My dad's body was found in the backyard of my childhood home on Sunday. The neighbor boy, a child I remember from my teen years who is now probably a full grown man, found him. And I received the phone call from my mother that I've known was coming for pretty much my entire life: Dad's dead. He disappeared on a bender on Saturday and they found his body the next day. It was too late to do anything.
My dad (technically my step-dad, but the man who raised me since I was three) was what is referred to as a "dual diagnosis" addict, which means that he suffered from depression in addition to addiction. Dual diagnosis is rough because the treatment is even more difficult than some other addicts. If you give them pills to help with the depression, then you are giving them another opportunity for substance abuse; if you don't, the depression leads to more abuse. It's a no-win situation as far as I've seen.
My dad's dying of overdose or alcohol poisoning, whether accidental or intentional, was never a matter of "if" it would happen. This has always been a matter of when it would happen. I've known this is how it would end for years. Knowing this doesn't necessarily make it any easier to face the truth, but it also makes the grief different from what I've experienced before. There's no denial. I know who and what my dad was, and I knew this would be the way it happened. There's even a sense of relief that this cycle of rage and pity and guilt that I've felt toward him over the decades can finally stop.
Honestly, the main thing I was worried about was coming in to work today.
The students are gone; it's only adults left. I could have easily taken time off and tied up my end of the year stuff later, but I didn't want to. I needed to be here. I needed work to keep me busy, and I needed my colleagues to remind me that this school family is just as much a part of my life as any of my other family.
I also needed to be honest.
I told them what my dad was and the circumstances regarding his death. I've always tried to be as honest as possible with my students about what it's like to grow up as the daughter of an addict because I know so many of them live with even worse. It's one of the reasons students know they can trust me with their dark stuff; because they know I have dark stuff of my own. But it's about ten times harder to be that open with adults in regular conversation. I didn't just want my coworkers to know that my dad died; I wanted them to know why. Why I was still at work, and not overcome by unstoppable grief. Why it's more of a surprise for them to hear that this man they've never met is dead than it was for me.
The problem with addiction is that we don't talk about it nearly enough in every day life. Celebrity overdoses make headlines, associating the addict narrative with excess and glamorous tragedy. That overshadows the reality of addicts in our every day lives. So much of living with an addict is the cover up: the not telling friends and family and coworkers because somehow the shame will reflect back on you. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I didn't cause my dad to be what he was. No amount of love or pity, hope or hate could have stopped him from his own self-destruction. And now that he's dead, I certainly shouldn't feel the need to protect him or pretend that his life was any different than it was.
After I told my fellow teachers, no less than three different people on our very small staff reached out to me to share their experience with a friend or family member who is an addict. Conversations that we've never had before, and never would have had if I hadn't been open with them.
And then it always takes me back to our kids. How so often we try to "save" our students from the harsh realities of the world that they already know better than we do. How we try to protect them, but what we really end up doing is silencing their voices when they need to share the stories of their everyday horrors as much as I needed to share mine today. I read those stories in their writings; writing allows for catharsis in a way that might be more difficult in other classes. But sometimes, even more than sharing their own stories, kids need to hear our stories. The gritty ones. The ones that aren't always safe for school.
We teachers are human, too. Sometimes our best lessons for our students isn't teaching or advice at all; it's our own human experience. How powerful of a role model can I be for students if they know where I came from and how I grew up? How much better is that than pretending I'm just someone to look up to because that's my job?
When school starts again in August, I won't hide what happened from my students. I'll continue to be honest, to show them the messiness that contributes to who I am as a person, a teacher, a daughter, a wife, and a friend. We all have something messy, something dark and scary and shameful in our lives. If we were all a little more open about sharing those things in the safe environment of school, maybe it would help our kids battle the demons at home a little better.
Yesterday was the last day of school.
I obviously have mixed feelings about it.
Like any teacher, I'm beyond exhausted by this time of year, and the idea of summer days spent reading for fun and not grading papers sounds too good to be true. I have adventures, both personal and professional, planned. I have books to read and cats to pet.
But the last day is also gut wrenching for me. I am rarely able to say goodbye to my 8th graders and give them final words of wisdom without choking up at least a few times. Some goodbyes are so difficult to say, that by the time I realize I haven't officially said them, the kids are already long gone. I go home at night on the last day with students, and my husband knows it will be a quiet, somber night. Once he's reassured that I'm not mad at him, he knows to leave me alone. The night of my last day with students is not a time for celebration. I am grieving. Yes, I will get over it, but for the first few days, I will mourn in silence, and no amount of reading, writing, or running (my three favorite vices) can push down the overwhelming loss.
Having a fantastic day yesterday certainly didn't help.
We had a full day of school, which is unusual for the last day. Our principal and counselor wanted the afternoon to be fun; something to send our students off in style. They decided we would have the last dance of the year during the day so everyone could be a part of it.
I admit that I was vocally opposed to this idea. I hate middle school dances, and I didn't like the idea of forcing all our students to attend if they didn't want to. So I volunteered to be one of the teachers who stayed in the library and played games with kids who didn't want to attend the dance, or who wanted to take breaks from it.
One of the best decisions I've ever made.
I ended up playing Uno with a group of eighth grade boys for over an hour. We started with a small crew, and more joined along the way. There was trash talking and Macbeth-quoting, mild cheating and alliance-building.
It was hands-down the best card game I've ever played in my life. It might go down as one of my favorite memories of life.
Surrounded by books, with the bass of the dance thumping in from down the hall, we were in our own world. I felt like I was part of a classic old-man poker game of the kind a woman is rarely invited to take part in. I am always very clear with my students that I am their teacher and not their friend, but I'd be lying if I didn't think about how amazing it would be to see these boys ten years from now, playing the same game with the same balance of sarcasm and joy. They are so brilliant and witty; so good at walking up to the line of inappropriateness without crossing it. I've had plenty of interactions with adults that aren't nearly as fun or mentally engaging.
I can't think of a better way to say goodbye to some of the people I have cared about so much. I hope they loved it as much as I did.
Saying goodbye to eighth graders is one of the hardest parts of my job. I’ve been accused in the past of favoring eighth graders over my seventh graders, and while I don’t consciously do that, it’s probably true. It’s hard not to when you’ve spent more time with one group than you have with the other. I justify that the slight favoritism isn’t wrong because every group of students has their chance at being eighth graders, and they earn it by making through seventh grade.
Between free writes and finals, I have spent over 300 hours reading their writing. I have cried when they’ve confessed the worst parts of their lives and I have laughed through their embarrassing moments. I feel as if I’ve lived these last two years with them, watching over them, trying to help them, and giving them an adult who tries her best to not be judgmental about whatever they’re going through. The kind of adult I would have wanted when I was eighth grade.
The last free write for eighth graders is Part II of what I refer to as The Final Goodbye. (Part I is the Tri 3 Final and Part III is the last day of school, in case you’re curious.) Of the three, this is the part that hurts the most. This is the last time I’ll read their writing, and quite a few of them take the opportunity to reflect on the past two years and say goodbye.
Free writing is one of the most important activities that happens in my classroom. Other adults don’t always understand it; they probably think I kick back on Fridays and don’t teach anything because I want a day to relax. It’s the opposite, actually. #FWF creates a ton of work for me as a teacher. First, I force myself to write with my students in every class period. That means I write six different, original pieces of my own work each Friday. Sure, I could sit back and get other work done while my students write, but I’ve done the research and I know how important it is for growing writers to see what a writer looks like in action. Kids don’t learn to write by seeing perfect examples all the time; they learn to write by writing and by watching authentic writing in action. While I’m creating all that writing, I’m not getting any other work done. My students are also creating more work for me to do outside of school. One #FWF equals about eight to nine hours of grading for me each weekend. It’s worth it. Free write gives writers the opportunity to develop their voices, and an authentic voice is the most important thing a writer can have. I am so honored that my students learn to share their voices and put their trust in me.
The real problem with all of this isn’t the time commitment or work on my part. The problem with free writing is that I get to know every single kid in all of my classes on a personal level. I’ve read things from some of my students that they’ve probably never spoken aloud; things that make me cry when I sit alone on my porch and read them; things that make me choke with laughter; things that make me file DHS reports; I’ve read it all. And it’s difficult to read all of that and not get attached to the people behind the words. The last free write is a glaring reminder: these people that I’ve laughed and cried with and yelled at will no longer be a part of my life. In one week, we will only be memories to each other; ghosts from our pasts. After next week, there’s a high percentage of these students that I will never see or speak to again, ever.
That’s the hard part for me. You can’t genuinely care about your students without feeling abandoned when they leave you. How do you go from being a central part of someone’s life for two years, to being nothing at all? Is it easier for others because they didn’t have free writes to create such a personal relationship with each student, or are they just better at keeping in touch than I am? Will I ever reach a point in my teaching career when I don’t miss the kids who have moved on? Will it ever hurt less?
I hope not. The pain I feel now, the sense of loss and grief, reminds me of how much I care about my job. Easing the pain might signal that I don't care anymore, and I don't ever want to be the kind of teacher who doesn't care about kids as individual people instead of thinking of them as just students.
For the past month, I have been under siege from two of the most notorious villains known to enter the halls of CGDMS: Twin brothers who refer to themselves and their compatriots as The Elbow Clan, otherwise known as The Davis Brothers. My classroom, once my safe haven, is now in constant jeopardy. I recall earlier in the year thinking that Mr. Vorrie was paranoid for locking his door whenever he wasn’t in the room. Now I have to resort to the same behavior. Not just doors, though. Even leaving windows open is a fatal mistake! Isaac, the flame-headed bandit, sneaks in here at any given time, and I shudder to think what he’s up to when unsupervised. The students have chosen sides, and the teachers are baffled as to how these two manage to get access to our printers with such alarming frequency.
The Meme War of 2016 has consumed way too much of my time. During my planning period, when I should be grading papers or attending to other important teacher tasks, I have instead been breaking into the boys' lockers to tape up 30 Rock memes that might cause future psychological damage on the children. As an “old person” with much less knowledge of memes and how to find them, I am also woefully unprepared for the volume of ammunition the Davises have at their disposal. Let’s face it: they spend way more time on the internet than I could ever hope to. They’ve also explored the furthest reaches of the deep web, as I know from reading two years’ worth of their writings.
A random sampling of the memes.
At lunch today, I sat in my room alone rather than fraternizing with other adults. I figured I could defend the home turf better that way. Silly me. As I sat at my desk, eating granola and reading junk on the internet, I heard a noise from the back of the room. A strangled scream escaped my food-filled mouth as I saw Isaac standing in the window, watching me eat! While I sat there unsuspecting, he had put five new memes along the back counter. And seconds after the scream, an airborne assault (a meme folded into a paper airplane) from Brendan came through the door! Is nothing sacred to these devils? I’m not sure if even Macdeath and his Lady could win a battle against the Davis Brothers.
In a week, when students are long gone for the summer, I will be packing away my classroom. The school requires that all teachers dismantle their rooms and leave nothing on the walls or on outside surfaces. It is my fear that as I sit in my room alone, organizing (shudder), I will find at least five different memes stashed in various places. I will scream, “Isaac Davis!” alone, with only Mr. Vorrie to hear me and no possibility for revenge.
I wrote this post for myself a few weeks ago. I didn't want to share it because I know I sound like a pathetic brat. Then it occurred to me (probably because I have Macbeth on the brain) about the false face that sometimes covers our true hearts. If I force my students to be honest in their writing, then I better hold myself to the same standard here, with my writing. So here's a glimpse at the inner, ugly ego.
I am a loser. Officially. I was nominated for the Golden Apple Award and I lost. Seven people were nominated, so technically I wasn’t the only loser, but losing still sucks when you’re as competitive as I am, and when you care about your job as much as I do. Logically, I know that being a sore loser is childish and ridiculous. Emotionally, I don’t care.
Being a good teacher is one of the single most important things in my life. Teaching teenagers how to express themselves through writing and speaking, making reading fun, and showing my students that I care about them as people are jobs that I take seriously. I’m not here just to get a paycheck. I’m not here to mold people into perfect robots. In my head, I see myself as someone who is here to help kids realize how powerful their voices can be, and to do whatever I can to nurture them. I know I’m self absorbed, but I really do think that I’m an amazing freaking teacher. Maybe that’s why it stings so much to not win an award.
And then I want to slap myself. Get a grip, Hauptsteen! I know of at least four other educators I’ve worked with who have never even been nominated, let alone won, and they deserve it as much as I think I do. And any of the other nominees deserved to win just as much as I did. It’s selfish to be upset about losing when at least I was recognized. I got a certificate. My name was in the paper. Why can’t I suck it up and be content?
The worst part is that adults (other teachers and parents) keep coming up to congratulate me on being nominated. So I keep smiling to hide my bitter brattiness and say, “Thank you,” while in my head the same loop keeps playing over and over: Do not congratulate me. I am a loser. I didn’t win so I’m obviously not good enough. Nothing I do will ever be good enough. I don’t deserve it. And then I hate myself all over again because what kind of total jerk can’t be grateful when people say nice things to her?
I thought I was hiding it pretty well, but Pat sent me an article on “How to Handle Losing.” (Seriously. That man!) I wrote back and asked if there was any particular reason he was sending it my way, and his response was Classic O’Brien Mentor Voodoo: “If you think I’m sending it for a reason, then there’s probably a reason.” (Ugh.) I hate it when he’s right and I have to admit it, so I didn’t reply back.
It has nothing to do with the teacher who actually won the award, either. While he’s not a co-worker, I have heard from plenty of students and adults that he’s a top-notch educator, so it’s not like I lost to someone because he was simply more popular or well-liked. And honestly, who knows if I even “lost” to him at all? There were seven nominees, so I could have easily been last in the bunch. It’s only in my own mind that I somehow deserved this award.
Why do I think I need this recognition anyway? Isn’t it enough to simply know that I am a phenomenal educator? No. It isn’t. Because of who I am as a person, and how teachers and public education are often viewed in this society.
I crave validation. That’s what happens when your father skips out when you’re six months old. I want others to recognize worth in me because I have a hard time finding it in myself. (Yes, my brain is divided perfectly in half between an egotistical maniac and a self-loathing puddle of pathetic. It doesn’t make sense to me either.) Part of me thinks that winning an award for teaching would give me the contentment I need to feel like people appreciate who I am and what I do. The other part of me knows that an award would never come close to filling the gaping hole inside of me, so it’s even more ridiculous to care about recognition when I know it would never be enough.
Teachers get slammed a lot by the world at large, some deservedly so. There are lazy, horrible teachers out there. There are people who don’t care or do their jobs very well. Every person I’ve ever met has at least one traumatic or awful school experience, and it’s almost always because of a teacher. There’s no question that I’m that ghost for some former students. But I work hard every day (yes, during the summer, too) to make sure that I’m the best teacher I am capable of being for my students. That’s my job. I shouldn’t need to be recognized for doing it, but it also wouldn’t hurt to have a boost when I’m grading the 100th paper of the weekend.
No, not other people. This is about adults. My students recognize what I do on a daily basis. They write me notes and send me emails and do so many things to show their gratitude and respect for me as an educator. Sometimes the love they send my way brings tears to my eyes because there’s no way I could possibly deserve to have that many people love me just for being me and doing my job. It’s not my students I crave validation from; they give it to me on a daily basis. It’s adults. Their parents. The community. Fellow educators. The world. I spend my life telling kids that their voices matter just as much as anyone else’s, and here I am saying that I need other voices to reinforce that I’m doing a good job. I suck. Officially.
Not winning an award is something I’ll get over. It has already occupied too much of my brain space, and nothing good will ever come from it. It wouldn’t make me a better educator, and it certainly wouldn’t make me a better person. I didn’t pursue a career in education to win recognition, and I don’t do what I do in my classroom to earn praise. I teach. I'm good at it. That's enough.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.