Shame. Fear. Grief. Deep unhealed wounds. What is left of my TFA experience inside my body? I’m reading Relentless Pursuit, a story about four TFA teachers at Locke High School. I’ve never read a story that was my life. I taught at Locke. For 5 weeks at least. I didn’t fully appreciate the violence, the depth of the problems, the way in which Locke was incredibly different than my placement in Vegas but I see myself in those stories. It hurts.
Still. Years later.
I started reading this book last year when my Grandma gave it to me and had to put it down because it hurt too badly and I was dealing with enough in my transition to a new school. I still didn’t feel strong enough as a teacher to revisit the pain.
I still have this deep sense of guilt about never saying “I love teaching.” But how can we? The things we were asked to deal with were not teaching. They were putting out fires, negotiating race relations, trying to say things in situations that had no answers. The teachers in this story don’t love teaching. One of them leaves. Some of them are depressed. They all feel like failures even as they are making changes. The idea of seeing all the other corp members seemingly on top of their games while I floundered and struggled was not unique to me. The teachers in this story felt the same way. When I read about how many hours some of them worked I still feel guilty for riding my bike instead of working. But my bike was really my only link to sanity and I’m still indebted and dependent on it. I’ve cried over the loss of my bike during times of injury. The relationship I developed with it when it was my only way out of suffering, my only way to relocate the pain, is deep and lasting.
The parts of the book that made me start crying, grab my cat and return to blogging was a description of a teacher coming to work early and being unable to get out of his car. I remember putting my head down on my steering wheel and always waiting for the song to end on the radio. A minute or two more before entering my windowless, tiny, ugly classroom where I was a failure, not listened to, and confused.
The next part of the story was about when a teacher noticed a girl cutting herself and tried to intervene. TFA teachers don’t know how to help someone committing thinking about suicide. Teaching you can fake, but not this. He remembered writing it down on his hand so that he wouldn’t forget because he was so overwhelmed. How can we be given the responsibility for these children? And how can we not do it knowing that no one else is going to be there if we are not?
Reading this I wonder what scars are still left on me from the experience. I don’t want to ignore the success and joy that is possible with TFA. I see some of my students in college, hear them say that I helped them, think of all the things I did right even if they were just guesses and know that positive things happened. My soul ripped and stretched and grew. I’m so glad I never quit. And I’m glad that I did it. But what marks do I have left on me? I still don’t know what my relationship with teaching is. I still wonder if I’m good at it. And I can’t figure out if it’s just that I’m better at writing and math or if it’s just a function of what happened to me. (And it’s not that my experience was particularly more brutal by any means.)
How can people even start to study all of this? I’m trying to pick a graduate school in the next few days. I’m wrapped up so much in reflection on myself, my interests, my life, my path and I’m trying to remind myself of what this is all about. I think I’m going where I need to go. I believe that education research is important as well as difficult to do well. But still, I wonder where to go, what to study, how to make sure I’m not sitting happily in an ivory tower without affecting the world. If I can really understand how to teach math, design curriculum, policies, technology, wrap my head around student thinking, I can move the world from this vantage point. I believe that there are a lot of unanswered questions about teaching and learning and that knowing the answers to them will lead to progress in the world of education. I don’t envy the position of people who try to make a broader impact by becoming administrators and end up dealing with emergencies all day long.
I’m not sure if the book Relentless Pursuit needs a follow up account by a corp member. I’m not sure what it would add. But we have stories and stories touch people in ways that statistics don’t. So keep writing it all down.