Posted by: Sarah | July 31, 2009

Losing My Religion

And no, I’m not talking about coming out of the closet, or batting for the other team or whatever euphemism you care to call a declaration of homosexuality.
I’m talking about that other religion. No. Not Christianity.

Idealism.

Just out of college, I’d applied for two jobs. One sorta fell in my lap, buyer’s assistant at a major oil company. Probably would have netted me a ton of money in the long run. The other: Alternative Teaching Certificate program in the Dallas Independent School System. I chose to teach. Mostly, I was fighting and trying to strangle at birth this uncomfortably materialistic side of myself I’d felt growing while I was in the sorority and fostered by my own parents’ money troubles. Another, it sounded like I’d get to use my degree (I didn’t) while making the world a better place.

It was a year of hell.

It wasn’t the kids, though. I had my share of problem children, more than my share, most likely. And I had a mentor who didn’t so much want to teach me how to teach, but more how to live my life. (And a great life hers was, two divorces, a house full of cats and no kids of her own.) The grade leader was so severely pro-union that when I tried to explain to her that I couldn’t afford the $60 month dues payment on the $1000 a month I was taking home, she flipped out and verbally attacked me. (That was my entire month’s grocery budget and the rest of the money went toward rent car insurance and car repairs for a very old car on its death bed.) I was, after all, an arrogant spoiled white girl with no right to have money problems, after all, SHE made due. I was from some rich white people in Houston, I was just anti-union. Uh, sure.

My principal was incompetent and did nothing to help me, forgetting he was supposed to train me.

But perhaps I could have withstood it if I’d felt like I was making a difference. But during a class project, one of the kids whom I knew was dirt poor, drew a chart that told me a horrifying reality. His parents paid for things like cable TV and beer before food and clothes and shelter. The fact that they even HAD cable was astonishing. I probably made what they did a month and I couldn’t afford it and all I had to support was an ex-alley cat. My classroom was in a mobile building and I’d come to school daily to find a used condom or three somewhere in the vicinity of my classroom and near the playground. The boys would regularly beat up the girls, because that’s what daddy did to mommy. One kid tried to break into the school over a holiday weekend.

I developed ulcers.

To this day, over ten years later, I still develop knots of desperation in my stomach over those 33 kids. I knew that I failed them. I quit before the end of the school year. I couldn’t help them.

Not to excuse my actions, but I am not the one that failed those kids. The system did. The school. The supposed Child Protective Services did. Hell, their parents fucked them up long before I got there. However, I went into teaching, logically knowing that I couldn’t change these students’ lives. Knowing they’d be just as shitty when they left my classroom as when they got up in the morning. But some part of me, some irrational part I ignore quite often till it makes me do something stupid, fully expected it to be like some sort of Sound of Music, ghetto-style.
Did I fail those kids? I don’t know. Probably not. Those who were going to make it would make it without me. Those who wouldn’t, failed irrespective of me. But somewhere, deep inside, a part that just smacked me in the face when talking about idealism with a friend, made me realize that that period of my life hurt so damned much, not for the stress of teaching or the hateful co-workers, or the kids who told me they didn’t have to listen to me because I was white, it hurt because in that year, something died. The cocksure knowledge I had that I could change the world if I put my mind and considerable charm to it. The certainty that every human being could be saved, especially by me. I was arrogant, but not in the way my mentor and my grade leader meant.

Problem is, this self-doubt and hatred for this supposed failure has haunted me going on ten years now. I’ve never failed at anything in my life. And this is how I chose to do it? My first act when I got my first apartment was to rescue an alley cat that had adopted me. He liked me because I paid attention to him. I think that cat is heavily symbolic of my teaching career. I knew I could not save the cat’s offspring, but I saved him. I’d hoped to “save” a child or all of them.

I could not “save” those kids, perhaps I was never meant to. Perhaps that whole year’s purpose was to teach me a lesson in humility. Or perhaps I’m being arrogant again and I just chose poorly and should have taken the job with the oil company that much sooner. After all, it’s where I’m working now.

There are days when I wonder if I should get my certificate. Take actual classes and teach high school English like I originally wanted to. Then I remember my high school teachers. Not a one seemed happy. So, I go back to my novel and bind and gag that little voice that likes to laugh at my first major failure: holding on to my idealism. Because that’s what I really mourn, the certainty that I could make a difference.

The Dragon of Real World defeated me.

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