Unexpected Feelings When I Quit Teaching
After I quit teaching, I had to send my husband to school to pick up my “belongings.” It’s shocking to see how much stuff I had in my classroom; it’s way more than I thought. But it’s 17 years’ worth of “stuff,” and most of these objects and papers hold an enormous amount of emotional weight for me.
I was the teacher who decorated the crap out of my room. No, I’m not a Pinterest teacher in any way, shape, or form. It could have been more cute or orderly or well thought out. But it was me.
Every year I would buy a new poster, a new fake plant (yeah, I gave up on trying even to keep a succulent alive years ago), a new art canvas, new funny stickers, new enormous backing paper for my bulletin boards that looked like the sky or the ocean, new schnauzer items because that’s my thing and new lamps to combat that awful, soul-draining florescent light. I didn’t necessarily do this for the students, though they benefitted greatly and appreciated it.
I did this decor dump for myself. If I was going to spend ten months in a room made of cinder blocks painted a hideous vomit color for 8+ hours a day, the room would need a soul.
It was very me- posters were haphazardly slapped on because even standing on the highest desk, I still couldn’t reach all the way to the top of the wall. Quotes and student artwork were pasted all over in random places, and schnauzer plushies, and drawings that students gave me over the years sat on the window sill and whiteboard marker tray. Flower garlands dangled from anything I could wrap them around, and Xmas lights hung unevenly above the boards.
And even though it was a little nuts, it was a very calm place. A place students would gravitate to even when they didn’t have me as a teacher.
Each item has a memory, some of which could never be erased, like the student I had a decade ago who said nothing the entire school year, looked genuinely displeased most of the time, and handed me a framed drawing he made of my dog. He had taken a picture of one of my pictures in the classroom and made an intricate pencil drawing that captured her so well. This was so unexpected and such an interesting commentary on people. You can’t judge a person by their facial expressions, and you never really know what’s happening in someone’s head.
Or what about the vintage dinosaur toy that my students and my own young children are endlessly fascinated by? Whenever anyone asks about it, I get to remember the fabulous quirky gal who made me a vase by cutting a hole into a dinosaur toy and filling it with wildflowers. Dangling from its neck used to be a lovely message about thanking me for helping open her mind and seeing the world in new ways, but it fell off long ago.
Those items I will hold onto, of course, along with all of the letters, cards, notes, and quirky little things students have made for me over the last 17 years. I will put them into a box and put a lid on it because it is painful to look at. Looking through that stuff will happen on those rare days when I enter the storage room in our basement and consciously decide to “go there.” It will be bittersweet. And it won’t be for a least a year.
But what about all of the posters I chose so carefully every year or the gigantic flowers that cost too much money and take up too much space? For what reason would I be holding onto those? But I can’t throw them away or even donate them. I don’t quite know why.
My classroom items had been in my husband’s truck for over a week. He would gently ask me every now and again if I was ready to go through the stuff or if he should move everything to the basement. I wanted to go through everything. Throw stuff away. Sink into my feelings for a bit. I thought it would be cathartic.
So this past weekend, we took everything out and spread it across the garage floor. While my kids made chalk drawings and played on their scooters, I sat on the dirty garage floor and started getting into it. I made a mistake when I started with the most recent cards and letters, the ones from students who I would still be in contact with every day.
I started angrily reading them aloud, trying to prove that I’m a great teacher to no one in particular. I felt like I needed to defend myself to the universe because that is how I was made to think in the end, like I had done something wrong. But it was nothing anyone could quite put their finger on, including me.
Amid this awful activity, my daughter opened the door, and our 7-month-old puppy took the opportunity to make a break for it. She is tiny and ridiculously fast. I knew that this could mean serious trouble if I didn’t get her right away, especially because she didn’t have her collar on.
I started running as fast as possible while screaming her name. She thought it was a game because she would stop for a second, look back, and then keep going. I don’t do cardio regularly, and I have never been the running or jogging type, but I told myself, “Just a little faster, a little harder, more than you’ve ever been able to do, and you will catch that dog.”
On some subconscious level, I felt like I had something to prove because I’ve been deep into self-criticism lately. As I got closer to her, I tripped and fell onto the concrete with extreme force. The side of my face and my knee took the impact.
And you want to know the overwhelming feeling that washed over me as I gave in and sunk into the sidewalk? Relief. I felt relieved that I couldn’t keep running, even if I wanted or needed to. And that, at least for the rest of the day, I would have an excuse to curl up into a bubble, not work on something, take care of someone, or justify anything to anyone. I would get to heal.
And this is what so many teachers tell me in DMs and emailed secrets: that they relished the time they spent in the hospital after a car accident, mastectomy, or even a student attack because there were no expectations, no races to keep up with, and nothing to prove. They got to just be.
As my husband helped me off the ground, surrounded by neighbors who held out ice packs, band-aids, and looks of pity, I buried my face into his chest and started bawling. I wasn’t crying because my knee was skinned so severely it was hideous to look at or because I had a massive egg on the side of my head growing bigger by the second. I was crying because what had happened to me and what I felt physically was an outward manifestation of how I felt inside. And I told him that as I cried.
He looked at me with the same look of desperation, fear, sadness, helplessness, and total and complete love that he gave me when we discovered that I would have to have our second daughter immediately, six weeks prematurely, or we both might die. And so I felt guilt, on top of everything else, for putting my best friend through this too.
So that’s where I’m at right now, friends. I go from pangs of excitement about where the road will lead me to next, to the terror that none of these endeavors will come to fruition, to a feeling of failure and complete worthlessness because I had no choice but to step away from something that was making me sick.
I never realized how much of my self-worth was tied to teaching. I’m a good mom, kind to all humans and animals all the time, a good wife, and a bestselling author with many strangers interested in what I have to say. Why isn’t that enough? Will we ever be enough?