I have been in my town for almost three years now. I completed my two years in the corps and stayed on to finish my third year so I could get my certification, complete my Masters and help one of my favorite students. Looking back, I can see how much I have changed and developed both personally and professionally. When I joined the corps, I was a selfish, spoiled child who had no experience being an adult, building relationships, working on a team, or supporting others. I was thrown to the wolves in a new place where I felt like a complete outsider, isolated and frightened, but with a strong moral compass pointing me toward a north star called “educational equity” by way of “transformational change.” I knew that the students I would teach faced challenges, were not given the same opportunities as others in the state, and were perceived to be less intelligent than their peers, but I didn’t really know them. I had a terrible Institute experience (as you can see from previous posts) that taught me exactly what I did not want to be true for my classroom. I had seen that the teacher was in effect the weatherman of the classroom, controlling the climate with their words, actions and air of being. My classroom in the Mississippi Delta was an arctic tundra, cold, devoid of life. I wanted my classroom in Appalachia to be a warm, sunny beach, full of joy and optimism. I knew that as the weatherman, I had to set my thermostat to “cheerful and loving” at all times in order to create the best atmosphere to push both myself and my students down the path of “transformational change.” I started day one telling my students the following things:
“When you enter this classroom,
You are RESPECTED
You are READERS
You are LEADERS
You are WRITERS
You are THINKERS
You are LISTENERS
You are SPEAKERS
You are LOVED
You are IMPORTANT
You are THE REASON I’M HERE!”
I wanted all of those things to be true, so I willed them to be so through my words and actions in my classroom on a daily basis. My failure at Institute was the catalyst to my classroom culture success here, but I knew there was much I didn’t know. I was asked recently, “If you could go back and talk to first year you, what would you tell her?” At the time, I gave the best answer I could, but since then I have spent many hours ruminating on that subject and I see through further reflection many lessons that I wish I would have learned at Institute, but did not. The most important lesson I learned is one I want to share with all of you not out of pity, but out of a hope that it will encourage you to be more empathetic and to speak up when you see signs of distress.
A few weeks after school started, I was sitting in my cozy, black teacher’s chair at my desk, when I heard a knock on my door. I had been giving teaching my all, literally getting to school at 6 am and not leaving until 10 pm, but felt like I was drowning in a pool of paperwork, lesson plans and behavior management issues. The vice principal must have seen me drowning, because she opened the door and threw out a buoy to me in the form of this advice: “Do you know how to eat an elephant? You don’t eat it whole. The only way you can do it is by eating it one bite at a time. You’re just getting started on this elephant, but you can do it if you eat it a bite at a time.” Her words comforted me and made me realize that the inner perfectionist in me was at it again: trying too hard to be flawless at teaching, when I had just gotten started. Her words gave me grace to realize that it was a process and that I had to change the way I viewed teaching. From that moment, I accepted that I wasn’t going to be perfect, but I knew I would and should always strive to get better because it was what my students deserved.
Unfortunately, my personal life was not going as smoothly. Through poor choices when I first moved to my town, I had become isolated from the other corps members at my school and in my community. A relationship that had once sustained me shattered when I found out about infidelity. I had what Gary Rubenstein calls the “savior mentality” in that I thought I was moving here to fix something that was broken. I did not try to develop relationships with people in the community because I didn’t feel like I would ever belong in such a place, nor did I think it was a good use of my (“incredibly valuable”) time (“that I should be spending on teaching and giving my all to my students “) getting to know people who I was going to leave in two years. I saw the other teachers at my school as adversaries, not collaborators, and thought that I knew how to get to “educational equity” and they did not. In a nutshell, I was full of pride. Hubris has been the cause of many a fatal collapse throughout the years, but little did I know then that it would almost prove fatal for me.
I fumbled my way through my first twelve weeks of teaching, continuing to acclimate my students to be “joyful and hardworking” through positivity, smiling through my mistakes, laughing at their silliness and knowing that I would improve as a teacher. That growth mindset left me the moment the last student walked out the door, however, because as soon as it was 2:51, I was falling apart at the seams. Not only did I have too much pride to really admit just how bad at teaching I really was, but my hubris left me in a brand new place, with my first grown-up job, six hours away from my family and feeling all alone. I had two rocks in my life: my best friend and my MTLD. They listened to me cry about being lonely, cry about not being good enough at teaching, whine about hating the community, moan about why I chose to do this over grad school, and on and on and on. They were my support system, but I felt like such a burden to them that I started shutting down toward them as well. I pushed out my three best friends from college.
By November, my life had hit an all-time low. I could barely get out of bed in the mornings. I was having health issues from eating poorly and drinking too much caffeine. I was staying up late trying to do work, then having nightmares when I slept. I was hiding all of this from my family, my co-workers and my students because of my pride. Instead of truly revealing what was going on inside, I gave them glimpses in the occasional Facebook post rant but I mostly tried to only post happy, positive things about the great accomplishments of my students. After all, it didn’t matter how terrible my life was, as long as my students were performing, right? My dear college advisor told me a few weeks ago, looking back on the past few years, “You seemed totally psychotic from your posts. One minute you’re on top of the world about how great your kids are, then the next you hate your life and want to leave.” That was totally accurate: I was psychotic. I was dealing with depression and wanted to let people know but didn’t know how so I tried to always mask the truth. I couldn’t let anyone see me as I viewed myself: a complete failure. My pride was too vast to let nearly anyone in on how unhappy I truly was.
I wanted people to see how unhappy I was; I wanted them to offer to help me; I wanted someone to show me that I was not alone in my misery. I knew other first years were also struggling in the classroom, but they had made friends and frequently hung out with each other and had social lives. I didn’t want everyone to know that I felt left out when they didn’t include me, that I felt inferior because I didn’t go to a fancy out of state school, that all I wanted was to be liked. I was living out an English lesson I taught in my class: I had a teacher persona that stayed on until I got home and could unmask my inner woes. But where could I turn if I felt unseen and unheard? To the twitterverse, where I could say things and know people saw them, regardless of their responses. To the place where there was a chance someone would notice my unhappiness, frustration, misery, and despair, and want to do something about it. Here are some of my tweets from my first year:
I have never been this lonely and unhappy in my whole life. #livingalonefarfromhomewithnofriendsprobz
Sometimes I wonder if anyone beside my kids would even realize it if I fell of the side of a mountain and died. I’m pretty sure no one would
I don’t think I’ve been this depressed since I was 15. #soaloneinthemiddleofnowhere
I moved here 88 days ago. These have been the worst 88 days of my life. The next 540something will be equally as terrible. #helpme
The amount of hopelessness and despair I feel about my life and the future makes it incredibly difficult to get out of bed and do work.
In the past three months, I’ve lost my boyfriend, my three best friends from college, my sorority, my family and my childhood. #whyamialive
I have to be strong for my kids, but in my head and my heart I’m falling apart.
The only reason I have to live is the 102 faces I see 5 days a week and the hope that their lives will turn out better than mine did.
The irony in this is that I sent some of those tweets from a faculty meeting on recognizing and responding to suicidal behaviors in students. With every warning sign and symptom the lady read off, I thought to myself “yep.” The other teachers joked around about how many of the warning signs they had, but no one ever noticed how quietly I sat there, hoping to blend in while a neon sign flashed above my head, screaming “HEY LOOK, IT’S HER! SHE IS SUPER DEPRESSED AND HATES HER LIFE!” I left that meeting feeling even more alone and isolated than ever, seeing that my colleagues could make jokes about a topic that was so very real for me.
One cold, windy Tuesday night in November found me headed to choir practice, feeling defeated, alone and worthless. I had spent two hours crying after school, and thought maybe music could heal my aching soul. I sat through the hour and a half long rehearsal as if in a dream; nothing felt real. No one spoke to me. My presence was never acknowledged. I knew I was reading the music and singing, but it was as if I could see myself not being there and everything going on as it was. I left that night feeling like I did not exist and wanting to not exist. I tweeted “#officiallythemostmiserabledepressedandforlornihaveeverbeeninmywholelife#truth” to which I got one reply: My best friend from Institute said “I love you.” I thought then about all 561 of my followers. I had people from high school, college, my trip abroad, and TFA. No one but Christina even cared about how miserable I was. In my severely depressed mind, I rationalized that this was proof that I just shouldn’t exist. I didn’t want to be dead; I just did not want to be alive anymore. I felt as though I didn’t matter. I cried until I felt like there was nothing left in me; my soul had deflated and disappeared. I drank as much NyQuil as I could stand and told myself, “No one will care if you don’t wake up. Just go to sleep.”
When the next morning came around, I was groggy, but alive. I got up, looked at the NyQuil bottle and couldn’t believe that I was still standing. I must have one heck of a liver. As I slowly dressed for school, I realized just how out of control my life had gotten. I couldn’t see then that the cause of my distress was my lack of self-confidence and self-love, nor could I see just how badly my perfectionism was affecting me. I could only feel the continued weight of the world, pushing down upon my shoulders, dragging me through the mud of life. The next several months were just as miserable. I wish I could tell you my tweets suddenly got happier or that I just snapped out of it one day, but that’s not how depression works. It was a long, slow process of self-healing that started with my big giving me the advice to just “fake it til you make it.”
The reason for this blog post is not to just randomly tell you about one of the most harrowing times of my life, but it is instead to nudge you toward being more empathetic when you hear or see people who are struggling. Yes, I was/am overdramatic. Yes, I wanted attention. I just wanted to feel loved, appreciated, wanted, valued…to feel something that would make me value myself as I am, rather than try to be this perfect version of me that is unattainable. Over the years I have learned the valuable lesson that I have to love, appreciate, want and value myself for who I am instead of seeking that from others, but it took time and was a lesson I learned after I had cultivated deep relationships where I felt safe and loved. To my blog readers, I urge you to realize that when people make statements like my tweets, don’t just sit idly by, roll your eyes or think “she is such a drama queen.” Instead of closing your heart off and making a judgment, suspend that judgment knowing how true the quote “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is and reach out with empathy and love. None of you reading this post knew how truly depressed or suicidal I was, and from the majority of my Facebook posts you would have thought that I was living a great life. People often cover up the things they most want to reveal, but occasionally they will give you a peek into their inner sanctum. Don’t let the opportunity to say a kind word slip you by.
It’s never ok to not say anything. Who knows if that one sentence of encouragement could have been what someone needed to put a spark of hope back into their life? Who knows if your statement of affirmation would have been exactly what they needed to feel secure in who they were? Who knows if that one smile could have been enough to make their day seem worth living. Each day, in my classroom and in my interactions with others, I now strive to be kinder than necessary, to love more than needed and to speak words of affirmation, because I never want anyone to feel as alone, unloved and worthless as I felt. If you or someone you love is suffering from depression, it’s never ok not to say anything. It is totally fine to ask for help, to seek out help, and to acknowledge how you feel. There are several resources available such as www.Imalive.org, the National Suicide Prevention Network, and The Trevor Project.
If you are a corps member reading this, or really if you just know someone who you think may be depressed, Teach For America’s blog TeacherPop has a great article on how to give nonjudgmental support.
Thank you to everyone who supported, loved, encouraged and stuck with me through the difficult time I faced in my first year of teaching. I am now able to provide the same support, love and encouragement to my students and my family/friends because of you. Consider me paying it forward.