanted to make a difference in the lives of those who needed it. Namely teenagers. When I was a teen, I felt isolated even though I had tons of friends. Isolated is the wrong word; I felt alienated from role models, stable adult figures. Teachers took the place. Not all teachers. I had a couple I argued with and despised, but having been a teacher, I know this is normal. My saviors came in the form of Ms. Ivory and Mr. Barnes—it was apparent they cared, genuinely, about the well being of their students and their brains. I'm forever inspired and grateful to have known them. I kept in touch with Mr. Barnes for a few years after I graduated high school. And, Ms. Ivory, well she just knew. All she had to do was look at me, and we understood. She knew my potential and saw me squander it away by skipping many classes and school and only showing up for extra curricular activities (I don't regret much of that time period. I had a damn good time going to the beach and out to eat with friends. I will save that for another day.). These two teachers made sure that I knew I was valuable. Without a doubt, role models for my future. 

The other conscious decisions made for becoming a teacher—job security, a normal career, built in vacation, steady pay increases every year. Never did I consider this abnormal to want. Why would I? It is what we are taught all of our lives to choose. You choose careers based on the "pay off".

I loved teaching. I love teaching. When I began, I had this notion that I should become more teacher like. I began to shed some of my "crazier" tendencies in an effort to become a teacher. I started dressing more conservatively. I dated someone that was a nice guy. I got a more conservative haircut, eye-glasses, all in an attempt to fit the part of teacher. It never felt right, but I felt it necessary to become this person and to be a part of this career. I loved my students so much, and I look back at a few pictures from that time and I can see that all my hiding was not necessary, because parts of me still peeked out (on the surface). I was becoming an actor in my own play, but I was also metamorphosing.

It wasn't until that nice guy and I had kids and separated that I began to shed some of those ideas of who I should be and began returning to parts of me that were always there, like dressing more funky and getting tattoos and cutting my hair in a way that resembles the rock and roll aesthetic I'm super fond of. I let my hair be big and wild as it does mostly on its own. There was less trying to stay contained in general. I began to shed some of the ways I thought I should be in favor of what I always was. I worked at Betsey Johnson forever in my 20's—that's what I admire, being out there and doing it the way that is best for you, but able to reach the masses all at the same time. Betsey definitely embodied those qualities. All of the women I worked with there did as well (they're fabulous and amazing women!). I was slowly returning to the parts of me I'd always loved.

The longer I taught, the more I realized I was learning and growing right along side my students. I know teaching allowed me to find authenticity while simultaneously destroying it. As a teacher, sides of me that were not polite poked out regularly. I was direct and honest and sometimes kind of grumpy, but I never faked it with my students. Never. They got all of the real me all the time. Sweet and feisty all rolled up in one. Students who never had me or people who have not actually talked to me at length really believe I'm the happiest person in the world and it never shifts (well, I am pretty damn happy), which is totally untrue. My students, just like my biological kids (my students ARE my kids too), know all parts of me—the good and awesome and the raw and the bad. It's pretty fantastic that I've let them know me in such a manner. In turn, they've allowed me to know them in ways that some of their best friends don't even know. Sometimes, I know way too much, way-too-much and I just want to close my ears, but that's the beauty of being open and vulnerable with other humans, you learn everything.

I learned how to be myself through teaching. If I could teach the way I wanted forever in a public school with little to no concern about test scores or data or those ridiculous textbooks, I would. Who needs a textbook to read good literature? No one. Not a soul. And this is where authenticity was being crushed as I was becoming my most authentic self. I stood in front of thousands of students in my eleven years of teaching continuously telling them to find their own paths and to stop listening to bad advice from scared, well-meaning people. I never once discouraged a student from following his / her dream(s) (unless, it involved illegal activity). Never. Ever. I was giving advice to these emerging beings and it became more and more apparent everyday that I could no longer ignore the same advice I was so easily and readily dispensing. The bureaucracy of the American public school system is dismal, and without going into politics or wagging fingers (I could easily do that), it is crushing every thinking person's will. There's only so much repetitive teaching a teacher can actually do. There's only so much abuse that a teacher who thinks totally out of the box can take. I can unequivocally tell you that I AM a teacher. I love it so much. Nothing makes me happier than to see a person's spark when he / she is genuinely interested in an idea or thought. Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing a student's face when the words “5 paragraph persuasive essay” are uttered or “you have to take this test and it counts as part of your grade and no, I didn't make the test.”

Temporary classroom after my classroom heater caught fire. Never a dull moment.

Temporary classroom after my classroom heater caught fire. Never a dull moment.

I made the decision to leave traditional teaching from the school system. It took much deliberation, soul searching, and countless freakouts to get to this point. I'm still freaking out on some level, but I'm also happy. I took my own advice, finally. I am still a teacher; I much prefer the words facilitator and mentor. I will just continue to do it my way, authentically from my soul and heart.

Leaving the Ghetto for Good

I have been on the fringes and actually in the ghetto for years. It hasn't been conscious until now. I've been immersed, bracing against the waves of dysfunction and sadness. Ghetto, borderline white trash. Fighting against it without saying a word. Riding the wave in silence, observing while trying to fix by example. I have left finally. I'm playing out my last days of it in the high school in which I work. Ghetto, a version of every over the top teacher movie, like Freedom Writers except there aren't big choreographed fights and those kinds of success stories. There are both, of course, but the fights are raw and YouTubed and dumb and seemingly innocuous when begun and the success stories are more the norm and common than anyone lets on. Not everyone in Ferris is ghetto born; there are others like me on the fringes, bracing, waiting to escape the brutal, every man for himself mentality in such an environment. That's worse than the fighting. Every girl and boy just trying to get through with some sort of normalcy -- too much to tune out, too much hate and prejudice to filter. Survival. A ghetto mentality whether in it fully or surrounded by it is all about survival. I'm at the end of it and I'm both thrilled and worried. How will I live without this battle? I'm so used to it.

We were at Loma Alta Park when I almost got jumped by some girls defending their "boy". I mouthed the words to some friend, "I almost got raped." This guy, a gang member my sister hung around, a Crip from around the block came over and hung out and he pushed himself on me to try to kiss me. I got away. I had been making polite conversation with him during the evening as I always did when my sister had random people over. I didn't want to be rude and I was kind of afraid. Ghetto. Crips in my house. I was listening to The Smiths and The Cure and finding my way to myself and the ghetto was in my house. Bracing. Waiting. Creating an inner world without moving. I was almost jumped because of the code of a gang.

We recreate in an attempt to understand. I recreated for eleven years as a teacher. I wanted to help and save. I still do, but the battle is deep and long and layered. I look like a white girl going in and preaching how it can be different. Many listen, some don't. I preach about how I live in the same neighborhood, only a few blocks away from school. "I live in Jersey City just like you." I used to say to them. "You live right across the river from New York. What do you mean you've never been there?" Ghetto. Mired and tarred in the muck of despair and lack, thinking that to want more is to be white, to read a book is to be white, to study is to be white, instead they talk about fights and mollies and weed and alcohol and parties and Instagram and boys and girls. To be something is to be white. To want more is to be white. Schools don't address anything. Band aids at best. These kids come in wanting love and support and somewhere to feel safe even if they can't express it and we test the shit out of them. Set them up for failure when they're already failing at home. Glorious system we have going here. Ghetto. Ghettos are perpetuated by schools. I have lived on the fringes. How did I turn out this way?

I saw my sister a couple of weeks ago. She is still in the ghetto. Location is only part of it. Ghetto is a state of mind even when you're surrounded by nothing but. I've been in it and seen it and I've brushed up against its blue pulse, a mimic of life, its destruction pouring at every turn, encapsulating victims, creating victims, keeping the weak, weaker, the poor, poorer. Ghetto.

One month and I will not be bracing for protection. I will no longer be immersed in its charm. I cannot save them all. I need to be out of it to do more for them. Lifting myself higher for the greater good of many. No playing small anymore. Goodbye ghetto.