Landing on My Feet

I accepted my first teaching job in the city where I had gone to college. I had completed my student teaching experience at the school, in fact, the same room, where I accepted my first job. Many of the students I worked with were classified as “At-Risk.” The school was underfunded. I was climbing a never-ending uphill battle. I felt overwhelmed and under supported. I was continually trying to pour myself into my kids, but I felt empty. I loved my kids with my whole heart and wanted to be the best teacher I could be for them, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. I constantly felt like I was fighting a losing battle. My classes were huge. Many of my students had concerns that had nothing to do with Algebra. Many of them had behavioral issues. A lot of my students tested at a 2nd grade math level, and I was expected to teach them Algebra. I spent lots of time with guidance counselors, social workers, gang liaisons, special education teachers, and deans. I called many disconnected phone lines. I watched students move in and out of the school every few months, wondering how they would ever catch up. I made seating charts based on who would need an outlet to charge their court-mandated ankle monitoring bracelets. My heart broke daily.

A few weeks in to my second year, I knew I needed a change. Education is a tough business to be in, no matter where you teach. I started thinking about what I would do if I didn’t teach. I did have a math degree, after all. As I always tell my students, it is one of the most employable degrees year after year. Don’t believe me? Look it up. I started looking for jobs elsewhere, teaching or not. I started to think about where I wanted to move to. Colorado and Madison were the places that kept creeping into my mind. I decided come spring, I would start my official job search. I set milestones that I had to make it to. Thanksgiving Break. Winter Break. The end of 1st Semester. Spring Break.

Spring brought my mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis. She told me to continue my job search, knowing how much my sanity was struggling in my current position. I did. I had a few interviews lined up when I found out that you have to work somewhere for a year before you are eligible for Family Medical Leave. I didn’t tell my mom that I called and cancelled my interviews. I had been driving back and forth every other week to help with caring for her, and there was no way I would be able to do that at a new job. For the right reasons, I told myself I would be able to stick it out for another year.

After a span of particularly terrible days at work, I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I tearfully called my dad and told him I didn’t know what to do. This was a phone call I would have usually made to my mom, but she had been so sick recently that speaking was too hard for her. This was truly my dad’s first time becoming my primary advice giver, a job my mom always did so well, and he hit it out of the park. “Do what you need to do. You’ll figure it out. You are smart and talented and passionate and capable of doing anything that you want. We love you, support you, and believe in you. You will land on your feet.” I wasn’t so sure about the landing on my feet part, but I figured if I landed on my ass, I could quote him and he would have to let me move back home and support me.

It still took a few more days for me to muster up the courage to really do it. I typed up my letter of resignation, effective at the end of the school year, and it stared at me for a few days. I looked around at my apartment and my take-out containers and my shoe collection and thought about how nice it was to be able to pay for those sorts of things. I looked at my bank account and calculated just how long I really had to land on my feet. On the last day to renew my contract, I took a deep breath, ripped my unsigned contract in half, and turned in my letter of resignation. I jumped and I was free-falling. I packed up my classroom. I felt as exposed as my bare walls. I went to eat Mexican  with my best friend (as everyone should do after making major life decisions) and tried not to think about how many paychecks I had left coming. I was really glad I had selected 12 months of checks instead of 9. The next day, I drove home to be with my mom for the summer, never expecting her to only have a few short weeks left on this earth.

I would sit with her during her at-home infusions and in waiting rooms while I searched for and applied for jobs, some teaching, some not, some close to home, some not so close. The week she was admitted to the hospital and eventually entered hospice, the phone calls and emails for interviews started coming in. I tried to figure out how to be in two places at once only to conclude that I was in no emotional state to be sitting in an interview. I held my mom’s hand with one of my hands and composed emails informing employers that my situation had changed with the other.

Come July, I was motherless and jobless and feeling pretty directionless. Fall was creeping closer, and I realized that if I wanted to continue teaching, I only had a small window of opportunity to find a job before school started. I decided I owed it to myself to try one more year of teaching. I could stand to be miserable one more year if it wasn’t the right thing for me. I narrowed my search down to schools in the Madison, Wisconsin area. I applied for any posted jobs and checked my phone and email constantly. Nothing. Not a thing. I had two paychecks left coming to me from my old job. I started to think about hobbies I could acquire when I became a full-time stay-at-home daughter. Then suddenly, I had three interviews in two days. I went to two in one morning and had my first offer by noon. The next day I was offered a follow-up at the job I thought I really wanted. I went to my favorite crepe restaurant in Madison, because I have a tendency to eat when it comes to major life decisions, and I had a big decision to make. As a true Gilmore Girls fan, I decided to make a pro and con list. Some of the pros and cons were very serious. Some of them were a little out there. Pro for the school I chose: Color is purple. I own a lot of purple from my old job. Con for the school I chose: Mascot is a Norskie. What the heck is a Norskie? I didn’t want to make the wrong decision and spend another year as a miserable teacher. Students have enough miserable teachers in their lives. I didn’t need to be another one. I looked at my pro and con lists and noticed something about them. The cons for the school that I chose weren’t actually cons. They were just things that were new and unfamiliar. New schedule, new curriculum, weird mascot I had never heard of. Quitting my job and moving to a new city was also new and unfamiliar, and yet, here I was doing just that. Why not keep the trend going?

So I said yes. I asked what a Norskie was. It’s basically a Norwegian Viking, by the way. I put my toes on the ground. I found an apartment, went to several work trainings, and moved my stuff into my classroom. I wasn’t sure that stuff would ever see the inside of a classroom again. I took my traditional, mom required First Day of School picture, wishing I could send it to her to keep the tradition alive. I greeted my students at the door. They claim that I was singing to them as they walked into my classroom for the first time. I certainly don’t remember this, but I wouldn’t put it past me.

As the year went on, my feet settled into the ground. I fell in love with teaching again. I realized that no matter what school I was at, there were kids who needed someone like me in their life. About a month ago, I had my end of the year evaluation with my principal. I had to fight back tears of joy, it was that good. She ended the meeting by saying it certainly seemed like we found the right fit in each other. I didn’t tell her that the weird mascot nearly lost us that opportunity. I have started to say goodbye to my seniors as they prepare to graduate this weekend, and my heart is so full. Sometimes I am truly in awe that I get to sing and dance and joke and impart wisdom upon these teenagers. I am mesmerized by the lessons they teach me. I am inspired by those who work around me.

So, Papa G, you were right. I did land on my feet. In fact, I think you could go so far as to say that I stuck the landing. It wouldn’t have happened without your unfailing support and belief that I would land on my feet, even when I wasn’t so sure.

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