I’m practicing restraint. I’m practicing discipline. The first week of virtual school finished yesterday and I survived it. There were some things that didn’t go the way that I hoped, but most things actually went very well. Despite my students not being excited about online learning — nor were they appropriately prepared for it — some students were still very engaged and were putting forth lots of effort. We got through it. I have a lot to do but I’m also taking time to do some things for myself today. For example, I got out of bed and I started cooking, which for me,is rare on a Saturday. Over the last few years, Saturdays have typically been the day where I try my best to recover from the work week, while trying to find the energy to do the work that remains — grading, lesson planning, analyzing student data. I’ve historically allowed the overwhelm from the demands of my job to consume me to the point where I neglect taking care of myself.
Cooking on a Saturday is also big for me because it represents a bit of growth in terms of my ability to cope with some of the stress in my life. I’ve been teaching full time in America since 2015 (prior to that I taught abroad in Africa and Asia) and it has been an emotional roller coaster ever since. In 2015 I started working as a history teacher at a charter school in Brownsville, believing that it was in the classroom that I was destined to make my greatest impact. It has been a challenging journey and along the way I developed an unhealthy relationship with food and with my body…
Stepping into a full time role as a teacher at a “high performing” charter school was a dream to me. I was hired on the spot once I interviewed and thus reassured that I would be a star teacher. My first year at Achievement First Brownsville Middle School was everything but that. Initially, I was overwhelmed by all the deliverables. I struggled to balance my endless teacher responsibilities while also being a graduate student. I was excited about teaching middle schoolers history, though because it wasn’t my concentration in college I had to spend time internalizing the content well enough to teach it. I’m sure you could imagine what a cake-walk it was not. I definitely struggled my first year and didn’t “perform” on teacher evaluations the way I expected to. I was confident that I was a strong teacher upon accepting my offer but by the end of the year, I felt disillusioned and defeated.
Because I wanted to be “successful” at this school, I wanted to be shouted out in whole-school meetings as a “teacher to watch”, I worked long hours at the beginning. I stayed at the school sometimes until midnight, trying to craft lessons that were perfect, engaging, and rigorous, from start to finish. I wanted to be the teacher that other teachers talked about when they discussed creativity, engagement, and “strong classrooms”. I was desperate for a school leader or even another teacher to come into my classroom, see something amazing and go tell everyone about it. I wanted other teachers to watch videos of my classroom instruction during our teacher development workshops, using it as the model for their own classrooms. That was the success I craved and so, naturally, it broke my heart when my students were not first place in the network on their interim assessments. It was frustrating not hearing my name mentioned during the “shout-out” sessions in our whole-school meetings. If no one was recognizing me, then logically that meant no one saw anything amazing in my classroom, right? If no one saw anything amazing in my classroom, I must not be amazing yet. I must not be working hard enough. I’m failing my students. Must…work…harder…
I worked on weekends, I put my phone on airplane mode, I flaked on friends and social outings, overwhelmed by all the work I had to do as a teacher and as a graduate student. The accolades meant so much to me that any activity that didn’t seem directly aligned to helping me become a star teacher was an activity I stopped prioritizing. That included quality time with friends as well as my exercise and meal prep routine that had been solid for about nine months while I was working as a grant-writer at a non-profit before transitioning into a full time teaching role at Achievement First.
When the meal prepping and the exercise stopped, the weight gain, the depression, and the social anxiety started. I felt helpless, hopeless, lost and defeated at work and I also didn’t know how to fix it. Subsequently I fixated on food because it was one thing that I felt like I wasn’t failing at. Put some Louisiana dry rub wings in front of me — I’d eat them all and leave nothing but the bone. The rich, creamy blue cheese swishing around in my mouth was the savory sensation that literally brought me to euphoria. Food took my mind [momentarily] off of the stressors in my life that I felt powerless to, and offered me a moment to not feel rejected, inadequate, invisible, or less-than. Eating wasn’t difficult — it was something I knew how to do. I scored a 10/10 every single time. I didn’t fail at it.
This was not true of my professional life or my romantic life. And when those parts of my life got to be unmanageable, I coped with food. I ordered McDonald’s at 3 o’clock in the morning. I spent fifty dollars on copious amounts of food because I couldn’t decide what I wanted and instead decided to “treat myself” to all of it. I ate uncontrollably past my limits because I wasn’t ready to end the moment. In no other area of my life was I experiencing the same relief and comfort that I felt in those moments of mindless eating. I needed the euphoria to last so I would continue to bite, chew, and swallow to the point where I was sometimes in physical pain from eating too much…
It’s Saturday. I do have a number of things on my to-do list related to work. I normally would have ordered food from UberEats at least once today, convincing myself that because I have so much work to do, that I don’t have time to cook, socialize, journal or exercise….
I cooked lentils and black beans today. They’re cooling down on the stove as I type this. In about an hour I will further mash them and turn them into bean burgers. That is tonight’s dinner. After paying some bills yesterday, I took a look at what I have in my “fun fund” and decided I need to exercise more discipline and restraint if I stand a chance at completely dissolving my consumer debt. After six months of unemployment this year, getting my debt under control is one of my biggest priorities — bigger than being the star teacher in a capitalist machine crusading as an anti-racist educational institution. What’s great about my goals of debt-freedom being my biggest priority is that it forces me to get more creative in the kitchen. Take-out is where I have spent a lot of my disposable income over the past few years and that is simply no longer acceptable.
It was important to me that I document this moment. The singular act of making bean burgers on a Saturday may seem insignificant but it represents something way bigger: taking care of myself and my body via cooking at home is one of the first things I de-prioritize when I have an overwhelming amount of work to do. Today, my lessons still aren’t finalized. I was also asked to complete advisory lessons. I have to reach out to two parents. School technically started yesterday and my kids have a unit exam in ten days (*rolls eyes*). All of these things would normally have me feeling panicked, anxious, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, and worrisome. I would then struggle to peel myself out of bed and get some of it done or I’d simply avoid it, hop on UberEats, and search for the next fried food fantasy that would allow me to momentarily escape my feelings. Today that is not the case. Today, I said fuck the to-do list. I am the ‘to-do’. Me. My personal (and financial) health matter. If you know me personally and you know how much I have struggled with compulsive eating over the last five years, how often I have cried behind closed doors over the last five years, how feelings of failure and shame have depleted me…you can understand what today means to me. You can understand why this Saturday’s bean burgers are a huge win.