Every few weeks or so at the old school, a parent flips out in the office, screaming, cursing, and threatening. The administration calls it “performing,” as in “His mom performed last night so we had to transfer him.” I’ve always empathized with the exploding parents, even when I was one of the things they were screaming and threatening about. Friday afternoon I got to feel a little more of what it’s like, standing at the office counter being boxed in, talked down to, and treated like a threat. Nothing inspires rage like helplessness against a system that thinks you are nothing. I didn’t scream or curse, just seethed and spoke softly, but the anger feels just as wild and hard to wrangle.
After feeling so good for most of the past month or so, I dreaded revisiting the place. Amy and I were scheduled to leave the bookstore at two to run some other errands and then go get the rest of my stuff. (I don’t know why I couldn’t just leave it, or send Amy with a list, but it felt like part of my soul was stuck there in the guise of baskets and cute file boxes, and I could rescue it. I almost crowd-sourced a shaman for the occasion but I figured I could be my own. I was right, go me.) Around noon, the feelings started to come, the freezy crick in my spine, the foggy head, the tightening at the front of my brain. My work tasks, which as you know are beautifully Candy Crush simple, got harder. Whole rows of sale sweatshirts became unfindable. I felt the urge to run and hide.
When we arrived just after dismissal, the first person I talked to was my former grade partner, who was pulling out just as we were walking up. She seemed genuinely happy for me. When I told her I was doing well, she said:
“See, it’s like I’ve always told you. As long as you’re…”
“Taking care of me, I know. I am!” I laughed with joy. She was so taken by my tale of clocking out at five that she might go into retirement early. I like my new identity as someone who inspires others to do less work.
Most of the teachers I ran into were kind and distant. They were on their way to their Friday happy hour, and I admit it hurt a teensy bit to not be invited along—though I would never be able to keep up, ventingwise!
The best part was seeing some of my former students who were there for afterschool programs. As they showered me with hugs, their faces glowed like little angels I don’t have to order around anymore. I loved them so much.
“Why can’t you come back and teach us?” they kept asking.
“Because I’m too sensitive. But thanks for being so cute and smart and good.” They nodded solemnly and I could not have imagined a nicer moment. I kept running into them in stairwells in the course of moving stuff, and every time they said “Come back! You have to teach us!” It wasn’t sad, it was like a game, it felt wonderful to keep telling them I’m too sensitive. It was a joy to finally be with them as myself, even just to say goodbye.
Cleaning the room out was HARD. The longer I was there in the past, the more my brain constricted, so that easy tasks like sorting the scissors kept getting harder. The teacher who took over doesn’t share my organizational skills, so I had to really dig to find what I wanted to take.
But I found the things: I found the book an afterschool student gave me years ago about growing a rainbow garden. I found the watercolor set and paper I’d been daydreaming about. I found Apples to Apples Junior and Mancala. I found an almost-full can of coffee and a pack of fresh scrubby sponges, items I was happy to cross off the grocery list. I got the rainbow shelves my mom gave me for teacher graduation (now cheerfully holding all manner of art supplies) and my blue file boxes with cartoon foxes on them.
The principal came in and was cordial, but weird. She didn’t seem fully aware that I’d resigned, even though I’d emailed her and put the paper through weeks ago. She seemed really out of it, but then, as I learned from Gretchen Rubin, people who don’t sleep are often more impaired than they think they are. “We don’t sleep,” the principal always said proudly in meetings, as I fought back a bratty “Well, I do.”
She was concerned with what I might have taken—a set of workbooks I never got, some missing laptops. The poor tech guy kept coming in to ask where the missing computers might be, until I got exasperated.
After all of the things were loaded into Amy’s car, the principal called me into her office one more time. she said she needed to “hold me accountable” for the missing laptops and she was filing a report with the district.
It was one of those rare and beautiful moments when I got to say exactly what I wanted to. In my best quiet teacher voice, I said “I have never been more livid. I will NOT be held accountable. The part of my life where I take the blame for things that are not my fault is OVER.” Though I’d been gone for six weeks and two other teachers had keys to the computer cabinet, she kept asking, “Well, who SHOULD be held accountable?” which for some reason is the thing that fills me with the most rage to think of.
It’s not really about the computers or that fact that they might somehow prevent me from getting the money from my summer account (what I was thinking of as my work-retail-and-heal money)—I felt the familiar sensation of being trapped by the place, dragged down by it, stupid, worthless, as if the idea that I might ever be free and happy was an illusion. That’s how I used to feel every day, and I must say I do not miss it.
I think that this was really her way of expressing the hurt of the situation—of losing a teacher, of seeing evidence that perhaps there are some holes in her plan, of plain old losing a person she used to like and believe in. She must have worked so hard to protect herself from the emotions ricocheting around her all the time that the only way she could express hurt was by filling out unpleasant forms. At least, that’s the most compassionate way I can come up with to see it.
Although I know that no one can really take this new life away, that’s what it felt like in the moment, like the happy flow I’d imagined myself floating along was a stupid illusion, like the bright and colorful new path I’d devised for myself was gone. I felt like a fraud and a drain on everyone I knew, especially my family and close friends. As I drove away, I put on “Ukelele Anthem” as loud as it goes and sang along, but I couldn’t really feel it. The poison of the place had taken over my system, and it’s taken a LOT of writing, closet-rearranging, and art-scheming to make the toxins start to fade away again. I’m still impaired, but I know what to do and I’m doing it.
This month has been among the happiest of my life. I’ve gotten back in touch with my dream-driven Jungian side and begun to stumble into some gorgeous synchronicity. For the first time in a while, I can see a real future on the horizon, one full of art, friends, writing, and love. If it could also be filled with making a living, that would be helpful, but I’m pretty sure this new happiness, this new self is nothing any principal can take away. There is no form for that.