I am in my parents’ garage. It is 2010. June. I have stomped my left foot so hard on the concrete floor my hip aches. Will it ever get better? I wonder as I glance down at the shredded envelope. I fix my concentration on the wobbly letters in front of me, and hold the letter far and up close, far and up close, straining through a blur of tears. I hadn’t considered this. I hadn’t even considered this? Why didn’t I consider this??? My parents are upstairs in the kitchen, arguing about me as they have for years and how I strangely miss now. My mom yells when she’s concerned, and my dad sounds calm. This is when he scares me most, because I know he’s right. “She’s really upset, Maureen. What’s she going to do now?” I sniffle and sob into my sleeve.
The next several hours (days?) are a blur spent mostly in tears, so many in fact that I am shocked when they seem to finally run out. I am a college graduate, plonked in my childhood bedroom, with brutal double- mirrored closet doors I’m made to stare into as I sit on the floor job searching on my hot pink 2007 Dell. My mom peeks in, calls me “Rin”, and tells me she “closed up downstairs”, which is code for no matter how late I stay up, the kitchen is off limits. But it’s the least of my concerns. I pour myself a double vodka orange nightly in the coming weeks, and somewhere around September sit down with a plan.
“So ok here’s the deal I was rejected from nursing school but now it will all be ok I’m just going to get a job.” I announce across the blonde wood kitchen table. My parents nod and hold their breath. The drinking continues. On weekends I pretend I’m still in college and on weekdays I apply to about 97 positions in the course of two weeks. I am 21 years old. During breakfast and dinner I field questions about my search. At the bank, and the grocery store, and the gym in my hometown, I slink around shamefully, hoping to remain unseen- hoping I’m just passing through. Perhaps for the first time in my young life, I feel like an honest to god failure. What I don’t know is that I’m about to enter the darkest period of my life, the one that involves working in a preschool. A Human Development graduate, I nonetheless apply for positions ranging from 911 dispatcher to preschool teacher to escrow officer assistant. I have NO IDEA what I am doing.
Finally, in late September, I am damn tired of being unemployed. I start driving my résumé all across the tri county area and putting it into anyone’s hand who will take it. This tack leads me to “A Child’s Place” preschool in Fairfield where I encounter unforgettable people and unique experiences (how’s that for positive spin?). It is also where I cultivate my identity as “Ms. Erin” for the first time in years. Ms. Phoebe, Ms. Gloria, Ms. Katherine, & Ms. Carlise, my hat is off to you.
Soon I am pretending to drive a toy car at 7 o’clock in the morning with little girls named Keyani and Kajja for $10 an hour. I am leading the toddler room on their bathroom breaks which include diapering a child with one hand while keeping three other toddlers seated and allowing the one who is potty training to use the toilet for about 15 minutes. Oh and by the way she uses the entire toilet paper roll and tries putting all the seat covers in the toilet. She rips off her diaper and throws it on the floor screaming “Caitlyn!” victoriously (her own name).
All this and I’m not making enough to buy my own vodka. But really.
As expected I gain about twelve pounds and lock myself in the lactation room for peace whenever possible. I have learned the value of a dollar, and have felt troubled and shamed by the fact that I am worth only ten in a single hour’s time. I tell no one. My friends have only heard that I’m a preschool teacher. And this is where my “teacher identity” starts to develop. I continue borrowing booze money from my parents and I let them buy me a Halloween costume. On Halloween I run a red light in San Francisco and the fine eats two weeks of my pay. in the red light/traffic photo, one can clearly see that I am beginning to mouth the word “fuck”. It is two months from my 22nd birthday.
On my birthday I am wiping the butt of a two year old named Ava as her mom asks me how old I’m turning. I think she is about 29, and I’m 22, and this is way before the Taylor Swift song. I pass out cups of milk to 5 starving, wailing toddlers as Ava’s mom watches me. One boy knocks his milk over immediately and throws himself onto the floor, convulsing with tears. He is at that terrifying age where he’s not verbal, but seems to understand everything and sometimes just gives me these “looks”. During this time period I learn how truly very long a period of five minutes can be.
The holidays drift by, and I am a single girl: equal parts disgusted and enthralled by the royal wedding, rapidly approaching in April. By this point I have officially started buying “curvy” jeans and am thinking of reconnecting with my high school boyfriend. In March, I have a “frank conversation” with the directors at “A Child’s Place”. I am sitting in a miniature blue chair wearing plaid. All the blinds are closed: it is my favorite part of the day- naptime. We agree that my discontent seems clear and perhaps a new opportunity is on the horizon. I spend one of my last lunch breaks in the Solano County health and human services lunch room phoning the Napa Valley Lodge. My parents won’t let me leave this job without another lined up- God love ’em. (Fortunately) They hire me back to cover the front desk. I give official notice and spend what I now think of as “the eternal summer of 2011” as a part time bartender part time receptionist. I part time hate both, but it beats the hell out of 8 hours a day with toddlers.
As I work at Napa Valley Lodge I also decide that it’s a good idea for me to try to teach elementary school. This is primarily because I do not like teaching preschool, both because of the ages of the children and because the pay is not enough for me to afford a studio appointment with four girls names Brittany in downtown Oakland. So I am spending Tuesdays in Vallejo learning about elementary literacy and planning instruction. In July of 2011, I nearly break down in the Mare Island Elementary School Library upon realizing I was taught to read using the “whole language” approach in the mid nineties, and I botch a partner activity where we alternate reading each component sound in a word. I can’t segment or blend, and I’m tearing up. I become irate with my father who has had probably the most solid phonics instruction of any one I’ve ever met. He didn’t even flinch when I started giving him a bunch of CVC words and asked him to segment them. In fact, I think he was cutting up an orange at the time, and very nonchalantly putting some slices in a bowl, while eating some others. He was lucky enough to go to elementary school in the fifties- I am lucky enough to capitalize on the sad misfortune of California public schools and use it to my advantage.
I’m also lucky enough at this time to own enough Anthropologie skirts (thanks mom) to be taken somewhat seriously by prospective employers. Resume in hand, I parade down to the local (rural) elementary school and ASK them for a job (Mt. George on Second Avenue, Napa people). They say yes. I’m an aide in kindergarten, where I watch a first year teacher go down like a sinking ship due to abysmal classroom management. Sometimes I cry in my car. Sometimes I smirk knowingly with the parents. Sometimes I drink my Starbucks through a straw like Anna, the older, cooler aide. Sometimes I go to my teacher classes and carefully recount the days’ horrors. Other times I eavesdrop on people in the special education program extolling the virtues of the”paper trail,” and these are the times, more than any other, when I still feel like a little girl. I have no confidence in my ability to leave a paper trail, only in my ability to complete nightly reading assignments and drink vodka with orange.
It is the end of 2011, and I am turning 23.
On my 23rd birthday I am with my friend Kelsey in [old town] Sacramento. They are lighting the Christmas tree and we are wondering if we will ever get boyfriends. The following Saturday, December 10, 2011, I meet a stranger from the Internet, on Kelsey’s recommendation, for “one last date from match.com“. At 703 Casswall Street the Christmas tree is up, my mom is ironing and my dad was doing a crossword, and I remember both of them telling me “maybe just don’t go”. I knew next to nothing about Kevin, except that he lived in San Rafael and was a Machinist. I thought his last name was “Mearly”, which I remember thinking was cool. I pulled up to the little Thai restaurant (Mini Mango downtown, Napa people) and parked in the lot behind Exertec. Kevin was parked on the street with his truck and was leaning against it like some kind of cowboy. “Kevin?” I remember asking sweetly, like I was calling him back for his nine-thirty appointment. The rest of the date was Stella Artois and barely touching the pad thai. Neither of us like Thai food- should’ve gone to Taylor’s. I think we talked about advil and Rugby. It was mostly us mindlessly barreling through topics for an opportunity to stare through each other. As a result, we could’ve been talking about bagels or Islam, I don’t know. But we really liked each other. We closed the Soscol Starbucks that night. Seemingly by happenstance, 12/10/11 was my last first date.
I student teach in the spring of 2012 and land a job “teaching school” in Tomales that fall. Everything about it is the worst with the exception of my sweet Petaluma apartment. I eat hot pockets and chocolate milk more than I care to admit. I can’t put up bulletin boards and find that I don’t care if the kids finish a worksheet or not. Of 20 kids, 17 are English language learners and 15 are on free lunch. They call me “teacher” with alternating respect and disdain. The classroom has an overhead projector, a TV, and one iMac. I am allotted $250 for supplies. I spend my own money at Office Depot and stuff my face with every kind of Ritz cracker Raley’s sells. I become jealous of everyone who is not a teacher, including the mother of one of my students who is an admin assistant at the fire department. At one point my lesson planning takes the form of “open the sun chips and the plan book on Sunday afternoon: don’t stop til the full one is empty and the empty one is full”. My BTSA mentor is a resource specialist and the principal is a woman who had extensive back surgery that year, my first year teaching. She is never around. The PE teacher is my hero, taking the kids for impromptu “lessons” when I was about to break down which I’ll never forget. I was the only teacher of my grade level, and I was isolated. In Tomales, if I forgot my lunch I wouldn’t eat (unless I slaughtered a cow). I didnt get cell service with AT&T. The Sandy Hook shooting happened during my first year and we held an in-service with the sheriff who told us (seriously) to stash rocks behind our desks to throw at potential intruders/gunmen. All I had wanted was a way to move out of my parents house; I hadn’t wanted all this.
I assembled the math curriculum from an assortment of outdated textbooks I’d found in the supply cabinet. I carpooled to MCOE to eat little squares of pizza and write on chart paper for BTSA credits. I met a family who had nine children and couldn’t comprehend it. I took an “assessment day” and my sub was an honest to god lumberjack from Point Reyes who my kids mistakenly called “Santa”. I had a parent come in to conferences drunk with his second wife who was younger than me (born in ’89!) and had the school psych call CPS on this family later that year when bruises showed up on their daughter. I had a kid named Angel throw up pink vomit all over the floor during ELD class. I attended a mandatory diabetes training with the other teachers and had to excuse myself due to lightheadededness. I had an honest to god panic attack at a district wide professional development day and I couldn’t stop crying and hiccuping and it was hard to breathe. This was triggered in part by people approaching me and saying I was new and they didn’t know my name. The kindergarten teacher held my hand and got me out of the building faster than you can say “BTSA”. I went home that afternoon and played with the battery-operated fountain my students had given me for Christmas in between google searches of “workers comp” and “teaching with a mental illness”. When I learn I won’t be returning to Tomales, I order myself a custom ice cream cake from Coldstone which reads “Happy Pink Slip!” in light pink icing. To my shock and horror, the lady working at the creamery is a second grade parent, and she seems genuinely disappointed by this pink slip cake. She says her daughter really likes me and was excited for me to be her teacher next year.
It was the middle of August, 2013, in my bathtub on a sunny weekday afternoon when I suddenly realized I would run out of money. Dizzily, I sat at my computer in a pink towel and applied to a handful of jobs on Edjoin. None of them were to teach third grade.
On August 23rd I drove to Kentfield, parking briefly at College of Marin to go over my interview flash cards. I was, yet again, in fabulous Anthropologie floral. I called my mom in a very offhand way, casually mentioning that I was going in for an interview to be a special education paraprofessional. The pay was pretty good, the location was great, and I assumed it would be less stressful than teaching third grade in Tomales. Those were the criteria upon which I ultimately based my career path.
Without going into excessive detail, it turns out I was right. Not knowing much about the position, and frankly picturing anything from kids with tracheostomy tubes in wheelchairs using augmentive communication devices to students who needed extra time to finish math homework, I was offered and accepted the position. I met many wonderful people- including teachers, staff, administrators, students, and parents, and was introduced to an element of education that I really, truly loved. School had always come pretty easily to me but I had struggled with serious anxiety for a very long time. In this position I did not feel anxious because the kids really leveled me out- they showed me it was ok not to be perfect. I found that I was better at teaching in this environment and that, for whatever strange reason, I really clicked with the kids regardless (and maybe in part because of) of their disabilities. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I approached this position timidly at first, thinking people with disabilities might frighten or otherwise scare me off. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and I came into my own so much within this job that I went back, to good old Mare Island, to pursue an Education Specialist Credential in late summer 2014.
Returning to Touro was great and I once again met a lovely, hilarious group of people. I took on a full course load and managed, within the 2014-2015 academic year, to satisfy all requirements for the credential with the exception of student (or intern) teaching. At year’s end I knew that I would most likely either return to Kent as a para (putting off my student teaching for another time), or end up intern teaching in a place like Richmond or Vallejo. As of spring 2015, it was very unclear to me what my options were. I applied for numerous positions within Marin County, and either received form letter rejection emails or was never contacted at all. Vallejo, on the other hand, along with districts dotting the east bay water’s edge, were contacting me nonstop. It was June 23, 2015, when I went on a Tuesday morning interview at Mill Valley School District, for the position of Resource Specialist. I dressed in a crisp white skirt and black cardigan, and answered the thirteen questions which lay before me with relative ease. I found this interview to be far “easier” because I could base my answers in experience and reality. It felt more genuine to have a product, finally, that was worth selling. I left the interview feeling proud of my composure and professionalism, but felt my fate was sealed when the middle school principal politely told me, “Have a great summer, and thank you for coming in.” If ever there was a death knell, for me that was it…
I pumped gas next to the “Welcome to Mill Valley” wooden sign on East Blithedale while I contemplated what it would be like to work in San Pablo or Pinole. I drove there that afternoon, drove by a middle school where they had offered me a job. I tried to convince myself that working here would be fine and might even go well. I had a deadline of June 26th- that very Friday, to let the West Contra Costa people know what my decision would be. I was agonizing over the decision. The thought briefly crossed my mind to write a thank you card or send a thank you email to Mill Valley for the interview- but I decided even this wasn’t worth it because they had interviewed me only as a professional courtesy to our mutual contacts.
I was parked on the Embarcadero, on Wednesday, June 24th, when I noticed a missed call and voicemail from Mill Valley School District. “Erin, this is Andee Abramson calling. I’m calling because we would like to offer you the position of Resource Specialist at our Middle School. If you’re interested give me a call back on my cell.” WAAAAHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTTT?
Did the Mill Valley School District just call me and offer me a position as Resource Specialist at their middle school? ??!!!
If you consider the fact that, a few years earlier, I was eating cereal from my parents’ pantry and “teaching” for ten dollars an hour, I had suddenly really hit it big.
Except the thing to remember is that is wasn’t so sudden. I was 26, and really, during the last five years of my life, I had really earned it all.
My thoughts exactly,