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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Taking the Long Way

In August, I wrote a bit about what brought me to my decision to quit my job, put my worldly possessions into storage, and move to France to teach English. I gave the background while skimming over the more recent history and a bit of the nitty gritty.

Here’s the real story.

Two years ago today, I lost my very first job.

It was Thursday, April 7, 2011. I sat in a room with administrators, department chairs, and the 16 other first- and second-year teachers on my campus who were receiving the same letter. As a result of the state-wide education budget cuts, 17 good teachers on one campus alone were given a letter saying their jobs would not exist the following year.

I’d been following the literature online; I was expecting it. I took my letter and ran back to my hallway. (The meeting had been called at the last minute, and I still had kids coming for tutorials!) When I called my dad after school and said “Hey Dad, it’s official,” he replied, “You lost your job? Well, I’m sorry. Want to go out for Mexican?” This might seem like a lackadaisical response, but we were all waiting for it. In addition, I was still hopeful almost to the point of certainty, for many teachers would be getting their jobs offered back to them within a few weeks or months (depending on the circumstances surrounding each individual position). Most of my colleagues assured me that as one of the very few French teachers, a consolidation was unlikely, and I would surely get my job back.

We were told to keep the news from the students, as it would only upset them. Of course (because they were high school students), they somehow found out, were confused (because they found out on their own and weren’t given the facts), were hurt and angry, and used social media over the weekend to organize a protest followed by a march on the administration for Monday. (This actually cost the district money.)

That Monday, it was chaotic. A fourth of my first period students were missing, and a couple of students from other classes were wandering in, just arriving from the protest. I had students come up to me, crying, and hug me. They were confused. They were sad. They were hurt.

At that point I decided that, since the news was already out, I’d do what I had thought would be the best approach in the first place. I sat each of my classes down, explained why this was happening, showed them the public documents on the district website outlining who would be let go and why. Showed them that there was nothing to be done at this point in time. In addition, I explained that it was no one person's fault. It was the result of several years of poor financial choices by both the district and the state. It was the only legal way the district could cover the deficit. I understood. I wanted them to understand. I told them I was one of the 17. (I refused to tell them who any of the other teachers were, because that wasn’t my business to tell.) I let them ask any question they wanted, answering the best that I could and being honest when I didn’t know the answer. The questions ranged from “When will we find out if our teachers get their jobs back?” to “How will things change if no one gets their jobs back?” to the more personal “Mademoiselle, what will YOU do?” “Will you look for another job?” “Can we do something for you?” “What will happen to you?” It was difficult. Some students cried. I looked at it as an opportunity to do some life teaching. This lesson: How to react with dignity and grace when something bad happens to you. I told them they had that one day to ask questions, and that after that, it would be back to French for the rest of the year. We would not be obsessed by this. In the end, I reiterated hope.

A few weeks later, I received a huge blow when I found out that another teacher (term contract teacher, which is like having tenure) was moved into my position. I didn’t find out from the administration, but from a friend who found out in a roundabout way. I was honestly in shock. I hadn’t expected this at all. It was Good Friday, a makeup day for a snow day. In front of my students, I acted as if nothing had happened, but I started applying for jobs that very day. (I’m a take action kind of girl.) Later that same night, when all was finally quiet, a friend who knew me well enough to understand the crux of it all held me and said, “I’m sorry that you lost your students today. I’m sorry you don’t get to come back to them next year.” It was only then that I felt myself let my guard down enough to acknowledge my grief. It was only then that I cried.

I proceeded through the rest of the school year as if I didn’t know I had lost my job. As if my future wasn’t scary and uncertain. The kids needed to keep learning French. We needed our time together. I didn’t want our last six weeks to be sad, but happy. So, yes, I lied to them and said I hadn’t heard yet. In this case, I thought it better. I hid my secret, my silent mourning, all the while teaching and laughing with and loving my students for as long as I could. (Over those months, the only mention of the situation I allowed was when we joked about me teaching French on the roof or one of their families taking me in and letting me teach from their living room. Sweet babies.) As our time drew nearer to its end, I typed them a letter, printed out 110 copies, and handwrote personal notes at the bottom to each of them. I gave them out on the second to last day of school and told them all face-to-face. They deserved to know. They deserved to be told by me. And to know that I wasn’t angry, that there was no one to blame. Again, some students cried. I hope they kept those letters. I meant every word I wrote to them.

And that’s how I lost my very first job. I was a good teacher. Not perfect, of course – I had a long way to go. It was my first job! But I was good. I cared about my students. I was stressed, but happy and purposeful. I knew teachers who had tried for a long time to get into this district where I had been blessed enough to get my very first job. I had (generally) great kids. I had a great department; I felt very supported by my nearest coworkers. Every day, during our short 30-minute break, I took respite from the work and sat down on a couch and had lunch among friends. I worked a ton (you always do your first year), but it was worth it. I had an amazing brand-new apartment near my school, family, and friends, and I had a beautiful brand-new classroom. I thought I was set, that I would never leave. That I had arrived, so early in life! And just like that, by no fault of my own, I lost it. I lost it all.

I decided to be hopeful. This was scary, but surely I’d find a job. And NOW I’d had my first year as a high school teacher, so I was wiser than I had been a year before. I knew more of what to expect. I would surely get a job, and be even better my second year than I had my first.

I went on my first interview; I was extremely hopeful.

I didn’t get that job. It was the first interview I’d ever been on that I didn’t end up getting the job. Pretty much the first thing ever I applied for and didn’t get, really. That was tough. It was also the only opening within commuting distance of my apartment. I now realized my life would be truly changing. That was tougher.

Until I went on another. And another. Still no luck.

Finally, one day, I had two interviews. I got both job offers. I took the one I thought was a better fit. The administrators who interviewed me were amazing. I couldn’t wait to start working for them.

August rolled around. Because the new job was an hour and a half away (in traffic) from my apartment, I moved in with my cousin Kara, her husband, and their son. (They were a Godsend and this ended up being an amazing blessing in so many ways.) I prepared myself for what I knew would be a busy, demanding year, but I still had high hopes.

The first week I realized this would be much different than my first job. My students had had a different teacher each year for the past four years. The level 3 and 4 students were motivated and sweet, but had great deficiencies in French due to constant instructional changes. The level 2 students only knew one other teacher, and for several reasons, were way behind the expected level. They were loathe to work. They had lost their own teacher without explanation or expectation. I understood they were disappointed about that and that they missed their connection with their teacher.

That does not excuse the way that many of them treated me that year.

I lived the most difficult year I could have imagined for myself (within the context of being a high school French teacher in North Central Texas). I felt hated by three of my six classes (the most populous three, at that). Hated. I could tell you stories you would. not. believe. Every day for the longest time I told myself “This will be the day I break through.” In December I realized it probably wasn’t going to happen, but I decided to persevere and that I would continue to give it my best effort, despite the loss of the hope that things would change. I had one “good” day last year, that I’d consider truly successful (even with my level 2 classes) and that I genuinely felt good at the end of the day. It was January 11th. I marked it on the calendar.

In addition, I felt completely alone among my peers. I’m not going to go into details, but suffice it to say I ate lunch alone in my car for almost the entire school year.

None of this is to mention the fact that I was the primary (and pretty much the only) French teacher, and that I was working with a new-to-me (not to mention less than subpar) curriculum, teaching four preps a day. Four times a day, five times a week, I did something brand new. It was exhausting.

Not to mention the fact that I inherited the leadership of a trip of 44 people to Paris over Spring Break. Because that’s not just a bit of responsibility for a freshly 25-year-old second-year teacher.

Not to mention… other factors I actually won’t mention. I could write a book about this year. I will not.

I cried silently on my way home for several months. I spent three months moving my things out of my perfect apartment and into storage. I went months without seeing my friends. I was too stressed to eat breakfast most of the year. The first month or two, I was too stressed to eat much of anything at all. Throughout the first semester, I would spontaneously start silently crying when I wasn’t at school. I cried at restaurants with my family after church (my only social activity for months). I cried at a Ranger game. I cried in my car. I cried in bed.

I cried because I wanted so badly to be able to help. To get to have the same relationship with my students as I had had the year before. Because I wanted the relief of peer support. Because I felt so, so alone, and so helpless, and so (professionally) purposeless. I was giving all of my time, sacrificing all my needs and desires, to an extremely thankless and seemingly purposeless job. Thankless is an understatement. My life was my job, and my job, well, sucked.

For the first time in my life, I was angry at God. I can recall three separate occasions of crying and literally screaming “why?!” over and over and over again. Once on the floor of my apartment, twice in my car on the way back on Sundays. WHY was I taken away from something so (almost) perfect for something so horrible? WHY was I driven (geographically) to near isolation when I needed more support than ever? WHY was none of my work paying off? WHY was I taken from my students, whom I could help, and given to these students, the majority of whom neither wanted me nor allowed me to help them? WHY was I taken from a safe, supportive environment and put into one where I was constantly extremely uncomfortable (and even sometimes in actual danger)?

Until one day, I realized why. I got an email from the American Association of Teachers of French. I rarely open their emails, but this night I did. It outlined a program that French teachers should tell their students about. It was the TAPIF program.

I read it and thought to myself that this was my chance. I’d always wanted to live in France but had never found the time nor the money in college or grad school. After becoming a “real person” with an apartment full of belongings, I’d just figured I’d never go through all the effort of packing all that stuff up and rearranging my life to go have an adventure across the Atlantic.

Except that now, I would.

I didn’t love my job, I didn’t have a car payment, a husband, kids, or a mortgage. Heck, I didn’t even have an apartment. My stuff was already in storage. The only real commitment I had was my dog Nolie, but luckily she gets along well with my parents’ dogs and my family loves her anyway. (Thanks again, Mom, Dad, Brandon, & Michael!) I thought to myself "If you don't do this now, when WILL you?! How perfect does it have to be for you to do it?"

So I applied. Two years ago today, I lost my first job. One year ago this week, I found out I was accepted to TAPIF, and the rest is history. The beautiful thing is how perfectly this has been placed within the story of my life. If I had spent a year in France when I was 21, I would not have appreciated it nearly as much as I do now. I needed the break after the crazy past five years of my life. I am having the most incredible time and have been grateful every day. Even on days when all I do is teach two classes and go to the bank (where I don't find any money because I'm broke as a joke), I am still so thankful to be here. I have lived this year with the passion to make the most of it because I know how blessed I am to be here. I have taken risks and learned things about the world and myself. And I never, ever would have had this unforgettable, enriching, invaluable experience if I hadn’t lost my first job and if my second job hadn’t regularly driven me to tears. I never would have quit my comfortable job with my comfortable apartment and my overall comfortable life to come and do this. It took some shaking up to make it happen. And I am so, so thankful. God bless the shake-up. I am even thankful for the painful, destructive year that I lived last year, because it led me to this moment. It all makes sense. God knows exactly what he is doing. All the time.

It should be said that, regarding my very difficult last year, I did have some wonderful students in each and every one of my classes, even if in several classes those students were the minority. Those students kept me going in dark times and will always be special to me. I even had a few groups of students who planned incredibly thoughtful and unique goodbye surprises, which I will never forget. I know that teaching high school French is what I am supposed to do, and I love it so much that despite last year’s experiences, I am excited for the day when I have a classroom once again. I absolutely love it.

I know this is already extremely long. But I’m going to conclude with one of my favorite songs, which I’ve always felt accurately describes my life. I feel it just gets more and more fitting through the years.

“The Long Way Around” by the Dixie Chicks

My friends from high school married their high school boyfriends
Moved into houses in the same zip codes where their parents live

But I could never follow
No I could never follow

I’ve been a long time gone now
Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down
But I’ve always found my way somehow
By taking the long way around

It’s been two long years now since the top of the world
came crashing down
And I’m gettin’ it back on the road now
But I’m taking the long way around

Oh, I’ll just take my time, I won’t lay down
And take the long way around

Well I fought with a stranger and I met myself
I opened my mouth and I heard myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I coulda made it easier on myself

But I could never follow

Well I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday I’m gonna settle down
If you ever wanna find me I can still be found
Taking the long way around


So here I am, two years later, taking what might seem like the long way around. But to me, it’s just perfect, and I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.

La vie est belle, y’all.

For a 2016 update written five years to the day after the job loss that changed my life, with three more years of perspective on these events (including a twist), see this post on my new blog, Katy on the Road.

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