On Leaving a Small Town

or What I Wanted to Tell My Students Before I Left

I didn’t grow up in a small town, but I started my teaching career in one.

Soon after college I had been getting denied left and right for interviewing opportunities. I was finding openings, but it wasn’t July or August yet, so the city schools were still droning monotonously with the cheap message of, “2 years experience”. I responded to all this declination by binge drinking on a Friday night with friends toasting to our futures, whatever they were to be.

The next morning I woke up earlier than expected in my parents’ basement to a cell phone that had the audacity to vibrate on my chest and ring in my ear. Hazy vision, cotton mouth, and pulsating temples hindered my ability to touch the volume button. Who calls at 7 a.m. on Saturday? This is surely the devil’s work. I never answer numbers I don’t recognize, but on this particular morning I second guessed myself wondering if maybe one of the principals that told me they’d pass my resume along wasn’t just being nice.

An area code where I didn’t know anybody, a headache that told me to close my eyes stat, and the possibility of a future that I did not have planned. I cleared my throat as much as 15 late-night beers would allow and answered.

“Hello?” Clogged and raspy for a great first impression.

“Good morning! Is this Mr. Future English Teacher?”

“Yes.” Best to stick to one word answers for now.

“I’m sorry for calling so early.” You better be. “I was given your number from a mutual contact. My name is Mrs. Veteran English Teacher, and I teach in This One Small Town You’ve Never Heard Of Before, MN. I was wondering if you’d be interested in applying for an opening we have in our building. You come highly recommended.”

Saliva had finished its battle with my mouth halfway through her monologue. My brain was assaulting me with the tragic pleas of, Dude! Go to sleep right now. Shut this conversation down. Humans aren’t meant to be awake at these moments. “Yes.” Still keeping it smooth with the short answers.

“Oh, that is so great to hear. Can I have your email? I will send you directions on how to apply for the position.”

“Sure. It’s WayTooHungoverToBeConsciousRightNow@sleeping.com.” Look at you, stringing words together like it’s nothing. Good job.

“Thank you. I’ve got it down and will send you the information right away. We look forward to meeting with you. Have a great rest of your day.”

“Thank you. You as well.” Never too hungover to be polite, I see.

THE INTERVIEW

Fast forward a couple weeks to a Friday in a small room in a small school in a small town that looked like a prison — only to find out months later that at one point in time the building was being constructed to be a prison — wait, what? I know…

Looking back on it, the interview was a pretty standard teaching interview as far as questions were concerned. I answered each question with as much knowledge as my months of student teaching could provide. Afterwards, they took me out to lunch, they showed me the town, and then they brought me back to the school and offered me the job. Wait, what? I know…

I’m not gonna lie, it felt good to be wanted for once. But I don’t jump into things, so I asked for some time to mull it over. They told me I could have the weekend. Great, now it was time for me to analyze, something I do way too much.

An hour into the drive home, I had my answer: no. It wasn’t personal. The town just wasn’t for me. It’s a farm town — I have no way to relate to these kids. I’d feel like an alien in front of them. The population size was unbearable. I’m not saying I grew up in New York City, but I do like to go places in town and get lost in some sweet sweet anonymity. It doesn’t even have a Chipotle! Wait, what? I know…

It did not take long for me to figure out that none of these things mattered.

I got home and told my parents about the interview, the small town hospitality, the job offer. They shrieked and applauded as I’m sure quite a few mothers and fathers do when their next in line are finding success. “Yeah, but I’m gonna turn them down,” I said.

My mom told me I was being too hasty, and I proceeded to hold my tongue in order to avoid an argument that happens when both of you are the stubborn heads in the family. My dad asked me why I wouldn’t take the job. I told him, in earshot of mom, that it just didn’t feel like me. I couldn’t see myself there, so why would I go there? Such a millennial, I know.

They dropped it, or I didn’t want to talk anymore, I don’t quite remember.

The weekend was uninvitingly quiet because of my choice. Both my parents were more than likely thinking of ways to change my mind. I’m almost positive they talked about it while I was performing various escapist acts such as: reading, playing soccer, or, my personal favorite, drinking at a bar.

Sunday night rolled around and my dad caught me by the shoulders and held me a little tighter than usual. If your parents aren’t “huggers”, physical touch such as this mean he’s about to spit some serious on you. And I was not particularly ready for any serious at this moment, I just wanted to shower after my soccer game.

“Dad, I already know what you’re gonna say. Can I just shower quick and then you can tell me you think I’m making a mistake? You trust me and know that I’ll still find my way, but you want to explain your side of things just so I’m aware. Is that about right?” We had played this game many times before. When I told him I wasn’t going to go to school for pharmacy, when I told him I wasn’t going to his alma mater, when I told him that Phantom of the Opera wasn’t my favorite musical, you get the picture.

My dad exhaled and smiled at me, all 22 years of me. He had seen every moment from his third-party perspective. He saw me for what I was, a young kid who was sarcastic beyond measure and a bit too over-confident for where he was in life, and he still smiled, “You know, I could do without the smell, but that shower is going to have to wait because I have to say this now.”

I watched his eyes turn red, I saw the first tear form, and I noticed that he didn’t bother to wipe it away. My father, the man who left his dream job so that his kids could stay at the school they knew and loved. My father, the man who is creative to the core, but doesn’t currently have the creative outlet he so desires and deserves. My father, the man who is currently unemployed at this moment of my life and yearning to supply for his family by any means necessary. My father wept while holding eye contact and said, “You know sometimes it feels pretty good to be wanted. It feels good to be somewhere where people found you and want you around them because they think you’ll make a difference for them. I remember once what it was like to have that feeling. I’m not going to tell you that I don’t support your choice because I know that, as always, you are going to do whatever the hell you want to do. It’s been that way since you were able to walk. I just wanted to tell you that sometimes you have to leave before you come back, and if you can leave to be in a place where people genuinely want you, well, it doesn’t get much sweeter than that.” And then he hugged me for longer than most families I know are comfortable with, but I’m totally okay with, and left to take a walk.

I sank into the carpet. I felt lower than the carpet. I figured I deserved to be the the carpet in the living room where people could walk on me and the animals could pee, poop, and barf on me. If you have any pets, you know it’s true.

I took the job. I don’t think I need to explain why.

And now it’s been four years.

YEAR ONE AND TWO

The first year felt a lot like drowning because, as mentioned earlier, I was a complete alien to many of my students. I quickly earned the nickname City Kitty for all the questions I constantly needed answers to regarding farm life and other intricacies of small town living.

One story that highlights this well is when a student asked me if I was going to the home football game on Friday night. I told her I hadn’t really thought about it. (I went to a high school where I never felt obligated to go to the football games mainly because most years we were garbage, and I could probably find more productive things to do on a Friday night.) This apparently is not the case when you are in a football town that lives and dies by the Friday Night Lights. It’s an actual thing people, not just some marketing ploy by the media.

“Well just so you know, if you don’t come to the game on Friday, that is like, totally committing social suicide.”

I asked her if she meant to use a simile, she didn’t get the joke, and left my room.

See, alien status acquired.

The second year felt like I had pool floaties around my arms. I had spent uncountable hours analyzing and upgrading my curriculum. I was constantly reading three books at a time: one fiction, one history-related, and one professional development book. I joined the staff development committee in order to grow in experience and found an avenue to listen to my colleagues and help find solutions to the problems they were experiencing. I found my groove, style, and demeanor in the classroom. Ultimately, I was just being me and sharing topics that were strewn about through the pages of our readings: diversity, equity, justice, etc.

As the year progressed, I had pulled the floaties off in order to tread water on my own when a student walked in after school to chat. “You got minute?” He said.

“For you, sir. I have multiple minutes. Hit me.”

This was the pretty typical jock type student who hung around other jocks that prided themselves on not reading for class. His voice told me that he’d never strung the English language together in this order, and he might not do it ever again. “Okay. So I guess what I came here to say is that I really enjoy English class this year.”

“I appreciate it. I’ll try my best to keep the fire alive and not become a jaded old man.” We chuckled and a pause grew between us. “Is there something else?” I asked.

“Yeah, I mean, I guess. I don’t really know how to say this appropriately, or, um, formally, I think is what I mean.”

“Permission to speak inappropriately and informally.”

“Well, it’s just…you’re aware of how weird you are in this town, right?” He was scratching his temple, still unsure of his words.

“You know, I’m pretty sure I’m weird outside of this town too, just for the record.” Ask any of my friends, and they’ll attest to the truth in that statement. The student’s laughter said he figured that was true too.

“No, I get that,” he said. “Your jokes are weird and go over our heads, but I meant weird in like, I meant weird like you say stuff that I’ve never heard grown ups say in my entire life, but you do it without forcing it on us like it’s the 100% truth.”

“Truth is relative, my friend.”

“See, that’s what I’m talking about. My dad would never say something like that. He’s very, what’s it called…”

“Black and white?”

“Yeah, that.”

“I’ve been living in the land of the gray since about my sophomore year in high school. I had an English teacher that flipped my understanding of truth on its head.”

We started wrapping our conversation up when I decided that I wanted an example of what he was talking about. I had a feeling I was saying some pretty different things in my classroom than what some families in the community were saying. He went on to use his persuasive essay idea as a topic his father and I didn’t have in common. Since the day he was born, he said he pretty much just believed whatever his father believed. Originally, he wanted to do why marijuana shouldn’t be legalized. I told him to please pick a topic that was more original and wouldn’t put me to sleep when I was grading it at 3 a.m. He was stumped, so I threw the idea of talking about what choices we should collectively make about the War on Drugs, related to his original choice, but much more relevant to our current circumstance. His blank expression yearned for an explanation.

When asked his current stance, he was tentative. He supposed he’d say keep moving forward with the War on Drugs because drugs are bad.

Thanks for that, Mr. Mackey.

Playing Devil’s advocate, I tossed out some crash course ideas on drugs being viewed as a criminal or health topic, where and how police forces choose to carry out the WoD, monetary incentives for drug arrests, etc. His head was spinning as if an omniscient voice was in the background saying, “Finish him!” Yes, that’s a Mortal Kombat reference.

“So what’s your next step?” I asked.

“Research both sides.” And he did.

That may very well have been the first time that student addressed the gray area that surrounds our personal empirical discovery. He disagreed with his father for the first time — heck, he disagreed with me too — but more importantly, he found his own path on a complicated topic that needs addressing.

YEAR THREE AND FOUR

A wise teacher once told me that most teachers finally have their shit together after year five. With the track I’ve been on as of late, I’m pretty sure he’s right.

During year three and four I began to grow accustomed to the small town life, and if I’m being honest, that thought scared me into moments of identity crisis.

My added responsibility starting year three: Varsity soccer coach. I had spent the past two fall seasons coaching C Squad and JV girls. The boys’ coach resigned, I applied, and zip-bam-boom, I got it. Being a town that prided itself on football, you can assume it was quite the vetting process to hold such a prestigious position. Not.

In my classroom, I practiced constant reflection and sought to make my curriculum more diverse for a predominantly white town of 10,000 people. I address some controversy that arose from this topic in my article, Hey, can you breathe like that?

On the field, I needed to focus on rebuilding a program that was at a low point. To put it into perspective, I had a team that relied heavily on booting the ball (they liked to call it the long ball — it wasn’t), but didn’t have the necessary touch or speed to be effective at it.

The main problem being Operant Conditioning. Most, if not all, of these boys had grown up being praised for their current style of play. I had nothing but disapproval to offer. One positive I had going for me: the boys were excited about me stepping into the coaching position. If you’ve ever stepped into someone’s shadow, particularly the coach who helped get the soccer program started in town and the fields are named after him, you know what I’m talking about when I say it was a relief to not have to be constantly compared.

Let’s get this out of the way: I am currently and may be forever the losingest soccer coach in the history of the town I just left. Whew. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I think I can continue.

In my two seasons as their coach, we won three games. You do the math.

I don’t know about you when it comes to competitions, but I like to win. I can be a pretty sore loser. I will still congratulate the other team, but that doesn’t mean I feel good about it. When everyone was giving Cam Newton flack about his “demeanor” after losing Super Bowl 50, I was like, “Have you not lost before?!” I will rephrase that now, “Have you not lost and then had a microphone shoved in your face?!”

I want to make sure I keep it in perspective. I fully understand the differences between Cam Newton and myself. My point is that after a loss, I would dread having to answer questions of the local sports writer in town who might not technically even know anything about the sport of soccer, and of course there’s that blinking recorder right below your chin just whispering in your ear, “Don’t say anything vulgar or stupid because I’ll remember, and then everyone in town will read it in the paper tomorrow. *wink*” I hate voice recorders now. I take those experiences, multiply them by an unfathomable number, and then I start to see where Cam is coming from.

That’s a lot of voice recorders…

I was feeling rather defeated one night after watching some film of a recent game looking for inspiration on what to work on at practice. I dialed an old coach. It was late. It felt mildly disrespectful to a person that I had the utmost respect for. I was desperate, please forgive me.

One phone conversation reminded me of a lesson I had already heard but never fully conceptualized.

Just teach. Just learn. Just make sure they love and appreciate and understand the beautiful game. Don’t worry about the score. If you do the teaching right, the score will get better. Don’t worry about the W/L column. If you focus on technique and knowledge, the wins will increase and the losses will decrease. And don’t worry about the press, just pull a Marshawn Lynch and give one word answers. They didn’t say that last one, but I knew they meant it.

Q: Are Skittles delicious? A: Yeah.

So that became the plan. Did it make losing easier? Not entirely. But it made the growth process bloom. I was so blinded by the losing, that I forgot entirely about what I do in the classroom every day, focus on growth (and damn all standardized tests to hell).

The plan had many pieces. I say “had” because I’m not there anymore, but truly the plan is still moving forward without me. Some key points we nurtured for the boys’ program were: playing year round, eating healthy, and analyzing the game at the professional level. I didn’t accomplish this alone. My coaching staff, paired with the power of beer, came up with many ideas on changes we could make for the betterment of our players both current and future.

A special thanks to my coaching staff. Oh, and you too beer, thanks, for everything, well…almost everything.

I’m happy to report that the boys recently had the best spring season of their career, and now they are looking forward to what they can produce in the fall. Goals for has gone up, goals against has gone down, W/L still somewhat the same. It’s growth, and growth is something to be proud of.

“A GREAT PERHAPS”

At the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden is standing on the top of Thomsen Hill trying to feel some sense of goodbye for the school he’s been attending, Pencey Prep.

I was trying to feel that sense of goodbye my whole last month. I sat at the soccer fields thinking it would be that easy. It wasn’t. I sat in my classroom and stared at the walls covered in movie posters because surely the goodbye would manifest itself right at my desk. It didn’t. I drove out to one of the lakes and figured serenity would sit beside me on the dock. Nope.

Students and adults alike asked me why I was leaving. I never felt I could give a worthy answer. They speculated why I was taking off. I never resonated with their comments. All I knew is that I felt I was making the right choice, and for a guy who is extremely analytical about everything around him, that was a scary spot to be.

About a week ago it came to me by happenstance. I was on my way to watch the season finale for Game of Thrones Season Six. Friends were gathered for the final episode when one of them asked, “If we were Game of Thrones characters, who would we be?” It’s a pretty standard question. It’s a popular quiz you can take online.

Personally, I always struggle with this question. I know I’m not a Jon Snow or a Tyrion Lannister, but when I’m watching I like to picture myself as such.

I shrugged. My friend responded, “I know who you are. It’s obvious. You won’t disagree either.” I nodded. “You’re Jorah.”

“Jorah Mormont? Explain.”

“You’re dedicated, you’re stubborn, and you are constantly searching for, you long for something to believe in. You won’t settle until you’ve found it. I’m not saying you’ve found it yet, but Jorah has. When he met Daenerys Targaryen, that’s when he found something to believe in.”

We all nodded in agreement, myself included. Everyone moved on to answer the question for other people at the table, but I just sat there in an existential crisis. He answered it so easily. How did I not realize this? I want to give my friend credit. This isn’t the first time that he’s known me better than I know myself, but the timing of this revelation is part of the reason I’m writing this.

We watched the season finale, we discussed, we made predictions, and then we went home. Sleep was not in my foreseeable future. I was wired, and it had nothing to do with Game of Thrones. I was evaluating my connection to Jorah Mormont.

My facial expression for the rest of the night.

I did something I haven’t done in years. I went up on the roof of my parents’ house. (I can feel your judgement through the screen as I share space with my former roommates while looking for a new apartment.) The window in my old room steps right out onto the roof. I would perch on top when I needed to think or just wanted to look around at the pure, unadulterated suburbia. (Because who doesn’t love rows of houses that look relatively the same?)

This is where I found my sense of goodbye. This is where I plunged into the felicity I longed for with leaving the small town I started my teaching career in.

When I was a teenager, I could look out and see the remnants of the park where I used to play, I could look out and see the tunnel with layers of graffiti and mischief, I could look out and follow the winding trails with my eyes as they cut in between hills and houses.

That was not the case on this night.

The trees in my parents’ yard and the surrounding yards had grown since my last roof sitting, blocking my view of the world around me. Being an English teacher, I noted the metaphor for how I felt, searching for something to believe in, but finding nothing, or at the very least, having it blocked from view, just like Jorah.

When I first took the job, I began my journey in search of, as Francois Rabelais put it, my “Great Perhaps”. I found a piece of it during my four years there, but not all of it. And now I press on, because I feel once I can see beyond these trees, I may find another piece. If that piece doesn’t complete it, I’ll move on to find another. I can only assume my “Great Perhaps” will continue until I find all the pieces of what I’m trying to believe in, my Daenerys.

Students, I didn’t leave because of you. You were, you are enough. Colleagues, I didn’t leave because I was disillusioned with what we were accomplishing together.

I left because I was missing something and needed to go find it. I don’t have a map. I will probably never have a map. And that’s okay.