TRIGGER WARNING: Suicidal Ideation
“You’re no good.”
“Who you foolin’?”
“You can’t do it. You don’t have it.”
The voice of my adversary whispered incessantly.
No. I can’t go in tomorrow. No more, I thought. Legs tired from standing in a classroom all day, I spread every pill I could find in the house, on my bed. As I sat down, fanning my fingers over those pills that promised sweet release, a paper crunched in my back pocket. I pulled it out; a barely legible scribble stared at me:
“Mz malick made me happi ven i waz sad.”
I crumpled it and held it to my lips. Tears blurred my vision as I rocked back and forth.
“You incompetent wretch.” There was that susurration again.
The note was from a student whose father was jailed. That morning was hard on her. Still, this little African American girl dreamed of going to college one day. With her image in mind, I slumped and fell asleep. Too tired to even kill myself.
Teacher burnout is a real and well-documented threat to our school systems. According to the research by Andre Brouwers and Welco Tomic, “Burnout is described as a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with other people in some capacity. Emotional exhaustion refers to feelings of being emotionally overextended and depleted of one’s emotional resources.”
It was my sixth year of teaching but my first year at that particular school. I had taught in inner city schools before with great success. My evaluations were always “outstanding.” I took over someone else’s classroom, who had given up on said class of fourth graders in a charter school in Washington, DC. It was an all-Black elementary school. I am a brown teacher of Pakistani heritage. They used rap songs in class; rap to me is as foreign as Punjabi music would be to them.
My co-teacher, a brilliant African-American woman, was a pillar of brains and strength. The kids respected her and never misbehaved. In her, they saw their own mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. She was tough but loving and relentless in her pursuit of their best. I call her my hero. If anyone should run our Education Department, it should be her. She has since won numerous accolades. The students attended her class in the morning but when they came to me after lunch, a switch turned off. She was the axe, I was the pillow.
Six years later, I still struggle with why I failed. Until recently, the guilt and painful memories of not succeeding were ever present. The guilt was especially poignant knowing that every child in that classroom wanted to go to college. That was the magic of that school. It made dreamers.
Did I fail because I worked past 8:30 every night and was up at the crack of dawn? Was it because I ate fast food for lunch in ten minutes? It could be because I didn’t know how to communicate with the parent that threatened to beat me up in the parking lot, or that kid who wanted me dead. I could have failed because I didn’t know my students almost set the school on fire, or that a mother filed a false police report for her “missing” child who was home the whole time (while I was panicking), or maybe I failed because I was afraid of any more physical injuries. I have nerve damage from having broken up fights.
I could have failed because my attendance record showed that I wasn’t able to “promptly get in touch” with a student who was taken in by Child Protective Services after witnessing his mother murdering someone. Or I could have failed because I didn’t know how to prevent a student from getting a black eye in the detention room after she left my class for repeatedly stabbing another kid with a pencil. Maybe I failed because I was far away from friends and family in a new town. I was single because struggling teachers don’t have time for relationships.
I know I failed the evaluations by the Master Educator and my principal on unannounced visits. A fight broke out in the middle of one surprise visit. Planning lessons seemed impossible. It seemed no matter what I planned, it quickly derailed. It’s no wonder I had a relapse of a muscle disorder and spent the last two months of school on crutches.
I did not give up, though. I did not leave until I finished my contract. I did not give up on my kids. I have that.
I have an inkling of a deeper reason why I failed: I never had the chance to bond with my kids. I was thrown into the mix with the threat of the DC CAS test looming. The high stakes test was just around the corner and I was told to go in “heavy-handed, get them on track—pronto!” Those were my marching orders. Teaching was reduced to data and test prep. The DC CAS was a measure of my teaching, tied to my livelihood. I am wiser now—still evolving. I did not know that the first six weeks of school should be spent on building community, not taking tests. I didn’t know that meditation can be taught to kids, that reflective silence can be a powerful tool for learning, and that suspensions don’t really work. I know now there are ways to de-escalate without reverting to external threats. I didn’t know that a work-life balance was possible.
I have since learned that guilt and empathy unless it propels you to action, is a wasted emotion. I understand that maybe there were factors beyond my control. I now understand that establishing a relationship with my students is critical in becoming an advocate for those marginalized. But I have also learned the value of well-planned lessons, unparalleled optimism, and unwavering faith in the resilience of children. They are the true survivors who came to school every day, dreaming of a better life. The true heroes are the families, from the “ghetto,” who wanted nothing but the best for their child.
The morning after my failed attempt, I walked back into my classroom to find my literacy coach and the vice principal sitting there. On the table was a balloon and bag of eight 1000 Grand chocolates. There was a note attached: “You are worth $800,000. Sorry, we can’t pay you that but we want you to know how much you mean to us and to your students.”
To this day they don’t know what I almost did the night before.
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