I step into the dorm room on the campus of Rice University, clutching my worn trucker duffel, grease-stained, and saturated with the scent of diesel fuel. My legs are trembling.
I sweep my gaze around, pull in a steadying breath.
So, this is what it’s like. Two beds, twin size, on opposite sides of the room, pressed against the cinder block wall. A long rectangle of desk beneath a small, filmy square of window, a topnotch view into the branches of a pine tree. My roommate, whom I haven’t met, has already arrived. She’s claimed the bed on the right. Her sheets are luminous, like the moon, and immaculately made. I tiptoe over to inspect her elegant roller luggage. Prada, with a tag that, when I surreptitiously flip it, reads Amelia R. Parker in elegant script. Tufts University.
A noise at the door. I drop the tag and swivel.
Aly walks in, his arms full of my belongings.
I let out a breath, and also the words, “I want to go home.”
“Home?” he says. My husband’s eyebrows raise. “Where’s that?”
I swallow hard. He has a point. The previous fall, stunned by my acceptance into Teach for America and assignment to Houston, TX, we’d decided not to renew the lease on our Austin apartment. Instead, we’d packed everything, even our car, into a storage unit in Austin. For the past six months, we’d lived in the 18-wheeler Aly drove cross-country. He’d been a long-haul truck driver for over seven years, after a series of misfortunes brought us to our knees. Aly’s father, dying of cancer at only forty-eight. His mother, suffering a cruel combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder before also dying of cancer. My own troubled homelife. Aly and I had eloped and, not long after, parted ways with our religions, my Jehovah’s Witness and his Pentecostal faith.
The loss of our families and our faith, a crumbling and falling away of the walls, the floors, the ceilings of our lives, a form of homelessness. Free falling through space, we clung with all our might to all that remained. Then we lost our small business. Next, our car. We couldn’t afford to keep the utilities on, and aside from cobwebs, the cupboards went bare. Aly’s swift yet difficult decision to train as a long-haul truck driver had saved us.
Now, nearly a decade later, working day and night, traveling endless roads to find our way back home, we’re lost again.
Aly’s health had taken a serious nosedive due to sporadic sleep, bad food, and the sedentary grind of trucking life. His symptoms, and blood sugar levels, indicated prediabetes. He needed to quit trucking, and I needed to teach—but so did everyone, it seemed. On the heels of the Great Recession, hundreds of résumés deluged a single post for an open teaching position within days. I, along with countless other teacher hopefuls, sprinted in the hamster wheel of substituting gigs.
After yet another traffic-clogged Austin commute, and profoundly tedious day subbing as an aide in a classroom where my presence didn’t seem to matter, was hardly noted, I’d lost it. I’d cried during lunch on a bench, in the courtyard of Crockett High School, under a wiry oak tree dripping with moss. My fellow sub, fifteen years younger, a UT grad with a social studies degree, shook her head sadly.
“It sucks,” she’d said. “It’s been over a year. I send out dozens of résumés, get no callbacks. Not one.”
I’d studied her. She looked to me like the epitome of the cool, brilliant teacher with her sleek, professionally coiled tresses, blue-framed glasses that matched her eyes, and a pantsuit. An actual pantsuit! If she couldn’t get hired, what hope did I have, my scuffed flats hanging off my blistered, aching feet. She’d sighed, heavily, and said, “I’m thinking I’ll apply to teach English in Korea. Or, who knows, maybe I’ll give Teach for America a shot.”
“What’s that?” I’d asked.
“Oh,” she’d looked me over, appraising, then waved me off. “Don’t even try. They only choose like five people, seriously. And they’re all super young and smart. Plus, the deadline’s the end of this week.”
We’d both stared into the distance.
Don’t even try. Those words, a lightning strike in my head.
Now, here I stand in my first dorm room, clutching my trucker duffel for dear life. I shake Aly’s arm. “This is a huge mistake, I shouldn’t be here.” A bright burst of laughter in the hallway jars me. They sound like kids. They are kids. I’m desperate to vamoose before Tufts returns and reacts to her wizened roommate. “Let’s … please, let’s just go.”
“Why do you think you shouldn’t be here?” Aly sets my stuff in the middle of the floor. Everything I’ve carried with me on the truck these past six months. He slides a package from the unruly pile. My new sheets from Target, the ones I’d been so excited to discover, now pierce me with embarrassment. They are so loud, flamboyant with pink flamingos wearing sunglasses. The antithesis of my roommate’s glowing moon white sheets. Aly begins making up my bed, swift and neat, with the muscle memory expertise of an Army vet.
“That girl…” I jerk a thumb over my shoulder.
“What girl?” Aly looks around me. “Are you hallucinating?”
“Just listen, OK?” I push a hand through my hair and it catches in a knot. I wince. Another side effect of the trucking life. Only yesterday, we were docked at some dingy warehouse in Indianapolis, unloading fifteen tons of frozen peas. “My roommate,” I hiss. “The label on her luggage says Tufts. Tufts!”
“You were snooping in her luggage?” Aly chuckles, his hospital corners almost artistic, like origami.
“I mean it. Let’s go, now, before she gets back.”
He straightens. “You worked your ass off to get here…”
I know what he means. The summers spent as youth activities coordinator at the YMCA. The struggling days, after our utilities were turned off in the dead of a historically cold Springfield, Missouri, winter, rising in the frigid dark with smoke breath, to get ready for my job as TA in an elementary special education classroom, applying mascara with shaking hands, and later, in Circle Time with the kids, reading out loud with irrepressible joy and animation, laughing with such glee, no one would have guessed that, at home, the toilet had frozen and we were running out of food. The evenings dedicated to tutoring my beloved first grader, Pooja, in the motel her parents owned, rundown but heated, her mother serving me lentils and rice with dried fruit and almonds, and my gratitude, trying to restrain myself from eating too fast. I was hired to tutor at Sylvan long before I’d earned licensure, against company policy, but the director was compelled past rules by my experience, and mostly, the heartbreakingly sweet letter of recommendation my Pooja had penned by hand. Miss Summer is the best ever, ever, in the whole world, at reading stories, and I want her to come every day, even though I’m tired of homework. And then, the extraordinary feat of completing my bachelor’s while trucking cross-country, studying, typing out papers, sweating over exams in bookstore nooks, motel rooms, and remote, backroad truck stops with sketchy internet, in cities and small towns from sea to shining sea.
Yes, I know what he means, but just then, hugging my worn-out duffel, I can’t summon pride. Instead, my eyes well up. “But I don’t belong here. I’ve tricked them. I’m fifty thousand years older, and I graduated with my degree online…” my voice cracks on the word.
“Hi, there. You must be my roommate.” A petite girl, smaller even than my 5’4”, strides in, beelines to me. Her hair is so blond it’s nearly white, luminous as her sheets, coiled into a sleek bun, and perched with fashionable elegance on her head. It’s June in Houston, the sun already merciless, and yet, inscrutably, she’s dressed in black from head to toe, long-sleeved shirt and jeans. Like a cat burglar. Even more arresting is the confidence and poise she exudes.
“I’m Amelia.” She extends her hand. For the first time, I let go of my duffel bag. As we shake, Amelia assesses me in a grave, professional way. Her light blue eyes linger on my hair. I’m stricken, skin-pricklingly conscious of the recent ambush of grays. “Hmm,” she says. “I didn’t know TFA accepted anyone over the age of twenty-five.”
That is the truth.
I’m thirty-five and this is my first time waking up in a college dorm.
A loud squelching, ripping sound jolts me from sleep. I sit up straight with a gasp. What the hell. I’m no stranger to noise. I’ve lived on an 18-wheeler the past six months, serenaded by the roar of tankers, the whoosh and rumble of four-lane highways, the whir and clatter of forklifts loading and unloading the trailer. Yet I’ve never heard what I just heard and in the pitch dark of this strange room, my mind scrambles. I pull my blankets close and squint, make out the outline of my roommate at the desk, hunched over her laptop. Clackclackclack. The fastest, most impassioned typing I’ve ever heard. Who types like that at … my eyes slide to the alarm clock. 4 am. Clackclackclack. I fall back on my pillows, stare wide-eyed at the ceiling.
Well, I guess we’re up.
I’m thirty-five and I’m getting dressed in a dorm for my first day of Teach for America’s five-week summer crash course, aka boot camp teacher training, aka hell, but formally known as Institute.
I smooth my blouse, my skirt, twist side to side, adorned in Ann Taylor from head to toe. All purchased from the Goodwill stores Aly and I have plundered coast to coast. After many years of scrabbling to scrape by, we can now afford new clothes, but the habit of thrifting, born from our poorest days, stuck. Our favorite Goodwill sits between Baltimore and DC. Every time we deliver in the area, we park at a nearby TravelCenters of America and walk there together.
And just like that, I’m filled with a strange sorrow and longing. Overpowering, nearly bringing me to my knees.
I look in the mirror and see myself new.
I’m thirty-five, I’m going gray, and for the first time in my life, I’m a real college student.
The breakfast spread at Rice University is ridiculous.
I hold my breath in line, swivel slowly, and count them: a breakfast buffet, a salad buffet, a dessert buffet, a drink buffet. This is a resplendent palace of food. Is this how Rice University students eat every day? Overcome, I’m tempted to shake the shoulder of the girl in front of me, the one in the light pink sundress, kitten heels, her brown hair whipped into a high, fashionable ponytail, short, stylish bangs. I want to hiss, “Can you believe this?” My eyes catch on her Chanel leather handbag and I suck in my awe. Maybe I’m the only one here, or one of the few, for whom this spread is a revelation, a mirage that might disappear if I startle it. My memory returns to the days, not so long ago, of ransacked couch cushions, ramen noodles a luxury, Aly and I sharing the last bag of popcorn for dinner, shivering side-by-side in the house, the night our car was repoed, and finally, cornered by our failing attempts at life, we threw our hands in the air, declared bankruptcy.
The shames of poorness are many, and they stack up.
They never leave.
I sit at a table with Amelia, who’s incredibly put together, bright and lively, after her enigmatic speed-typing session from four to six. And I’m in middle school, endeavoring to be like the other girls, eating with the same easy composure, the nonchalance that’s born of intimacy with luxury, and not twisting your feet together beneath the table, petrified that any moment, any wrong move, they might realize, they’ll see right through you, they’ll know who you really are, and it will all be taken away.
Rollercoasters twisting and turning at 100 mph, Ferris wheels spinning out of control, a crazy, broken blur of lights, Tilt-A-Whirls whirling off into the sky, a frenzy of tortured screams.
That was my nervous system on TFA, even as I sat through the twelve-hour trainings, smiling in a suit.
A suit. What was I doing in a suit? I did not belong in a suit.
She did. And he did. And so did she. Oh, that girl looked like she was born in a suit. Not a birthday but the Dior variety.
When I wore a suit, I looked like a small quarterback.
Then there was my CMA (Corps Member Advisor), Veronica, who led our small group sessions, her designer heels the sharpest things on earth, second only to her personality. A relentless perfectionist with an inclination to snark, she revived the terrible phantom of my fifth grade math teacher, Ms. Bentschneider, who made sport of kids like me. Kids slow to catch on, the strugglers, the stragglers, the ones who slunk down in their seats, praying to not be called on because they never had the right answer. Yet, they were the ones faithfully, gleefully called on. Ms. Bentschneider would circle her finger beside her ear. “Duh!” she’d crow, and the classroom would melt into a moblike violence of laughter.
I’d already been in trouble twice with Veronica. I was falling behind on my lesson plans.
“What are you doing at night?” she interrogated me, arms crossed, tapping her shoe.
“I’m sleeping,” I said.
A small gasp from my cohorts.
Sleeping was a sin at Institute. Even if you did it, you didn’t admit to it.
The problem was, I argued, sleep seemed like a necessity to be an effective teacher. More so than an immaculately and rigorously designed lesson plan.
Veronica leaned in close, her teeth very nearly bared. “You need to get your act together ASAP,” she said. “Or we’ll be having a meeting with the SOM.”
The others hunched over their laptops, typing away in a sudden frenzy.
My blood went cold. I had no idea who or what the SOM was. The last time I had to sort through this many acronyms I was a Jehovah’s Witness, terrified of breaking a rule that could lead to a meeting with the Elders, and the worst of all outcomes, disfellowshipping. Being cut off, cast out, a merciless stalking fear that collapsed my voice, my resolve, my ability to stand my ground.
Late that night, honing our workaholism in our dorm, Amelia tried to comfort me as I fought through fatigue and tears to revise my lesson plan for the fifth time. Inevitably, sharing space and enduring Institute together, we’d grown closer, although the relationship was complicated. I’d learned that the terrible ripping, squelching sound, jolting me awake faithfully at 4 am, was Amelia, removing her dental retainer. This inclined me toward tenderness. However, one day I’d returned to our dorm to find her curled in a ball, crying on her bed. With a tear-stained face, she’d told me that the other corps member’s parents made more money than hers, and she felt like the “poor kid” of TFA. Yet Amelia was the daughter of a prestigious college dean. She’d grown up traveling the world with him and showed me pictures of their adventures together. Alpaca expeditions in Peru. Tea at the palace in Tunisia. To me, the photos looked like illustrations from a fairy tale. I refrained from telling her this, or revealing that my own father had been a carpet cleaner.
That night, Amelia slid a couple of Oreos my way across the desk. “Hey,” she said, “don’t let Veronica get in your head. She and I went to Tufts together. She was a year ahead of me. I think she has an eating disorder.” Amelia side-eyed me. “A lot of people at Tufts do. It makes them a little high-strung, and angry.” She laughed, but her laugh had an edge. I thought about her late-night demolishment of cookies and snack cakes, the wrappers scattered, how the next day, she’d zip past me on a bike, riding hard and fast in her all-black outfit, teeth grit, sweat pouring from her in the sizzling Houston sun.
From the first, she’d fixated on my age, ribbing me with, “You’re probably one of the oldest corps members here. You’re probably one of the oldest corps members ever.”
More recently, she’d said, “Institute must be super hard for you at your age. I swear, if I’m not a CEO by thirty-five, I’ll kill myself.”
Studying her as she went back to work, constructing a flawless six-page lesson plan she’d put the finishing touches on at dawn, I had to wonder if that was mere hyperbole.
My upbringing haunted me.
It wasn’t just that I was older or had finished my degree online or had spent the better part of the past few years trucking with my husband. Further back, probing the deeper seeds of shame, I’d grown up in a rural Iowa trailer community, and even in my small, country school was considered less than academically gifted. Once, fearing all F’s on my report card, I’d hidden in the woods for hours, curled up in a ball behind a rotted log. My sister and father had roamed the property, calling for me. Finally, having no luck, my sister changed tack. “No F’s!” she’d screeched into the trees. “No F’s!” Covered in leaves and dirt, heart rising with hope, I’d emerged. Only to find, when she shoved my report card in my hands, a grim army of D’s.
The leaf-covered ne’er-do-well rose up in me during the toughest training sessions, when we had to dissect the state curriculum, analyze testing data, and practice turning state learning standards into lesson objectives. I zoned out. The same way I did in elementary school, withdrawing into daydreams about stories, other lives, book characters, which got me banished to the Resource Room for “extra help.” I was painfully aware from an early age that my family tree was plagued by cycles of poverty, addiction, and domestic violence. However, I didn’t know about the effects of intergenerational trauma on the brain and learning. I only knew what I was told by teachers and other adults. I was stupid. I was lazy. I was slow.
You’ll never be one of them.
My brain began hissing those words at me, day and night.
I tried to hold on to what had brought me here. In spite of my own troubled history at school, I was drawn to teaching from an early age. I loved to “play school,” patiently instructing the neighbor kids how to draw balloons, my specialty, and write heartfelt letters that would make their grandmothers weep with love. I read books out loud, questioned them about plot, character, theme, fired up to inspire them even as their lunchtime bologna on Wonder Bread made them drowse. At age eight I decided to go full-blown entrepreneur and start my own tutoring service. I made an advertising placard to wear while marching up and down the dirt lane. Unfortunately, the placard read Tooter. Which the mail lady pointed out to me, giggling behind her hand.
At Kingdom Hall, I longed to expound from the podium, like the Brothers. Sisters, however, were not allowed to “teach” the congregation. I railed against this, hotly. In response, my father reproved me. He said I needed to learn submission.
At twenty-six, when I stopped submitting, I lost friends, a community, and a clearly charted path through life, paved by unwavering beliefs. In this loss I was free. Free to celebrate birthdays and Christmas, to sing patriotic songs and vote. And also, finally, to attend college, and become a teacher the way I’d dreamed as a child.
I thought back to that life-changing moment in the courtyard of Crockett High School in Austin, steeped in despair as a sub. What was it that made me think I stood a chance, getting into an elite, exclusive organization like Teach for America? What was it inside me that had answered yes to TFA’s call for leaders, even though I had never, not once, conceptualized myself as a leader?
I’d shown up to TFA orientation in an 18-wheeler, which stretched catlike across the parking lot. In the cab, Aly had worked to adjust my suit, bringing all his former tuxedo tailor skills to the task. Nonetheless, no matter what he tried, he couldn’t make the suit look right on me, and I’d disembarked from the truck, stiffly, hobbling in pinched flats away from the industrial grime of truck stops and warehouses into a world of polished business attire and résumés. I should have known then, should have slunk away, defeated, but I didn’t.
I tried to locate that same grit, stamina, and steely self-belief. But as Institute wore on, my confidence only plummeted.
One day, during another anguished round of lesson planning, and dissociating a bit, I tripped over a cord. A laptop crashed to the floor. My cohorts looked up at once, stricken. I set the laptop back on the desk, apologies spilling.
“Oh my God,” someone muttered as I slid back to my seat. “Clumsy much?”
I sat with my hands folded in my lap and gazed out the window, wanting more than anything to smash my way through and run, holding my tail tenderly like the Cowardly Lion.
At day’s end a fellow trainee treated me to a beer and some blunt advice. “You know what, Summer? You need to get out of the meadow. You hear what I’m saying?” He jabbed a finger at me. “That’s what you need to do right now. Get out of the meadow. Or those kids are gonna eat you for dinner.”
Kids meaning my future students. Meadow meaning my tendency to drift into daydream. My preference for storytelling over lesson-planning. My incorrigible romantic nature. The fact that I couldn’t walk without tripping over something, like invisible snakes, and air. The wild flyaway curls I’d long given up on smoothing, taming. My belly laugh, inherited from my grandma, that bubbled up from my soul and brought her back to me. My preference for leopard print and sparkles over suits and heels. A whole host of quirks that rendered “professionalism” a near impossible feat for me. Along with the tantalizing assortment of trauma responses I called my personality.
How could I get out of the meadow when it had been the home of my head, and heart, my whole life?
My friend swiped my beer, replaced it with a whiskey, which he thudded down in front of me. “Welcome to the real world, kiddo.”
At the finale of Institute, I’d eaten my pain, embedded in multiple slices of cake from the dessert buffet. I’d imbibed more soda, and whiskey, in five weeks than I had in my entire life.
The triumphant day I was hired to teach fifth grade reading, I’d leaned across the table to shake the principal’s hand, and the seam of my suit pants split, right down my butt crack. Riiiiiiiip. At thirty-five, I was the proud owner of the Freshman Fifteen.
And, packing up my dorm to move into a Houston apartment, I was a teacher.
I was going to teach!
I went to visit my classroom for the first time. My classroom. Magic words I’d carried with me since childhood, tucked in my heart like a wish. My classroom…
…a decrepit portable. No windows, peeling paint, scratched up pea-green linoleum, a jumbled, dusty mess of ancient desks, and a broken AC unit. Yet it was the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling cabinets that, when I flung open the doors, struck me mute with terror. They were filled, packed, stuffed top to bottom, end to end, a hoarder’s paradise. A math game fell out, crashed at my feet, tiny numbers rolling this way and that.
Katy, the fifth grade science teacher, a TFA recruit from the previous year, popped in to check on me. Witnessing my small meltdown over The Cabinets, she invited me to coffee.
Once seated, she leaned in with a solemn look, bit her lip. “I have to tell you something.”
I braced myself. She told me that, the previous year, test scores had dropped. The principal had stalked the teachers, roving from classroom to classroom, grim and accusatory. He’d compiled graphs depicting each teacher’s test scores, printed them onto banners, which he hung in the hallways, the teacher’s lounge, for all to see, triggering comparison, resentment, and rivalry. She told me the reading teacher I’d been hired to replace, also a TFA recruit, had not been able to raise test scores fast enough. The principal had camped out in her classroom, criticizing her every move, plaguing her with threats until she finally broke down, quit.
She wasn’t the only one.
Half his staff followed suit.
A furious exodus, the teachers had cleaned out their rooms and dumped their classroom supplies in one place before walking out.
“The Cabinets,” I said.
“The Cabinets,” Katy affirmed. She further reported that teachers he didn’t like but couldn’t get rid of, he demoted. “The third grade reading teacher is now the gym teacher,” she said.
“But,” I drew my eyebrows together, “there’s no gym.”
She widened her eyes, grimaced.
I sat there, hands white-knuckling my coffee cup.
“I thought you should know,” Katy said, “but I didn’t mean to freak you out. I’m sure you’ll be fine. The last reading teacher was, you know, a nervous, sensitive type. You don’t seem like that.”
I smiled, feebly.
We parted ways, and I, not at all the nervous, sensitive type, backed up, right smack into someone’s car.
I was in trouble.
The Cabinets had me by the groin.
I spent days just trying to clean out and make sense of The Cabinets.
Meanwhile, my fellow corps members’ classrooms transformed into glistening, shimmering fuzzy-rugged havens of Instagrammable perfection. I stepped into their rooms and watched them work with the kind of awe with which one watches a great artisan, as they stapled up dazzling bulletin boards, in high heels.
I purchased a pair. These will make me competent!
They only made me poorer.
“Um,” Katy poked her head in the Friday before school started. “Just a heads up, he’s getting annoyed. He says he’s checked all the rooms, and yours isn’t coming along.” Her eyes slid to The Cabinets. “You know, if I were you, I’d move on. You can work on those throughout the year.”
“What do I need to do?” I begged her.
Katy shrugged, apologetically. “He says, ‘Go look at Sandra’s room.’”
“Oh. Okay.” Sandra, a fellow TFA recruit, had performed a miraculous makeover, transforming her own shabby portable into a showcase. Her mother had flown out from Miami, and together, they’d painted the walls bright sunset shades of orange and pink. They’d gone shopping, filling a U-Haul with purchases: bookshelves, rugs, lamps, couches and overstuffed chairs. They’d set up the most breathtaking reading nook with a lavender canopy and twinkle lights. The principal was right. Sandra’s classroom was utterly remarkable, magazine worthy.
She’d also spent thousands of dollars out of pocket.
I hadn’t told anyone, but the move to Houston had wiped us out financially. Our bank account was so low, I was scared I’d run out of gas before school started.
It was not lost on me, the irony. Serving in a low-income school, where almost a hundred percent of the students were on free or reduced lunch, yet the principal took for granted I could afford to refurbish my classroom, and it was a failure of imagination, not means, that I hadn’t already done so.
Katy hurried back in with a beaming smile. She handed me a basket filled with rolls of bulletin board paper, trim, and an envelope. “This should help,” she said brightly. “A little extra from a charity group.”
She left. Eagerly, I tore open the envelope. Fifty dollars.
My laugh was soft. A little sad. A little bitter.
I was, officially, a teacher.
High heels, it turned out, were not sufficient camouflage in the meadow.
And it wasn’t the kids who would eat me for dinner.
The first day of school, before I’d even learned my student’s names, he hunkered down in my classroom, eagle-eying my every move. He wandered, taking notes. And on my desk, he left me a scathing one-star review. He wrote, Ms. Hammond, your bulletin boards are crooked.
I was five minutes late bringing my students to lunch. He confronted me in the hallway, arms crossed over his chest, seething, his face heart attack red. His email read: Ms. Hammond, you must be prompt. Have you fixed your bulletin boards?
Steeped in fear, I took a shortcut one day when I saw him in the hallway.
That’s how I found the gym.
A small classroom with all the desks removed, and a dirty rug laid over the linoleum. Inside, students marched in a circle, swinging their arms. A woman in her fifties, in sweatpants and a hoodie, adjusted the volume on an old boom box. According to Katy, Ms. Randall had been the third grade reading teacher for fifteen years, but last year, her student’s test scores didn’t measure up. Katy told me, “And he’s trying to get rid of gym, so, you know…”
If you ended up in “teacher detention,” you were on your way to unemployment.
On Open House night, remarkably, I turned a corner. That night, I witnessed the first tiny blooms of possibility. One of my students, who’d suffered a troubled fourth grade and shut down in her classes, was so enchanted by the book I’d given her, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, she read it nonstop. She’d once dashed from line formation to throw her arms around my waist and cry, “Oh Ms., I love this book so much,” before darting back. That night, while meeting parents, her mother approached me and took my hand, her eyes brimming with tears.
“I have hope for her this year,” she told me. “Thank you so much for giving her that book.”
Another student, a shy boy named Hector who hadn’t spoken much, slipped a small scrap of paper into my hand that night. It read: I wuld like to lern how to writ. Will you teech me? Sitting in my classroom alone after the parents left, reading and reading that beautiful scrap, my heart answered Hector, yes.
I arrived home, weary but brimming with new purpose. I checked my email, and froze. My TFA manager had written one ominous line. Call me when you get home.
She answered with a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry about this.” That very night, while bonding with my students and their parents, my principal had called her from his office to complain about me. The state of my bulletin boards topped the list. She said, “He thinks you don’t have passion.”
My heart splintered, Hector’s note still cupped in my hand.
“He wants to know what you did with that extra fifty dollars. He doesn’t think you used it to improve your classroom.”
I took a breath. “I had to use it to buy gas.”
She was silent. Then, “He’s giving you two weeks. After that, he’s moving you to gym.”
I pulled my diesel-smelling duffel from under the bed and began to pack.
Oh, it hurt.
Returning to the truck felt like exile.
For the next six months, traveling cross-country, I reflected on my experience.
Reflected sounds mature and wise and deeply intelligent.
The truth is, I beat myself up. Literally. I pummeled my thighs, berating myself for not being the person who knows how to do certain things. For not being like the corps members who color-coded and classroom-themed like it was second nature. For taking too damn long to figure things out, and sometimes, never getting there. The little girl hiding, cowering from F’s, emerged. She was covered in leaves, and humiliation.
Aly said, “But, what if the meadow is where your real skills are?”
I thought about that as I returned to writing résumés. I wrestled with how to take meadow skills and convert them into language that someone else would recognize as valuable. Skills like: Imagination, Zaniness, Daydreaming, Deep Thinking, Questioning, Philosophizing, Passionate Conversing, Truth-Telling, Romanticizing, Beauty Enjoying, Bug Adoring, Spontaneous Dancing, Dramatic Flair, Sincerity, Big Hugs.
As far as I could see, from my passenger seat in the big rig, staring down that long, long road, I didn’t stand a chance.
It was nearly a year before I snagged an interview: ninth grade reading teacher, back in Austin, where most of our belongings remained in storage, never fully transitioned to Houston. As if they knew I wouldn’t make it.
High school. Never had I thought or wished or wanted to teach high school.
Once again, I donned my pantsuit. Aly had sewn up the split seam. I kept my hair in a ponytail. The principal didn’t even ask to look at my portfolio. It was the end of September. The reading teacher, a veteran with twelve years’ experience, had fled.
The principal barely looked at me during the interview and only asked five questions, including one that took me by surprise. “What’s your favorite movie?”
I smiled and said Roman Holiday. Then, in a wholly unprofessional way, I swooned over Audrey Hepburn.
His eyebrows shot up. He didn’t speak.
But he forgave me quickly. Extending his hand, he offered me the position.
We shook and my seam stayed intact.
Stunned, and beside myself, I stepped into the sun-drenched courtyard of my new school and looking around, taking it in, the realization hit so hard, I had to sit.
Crockett High School.
I was now sitting on the bench, the very bench, beneath the wiry oak dripping with moss, where I’d cried with the fellow sub who told me about Teach for America.
Don’t even try.
“The children are waiting for you.”
The principal swung open the door to my new classroom and strode swiftly away.
When I stepped inside, my heart dropped, somewhere in the vicinity of my toes.
The teacher who’d fled had taken everything with her, stripping the classroom bare. Nothing on the walls. No books. Not even a curriculum. My principal had informed me I would have to build everything from scratch.
And my students, I was also informed, were the outcasts, the discards, the exiles.
Gang-affiliated, dealing drugs, in and out of the Alternative Learning Center, criminal records, broken homes, broken hearts, legacies of trauma …reading at a second grade level. Labeled special ed. Believing they were dumb. Not merely pummeling but slashing their thighs, haunted by failure. They hated themselves.
And that first day, week, month … they hated my books.
They hated me.
I showed up anyway.
On most days, that was the best I could do. Show up. Even if I spent most of the day calling security to break up fights and afterwards, at home, sprawled on the floor, sobbing into the carpet, guzzling a whole bottle of chocolate wine.
I tried the drill sergeant, the boot camp badass, the don’t-smile-till-Christmas cold and heartless act. They weren’t having it. They saw right through me. They saw the meadow.
I thought I was doomed, and kept showing up. And then, the day arrived. I sneaked a book onto the desk of my most defiant student—and he let me. He didn’t instantly swipe it to the floor, scream Fuck you, bitch! and storm out, slamming the door so hard the clock fell off the wall, onto my desk, rolling across and plunking into the wastepaper basket. Ten points.
I kept showing up. One day, the student who’d sworn to me she would never read, opened the book. She flipped through the pages before pushing it away, to the edge of her desk, but not off. Progress.
I didn’t just live in, I plumbed the depths of the meadow.
I cracked weird jokes. I giggled. I read them my favorite poems, and rhapsodized. I lectured them hotly, gripping their eyes, skewering them. I played goofy music, and danced. I performed dramatic read-alouds. I lost things. I struggled with every piece of technology. I hung bulletin boards crookedly. I asked them for their stories, and I gave them mine. I told them about growing up in a trailer, Jehovah’s Witness and poor, enduring family dysfunction it would take many years to name, and Ms. Bentschneider’s terrible math class, and no matter how old you are, the world is full of Bentschneiders who will hunt you in the meadow, eat you for dinner, and give you an F, and don’t even try isn’t the end, it’s a call to action, a lightning strike, and they’d have to root through the rejected pieces of themselves to find and honor their true gifts, and I’d traveled many roads, literally, to get to them, and I’d crawled on my belly through the hell of my own fear, despair, and shame, to get to them, and I’d do it all over again, to be here with them now. We were made for each other, I told them, again and again, my face shiny with tears.
And then I shoved books at them, clasping my hands to my heart, ignoring their protests, their lethal glowers.
By Christmas break, they opened the books. They read. A page. Two pages. A chapter.
I crossed my fingers. Started to hope, then believe, I might have to buy bookmarks after all.
That spring, a colleague elbowed me in the hallway, and winked. “The kids call you the book matchmaker,” she said.
Book Matchmaker. A meadow skill.
When my principal announced he was coming to observe me for my teacher evaluation, my knees went weak. He would sit in the corner, taking notes. He would stalk my room, on the hunt for evidence that I was failing. And he would find it.
The day of my observation, he marched in with a grim expression, not meeting my eyes. He plunked down in an empty desk at the back of the room, flipping through his notebook to a fresh page. I took a breath, met my student’s eyes, and began.
My lesson was replete with bright posters, a gallery walk, and student-centered activities, all the things I’d learned were best practices, both correct, and impressive. However, I couldn’t edit or modify the panic. I wiped my palms on my skirt and wobbled on my heels.
Students moved around the room, from poster to poster, doing exactly what they were instructed: writing or drawing their personal responses to the reading. The principal stood. He leaned against the wall, folded his arms across his chest, and swept his gaze around the classroom, his forehead formidably bunched. I knew that look. My whole body went cold and clammy.
“Hey, Ms. Ms. Hammond.”
My awareness shifted. Honed in on my students.
They had their books in their hands and they drew close to me, closer, encircling me, wrapping their arms around me. Like a fortress. Like … I met their eyes. One by one. Like a family.
His secretary rang. “He wants to meet with you,” she said. “We’ll send up a sub.”
I steeled myself as I headed downstairs, mentally reciting the litany of mistakes, beginning with, first and foremost, crooked bulletin boards. Also, I’d neglected to write my lesson objective on the board. I’d misplaced my lesson plan and wasted valuable learning time searching for it. I didn’t have color-coded bookshelves, organized by Lexile level. My desk was a mess.
Reaching his office, setting my hand on the door, I imagined packing my diesel-smelling duffel bag.
Shaky-legged, I stepped inside, sank into the chair across from him.
He didn’t look at me.
He folded his hands on his desk.
Sternly, but softly, he said, “They love you …”
And then, his voice broke.