We’ve all had those “last days of my job” moments that we’ve either experienced or envisioned. The kind that happens in scripted comedies and where someone is asked to shove a hypothetical “it” into a bodily orifice. Today is perhaps my last day as a teacher for Columbus City Schools and it doesn’t feel as cathartic. There will be no ceremonies or hugs and tears, just a phone call, maybe a hand shake. Nothing more a career’s worth of memories and friendships, whittled down to a signature on a dotted line.
I’ve had last days on the job before. I lost 3 jobs while in my late teens because of my history of skipping out on work to “fix my flat tire” or because I was “sick” which was really code for, “I’m going to have sex with my girlfriend and ditch work.” One day I showed up at Target and was given a basket’s worth of misplaced and disparaged items. Find the sku, document them for replacement and place them in the proper bin. One second into trying to determine if the round glow-in-the-dark bouncy ball came from a Nerf gun or from a Playskool box was all I could handle. I dumped the merchandise and when my supervisor asked where my evidence of labor was, I confessed. Needless to say I wasn’t on the schedule the next week.
I was also ousted as an employee of G&G Games in Willowbrook Mall. I enjoyed my job there as I sat around and sold video games, talked about video games and discussed the merit of video games. I had taken another job filling pallets with Compaq computer keyboards that were shipped to the airport. My boss found out through my girlfriend’s younger brother who enthusiastically cited I had taken another job, probably as casually as asking for ketchup. That warehouse job? It paid good but broke my back.
Early into my teaching career I served as an alternate union rep. I sometimes went to CEA luncheons and retirement dinners where men in suits would lament our working conditions and fought back with dues, color-paged newsletters, grievances and confident smirks, threats of strikes and shutdowns. During those retirement dinners, I was always amazed when a teacher was called up, 20 and sometimes with 30 years of service. Applause would ensue, sometimes gasps. I was barely into my second or third year. I never thought I’d teach that long. Now I may not get the chance.
I’ve always considered myself tough. I wasn’t always strict. I allowed gum chewing and comfortable seating arrangements. I let them take off their shoes in class and didn’t think twice about how many times they signed out to go to the bathroom. My early years at Broadleigh were tough. The kids were sometimes unruly and neglected but I loved every minute of it. There were times I lost my cool, got into a kids’ face, and in that environment it all seemed rather natural. If they were going to fire any of us for yelling, Broadleigh would have nary a teacher left behind to run the copier.
Over the years I can remember some of the tougher kids and parents. Teaching 4th and 5th graders for those years — 2001 til 2012 — you become accustomed to hearing your own sarcasm. Your room — I had moved to Shady Lane Elementary by then — becomes a well oiled machine that can only be undone by a full blown tantrum or a technology outage. Sometimes I got into faces, sometimes I yelled. Then when the year was over, everyone hugs and my tough boys that had always given me the business were crying as their mind movies reached their conclusions.
My elementary life is over and now I’m in middle school. Breathe.
I taught with a woman back at my Broadleigh days who would stand with me at the front steps of the school and cry on the last day. All year I’d ranted and raved and clawed my way to the end, only to feel like a world-weary Moses each year as I lost them to the summer. I would spend the first part of June in a mini depression, by July I had gotten myself recharged and by August I was impatiently awaiting the building to be reopened. I approached the first Back to School sales like it was a Black Friday event. I stocked up on glues, scissors, composition notebooks and pencils. Always pencils. I loved the smell of those educational stores, with their pre-packaged lesson plans and ready-made bulletin boards. I don’t know how much money my wife — also a teacher — have spent over the years, but it’s a story that any teacher can relate.
As I grew from novice to a veteran — I was no longer called the “baby” of the staff — those end of the year tears came less often. There is always one teacher in a building who counts the days between each holiday, spring breaks and summer. I could never understand why someone would come to work with children who were treating the job as a life sentence. I would turn it around in my classroom as a countdown of knowledge. I have 178 days left to mold you into the best student we can be and we’ve already wasted time!
But I grew into that teacher. I went from complaining about why everyone was so eager for Friday to becoming beleaguered that I found myself a wreck on Tuesdays. I sighed way too often, really to no one in particular. I grew more annoyed at the same frustrations I’ve always had and perceived as wrongs — neglectful parents, silly boys under no medication or discipline, a stream of paperwork, testing.
So it felt natural to yell at times. That seemed to be what kids understood now. I made a visit last fall to a former students’ football game. The neighborhood — Marion Franklin — was much like the kids and parents I serve. I didn’t expect so much cursing and rudeness from parents directed to their children, uncles dads and step-dads, moms with too-tight pants and overly large sunglasses. That’s what the kids are used to, so why would I be any different? (Mind you, no cursing was involved!)
I soon found myself under investigation for being a bully. I’ve spent the last 38 days at Central Enrollment, pushing papers and then helping parents enroll their children, thinking and contemplating of how it all went wrong. How did I go from crying every year at seeing my kids grow and leave and now being labeled as a bully? Last week I was informed that the district wants me to tender my resignation. 16 years of service, just like that.
My union rep pushed the outcome to today, so I await the decision with equal parts trepidation and peace (funny how those can be hand in hand). I’ve gotten back to the basics that gave me the empathy required to teach lives — my personal relationship with God — that will undoubtedly carry me forward. I will still keep my teaching license, but I know that wherever I go, I will have labels and years that will have to be overlooked to find my worth.
That same teacher friend who used to cry with me? She had come under fire too for some outrageous allegation that I knew fully to be wrong. She carried herself forward too, and it’s my reminder that we can sometimes fail. I know before she retired she enriched the lives of those children and certainly cried when she let them go.
On my wall behind my computer screen and books are pictures of former students. Smiles that haven’t been forgotten even if their names don’t always ring a bell. If I had been so much of a bully, why didn’t my students show these characteristics when outside of my class. No, we showed love and fought for what was right, even if it didn’t always read like a doctor’s room pamphlet. In some unwritten future I will be taking my posters down. Maybe for one last time and maybe not, but if I am to regain a personal renaissance it will be fueled by the images of lives once loved.