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June marks the end of my sixth year teaching. While I’ve spent every one of these years building relationships with children, distributing materials, implementing lesson plans, and tending to a classroom environment, I’ve also been perpetually confounded by the imagery associated with my job title.

Everyone is subject to that dreaded question: “So, what do you do?” When I tell someone that I’m a teacher, I can see the vision unfold behind the inquirer’s eyes. They see me sitting at a desk in a room that I call my own, my name on the door, touting a benefits package and teacher salary. Yet despite the accuracy of all the minutiae – the actual emotional labor and circulation and instruction – I’ve always lacked the life blood of the position. The work space. The established security. The benefits. The salary.

I acquired a job in a charter school almost immediately after I graduated with my teaching certification. I was essentially hired to fill in the gaps regarding student needs in a low socioeconomic urban  environment, my official title being ELA Support Teacher. I both co-taught, pulled students out of class for small group sessions, and taught my own class, as well as extra classes over school breaks, Saturday school, and summer school. Despite the array of vital services I provided for the school, my contract did not place me on the teacher’s pay scale, and they elected to pay me per diem over the course of four years. They once told me it was because I didn’t have my own classroom and I traveled from class to class.

This limitation was not unique to my position. Even the classroom teachers allowed on the pay scale were still subject to annual contracts that required yearly renewal. No one was ever fired at the end of the year – administration just didn’t renew your contract. Fifty year old teachers with two decades of experience were subject to the same conditions as the new faces that popped up fresh out of college. Those on the pay scale were given decent benefits packages, but my options were much more expensive and took serious blows to my paychecks. I elected to go without.

In the face of this lack of job security, the majority of the teachers in the building looked to the public schools with big shining eyes. We sat together in our classrooms and ate up our lunches alongside our aspirations to win that secure, unionized teaching position in a large school district. The administration could sense our dreams of flight, further cementing the annual contracts and per diem work.

I was making enough to get by before the nature of the system shook me up enough that I swore I wouldn’t spend five years in the same position. I would take my youth and plunge back into school-age poverty. My partner went back to school, and I went so far back that I found myself doing something I hadn’t even really done as a teacher post-graduation: substitute teaching.

This was when I discovered that the majority of school districts around me utilized third party businesses to provide them with substitute teachers. In order for me to work at their schools, I needed to take the jobs through a third party system. I took assignments, and they took a finder’s fee. There are many different outsourcing agencies like this out there, though the most popular is likely Kelly Educational Staffing Services.

The language on Kelly’s website is telling of the situation.

We help our employees attain rewarding careers, districts achieve cost savings and operational efficiency, teachers maintain continuity of instruction, and students flourish from quality education.

So are rewarding careers truly attained through this agency, with their finder’s fees? I’ve spent the last two years looking around in the school district in which I work and I do not see Kelly employees moving into open positions. I see a lot of established teachers being shuffled around like chess pieces to optimize district funds, and the offspring of former teachers being hired. Kelly employees are far more likely to disappear from the campus, never to be seen again, than be hired into an opening.

Are these districts achieving “operational efficiency”? Well, most tellingly, the teacher vacancies are not being filled. The office secretaries complain of substitute shortages, and often I find myself in a room full of three different classes without teachers, becoming a true blue legally-required baby sitter. So no, this is clearly not an operationally efficient option for school districts.

As someone who’s been working on this front for a while now, I can assure you the reason for these shortages is that the pay is simply not high enough. When you really break down the per diem pay for these vacancy fills, it comes to about $10 an hour. This is true for what are called “long-term” positions which are ironically not long-term and require you to lesson plan and facilitate classroom instruction for 4 months for the same pay as those who do less work. It doesn’t take long for a person to figure out that they are likely to make $12 to $15 dollars an hour doing secretary or construction work elsewhere. For those with children, the pay from substituting teaching is even less feasible.

To put the cherry on the top of all this, in the past year bills have pushed me to do direct freelance work to supplement my income. I write promotional articles as a freelancing agent, sell my tutoring services, and I have picked up contracts teaching English to children overseas before.

The cringe-worthy fact is that substitute teaching only makes me about $15,000 a year. As time goes by, I am either forced to abandon ship for some career outside of teaching, or doggedly whore out my education and English degree for contracts. You can see which option I’ve chosen thus far.

This has been going on for six years, whilst continuing efforts to obtain that secure, unionized, stable classroom job. That carrot that hangs over my head. I am repeatedly hired over and over again into temporary piece-work to pay the bills, while watching others like me do the same – until that dream job opens and all candidates pounce on it with frenzied desperation. One person obtains the job, and hundreds of the rejected lower their heads and try again the following year.

I’ve job hunted in two cities in two different states, and about four to five positions open up in a single certification area every year regionally. And I’m talking full-time, join the union, retirement benefits, and health insurance positions only. Hundreds are looking.

With less and less permanent teaching jobs available on a yearly basis, the education system has been partially overtaken by what is essentially a gig economy. It took me a while to recognize this or understand how this economic model worked. My frustration built over the years, but I find that fellow teachers are bitterly compliant and hesitant to call it what it is. Or maybe they’re just lucky and aren’t exposed to it.

A cursory Google search of gig economy provides this definition: “A labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.” I suppose if there’s an area to nitpick over, it’d be in the definition of “short-term.” Many probably envision the gig economy as singular freelance projects that last from a day, a week, to six months. Substitute teaching is certainly this. But I would like to extend short-term to include annual contracts. Charter school jobs are far more prevalent than positions in other schools, and obtaining a year of guaranteed work is not secure or stable for a family with children, a mortgage, multiple loan payments, or substantial health problems of any kind.

Basically, if you can only account for a year’s worth of work and income, you’re working a gig and the same limitations of the gig economy apply. There is no certainty for future employment, there is never a guarantee.

The limitations I have experienced are frustrating and plentiful. I have been offered benefits packages that are impartial or far more expensive than those offered to secured, full-time employees. I have also been denied insurance of any kind. Currently, despite working for Kelly for two years, they do not offer me anything other than a “supplemental” benefits package which is meant to pad my own individually purchased insurance. With buying my own health insurance being untenable, I receive Medicaid.

Work is unstable and inconsistent. Though I can usually find enough work to scrape together a paycheck due to my non-stop efforts, there are often months at a time where there is no work at a school available – especially during the summer.

Also, pay amounts to much less for the same work completed by those granted long-term, secure jobs. For instance, I taught classes but did not make the same for it as the teachers on the pay scale. In good times, I could do different gigs for the same employer throughout the year – but currently, I find myself working multiple gigs for many different clients every year.

Wrapped up in this system is a lack of accountability on both ends – from the employer and from the workers. No matter the high quality of the work I produce for an employer, they can dismiss me and any concerns I have with a lazy wave of their hand. I can also do the same to them, abandoning a gig to immediately pick up another, similarly low-paying project. There is no reason for either side to care.

Considering that Kelly’s involvement with substitute teaching and the charter school system are hardly new, I imagined I would find some sort of concrete criticism on this gig approach to education somewhere online. However, when I turned to search engines to discover how many other workers have felt frustrations similar to mine, the immediate results were largely in favor of this gig economy expansion. In general, there wasn’t a lot of critical conversation about the topic.

The first search result, from a website that talks about revolutionizing education, refers to the education sector’s regretfully slow adoption of the market. They encourage employers: adapt to this model quickly in order to gain access to a “greater pool of talent.” What they don’t mention is how cheaply that desperate talent can be purchased, as not to scare off the talent.

The site also paints employees in situations such as mine as saved from leaving the education sector forever through the option of gigs. They bemoan that “half of new teachers leave the classroom after five years, and many think that means they have to leave the education sector.” You don’t have to say goodbye to children and lessons forever, they say. You can do the exact same thing for less stable money.

Another site that offers “a bird’s-eye-view of the Education industry” also presents the situation as if it’s a good thing. They describe how “[m]any professors, adjunct and otherwise, have begun seeking outside sources of income as ways to supplement base salaries. These outside tasks have included everything from serving as Ph.D. or grant reviewers to freelance writing for mainstream outlets.” Again, the idea that freedom to work for supplemental income is somehow more worthwhile than a single job that pays a livable wage.

There were also the obligatory articles about preparing students for a gig economy, dismally accepting this system as a reality that faces the young, burgeoning generations – or, perhaps I should call them pools of talent.

On the bottom of the second page of search results, I finally found a blog that criticized the negative effects the gig economy had on education. The post decried how  “sequential, comprehensive curriculum is replaced by a series of unrelated, disconnected videos and ‘online modules,’ with no cohesiveness, content area articulation, or spiral curriculum organization.” While I can agree on the effect on curriculum to a certain extent, this criticism doesn’t factor in the effect that participation in such a disconnected workforce has on the individual. This what I find the most problematic.

The idea that incorporating a gig economy structure to education would result in freedom and active employment of previously untapped talents is laughable. The charter school’s yearly contracts did nothing but create a toxic, anxious environment. As the end of every school year loomed, we would whisper in passing around the copy machines, counting off on our fingers all of those we knew were most disliked by the administration. If we were cruel enough to take bets, we would have made off well. It was always obvious whose contracts would not be renewed based on how much shit the administrators had given them throughout the year, structured around pettiness and never issues of individual talent. Even if we hadn’t squared off with an administrator, there were always those who walked out of the office having been told their jobs were reduced to part time the following year. No one was ever safe, secure. Long-term plans were always at risk.

Substitute teaching with a third party contractor has turned me into a ghost. I wander through an established school culture and environment, never fully welcomed or embraced. When I first began, school secretaries wouldn’t even look at me, ticking off my name on a piece of paper to mark a vacancy filled. Even when I took an assignment that left me working at the exact same high school for two years, I was still never accepted into the school environment. Children would cheer when they saw me and treat me as a staple, but the administrators avoid eye contact, still believing I will surely vanish at any moment. I would spend months putting in organizational and emotional labor to build relationships with staff and students without ever being granted access to the school emails, or scheduling systems, or attendance systems, or even given a card that granted me access to the building. No matter my efforts or my talent, I was never anything more than a temporary fixture employed outside the district.

The result of annual contracts and temporary assignments has been a permanent state of job hunting for that stable, secure, unionized, benefit-giving job. The strain on my spirit – the complexes I’ve developed from this system and process – are also clearly not sustainable. The emotional drain and pitiful income compensation are not sustainable. Snatching the carrot on the end of the stick means being poised and ready for the perfect time, the perfect place, for years on end.

I’ve completed six years of this and I could easily see myself subject to an indefinite number of years ahead of me, at the whim of ever-shrinking school budgets and the luck of time and place. Or perhaps I’ll find myself back on annual contracts, or even land myself in a charter school that offers longer contracts – which I’ve heard exist but have never found.

There’s a large, ignored segment of the education sector – a word I will ruefully use, in light of the reality that this is all clearly a business. That segment is composed of people like me, who are raking in between an inconsistent 15k to 30k a year in the hopes of obtaining the carrot. Our numbers fluctuate as we graduate college and drop out of the sector in pursuit of more sustainable and secure jobs. I certainly won’t last much longer before taking the next office job that will help me pay my bills.

Do we want an education system subject to the same limitations and consequences of a gig economy? The reality is that your child, enrolled in elementary school, likely has a number of educated, talented professionals interacting with them throughout the day, applying band aids and praising their work, while in a perpetual state of stress, extracting measly compensation for even their hardest work.

It’s time to recognize this transient, pathetic, ignored portion of the education system and think about what this means for our society as a whole. The gig economy has entered our school buildings, demoralizing its workforce and developing detrimental practices that worsen school cultures, environments, and education as a whole, eroding at a system that relies heavily on the emotional well-being and time of its employees in a fundamental, society-building way.

Be conscious of what you imagine when some says they are a teacher. The odds are likely that they spend their days pushing around a cart to various classrooms, stacking paperwork on its tiers, while struggling to soothe the small crises of adolescence around them in between worries for their next paycheck. Not all teacher positions guarantee the basic benefits of most jobs, or even a stable paycheck the following month.

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When I first started working at a city charter school in 2011, it was because the Dean of Academics had called frantically the previous evening.

The Dean was frantic because I was the only substitute teacher she had interviewed and she had been unable to reach me all afternoon. I was working at Walgreens at the time and I had dropped my phone while on my bathroom break. I had very little money and owned a cheap flip phone that shattered when it struck the tiles. When work ended that night, I reassembled my broken phone in the car and listened to her voice mails in the dark parking lot.

A very necessary teacher at the school, the ISS (In-School Suspension) teacher, would be out and her spot needed to be filled the next day. This position was necessary because the school-wide discipline system involved setting aside students with the most serious infractions in a separate room for the day. These sort of infractions included swearing at teachers, skipping classes, bullying other students and racking up enough detention referrals in a single disciplinary category. The same tiered system of discipline would remain in place for the next four years I worked there, the detentions so plentiful that the ISS room was often filled to the brim, proving far too popular to be effective.

On my first day there, I walked briskly into the old brick building crammed in between the much larger buildings downtown. At the time, there was no grass anywhere to speak of, just asphalt and notable architecture in the neighboring run-down office buildings. Eventually the school would put some effort into landscaping alongside the front steps of the school, filling the space with stones and aesthetically placed trees. A block away, there were bars with neon-lights in the windows, and a giant hole in the ground where some building had been demolished, surrounded by wire fencing.

The school itself was an old YMCA building, far too small for a school. All the classrooms were crammed on top of each other.

I was delightfully surprised by the school lobby. There were leather couches and a rug with the school’s logo on it, as well as potted plants and a high ceiling. The secretaries had an enormous counter surrounding their office space, and there were students and parents leaning over the counter-top at all times, waiting or filling out paperwork.

Eventually, I would learn that they put forth a great deal of effort to make this positive first impression.

The lead secretary was a fastidious and shrewd older woman, her hair sparse and gray, just a few longer strands pinned back onto the base of her skull. She would shout at the students during class changes and guard the front desk like a vicious badger. We often saw her snap at the principal (or the Director, as he called himself) and were left with the impression that she ran the school. We would joke with the students that she had been there before the school and the administration had no choice but to employ her, as she wouldn’t leave.

On my first day, the Dean of Academics greeted me in the lobby and led me down into the school basement. There were several classes down there, in an open and well-lit hallway. Though the ISS room would eventually be moved into a room branching off this brighter hall, on my first day it was hidden behind two large double doors that led to a dim and pencil-thin corridor near the maintenance and storage rooms.

The Dean opened the door to the ISS room and I saw several rows of desks crammed into an incredibly small room with a desk, printer, and bookshelf. Five students were already sitting in there. One high schooler had her head down on her desk, and four middle schoolers fidgeted and gawked at me with near-manic anticipation. The Dean of Academics handed me a walkie talkie and told me that if the students talked or didn’t follow my directions, I needed to summon one of the school’s two security guards, or the Dean of the Middle School or the Dean of the High School.

After asking me if I was okay, she then left me there in the room with a computer, a walkie talkie, and five students. I was to spend the entire school day with them, and they were to be completely silent the whole time.

For a while, we all sat in silence in that grimy little room in the basement. But despite my ordained task, in reality I was in a room with several human beings who I had never met before and I was curious to find out more about them.

Their names were Jericho, Royal, Ariana, Torian, and Magic. The four middle-schoolers were in seventh grade, and I would end up seeing them throughout their middle school years and then their high school years, chiding them when they needed it, giving them advice, guiding them through writing tasks, and recommending them books.

After that day, I discovered that nobody really wanted to substitute at this school. The entire building, both high school floors and the middle school wing, only had one building substitute to rely on, and no outside substitutes ever applied for the job — or came back after one day. The Dean of Academics was absolutely delighted with how casually I went about my day down in the ISS room, coming out of it unruffled without any student yelling or picking a fight with another. I hadn’t even really done much at all. The students hadn’t had anything more to do than a worksheet or two over the course of eight hours, I had only chatted with them and shook my head at their adolescent silliness.

The Dean asked me to become a second building substitute teacher. I would come to the school every day and she would put me wherever I was needed. Teachers were constantly taking off, and there was such a shortage every day that often classroom teachers were pulled away from their planning periods to cover classes in other rooms. Everyone was overworked, with few breaks. Often, no breaks. I always figured this was why they took off so much. I would later find out how exhausting it was, how the constant screech of stress flayed the immune system.

I had just graduated with my teacher certification. I was more than happy to accept the position and it seemed charming to work in a small charter school compared to a big chaotic public school. The high school and middle school only had about 400 students total and this remained consistent the entire four years I was there.

The students were mostly African American, with perhaps a 20% Hispanic portion of the student body. There were also many students who had recently immigrated from other countries and had only spoken English for a year. Many had gaps in their education — missing a year or two. There were many students from Turkey, some from Somalia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and Iran. The majority of the students came from Christian households, but there were enough Muslims that we provided prayer rooms for the students.

All students were required to wear uniforms and teachers were required to police the uniforms with daily ferocity. One buttoned down shirt with the school’s logo cost the parents around twenty dollars — the average student owned perhaps two of these shirts, then maybe a school sweater. Some only owned one shirt and they wore this shirt every day for the entire school year. Many also only owned one pair of dress pants. Their crumpled blue shirts would obtain bleach stains and grease stains. Often when this was noticed, teachers would pool money for additional uniform items as Christmas presents for the students.

Many times students would arrive to school without their uniform. This resulted in them spending a day down in the ISS room. Sometimes, they didn’t have the correct pants because they were staying with a parent who was at work all the time or who didn’t have a washer and dryer. Our school would have seriously benefited from having a washer and dryer down in the basement –– the students could have gone to class instead of wasting time in punitive isolation.

Within a month of work, I was asked to be a co-teacher in an 8th grade English Language Arts classroom. This meant I would assist the classroom teacher with planning and delivering lessons, and provide extra and small group support to students who were struggling.

At the same time, I was also pulled from the classroom a lot. I was placed in every classroom in the building at least once when there were staff shortages. When the Dean of the Middle School was out on maternity leave, I was placed down in the ISS room for an entire month. Eight hours a day of mostly sustained silence. I would crack most of the time and answer the students’ questions, give in to their prying and speak with them about their lives. They joked with me and it was genuinely funny, I enjoyed that more than staring at the crumbling ceiling. If teachers walked in while I conversed with them, they would shoot me a resentful glare.

Later, in three years, I would be the teacher walking into the ISS room. There were several times, my fourth year there, in which I walked into that room to deliver worksheets to the students and found them laughing about something. I would glare at whatever teacher was behind the desk. I had forgotten.

One day, during that month I was down in the basement in that small room with ten teenagers, a rock from behind a pipe on the ceiling fell down and hit a student on the arm. The student — a seventh grader — made a dramatic show of the event. She screamed and writhed, laughing at the same time, yelling that her mother was going to sue the school. She forgot about it pretty quickly, like adolescents are prone to do, but I knew it was ridiculous that the ceiling was falling on the students.

That year, despite the effort everyone put in, the 8th grade ELA state test scores were abysmal. We had played a lot of catch up but they just didn’t do well on the test. This was the same year the state test had included the passage about the talking pineapple that raced a rabbit.

The hammer from administration came down hard, because the state test results for 8th grade ELA and Math were an important part of the school’s charter. When the state came by to see how the school was doing, in consideration of whether the state was going to renew the school’s charter, after doing a day of observation they always disappeared into the various conference rooms and watched Power Points of the test results — including data from periodic benchmark test results.

When that 8th grade teacher was fired — a move that didn’t look very good, considering at the time she was the only minority on staff — I was passed on to the new 8th grade ELA teacher. It was the previous 7th grade ELA teacher, so she was going to be receiving the same students from her classes the previous year.

She had short hair, a short temper, and a shrewd eye. I knew immediately she had eyed me up and down and decided I was too inexperienced. I was intimidated by her, but I also knew that I was just as short tempered and quick. I decided to prove myself to her, so I dressed in the best clothes I could afford and arrived to our classroom every day with the willpower to pound out task after task, making materials and assisting students and being as useful to everyone around me as possible. After all, this was my second year co-teaching and I understood the rhythm and vibes of it.

It didn’t take long for us to become a formidable teaching pair. She was able to yell with a booming authoritative voice that shook adults, and I had a keen eye that noticed everything that went on within the classroom, appearing by a student’s side and whispering instructions before they fell out of tempo and lost their momentum, giving them that slight push they needed to remember the task at hand and excel. We shared secretive, knowing looks, and communicated wordlessly across the room. We shared jokes and fed off each other’s intelligence, performing a two person play in front of the kids that kept them entertained and involved. Students visited us in between classes, and filled our room in the morning and after school, seeking our advice.

As required for the preparation of transforming my initial teaching certificate into a lasting professional form, I chose her as my mentor. We bore the stress of the job together and left the school for good at the same time as well, an escape we didn’t plan but executed together. I chose to not renew my contract with the school, having decided that I was moving to another state. She was fired after a disagreement with the principal, regarding her coming in on a Saturday and the school refusing to pay her.

The administration were all former teachers, but they were unlikable. They had been awful teachers. We discovered this by talking to older staff members and older students. They were not the teachers that students visited after classes ended, desperate for some tidbits of wisdom. They were awkward and stiff, like an out-of-touch relative at a holiday gathering. They were still attending college to receive their administrative degrees while holding their positions and bringing their instructive incompetency to an administrative level. They were far less qualified than many of the regular teachers on staff.

The principal (sorry—Director) was a tall gangly man with sallow skin and a weird connection with the Board of Trustees. All of the staff kowtowed to the Board of Trustees, they were the final say in any decision, a disembodied, distant ruling head. The Director was not seen very much and the students often didn’t even know he was the principal. The ones that did know him believed he was a vampire. They would speculate about where his coffin was in the building. Whenever he did walk into our classroom, the students would eye him as a curious stranger.

After I left, he was cycled out to be the principal at a different charter school owned by the same people in another state. His underling, a thoroughly unskilled man that stuttered and floundered at every challenge, replaced him despite the fact that all leadership roles had been passed down to him over the years with the ease of someone fumbling over glass plates.

One year the administrative team introduced a new evaluation form for the administrators, sending them to the teachers’ inboxes with an air of solidarity over how much we all were evaluated and torn apart on a monthly basis. I only filled out one evaluation form — it was for the principal’s underling. The Dean of Whatever-It-Was. The future principal. He had thrown many poorly planned schedules and baffling error-ridden emails at me, implored me to come in on breaks and drag “low level” students around the building to small closets that were never unlocked, in which I was supposed to drill them with test prep questions. He made me drag these children around during any available half hour throughout the school day, pulling them from Homerooms and Art and Music classes to fill out multiple choice answer sheets.

I wrote a long bitter paragraph about him and punctuated it with the fact that no one knew what his job in the school building actually was — every email he sent had new job titles in his signature — and we had no evidence of any tasks he performed outside of making confusing Excel spreadsheets.

That following August, the underling took a moment during the beginning-of-the-year Professional Development meetings to show a Power Point that explained his many jobs in the building. The title of the main slide was my question, the one I had written so vehemently: “What do you even do?”

The Board of Trustees cared only about test scores. They cared because the state cared. The principal, therefore, cared about these test scores immensely, and he passed down all the burdens of this care to his underling. And the underling passed them down to the teachers.

And the teachers, we slopped down all these concerns and charts and data sets onto our plates and struggled to hold them up high over our heads without any of it spilling over onto the students. A lot of my time at the charter school was spent struggling to prevent the ridiculous workload and demands from becoming palpable to the students.

This was an impossible task. During visits from the state, the administration and strange men in suits breathed down all of our necks over the test scores. They increased the amount of benchmark exams and practice tests that were given throughout the year, and peppered these long test sessions with diagnostic tests as well. There were many things that were difficult that I had to deal with my four years at the school — students swearing at me, beating the shit out of each other, bleeding all over the place, running around, parents screaming — but nothing was quite as difficult as delivering blocks of testing that could take up to two weeks — four hours a day, every day, for two weeks — multiple times a year — to a small room full of squirrely, dreamy, growing, bewildered adolescents.

The charter school had more tests than the other public schools. More benchmarks, more practice tests. This was because our test scores were not better than the public schools. We weren’t doing better than the public schools.

To say the students were burned out was an understatement. They would writhe in their chairs looking delirious after staring at a booklet with 12-point font for four hours, knowing they needed to do the same thing for the next four days in a row. I would slip them paper and crayons and Jolly Ranchers, something to occupy their minds while they waited for everyone to finish, but often they would just slump forward onto their desks with defeat.

As children, they didn’t even really fully understand what it was they were working so hard for, but they knew it involved new levels they needed to reach. They knew because with so much pressure and content revolving around the state exams, the administration would open the gates so that all the information surrounding the tests reached the students.

I always felt as if the whole affair should have been less pronounced, the students themselves not so embedded in the process. But the administrators needed the scores to go up every year — specifically with the eighth graders — and they didn’t seem to think that lecturing the teachers about it every morning was enough. Their approach involved pep talking the students with complete disclosure about what was going on.

The students knew that the continued existence of the school — the renewal of the charter — depended on the 8th grade Math and ELA state test scores. The same students who would rant and rave about how much they hated the school would keep their mouths shut and fill out their Scantrons, the seriousness in which everyone took the situation registering in their heads.

I always imagined that if I was an adolescent who hated my school, I would break the no. 2 pencils in half on testing days and declare that the whole school could be boarded up for all I cared. But even the most bitter students never did that. The most troublesome students would pinch their peers, throw their papers all over the hallway, but come in and silently test with grave looks on their faces. It’s not exactly that I wanted them to rebel, but the level of conditioning was observable.

Things that involved money and numbers and products were important. The administration would order new t-shirts every year with lame slogans that appealed to the students: “Turn up for the test!” Every student received one.

The administrators fretted on testing days and barked at us to never sit down, to walk the room, watch the children, be encouraging. Without really knowing anything about the students at all, they would prowl and get in the way. One year, a student named Jose was completing his ELA 8 state test with a slow-paced intensity that I knew was characteristic of him. In order to remove all distractions, he lowered his head close to the paper and carefully scanned the lines on the page. I sat in a chair, watching him do this — I had seen him do this many times before. I knew he was struggling to follow the passage, occasionally his head lifting up as he turned the page and then zooming back in on the small font.

The principal walked in and saw him with his head down. He assumed he was sleeping, failing to observe that the boy’s face was hovering over the paper as if he were about to take a plunge. The Director walked over to him and stuck him with a long, gangly finger in his upper arm. The poke startled Jose immensely and he jerked up, yanked out of the complex reading passage he was attempting to follow and staring up at the principal with a wide-eyed, confused stare.

The year after this occurred, I became used to the task of disseminating the data we received from the results of the state tests. What was always very inconvenient about the whole thing was the impractical timing of the whole affair. State tests were in April — we did not receive the results until August. By that time, the students were once again disinterested in their efforts and the data was only good for their upcoming teachers.

The school administration instructed me to analyze the results based on standards and prepare materials for each student based on the areas in which they needed the most work. This involved slapping the students with the labels that were used to determine the students’ “grade” on the state exam.

For the ELA state test, a student could receive one out of four “grades:” Level 4, which is Mastery; Level 3, which is Proficient, or Passing; Level 2, which is Partially Proficient, and then Level 1, or Well Below Proficient. These were divided up even further, where certain scores would be considered “Low Level 2s” or “High Level 2s.”

When I first began using this data and splitting up students onto lists, I kept this data hidden in my desk and never spoke of it with the students. I knew they needed work on making inferences, for instance, and that was enough, as I was in charge of providing them with the tools necessary to improve that skill. The idea of telling a student they were a Level 1 seemed abhorrent to me.

As time went on and pressures mounted, the state ticking off a list of things our school was doing wrong, jabbing their finger at the test results and tearing apart our principal, this data became common knowledge. When I was arranged to pull Level 1s from their electives to grill them with test prep questions, they somehow came to know they were Level 1s. This information was communicated freely between the admins to the parents to the students. I was forced to make phone calls home that involved me telling parents, “Your child has scored a high Level 2 on their benchmark exams, and so we would like them to attend extra classes over this Spring break in order to help them achieve Level 3 this April.”

Students sat in front of me with multiple choice questions, telling me, “I’m a high Level 2, but I want to be a Level 3.”

In meetings, the principal’s underling scrolled through Excel spreadsheets and bar graphs, telling us, “Please compile a list of high Level 1s to pull for extra help. Do not bother with low Level 1s who can’t be helped — but we do need to reduce the amount of Level 1s we have. Level 1s make the school look bad.”

The Level 1s were almost always students with IEPs — Individualized Education Plans — who attended Resource Room every day and received the attention of consultant teachers during class. The school’s individualized education department was incredibly small, and the staff were often unable to provide students with the level of support they needed. Over the years, the school cut the special education department — but also bragged about how much money they spent on technology.

The students who were expelled were almost always Level 1s. We expelled a lot of students, with carefree abandon. In order to keep up the attendance numbers, new students would be brought in, with parents who knew the administrators. The new students all scored 3s.

Level 1s were also largely English Language Learners, or ELLs, and our situation in that regard was even worse — we had one ELL teacher on staff, a poor, overworked, abused-looking woman who could hardly catch up with her students’ needs or provide them with the resources they needed. Her room was a tiny, squished room in the corner of the building without any windows. We had a number of ELL students, perhaps making up 15% of the school’s population. Some students had only been in the United States for a year and did not have parents who spoke English that I could speak with.

While on the topic of short-handed departments, the most egregious example at this charter school involved the counselors. We were constantly short counselors, and our school social worker — we only had one — doubled as both a school counselor and an administrative assistant. I found that the roles of social workers and counselors in the school were absolutely necessary and that they were an invaluable resource for teachers and students, so only having one at any given time was incredibly frustrating. Students would have problems, serious problems, and I would have a dozen things to do at any given moment. I couldn’t help them. Helping them meant shirking my duties and I would be in trouble. Often, no one could help.

Often, they were sent to the ISS room.

The administration would often talk about how it was okay to make the students feel uncomfortable. We didn’t need to baby them. They would excel when they were uncomfortable. It all just seemed so literal — the poking during testing, the desperation of the students trapped at their desks — and then the temperature. The old building had ridiculous temperature regulation problems.

During the winter, the building was absolutely freezing. I would tremble and sometimes even wear my coat. The students would curl up in their desks and pull their arms inside their shirts, their teeth chattering. At first, the Director would not allow them to wear their coats. Sometimes we would tell the students to go get their coats anyway. We told the Director they needed it, they were freezing! Our insistence led to an announcement that any student who wanted to get their coats could do so. Every year we spent several weeks wearing coats inside the classroom.

This was not helped by the fact that in our classroom we had a broken window, boarded up. We spent weeks heckling the admins that cold air was seeping in through the cracks. This led them to fix it — by putting a black garbage bag over the window. The window wasn’t actually fixed until they replaced every single window in the entire school.

This problem was not reserved to Winter. The heaters would not turn off in the Spring in our first classroom. We emailed the admins, the secretaries, maintenance, but they ignored us. Our classroom was so small that some of our desk were up against the heaters and one day a student complained to us that his seat was hot. I walked over and touched the desktop, yelping and drawing my fingers away. It was scorching. We had no other place for those kids to sit, so we took out some folding chairs and moved the students away from the blazing heater. The admins narrowed their eyes at us and told us we had one of the biggest rooms in the building. We should be grateful.

Eventually, Tim the maintenance man showed up. He was the only maintenance staff in the entire building. He was a massive man, bloated to the point that he looked like he would pop. He looked unwell, constantly waddling from one end of the building to the other, doing every single thing that needed to be done in the building in silence while the staff of the financial office barked at him. He had a room in the basement, where he showered and often slept.

It’s difficult to tell all the stories I built up over the years. There’s too much to tell, it’s overwhelming. We worked long hours, teachers and students alike. Teachers were required to go to work early for meetings and leave late for mandatory activities. We all came in on Saturdays and we worked during holiday breaks, holding academic boot camps for students. I taught summer school. It felt like so many of us, students included, just didn’t get a break. Teachers often lost our planning periods, our lunches. We united as a team to give each other breaks, sparing moments to allow each other to eat, to go the bathroom.

Sometimes, we gave each other crying breaks.

The teaching staff was wonderful, we all formed a formidable team and we looked out for one another. I loved them. We bonded as a family and we enveloped the students into this family. We were all incredibly overworked, dispirited. We needed to be social workers, parents, therapists for the students, and we needed to teach so much. We needed to work harder to compensate for the mistakes the admins made, we kept the school together by working harder. As much as we wanted to scream, “FUCK THIS SCHOOL!” and run far away from the building, we knew we left the kids behind. So we put on poker faces and bit our lips and worked hard for them.

The turn-over rate was ridiculous. Teachers were fired every year, their contracts not renewed, almost always because they had a disagreement with the admins, who were unprofessional and held grudges. Teachers quit, or found better jobs, usually outside of teaching.

Eventually, I quit. After four years, I told the Director I would not be returning for a fifth school year.

I am still ashamed of this. I chose to turn away from the endearing, lovely adolescents because the environment was too poisonous to me. I was someone who could help the students and I turned away from them. I was sick all the time, I was angry every day, I came home and spent hours destressing, I thought about work all the time, even when I slept. I was exhausted, both physically and spiritually, and there was never any reprieve from this. Every day was a trial, with a tidal wave of problems that swept us all away, teachers and students alike.

I wanted less stress, I wanted better resources, I wanted less work, I wanted better benefits and support. I wanted to stop working so damn hard to compensate for the school’s shortcomings only to have the school not even register as being as good as the public schools. I wanted that blame to not fall onto me. I wanted to be thanked. I wanted to be appreciated, rather than having my outstanding work ignored.

So I left. So many of my teammates left. I cried on my last day of work, slipping on my sunglasses to hide my grief and standing outside the school with my mentor. We leaned on our cars and looked at the old building. I would miss almost everything: my team, the students, the familiar classrooms. She burned with anger. Eventually she would homeschool her children, to do a better job than all existing school systems.

I keep in touch with many of my old co-workers. Only one of them still remains at the school and she just texted me to tell me that they were expanding to include fifth and sixth grade. They asked her to teach fifth grade, expecting her to get certified to do this while she taught without her elementary certification, expecting her to compensate for their shortcomings as usual without actually paying her to go back to school. Typical.

Where are they putting the fifth and sixth graders? I asked. Did they purchase a new building?

No, they’re cramming them in the basement. The basement, a single hallway, such small classrooms. No windows.

When I fled to another state and began substituting in the public schools, I was shocked. The teachers seemed so independent. So carefree. They complained about trials that seemed so easy and miniscule to me. The admins weren’t hanging around to criticize them every single day. I found myself nervously following routines out of fear, only to find there was no one breathing down my neck. No one was criticizing me.

I was… respected as a professional. People believed I was doing the right thing. And I was, but I was shocked to find myself in an environment where I was doing so little work and people still had faith in me. I was so accustomed to going above and beyond only to face doubt and scrutiny.

There’s still so much I haven’t recounted. More flaws, more joys. I can recall so many memories, but they all slip in and out of each other, weaving and unweaving, it’s hard to pin one down. This experience wasn’t unique. It wasn’t typical of every charter school, but many of them. Most of them.

Is this a real solution?

 

 

On our first date, we sat at a counter in a local restaurant, facing the windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. They displayed the television show that was main street. There was a smattering of hard clumps of snow on the ground and yellow Christmas lights wrapped around the trees by the roadside. I was too nervous to eat and I watched the endless stream of people passing by while he unfolded his taco and regaled me with stories that were doing an excellent job at convincing me that he was interesting and adventurous.

“On our way to San Diego, we got into a pretty bad car accident. It was on the highway. We were just riding along – I was asleep, he was driving – and then out of nowhere,” He slapped his hands together. “We were flying! Someone coming from an on-ramp merged into our lane from the left without seeing us, struck us from the side, and my car went flipping across several lanes of traffic. I was still trying to figure out what had happened when he yelled for me to get out of the car, and we did. My car was completely totaled!”

“Were you hurt?”

He pulled out his phone and flipped through his photos. He still had the pictures they took at the hospital afterward. “Here I am,” he said, showing me an image of himself where he looked younger, with longer hair, yellow bruises on his face. Other than that, no real injuries.

I tried to imagine being in a car as it flipped across the road. I couldn’t. I had been in several minor car accidents at this point in my life, but they were nothing more than fender benders. Anxiety bloomed in my chest just thinking about it.

My first experience with a car accident occurred when I was twelve years old. My friend’s mother was driving and my friend Casey and I were in the backseat, her little brother sitting in between us, his face a dense map of freckles and his nose running. We were driving to an amusement park on an island, vibrating with excitement. We bickered with her little brother, who whined about our presence as her mother swore and sighed loudly at the wheel.

“Stop touching me,” I snapped at the little boy. I had known him since he was two years old and felt as if he were my own little brother. “Why are you such a brat?”

“You smell! It’s not my fault, you smell!”

Suddenly all of our heads snapped forward. I hit the seat in front of me and let out a loud exhalation of air. Casey grabbed her brother and her mother screamed, “Fuck!” She then leaned the front of her body into the backseat and began patting around at us, asking us if we were alright. We were fine, just confused. I looked around, only seeing a gas station through the small windows in the back.

A young woman in a Chevrolet in front of us had slammed on her breaks in front of the gas station. The back bumper of her car was smooshed inward. Our car, on the other hand, was completely fine, for all I could tell. Casey’s mother ordered us to stay in the backseat and left the car door open while she went to talk to the young woman. We waited in the backseat for what felt like a long time, watching all the cars on the road passing slowly and staring over at us.

“Stop staring! Who do they think they are?” Casey huffed.

“Yeah, what do they think is happening here? Look away, losers! Bye!” I said.

We made faces at everyone spectating.

Eventually a young police officer showed up, and he stuck his head into the backseat. He looked incredibly large looming over us. He asked each one of us a series of questions that seemed unimportant and unrelated to what had happened, interviewing Casey’s little brother last. He asked him for his home address multiple times, but the little boy just stared at him blankly, the quietest I had seen him that day.

“He’s five,” Casey told him testily, laughing. “He doesn’t know his address.”

The police officer stared at her, then disappeared without saying a word.

After more than an hour, we were finally free to finish our journey to the amusement park, since there was nothing wrong with our vehicle. We drove away, leaving the miserable-looking young woman behind. The day proceeded from that point as it was meant to and we grew sunburnt and content underneath the crisscrossed shadow of wooden rollercoasters.

I didn’t experience another car accident until I was nineteen years old. At this time, I was working at home for the summer and staying with my parents to shorten the commute. One night, my boyfriend at the time managed to finagle away his grandfather’s car and came to pick me up so we could spend the night drinking in a nearby suburb with his scruffy neckbeard friends. His grandfather was a solid blob of a human being, melting into his recliner, never speaking a word, making this a rare opportunity.

My boyfriend decided to take me home around 2AM and we began our drive through the inky darkness of the countryside. My parents lived deep in the woods, where the streetlights were rare and glowed eerily under a blanket of insects. We could see little of the road in front of us, the asphalt continuously spawning with a ghost-like haze, the sailing vehicle surrounded by darkness on both sides. I had my window open as I leaned against the door and let the cool wind whip at my face.

Then a figure loped into the road, a brown comet soaring out of the blackness. It passed quickly in front of the car and nearly cleared its passage when —

CRACK. The sound exploded as if a bullwhip had come crashing down next to my ear. The doe’s head struck the right side mirror and rolled wildly on its neck. My face was just a foot away. I watched her glowing eyes spin as she ran, leaping back into the endless black.

I screamed, I screamed. My boyfriend pulled the car onto the gravel shoulder and began shouting, “Fuck! Fucking deer!” He turned to face the abyss beyond the ditch. “I hope you’re dead! I hope you’re fucking dead!”

He ran along the side of the ditch looking for the animal, but she was gone. He said that maybe she had only been slightly injured since she had been able to run off. I remembered the hideously loud crack. “I doubt that.”

The right side mirror was dangling from a single vein. My boyfriend was yelling and swearing as he tried to snap it back into place, mortified that he had damaged his grandfather’s car. We fiddled with the mirror for a while, then gave up and drove to my parents’ house as I held the mirror on the ledge of the door.

I didn’t want my parents to discover we had hit a deer, so I crept into my house and searched the supply room for gorilla glue — or something. My little brother, still in high school at this time, appeared in the kitchen doorway, his eyes squinty from sleep. “What are you doing?”

“Do we have some sort of — strong glue?” I whispered, then told him about the deer.

“No.” He laughed, shaking his head, his long hair sweeping in front of his face.

I found some duct tape and held it up victoriously.

He shook his head even more vigorously. “You’re an idiot.”

I glared at him, then glanced out the front door at my boyfriend sitting in the car. Maybe I was an idiot.

It would take me another two years to affirm that I was indeed an idiot.

Meanwhile, my next car accident would happen the following summer. At this point I had saved up enough money to buy my own car, a blue ’99 Chevrolet Cavalier that I called Bathsheba. One day I drove several towns over to pick up the same dopey deer-killing boyfriend and took some backroads as I brought him back to my parents’, where I was staying while I had my car inspected by someone we knew.

Despite having chosen the backroads as a short cut, I was feeling incredibly impatient and couldn’t fly through the woods fast enough. The roads were long and straight, with small rounded hills that sent my car flying into the air as I struck them going 90mph. I felt exhilarated and my blood roared in my ears. My GPS had given me an estimated arrival time and I had managed to shave five minutes off of it. I was incredibly impressed with myself.

“We’re almost there!” I shouted, my car lifting off the road and seamlessly rolling back down. I realized my turn was coming up soon, quicker than I had expected, and I spun my wheel to catch it.

As I rounded the corner I tapped my brakes to slow down but felt the back of my car continue to drift. Alarmed by the way this felt, I slammed down harder on the brakes. Bad idea. The vehicle was far beyond my control at this point. My boyfriend grabbed the handle on the ceiling as we spun across the intersection, the car turning sharply to the right and veering straight into a deep ditch.

I hyperventilated for a moment in the front seat, still fairly new to this sort of thing. Finally, I stepped out of my car, walked through the weeds in the ditch and looked down at my poor automobile sticking up at an acute angle. It looked like someone had chucked my car down there from the sky and made a bulls’ eye.

I called my mother, who was just down the street. “M-m-mom?” As I held the phone up to my ear I saw some damp spots on the road from water. It had rained earlier. “I — hydroplaned.” Yes, I’d been taught about this once. The lie was effortless and removed some of the guilt from driving recklessly. “I hydroplaned on the wet road and my car is stuck in the ditch.”

She groaned, her instinct most likely tuning her into my lie. Naturally as well, I grew annoyed that she didn’t believe me.

A tow truck showed up eventually and struggled to yank my car out of where it was stuck in the ditch. The first heavy duty, beastly-looking chain snapped. The second chain did the trick. My car was fine, despite the mud and weeds crammed up into the grill.

I received a reprieve then in my life from smashing my car into things, such as other cars, ditches and deer. I was doing fairly well, actually, until I was around twenty-four and working at a charter school downtown as an English teacher. On my way to work one day I found myself smacking into the back of someone’s car in a rather uneventful fender bender, startling an old hippie who was just as desperate to get to work on time as I was. He waved it off and slid back into his car, which was crammed full of boxes of paperwork.

I continued my jaunt to work and arrived late. The gym teacher found out that I had been in a car accident that morning as I stood around the faculty room, sipping at a coffee, and she grabbed my hands and stared down into my eyes.

“Go home, sweetie. Go home.”

This made me incredibly nervous. “N-no, I’m fine. Everything’s fine! I need the money anyway.” I had a contract with no paid sick days.

She continued to stare at me unblinkingly. “Go home. I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you right now to go home.”

I pulled away from her and told her I couldn’t accept that. This woman had a skeletal look about her and routinely took off work to go in to donate her platelets. They looked like they had sucked the meat off her bones in the process. She quit later that year.

Stress from work forever rendering me a shaky and manic creature, I had fender benders in my stars. I had only recently learned to not fly over the road like a madwoman and that was after being forced to take a class for “At-Risk Drivers” that was supposed to reform me. A year later, I bought a newer car — not new, newer — also blue — and named her Esmeralda.

I had Esmeralda for only around three months when one day I was driving home from work, wracked with stress over a new after-class program my charter school had me in charge of with a few other teachers. The program was called Study Hall (not a traditional study hall) and was after last period. Since the middle schoolers weren’t allowed to walk home or catch a city bus, every single one had to file up to the cafeteria after their class period and be subjected to this regimented work period. Near 200 adolescents would file into the cafeteria, screaming from the maddening flux of hormones coursing through their bodies and exhausted from the school day, unwilling to take another pointless direction. Eventually we would organize this chaos a little better and develop ways to lessen the traffic, create group activities and bring in guest speakers. At the beginning of the school year, however, the administrators had thought very little of this out and also not given us time to plan for it.

Four teachers struggled to figure out how to contain the storm of pre-teens. We were miserable, we hated it. Eventually we figured out how to keep 200 children moderately quiet, but this hadn’t happened yet.

My hands were trembling on the steering wheel, my nerves frayed in all different directions from the hour of unorganized madness I had just endured. I drove down the wide road that cut the city into two, waves crashing through my brain: How can we group the students with so little space, the tables so close together? My feet hurt. Red light. How can we lower the noise level? What do we do about the stairwells? Is Class Dojo even worth it? Green light. What worksheets and activities are worthwhile and even possible with so many kids? How can I make sure they do their homework? My feet hurt. Why was Isaiah so rude to me? I thought I had been rather nice to him. Red light.

Green light. I sped up. A wave crashed and I saw an errant movement out of the corner of my eye. Several cars ahead, a vehicle moving forward had suddenly braked and turned left without signaling. This resulted in a series of cars slamming on their brakes.

HIT THE BRAKES!

I was too slow. I watched as the bumper of the car in front of me came hurdling toward me, my car sliding forward despite the effort of the brakes. I watched our bumpers collide and my head snapped forward, my chest smacking the wheel, bruising my ribs. I sat stunned. Cars simply drove around us.

I pulled out my phone and texted my co-worker: “I crashed my car because of Study Hall.”

The driver in the other car didn’t get out. I climbed out and approached only to find an ancient woman, shriveled into a mantis-looking creature, clinging to her steering wheel and looking confused. She turned toward me, her neck trembling and making her head wobble. Her wrinkles had hardened into narrow mazes without an exit point. She wore glasses that magnified her eyes to the size of walnuts.

“What do we do?” she asked.

“Pull over,” I instructed her. “We need to exchange insurance information.”

She spent five minutes carefully writing out her information on a piece of paper, each letter formed with noodled lines. Eventually a police officer showed up, looking massive with a cowlick dampened with product. He told us to get moving in a monotone voice and I sat on the corner to watch liquid leaking out of the front of my car. My hood had buckled and would no longer close. He raised his voice and told us we needed to go. I snapped at him, “Aren’t you supposed to help?”

I ended up needing to bolt my hood down with pins in order to keep it from flapping around menacingly on the highway.

At this point, whenever I drove I began to see the image of a bumper rushing toward me, faster than I could react. While on the highway my imagination would paint vivid pictures of the car in front of me suddenly braking, racing toward me as my car pummeled forward, my brakes ineffective as the metal crunched. I imagined that familiar jolt as I hit the steering wheel and my neck snapped forward. I dreamed about car accidents, waking up from the force of the impact.

I began to think that surely that image of a car backside rushing toward me would be my manner of death. One day my car finally would flip and it would be the end of me. The more I drove, the greater the chances.

If you ask me now how I think I’ll go, I will still affirm — a car accident. A real one. All these shocks and fender benders were just training for something bigger. So I could recognize what was happening in the moment and really understand my fate.

Last year I hit a patch of ice on a bridge and spun, smacking my bumper on the side of the bridge. I had been driving slowly — carefully — dreading — so there was merely a crack in the plastic. I looked at the crack, at the cars driving around me, and I just got back into my car and moved on.

These things happen. Accidents happen.

In Sartre’s essay Being and Nothingness, he devotes a chapter to the idea of Bad Faith. He uses the description of a waiter to convey this self-deception: a young man, darting quickly around a café, eager to please his customers, obviously play-acting at being a perfect automaton fulfilling his assigned role. The waiter knows what he is doing. He knows he is free, but deprives himself of this freedom in his bad faith. He knows himself, but chooses to act as something other than himself. He uses his freedom to deprive himself of his own freedom.

I read this essay when I was 19 for a phenomenology class. I was struck by the waiter character and the whole idea of Bad Faith in such a way that this chapter will still periodically burst into my thoughts. “Am I the waiter?” I’ll ask myself, frantic. The anxiety and question are similar to the repetitious, frantic question from the movie I Heart Huckabees (2004): “How am I not myself?” Except I know the answer.

Two years ago, I walked out of the charter school where I taught, through the city and up the parking garage, and stood looking at my 1999 Chevy Cavalier beater crammed in between the larger, sparkling vehicles. My work clothes were sharp, my cardigan matched my dress pants, I wore heels to make myself look taller. Shouldn’t my professional appearance extend to the car I drove to work? My similarly sharp co-workers walked past me to their vehicles, not expensive and new but far newer and cleaner than mine. I felt… embarrassed. I decided I needed to buy a newer car, a flawless, attractive thing that I wouldn’t sprint away from in the parking lot when I attended job interviews.

I wanted to exit my vehicle in sun glasses, and when people saw me and my charge, they would think: “That woman has her shit together.”

However, I was still relatively poor, making less money than my co-workers and a pittance in the grand scheme of things. Stringently, I saved up money, but in the end my budget limited me to a 2004 Ford Taurus. What mattered to me, though, was that an old woman had owned it, had barely used it, so it was shiny and practically untouched, beautiful, dent-less, sparkling, clean. Professional.

I was proud. I drove to interviews in my shiny car, in my work clothes, with my work purse. All of this was very different than the haphazard art, punky clothes and colorful, bizarre purses I preferred at home in my apartment. I had two sets of everything: for work, for me.

Two years later, my car embarrasses me again—now moreso than even the Chevy. Driving through hectic city traffic and chaos, I’ve slid on ice and found myself in fender benders. My hood dented in such a way that I couldn’t close it, so I bolted it shut. Ideally I would have purchased a new hood, but that was far more than I could afford. I cracked the front bumper. Then someone hit my back bumper in the parking garage and cracked it. On a foggy day, I backed up into a hidden pipe and cracked the other side. I purchased a roll of duct tape and sealed all these cracks with a heavy layer of blue tape.

My car is bolted shut and taped together. I work in a new school in a different state now, still making very little money compared to my co-workers, and my car looks ridiculous near their gleaming vehicles. I felt ashamed for a while, thinking that I couldn’t manage to avoid wrecking a car, and what would that old woman think about what I’ve done? I’ve tried to look professional and shiny and new, like everyone else I see regularly, but in reality I can’t afford things, I drive all over the place, work several supplemental income jobs, and have more on my plate than I can handle. The things I have just fall apart.

My attempts to be like my co-workers, who watch sports and have children, discuss popular television shows over tupperware and have never moved away from their hometown, who have close-knit families and free time and job security, have failed. I’m slap-dash, I just cannot compare. I’m weird and smoke too much weed and go to raves and concerts where hair gets ripped out and ears get bitten off, I drink beer with my line cook friends and shout at anime. I’m unstable and find myself checking into emergency mental health facilities overnight. I just cannot put on the same mask, it doesn’t fit.

I cover all my tattoos, afraid to let them show at work. I pick out clothes specifically to conceal them. I can’t let people know who I’ve actually chosen to be. Lately, I’ve been agonizing over a pathetic personal conflict involving my nose stud. When I had spent years working at the charter school, I had grown comfortable enough there to wear a nose ring and show my tattoos. This comfort vanished when I was back attending interviews and shimmying in skirts and high heels to stand in front of people in suits. I took out my ring and put in a tiny little stud.

I hate the stud. I feel like it’s not me, and I want to put the ring back in so badly. But—interviews. I’ve been cleaning up my image to attend interview after interview, failing every time, but still working hard to present myself as a sharp, professional woman who has her shit together.

I feel like two different people. There’s the professional façade, and then punky little me. I can’t effectively merge the two. I don’t know if this is something that takes time and perfection, or if I should just be myself and hope for the best. But the world of careers and enough money to get by—it seems to involve the automaton motions of the waiter. The concealment of the things that make me who I am.

I am the waiter. Except my movements aren’t so smooth, not so quick. You can hear the squeak and whine of my automaton limbs. My smile is too fake. The play-acting is less successful.

I know how I’m not myself. Perhaps it’s time to throw away my ideas of success and failure—and just be myself.

Yes, yes…. the title. I have this on loop in my head, it’s been going off for the last two days. The record is broken, and honestly I don’t think it’s going to stop because I don’t have the capabilities to lock this shit down.

Oh, I will endure. I might even do this job well. God knows I’m trying. God knows I feel like everything is exploding in my face and all of my efforts are hitting brick walls. A coworker told me today, “You are surviving, and you haven’t quit yet at day two! That’s more than a lot of people.”

A lot of people….? I can’t imagine quitting, I would never give up. I would have my face dragged through the dirt and injure myself psychologically, sure, but I wouldn’t give up.

I am working for a substitute temp agency, basically. Also, since I just moved recently, I really need money. So when I saw that there was a placement for two weeks in this one school district, I was like, awesome! I’ll get to actually teach. It said, “Extra teacher,” so I assumed there was some delay in the hire or something (Oh, how naive I was). Two weeks of subbing is a lot of money.

I walked in the door yesterday at 6:30AM, walked right to the main office. They told me they didn’t have any information for me, to just go stand around. Okay, sure. I stood around for about two hours, working my way through a chain of human beings (one teacher took me to another teacher who took me to another, who took me to another, who took me back to the first person, who sent me back to the office, who sent me to another person). At each individual I was able to excavate just a little bit more of what the fuck was going on: The teacher had quit, even though the job was posted weeks ago they still hadn’t hired anyone, and I was to start off the school year and lesson plan until they hired someone. No one person told me this—no one ever actually told me what my assignment was. I puzzled that shit together.

SURPRISE! Start off three different sets of classes for the first day of school! Both 7th grade and 8th grade English! Fresh out of elementary school, half of them! In forty minutes!

Oh, and I slowly came to realize a parade of things: I had no log-in for the computers so I could not print at the school, I had no computer to work with period, I had no access to any school email or information database. I can’t get parent phone numbers, and there are apparently no ways to write-up or refer kids to detention. There are no phones in the rooms. There are police and security officers everywhere. There are no air conditioners. There are blackboards with chalk.

The last school I taught in had SMARTboards. Oh, how spoiled I was without even knowing it.

Today, in an 8th grade classroom with 31 kids in it and not enough desks and no room to walk around in, I had a whole bunch of seniors walk in halfway through the class because their schedules had the wrong room number. I wrote them a pass to where they were supposed to go, they were gentlemen, whatever. The 8th graders were very amused and I told them with a laugh to stop trying to show off to the seniors. Five minutes later, a straggler senior walks in, and I tell him where to go. He stumbled back and forth and insisted he’s an 8th grader. His eyes were glazed. I would say he was baked out of his mind, but honestly weed doesn’t debilitate you to this level. I tell him to go. He tells me that he loves me. I tell him to go. He tells me I need to say it back. I tell him to go. He stumbles out of the room. The 8th graders (all 31 of them) are like “What the fuck, what is the teacher going to do?” I put on a good performance of asking them WHAT in the WORLD just happened, and that whatever he was smoking was spiked so it would be best not to ask him about it and we joked about it briefly, and honestly that was the best behaved they were for me the whole time.

After third period, there was a fight in the hallway outside the room I was in and some tall male teacher was yanking at these two adolescents (I’m teaching in 4 different rooms, none of them ever in a row on the schedule, so I have to pick up all my stuff and go every period). After class started, this 7th grader—who I did not even know the name of because he’s not on my roster—stood up and started cussing out this girl. Fuck this, fuck that, fucking, fucking fucking, you fucking bitch. He would not stop, so I had no choice really but to send him out of the room. I press a button on the wall (yes, I have a button) that summons an escort. A security officer in police-like uniform shows up, the kid is gone. I can’t even tell them what this kids name is.

That was an honors class.

I’m scrambling to lesson plan for three different classes, spending all my planning periods doing this and running around the huge building to find people who can help me get resources (or…. literally anything). They are taking away one of my planning periods next week and giving me a class. 

Surprise, surprise—a tiny class crammed with 31 kids doesn’t behave well. My bag of tricks is reduced down to almost nothing due to lack of resources. I am trying to teach them. I really am. I am doing my fucking best.

I have to spend the whole long weekend lesson planning (and drinking until I’m dead). The two 7th grade classes will be receiving a BOX EACH full of workbooks, and I need to run through a scripted lesson that takes them through this magical world of workbooks. I received My Big Ol’ Magical Box Teacher Manual Edition Including DVD which was even bigger than their boxes, and it had a false handle on it. When you grab the handle all the books fall out. I have to do this, because this is what is done in this class, and it’s my job to set up the class for whoever is teaching it. They’ve already interviewed teachers for the position, and I’m so busy lesson planning I don’t have time to locate the application or find the mystery HR person or gather up the 12 fucking documents I need to apply. And do I even want the job? No, I don’t want the fucking job.

I’ll be there until next Friday. How am I going to make it? I don’t fucking know. I don’t even know if I can do a good job at this. I’m afraid to process what I’m doing too much so I don’t feel like a huge fucking failure. I’m definitely putting in a lot of work trying to do a good job.

As horrible as this is, thank god for the other teachers. These people. These wonderful people who expect this and have normalized everything that I’ve just described. Who fly by the seat of their pants daily. Who, despite how busy and frustrated and also lacking in resources they are, are helping me so much. I’ve had a dozen people take the time to help me out, show me where things are, suggest things I should do curriculum-wise, recommend rooms for me to work in (since I don’t have a set classroom), find resources for me and answer my questions.  They don’t have to do this, but they see me sweating my face off and scrambling and they provide because they are simply amazing, and yes—you have to be a fucking superhuman to be a teacher. I don’t even care if they turn around and go, “Look at this fucking idiot,” at least they’re helping me.

The school has such a prison-vibe to it, the emergency button and the PA asking me what I need, the police, the security, the gates. I’m going to finish this assignment, no matter how much it wears me down. Yes, I’ve cried on the way home the past two days. Actually, I even held it in for the ride—God forbid somebody sees me—and managed to wait until I got home to fall apart. I think most people would cry. That doesn’t stop me from feeling like a horrible mound of shit.

I feel like I should add… this isn’t my first year teaching. I’ve been through a lot of this before. I should probably be handling this better. I’ve just never dealt with THIS much all at once in a location completely devoid of resources.

I just quit my telemarketing job because they switched the program to one that scams people.

What am I doing with my life, everyone? Holy fucking shit…

While I think a lot of my work ethic traces back to my many ingrained neuroses, I give a lot of credit to what I experienced during the first job I ever held. The whole experience shocked my system into pretty much being able to handle anything, because everything thereafter seemed a lot easier. This is something I’ve been meaning to write about because even while it was happening I knew that it was excessive and bizarre, though I had no experience to compare it with at the time. For all I knew, this was what the working world was like. I was fifteen years old and practically a clean slate, helpless to be a sponge and absorb what was going on around me. I also wanted to make money and there weren’t exactly a lot of opportunities in the small countryside town where I lived.

The seasonal job was for a local landscaping company and nursery. Job title: I don’t know — laborer, maybe? Field hand? There was a cycle of activities our little crew performed. The owner of the landscaping company was a man who looked like an old apricot, forever wearing a pair of khakis with long white socks pulled up to his knees, perma-stubble all over his face. He was a very conservative sort and he constantly repeated that he hired high school students, unlike the other landscaping companies, who hired migrant workers. He was so incredibly proud of himself, as wholesome as a store-bought apple pie.

He is not worth as much attention as the spectacular specimen that’s his brother. Larry. Oh boy, Larry. He was my boss.

Larry was a very short man. He had a round beer belly that looked rock solid and underneath this were two skinny, scrawny legs. He looked like an apple stabbed onto two chopsticks. His eyes were round too, bulging out of his skull with the most intense stare I had seen yet in life. His head was shaved (he was, in fact, a skinhead), though we rarely ever saw this as he always wore a baseball cap. He moved around like a bowling ball bouncing from one side of the lane to the other. He did not smile.

He was also a Vietnam War veteran. This  wasn’t something he talked about very often, though when he did bring it up, it usually involved him sleeping with Vietnamese prostitutes. The way the job duties were organized left us teenagers no other choice but to listen to Larry talk for eight hours every day (we would get an hour lunch, but we usually spent it talking about the crazy shit he was talking about).

Before I get into any of the stories he told, or the many things he would say, let me explain how this job unfolded on a daily basis.

All of us would arrive at 7:30am and we would file into a 15 foot truck. There were no real seats in this truck, so about seven of us would sit on the floor in the back. At 8:00am, Larry would drive the truck down the backroads to another landscaping company’s plot of land. We would all knock around in the back, flying up into the air whenever he hit a pothole. This resulted in a few bruises but that was nothing compared to the upcoming discomforts. The plots of land we drove to were isolated from all civilization. The giant truck would drive on some dirt road, lumbering through woods and around ravines until we reached an open field. These fields were always filled with some plant or another — I couldn’t tell you what they were. Rows and rows of bushes and no paved road in sight.

Our job during this time was to retrieve cuttings from these bushes. We had only an hour to do this and we were expected to work as fast as possible so we could bring back up to 10,000 cuttings (often we would retrieve as many as 30,000). We were all supplied with knives, some of which were rusty things, and told to count every little branch we collected. It seems like this would be difficult, but I could count myself up to 1500, 2000, 3000 cuttings in that hour. We would all spread out into these fields, the sun rising higher up into the sky and beating down on us. We’d be sweating and covered in dirt and mud from head to toe, but Larry never let us stop. He would tail us, yelling at us.

“What the fuck are you doing?! What the fuck number you got? That’s fucking it?! Get the fuck out there! Hurry the fuck up!”

After a while I became incredibly good at this. I was tiny and quick. I reached the point where Larry wouldn’t even yell at me, just glare at me with his buggy eyes and nod.

Once we reached our goal with the cutting count, we filled crates up with plants and stockpiled them into the truck. We drove back to the company’s warehouses and carried these crates into a giant warehouse room. I spent so much time in this room, I can still picture it. One side of it was just giant garage doors that were always open. Against the right wall we would pile the crates, and one of us teenagers would take a hose and spray all of the crates and cuttings down until they were dripping wet and half the room was a giant puddle.

In the very middle of the room was a long table that was shaped like a U. In the middle of this table sat Larry, in the crook of the U. The rest of us would sit around him, like we were all in some circle of recovery. Behind us was a rickety stand with a decades-old radio that we were NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH. I think someone tuned in the usual station once without Larry’s permission and we did not hear the end of it.

“THIS IS MY FUCKING RADIO! I AM THE BOSS OF THIS RADIO! NOBODY TOUCHES THIS RADIO UNLESS I TELL THEM TO!”

At least the radio was always on. And Larry’s taste in music wasn’t terrible — he played a Canadian rock station that always played Rush and Bif Naked. “Bif Naked. Who the fuck wants to see her naked?”

We would sit at this table for the rest of the day. It was like some demented Last Supper, where Larry/Jesus glared at all of us disciples while we picked up branches that were soaking wet and stripped them and cut the bottom so that they were ready to be planted in the greenhouses. Strip, cut. Strip, cut. Strip, cut. My lap would get drenched with water, and consequently, my underwear too. By the end of the day, I was soaked to the bone with dirt matted to my skin. I would wrap electrical tape around my fingers so that the plants didn’t irritate them. Some of the plants had thorns, that was always fun, though I never cut myself up as badly as some of the other kids did. Regardless, there was always blood, every single day.

Because we were all just sitting around for seven hours, stripping and cutting over and over again, we had very little else to do but talk. Larry, of course, was the boss of the conversation. We did not talk about anything that he didn’t want to talk about, and if we tried to, he would punish us by sending us out to the greenhouses to stick plants. Sometimes he sent two of us out there anyway, simply because somebody had to do it. God, that was fucking awful. It involved crouching down in a greenhouse, poking holes in dirt, sticking plants in the holes, and doing this 10, 000 times.

As horrible as that sounds, the worst part was the long nozzle that watered the plants that was on some mechanism that moved from one side of the greenhouse to the other. Whenever it came by you had to duck down even lower, basically doing child’s pose in the dirt. If you didn’t, you’d get bonked in the head. Also, you would get drenched in water and the water REEKED of sulfur. I don’t know enough about plants to say whether it was sulfur water or just smelled that way, but my god, I think being soaked in that stinky water is still one of the worst things I have ever experienced.

Back to the Last Supper. Quality time with Larry. The man just loved to talk. He was a horrible racist and that tended to be his topic of choice, but none of that is worth repeating or describing. As for the other topics, let’s see.

I suppose I should mention that Larry got it into his head that I was a witch.

I also know that the first instinct after reading that is to think the man was joking. Maybe he was, but he did not ever, not once, ever hint in any way that he was joking. He was very, very serious when he talked to me about this. I worked there for two years and he never relented with this theory nor cracked a smile about it. There was no good reason for him to really think this, except that every girl that worked there was tan with blonde hair and then there was me, ghostly pale with hair that was practically black at the time. This accusation arose only within my first few days working there. I saw him staring at me with his saucer eyes for a while.

“Why are you so fucking pale?” he asked.

There was no good answer to this, as I didn’t know and I still don’t know why my skin’s like a blank piece of paper.

“Is your hair black?” he continued, staring me down.

“No, it’s dark brown.”

He shook his head and stomped his foot like I had offended him. “Your hair is fucking BLACK. You’re a fucking witch, aren’t you?”

How do you answer this? I stuttered out a no. He glared, stopped talking, but continued to watch me out of the corner of his eye. He proceeded to refer to me as “witch” for the next two years. It was my name. I was The Witch. This was better than the nickname he gave another girl, whom he called Rocks — because she was as dumb as them.

There was a particular day when we came from the truck and settled down at the U table when Larry sat down on a nail. Somehow, the nail in his butt had something to do with my magic witchery. He yelled at me and sent me out to stick in the greenhouse alone. I was drenched in sulfur water because of my witch antics. If he was joking, his face never revealed it as he swore at me until I was out of the warehouse. He said he was onto me.

Every day, we were graced with his recounting of his previous evening. This usually involved movies he had watched, which were always strange and random. He reviewed the movie and provided a synopsis with an infuriated expression on his face, his black eyebrows crunched down into the bridge of his nose. One would think he hated a movie, then he would end his rant by confirming the movie had been excellent. One day, we all sat stripping leaves when Larry nodded at me and told me he saw a movie that I would like. It was about a witch who murdered people. He looked at me seriously, “It was a fucking good movie. You should see it. It’s your kind of thing.” I never watched this movie.

After watching the movie Hostel, he came in the next day and swore to us that it was real. This shit happened, and it happened all the time. One girl claimed she planned on backpacking through Europe and he told her she was going to be kidnapped, tortured, and killed for fun. She laughed at him and said she would send him a post card. He flew off the handle at this remark and told her to go stick in the greenhouse. “You fuckers can all go get killed in Europe! Backpacking. Fuck you!”

Some filler in between his grander monologues involved how much he hated his cat. But loved his cat. But hated the cat. It was clear he loved his pet but his way of expressing this involved threatening to kill it on a daily basis to a bunch of teenagers.

He would start off with, “My cat was fucking pissing me off last night. PISSING ME OFF.” He hated it when we didn’t reply (and when we did), so we would respond automatically: “What happened?”

“The fat bastard wouldn’t stop scratching at the door. I yelled at it to stop scratching, but the fat fuck wouldn’t stop. So I picked that fucker up and I PUNCHED HIM RIGHT IN THE FUCKING FACE.”

“You punched your cat?”

“YEAH, I PUNCHED HIM. THAT’S WHAT HE FUCKING GETS.” He mimed picking up an animal and punching it square in the nose. “My fist, right there in his FACE.”

We all thought this was absolutely hilarious (because he wasn’t actually punching the cat… I think). We started prompting him to tell these stories for our own amusement.

Strip, cut. Strip, cut. We would all smile and make eye contact. “Hey, Larry, how’s your cat?”

“That fucker, that fucker, let me tell YOU!” If he didn’t talk about beating up the cat, we would need to prompt him further. “So what did you do about it?”

When it comes to his more genuine stories, there’s one that stands out in particular. He once told us all to shut the fuck up because he was going to tell us a serious story that was true as hell, and if anyone said anything while he told it they would be sticking until 4:00pm.

The story was about when he was a soldier in Vietnam. His face was serious and he stared at all of us in turn. The evening was quiet, he said, the sky was getting dark, and everyone was laying out in the camp. They had nothing to do but stare into the jungle. Then someone said they saw something. Something was moving in the trees. Several things were moving in the trees. They were getting closer, creeping closer. The soldier started shouting, and everyone panicked, believing that they were being attacked. Larry could see the shadows too, figures moving in the trees, and he grabbed his gun and got up with everyone else. Chaos erupted. A shot was fired, then everyone was shooting. Every soldier was shooting frantically, blindly, into the trees. The sound of gunfire filled Larry’s ears, but then he could hear:

“STOP SHOOTING! STOP SHOOTING!”

The major ran around frantically, completely losing his head, screaming at the soldiers to put down their guns.

Larry paused, his bulbous eyes staring at each one of us individually. One of us prompted him to continue.

“Shut the fuck up!” He then continued.

The figures in the trees, they were monkeys. The soldiers had just wiped out a whole troop — of monkeys. Left and right, monkey corpses dropped out of the trees. The major kept screaming his throat raw about how they had wasted bullets for no reason. Now, I am not 100% that this story is true in any way. If this is a scene in some movie, please let me know, so I can figure out how truthful Larry actually was. This is a man who thought Hostel was real, so you just never know.

He also had an interesting belief when it comes to the origin of the human race. He was infuriated that we didn’t back his theory. Absolutely livid. We would walk off to lunch laughing until we cried, laying out on the grass in front of the owner’s house howling about Larry’s grand theory.

Larry believed that human beings had descended from aliens. He said when humans were still practically monkeys, aliens arrived on Earth and fucked the cave women, thus creating humans. So basically:

The man hated minorities, believed Hostel recounted real events, thought I was a witch, swore at us and berated us for eight hours straight every day, punched his cat in between watching B movies, and believed with all his heart that humans were part alien. On top of being graced with all of this, I would be soaked with sulfur water and caked in dirt, sand underneath my fingernails, my fingers sticky with the residue of electrical tape. Though there were difficulties in the other jobs I’ve held over the years — I’ve been screamed at, bitten, had my hair pulled, worked longer hours, gone without a break — this first job still takes the cake as being so incredibly physically uncomfortable and just plain bewildering. After experiencing Larry and the sulfur water at age fifteen, everything else I just accepted as part of life. These things just happen, right?

After thinking about the kook this much, I searched Larry on the internet to see what he’s been up to. Besides verifying that he’s still alive and that he actually was a Vietnam War vet, the only other thing I found was on a strange website that discussed the “true secret of happiness.” On this site is an article that discusses Larry, though I don’t know why he is provided as an example. The article starts:

“Scientists estimate that 90 to 110 billion human beings have lived on this planet. Of all these many people, one of the luckiest of all may have been Larry.”

The rest of the article talks about how everyone today is so lucky and blessed because we have television and other luxuries. The article states that Larry is so lucky because he has all of these things, and God has given them to him. There’s a picture of a television with a caption that says my old boss can enjoy TV shows and indoor plumbing.

Yes, Larry is very lucky indeed. He has a television to watch his movies, but no, it’s not because of God. It’s actually because of our alien ancestors.

Thank you, aliens.

We can miss a poisonous environment. I know I’m going to miss this school, this work place, not even several months after I leave it. I’ve spent the last four years struggling to get away, cursing the place whenever it came to mind. I’ve been trying to get it out of my mind. After four years, however, the location has burrowed itself into my brain, settled as a memory, and now I won’t forget it.

As much as I’ve hated the place, as horrible as it was sometimes, I won’t forget it.

The place will permanently be where I started my career (if you can call it that). I taught my first class here, I worked on my first team here, this is where I’ve drawn most of my experience at this point. Oh, and the mistakes. Many mistakes have been made in these hallways. I’ve slipped down the stairs a time or two. I’ve sprinted from one side of the building to another, from the basement to the third floor, gasping for breath. Here was my first teacher’s desk — a student desk. Covered in paperwork and projects. And then I had my first real teacher’s desk, which they took away after a year and gave me a table.

Then there are my co-workers. Honestly, I never felt as if they were thrilled about my presence. Especially my first year here, when I felt like an outsider who couldn’t bust into a clique. I did worm my way in there, though, no matter how different and awkward I was.

The first person I became close with was Jen, the person I now consider my mentor. I worked closely with her for two years. We were different — she has a husband and two kids, she’s a hell of a lot more confident than I am — but we were alike just enough to get along perfectly. She’s crass and proud, aggressive and friendly. I would like to imagine that maybe I’m like that too, though not everyone may see those as positive traits. She was usually a calm and cool teacher, but then had a shout that cracked like a whip and anger that dominated a room. The students feared her and learned to love her. They knew she was the type of person they wanted to know. I try to teach like her — cool, with a crack of a whip. I appreciate everything she’s done for me. She supported me, appreciated me, and acted as my role model. She also thought I was hilarious, which helped.

They fired her this month. She spoke her mind a little too much and pissed someone off.

Another teacher I came to admire was Erin. She has such a maternal aura. She beams with positivity, and just like a mother, can take that enthusiasm and turn it into a strong, emotional, honest frustration that can be the realness you sometimes need (or at least the realness I sometimes ache for). She seems indomitable to me. A single mother, two kids, with a full-time life-consuming job. She has been an inspiration to me. She’s given me hugs when I’ve broken down. Sometimes, she would be the only person to reply to an email with the information I needed. She’s looking for a new job, and I hope she finds one.

There’s Joanna, who had so much energy that it seemed to just be pouring out everywhere, an endless supply that raised questions. Was she a little crazy? She once told an assembly, with the entire school present, that the universe had spoken with her. It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of a crowd and say something like that. She became obsessed with the universe around that same time, though, with mindfulness and yoga and spirituality, and she stopped teaching math. She quit last year, and I haven’t seen her since. Despite some of that, her energy is something I hope that maybe someday I can achieve, and when she spoke, everyone listened. There are not many people who can speak in such a way that they command absolute attention without ever saying as much. She just had this intense vibe. Even talking about her makes me want to put everything in italics.

I have to mention Justin, though I don’t know him incredibly well. I’ve been around him for years, so maybe I should know him, but he is all fantasy football, video games, memes, beer and his yellow Labrador. That might be all there is to him. He is, also, incredibly biting with his humor and it can be absolutely fantastic sometimes. He’s made so many work-related memes that Joanna was able to fill a binder with them. I imagine there is some corner of the internet that he calls home, some forum he frequents, but I don’t really ever want to know where that is. In the end, he’s a curly-blond-haired bro that can seem like a giant little boy.

He’s a remarkable teacher, too.

There’s a short, mousy, blonde girl who has been my partner in crime the past year, if crime is study skills. Amanda is actually older than me, but because we are the same height and serve the same role in the building albeit different subjects I feel compelled to call her girl and think of her on the same level as me. She clings to a naive positivity and drive that sometimes I love and other times I can’t stand. She never cares quite enough, and she isn’t ever good to herself. That kind of self-sacrifice is noble, but not entirely endearing. However, I am grateful for her help, and that more often than not she has been a steady and understanding co-worker. I wish the best for her. I hope she meets a nice guy one day.

Associations tie people to a place, a place to people. I’m glad a day is coming when I will never step inside this building again. But, there are certain things I want to take with me, things to make me a better person, a better version of myself. I want to be as confident as Jen, as skilled as Justin, as energetic as Joanna, as unstoppable as Erin, as friendly as Amanda. These are things I can achieve, and I can forever draw from this place as a source of inspiration, no matter the venomous atmosphere. I didn’t intend for this to all sound so positive, but even though a lot of negative things happened and I did my share of crying in the bathroom, the people I surrounded myself with were positive people. It’s impossible to think of the place without thinking of them.

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