Here’s a snapshot: Adult me, in crumpled khakis and a cotton sweater, tearstained face, slinking out of a yellow brick school building. If I had known how important this day was going to be, I would have worn something cuter so that when I replayed the scene over and over – which I did, obsessively, for years – I wouldn’t have to say, “Geez…no wonder they fired me. I looked really dumpy.” The focus on unfortunate trouser choice was my way of avoiding the uncomfortable crackle of an old dream sloughing away, one I’d been clinging to that had worn out its usefulness.
In 2004, I was working on my master of arts in teaching with a secondary English focus. Unable to teach in a public school until I had received full certification, a private school position was perfect since I could work and student teach at the same time. I had been offered a job at a posh girls’ school. They had a list of qualifications, I met all of them. I got the job over two alums and was thrilled to start my dream career – teaching English.
I charged into the classroom, full of excited energy but I hit a wall quickly. I struggled to read hundreds of pages in books I hadn’t read in years (or at all) and pages of student writing. There were lesson plans, a computerized grading system, lunchroom duty. I soldiered on, bolstered by the refrain, “The first year is the hardest.”
Flash forward to April: a note in my mailbox. “Sara, can you drop by during your planning period? Thanks!” It was signed by the principal of the school. Even at twenty-nine, you don’t want to get called to the principal’s office. Other teachers tried to reassure me, saying she probably wanted to talk about what classes I was teaching next year. That didn’t unwind the knot in my stomach telling me something was wrong.
The knot was right.
I had just pushed the door close to her sunny office but hadn’t settled in a chair when from her monolithic cherry desk the principal said, “Well, there’s no easy way to say this. We will not be renewing your contract for next year.” My breath fled.
I’d never been fired. Actually, they don’t call it that in the school system. They call it “not renewing your contract” but who are we kidding? I was sacked. As a kid, when I heard of people who got fired I imagined them in suits and ties, their mouths round O’s and eyes full of panic as their heads suddenly became engulfed in flames like giant matchsticks. It wasn’t far from the truth that day. My head was on fire with embarrassment and anger as I sat in that former nun’s office while she calmly explained that I was expected to finish out the school year but I would not be invited back next year. Like it was a party and I was one guest too many.
A writhing knot of panic worked its way from my stomach to my chest. My class observation sessions by other teachers and the head of the department had provided no clue that this was coming. The rest of my conversation with the principal included her refusing to tell me why they were letting me go. Sure I’d made pretty much all the classic first-year teacher mistakes, but it wasn’t like I’d lit up a cigarette in class or hit anybody with a ruler. When I asked what I was supposed to tell people now, she said primly, “You can just tell them you’ve decided not to come back next year.”
“But that would be a lie,” I blurted. In my head I was screaming, “Of course I want to come back! I wanted this job! I’m perfect for this job! This is my dream job!” At that moment, I so desperately wanted them to want me to be here, for this not to be happening. The idea of telling people I didn’t want to be there any more was an insult and felt like betraying myself since I’d wanted this job so badly.
I left her office. I ran to my classroom without being seen by a single student, choking on thick sobs then closed the door and hyperventilated while I called my husband. By sidling along deserted corridors with my head down, I was able to skulk out of the school to my car and haven’t been back since.
This day set off an avalanche of revelation, soul-searching, rebuilding and path-finding. For the year following, I felt as if I was rolling down a very steep hill, snagging on boulders here and there, but the clarity I feel now is worth more than my bruised ego then.
I had gotten a big huge cosmic smack – it said YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE A HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER. There was lightning, I think. Possibly thunder. Clearly, I had ignored the other signs. For instance, I thought it was normal to wake from a dead sleep at three a.m., shake your new husband into a half-alert stupor, and earnestly cry to him that you hadn’t taught chivalric love properly and your students will now go through life with an inadequate understanding of this concept. I thought it was normal to have a panic attack every morning before work.
The biggest and most painful rock I hit on the way down the mountain: I had spent five years devoted to becoming a teacher – the masters degrees dedicated to teaching English, reading all the books, calling myself a teacher. Even a throw blanket that read “TEACHERS TOUCH LIVES.” God, the Universe, and Everything had other plans. For a long time, I kept shaking my fists and blaming everything on “that vile school,” on the head of the English department who I never quite clicked with, on the administration. It was difficult to understand that perhaps they were all human billboards saying THIS IS NOT YOUR PATH.
Being fired from this job was only made more humiliating because I’d never failed so spectacularly before. Grudgingly, it has only been recently that I will admit this was the best thing that could have happened to me.
It wasn’t just professional change I found. When I told Husband I’d just walked out of the school and I was not going back, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t tell me I was wrong and to march my tail back there because we needed the money and the health insurance. He went to the school the next day with a biology teacher from the next classroom to clear out my classroom. Later, every time we drove by the school – which was often since we lived close – he would lead the way in an elaborate ritual of flipping off the school as we passed, complete with laser beam sound effects.
We had gotten married in the middle of my first year of teaching, at Christmas. The first year of our marriage was rough, made worse by my difficulty with teaching. I was stressed all the time. Getting fired didn’t help, nor did my impetuous exit and subsequent loss of income. We also lost a pet, endured financial problems and health issues – the usual stuff, granted, but all mixed together. The first year of marriage was frontloaded with the “bad times” mentioned in the vows. I had lost my dream job but that year of struggle and his loving support in the face of my professional failure simply strengthened the threads that bound us together, building a thick rope.
In six weeks I had a new job. The pay was about the same, and it was in a new field – advertising copywriting. In college, I felt a strong pull to be a writer and I have always been a reader. I thought the way to merge the two was to become a teacher. It didn’t even cross my mind that I could get paid to write this way. The new job stayed at work when I left – no more bringing home essays to read when I could have been doing something I really loved. I was learning the ways of a new career and the great weight of molding young minds, a weight I don’t believe I was meant to carry, fizzled away.
Leaving the school and starting on a path to copywriting brought me a step closer to what I think God, the Universe and Everything is pushing me toward – becoming a full time writer. I needed to be at this school, with these people, to understand that I was not meant to be at any school. This forced me to look at why I wanted this and if I really wanted it at all. I understand now that bad jobs happen to good people and getting fired does not involve actual flame.