Last week I wrote a post in my running blog about how other runners judge each other and what constitutes a “real” runner. In reference to my post, a friend told me about a comment one of her friends made when they were wearing their bathing suits. This “friend” felt it was okay to make a comment about her being both “skinny” and having “so much” cellulite on her thighs. My friend is a tall, gorgeous mother of three who is faster than a lot of the men I run with. She just laughed and said nobody’s perfect.
This made me wonder: why do some people think it’s okay to make comments about a woman’s weight if the woman is thin?
I’m one of those women who have never had to worry much about their weight. I run, still seem to have a fairly high metabolism, and can generally eat what I want within reason. I’ve never been anorexic or bulimic, and until I had my first child it was always a struggle to put on weight. When women ask how I stay so slim, I tell them I run a lot, that I’ve always been on the thin side, and that it must be genetic. They almost always make a comment about how lucky I am.
There is a flip side to all of this, however.
When I was little girl I was an extremely picky eater. I turned my nose up at all sorts of “yucky” foods. I loved meat, but hated hamburgers. I didn’t even like chocolate milk or chocolate ice cream (still don’t). I was allergic to milk when I was born (breastfeeding was actually frowned upon), and was fed goat’s milk instead. Maybe that’s where it all started.
I can’t remember a time when other kids didn’t make fun of me, especially in elementary school. Toothpick, Skinny, String Bean, and Olive Oyl were the most frequent names I heard, and Turnip was said a lot because of my last name. Adults didn’t make fun of me, but they made comments nevertheless. My grandmother made it her mission to fatten me up with chicken and dumplings and half and half. I don’t remember being necessarily bothered by the name calling, unless someone was being purposely mean. I guess I got used to it after awhile. I remember calling one of my friends Tomato Potato all through grade school, and he hated it, so I was just as bad as the others.
I spent most of my time outside, riding my bike, roller skating, hitting a tennis ball against the house, playing badminton with my sister, and running around the backyard setting up pretend Olympic competitions. Whatever calories I took in were quickly consumed by physical activity.
I had a hard time finding pants that fit, even in slim sizes at Sears, and my mom always had to bunch up the material at the waist and sew it together. Sometimes I just used a big safety pin on the sides. My junior high school drill team outfit had to be sent back twice because the person doing the alterations didn’t believe my measurements were correct. Even my top hat had to be made smaller.
In high school I was painfully aware that I was a late bloomer, but I had a circle of friends who were kind of geeky and accepting of my thinness. I was jealous of the other girls and their womanly curves. It wasn’t until I had my first child that I finally filled out a little and acquired some of those curves, especially hips. A chocolate chip cookie binge one Christmas vacation at 30 was my first realization that I couldn’t eat cookie after cookie without consequences.
Even though I’m not short, I’m small boned, and a few extra pounds on a small frame really show. There have been times I’ve changed my diet to eat healthier, but I’ve never had to diet for longer than a few days to lose a couple of unwanted pounds. The older I get, the more I do have to watch what I eat, however, and I have a wicked sweet tooth. I live for carbs.
When I started running six years ago I did lose a little weight at first, but mostly I toned up. I ate more to accommodate for the lost calories, but I also ate healthier. When a teacher colleague saw me for the first time in a year after I began running, she told me I was “too thin” and that I looked “unhealthy.” In my opinion she was overweight, but I didn’t tell her that. I told her I was running a lot, ate like a horse, and was healthy.
I was amazed that she didn’t think twice about sharing what she thought, but also knew she would never tell someone they were too heavy, no matter how “unhealthy” they looked to her. Her lack of tact didn’t really bother me, but it did make me wonder why she thought it was acceptable to be so blunt with someone about their weight.
It’s almost as if it’s okay to call someone skinny and make comments about it because, well, they’re skinny and that’s what’s accepted–even envied–in our society.
My daughter was once brought to tears by a high school teacher who asked if she was anorexic–right in the middle of a lesson. She’s shorter and smaller than me, and has always had a hearty appetite. He felt horrible when he made her cry, but why did his concern outweigh the embarrassment it caused?
I love watching The Biggest Loser, despite all the drama. I love the moment when the light bulb comes on in each of the contestants’ heads and they break through the wall that’s been holding them back, the moment when they give up all their excuses, let go of all the pain and hurt and things from the past that are holding them back, and allow themselves to be healthier, stronger, and happier. When you do something you’ve never thought possible, then the true person you are is able to emerge. Seeing that transformation in others is always inspiring to me.
Even though I’ve never had to lose a lot of weight to experience that moment, I think I know what it feels like through running. After I ran my first half marathon, which is something I never thought I could do, I was euphoric for days afterwards. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done up to that point, and for the first time in my life I knew that anything was possible. I knew that I had the strength to do anything I set my mind to.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to eat very little, exercise regularly, and still not lose weight. I have friends who eat like little birds, and they struggle week after week to lose weight. Some have struggled with weight loss their entire lives. Some have been made fun of and treated disrespectfully in ways I’ve never had to deal with.
Whatever package we come in, the journey remains the same for all of us. It’s easy to say be happy in your own skin, but not so easy to pull off, especially when others can be quick to point out things you already know about the way you look.
Let’s all start looking a little deeper.
I loved school from the very first day. When I ran to the car after that first day of first grade, all I could do was jump up and down on the seat and say oh boy! oh boy! oh boy! over and over. Buying school supplies at Skillerns was almost more fun than Christmas morning, and choosing new school clothes was like becoming a new person. The start of a new school year was a new beginning, full of things to be learned, new friends to be made, and fun events happening, and it would all bring me one step closer to my exciting future life as an adult. I loved every single moment at Henderson Elementary in Oak Cliff, and I loved all the teachers who taught me.
Junior high was a little more rough. The boys all seemed to change over the summer from sixth to seventh grade, and things were no longer as innocent and sweet as they had been. Greiner Jr. High was larger than elementary school, the girls were meaner, and everyone worried incessantly about how they looked. Boys voices changed, girls got figures, and everyone started pairing up into couples. All of this was a huge distraction from learning. The teachers were less nurturing and it was easy to get lost in the crowd. I loved it nevertheless. In addition to my regular classes I learned how to sew and cook, how to write articles for the school newspaper, and how to cheat in Latin class. I was even in a mariachi band and learned to play guitar from a man who spoke not one word of English.
High school was scary at first. Skyline High School was huge and I felt like the teachers barely knew who I was from class to class. The first two years were fun and busy, with commercial art classes and drill team practice, but by the time I got to my senior year I found the classes boring and the teachers stupid. One teacher chastised me over and over in front of the class because of the way I wrote the capital A in my first name. My history and science teachers were all coaches, and class consisted of coloring maps and answering questions from the textbook. With nothing and nobody to challenge me, I did as little work as possible that year to graduate and missed as many days as I could to survive the boredom. I graduated with honors. I was ready for that fun, exciting life as an adult.
And it was. Neither of my parents went to college, and there was no money to go anywhere far, so I enrolled in classes at the local community college, Mountain View. It was like the first day of first grade all over again. I took classes in art history, ancient history, and English literature that all overlapped and melded together. The things I was learning in history class were being expanded and explained more in depth in my art history and literature classes. Suddenly, the world and life started to make sense, and I was in a place where it was cool to be smart and make good grades. Teachers didn’t treat me like an idiot, and they wanted to hear what I had to say. My first semester of college was like coming home to myself.
Life and fate intervened, however, and at Christmas break I left and took a seven year detour to Switzerland. I got married and worked for a few years as an English secretary in a Swiss company that made turbine generators for nuclear power plants, then became a hausfrau and mother to two children. When the marriage failed and I returned to Texas, I went back to Mountain View College, got an Associate’s degree, and won a full scholarship to SMU to finish up my last two years. I was a single mom and a full-time student, but I would have stayed in college forever if I could have. My plan was to take a year off and support myself and my kids, then enter a Ph.D track program in Interdisciplinary Studies, Journalism, or English Literature.
The seed was probably planted that first day of school that I wanted to be a teacher. While I was at SMU I took one class in elementary education, but compared to my other classes it was boring and uninteresting. A few months after graduation, while I was working part-time in the English Department at Mountain View, I met someone who had just been accepted into the Alternative Certification program in Dallas ISD. There was a teacher shortage and they would actually pay to train you to teach and then place you in a classroom. I applied for a high school reading intervention position, but after they learned of my years living overseas and my personal experiences having to learn another language, I was talked into interviewing for an English as a Second Language position at the elementary level instead. I was accepted and decided to put off graduate school and do what I had always wanted to do–teach young children.
I would teach children whose first language wasn’t English, first generation children whose parents were new immigrants to the U.S. I had a few Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian students, but the majority of my students were Spanish speaking. I interviewed with a principal whose first question to me was: would you be scared to teach at a school that is surrounded by barbed wire? I wasn’t, and was hired to teach second grade at a school half a mile from the center of downtown Dallas.
Like a lot of first year teachers, I was awful. When classes were leveled in October, I was moved to kindergarten and two half-day classes of students who spoke and understood almost no English. Many of the students in one class were special needs and could smell my weakness from the moment they walked into the room. I didn’t have a clue about discipline and went home crying most nights. I caught every illness known to man from my students and had an assistant principal who made my life a living hell, threatening to write me up if I didn’t outline my color caterpillar and clean the crayon marks off the backs of the chairs. In addition, I had an old clunker of a car that kept breaking down on the way to school and got me in just as much trouble as the students. Saddest of all, my heart was broken when the very first student to show up for class on the first day of school, one of my original second grade students, was accidentally shot and killed by her cousin when they found a loaded gun under the bed. I still have the little notes she used to put in the makeshift paper plate mailbox outside my new kindergarten classroom, telling me how much she loved me and missed me.
Somehow I survived, and after the first few years I got used to the stress and oddball characters that seem to litter public education. Teaching was much, much harder work than I ever expected, and in those halcyon days of Whole Language, everything was expected to be “authentic” (i.e. handmade and not store bought) and thematic (i.e. interdisciplinary). I loved the creativity of those early years, and spent my evenings copying poems and illustrating them on large sheets of chart paper and finding songs and picture books to go along with our themes–which could be anything from rain forests to families to transportation.
Eventually I found my footing and my confidence as a teacher. Like most teachers, through much patience, trial and error, and help from veteran teachers, I got better at discipline. In the beginning, I loved the fun of teaching the youngest students, but eventually I wanted a new challenge and found my way to fifth grade. I loved the fifth graders’ independence and sense of humor, but had to adjust to some major attitude, lack of motivation, and wisdom beyond their years in areas I knew nothing about until my twenties. Some days it was like teaching teenagers, some days it was like being back in kindergarten. Some of the students actually were teenagers, having been held back several times in the past and entering fifth grade in August as thirteen year olds.
Every generation complains about the next generation coming up, about how they have no manners and no discipline, and I’m probably no different. My students today seem more brazen than those from 19 years ago, and they see no reason to behave just because an adult tells them to. As a society we have only ourselves to blame. Television is overflowing with personalities and images that teach our children that being rude is funny, that you can be rich and famous for doing absolutely nothing of value, and that the person who yells the loudest usually gets the biggest piece of the pie. My heroes are those children who stand strong and aren’t afraid to work hard in school, even when everyone else makes fun of them for doing so and tells them it isn’t cool to be smart. It’s so hard to be a kid these days.
I have always simplistically believed that education is the way out, that books and learning can solve all problems. I still believe that. After nineteen years, though, I’ve decided it’s time to go. I’m feeling worn down by politicians who think the only thing that matters in education is a test score, that schools should be run like businesses, and that it’s acceptable to cut music and art and cram more kids into a classroom to save money. I’m tired of the punishing amount of paperwork that is required of teachers, and I’m just plain tired of all the testing. It’s time to move on.
I hope there are former students out there who think fondly of their time in my class and parents who are grateful that I taught their children. I hope they can forgive me for those days when I might have snapped at them impatiently or didn’t listen to them when they needed me to. I hope I made learning fun and interesting, but I also hope I taught them that sometimes learning is nothing more than long hours of hard work.
Most of all, I hope I helped mold some of my students into a bunch of really cool adults, voraciously reading good books and traveling the fifty states, remembering the year they sang Take Me Home, Country Roads in the fifth grade PTA program because it was everyone’s favorite song (to my utter surprise, until I got tired of the kids wanting me to play it over and over all year long), and how they sat spellbound watching and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. I hope my students remember our Sing Song Sing-Along Fridays and that they will read There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, Freak the Mighty, and Tales from The Odyssey to their own children one day. I won’t forget the children my students once were, and how they gave my own life so much meaning and love.
In the end, I have come full circle, starting and ending in elementary school. I realize now that school has probably always been my true home. I did find that fun, exciting life I always wanted, but like Dorothy, I never really had to leave home to find it. As a child, it was always there, in the books that opened up my world, in the kindness of teachers who pushed me, encouraged me, and never gave up on me, and in the schools that gave me a safe haven to return to each day. As an adult, those same elements remained, only I was the one in charge and and had the heavy responsibility of living up to my students’ expectations each and every day.
Fun and exciting? You better believe it was.
This week I finished up my last week of teaching, two friends lost their mothers, and a dear work colleague passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. We only got the news of the work colleague’s passing the day after her funeral, which upset me more than anything else because the news didn’t get passed on to our school, where she was greatly loved, and many people would have wanted to attend her funeral to say goodbye. I also got the news of her passing right in the middle of a huge fight with Michael, when I walked out of the room and just happened to pick up my phone and see the email, which made the news even harder to take.
Sometimes you just need a good cry.
I hate goodbyes. Leaving people you love is not easy, especially people you’ve worked with for 11 years. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my classes that I was leaving teaching, and that they would be my last group of students ever. Every time I started to tell them my eyes would water up and I couldn’t go through with it. Saying goodbye at the end of the year luncheon was hard, too, even to people I know I will see again. Our time will never be the same as those years spent teaching together.
Our next door neighbor’s wife had been gone for over a month and we were starting to think she had left him. When he came over to ask us to watch the house, we found out she has been out of town attending to her dying mother. A few days ago I saw my neighbor outside, who told me the news that the mother had finally died, three days before her daughter’s birthday. I felt so sad for her, knowing that her birthday would forevermore be accompanied by such sadness. The next day we were told that our former principal’s mother had also passed away, less than a year after her father’s passing, which was also less than a year after her brother’s death. Those goodbyes are perhaps the most poignant, the final goodbye.
I knew it would be hard, but when I said goodbye to my daughter outside her dorm the very first year of college in Austin, I wanted to turn back time, back to those days when she was small enough that I could protect her from anything the world might throw her way. I cried the entire three hour drive back to Dallas, my husband sitting helplessly next to me, unsure of what to do or say. Even though she wasn’t that far away and I would see her often, I knew, deep in my heart, that things would never be the same again–and they weren’t. She grew up and didn’t need me as much, which is a good thing, but hard for a mother to accept. It’s hard to let go sometimes.
And there are the goodbyes you never get to say, when those you love are suddenly and inexplicably taken away by death.
There are all the goodbyes we’ve said to our childhood pets, and to those we’ve had as adults. My good friend, Carol, a fellow teacher, inadvertently killed both of her fire-bellied toads, Twodee and Fruity, on the last day of school. She cried all morning, until one of her second graders yelled out, “Let’s get a fish!” She couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the comment on the last day of school.
My dad’s job transferred him from Dallas to Massachusetts the summer after sixth grade. It was a grand adventure for all of us. Our street was at the end of a cul-de-sac and it was teeming with kids. We spent the entire summer biking, swimming, chasing, digging, and doing everything kids should do, from dawn to dusk, outside and barefoot. It was the summer of the Munich Olympics, and one night our neighbor, a former National Geographic photographer, took us all outside and showed us the Northern Lights, something we knew we’d never see in Texas. It was also the summer of my first crush, when Chris, the cute newspaper boy across the street, would come out at dusk and we would sit against the fence in my front yard in the dark (with my dad nervously peeking out the window) and look at the stars and talk about Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Star Trek, and Land of the Giants. A few months later, when my dad got transferred back to Dallas, I sat in the U-haul truck with all our furniture piled in the back and cried as I said goodbye to Chris and the best summer of my life. As we drove away and I looked out the window through the tears I tried to hide, Seals and Crofts sang We May Never Pass this Way Again on the radio (I swear I’m not making this up), and I knew that I would never be the same again. That song will forever be the soundtrack to that lost summer–and I never did return to Chicopee Falls, MA.
There are the goodbyes you say when you realize you must move on from a relationship, and the goodbyes you’re cheated out of when you get dumped by a lover. Cry me a river doesn’t even come close sometimes.
So many goodbyes. Before I closed the door to my classroom for the last time yesterday, I stopped and looked around at the empty room, remembering all the other rooms I had taught in. So very many memories . . . I said goodbye to room 201 and to teaching, turned in my keys, and went home and had a good cry. It was exactly what I needed to do.
I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview. I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs. I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par. I told him I have great test scores.
More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike. I sign a new contract every year.
Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist. Neither are a lot of parents.
Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?
For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools. I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie. If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work. If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life? What will happen to our society? Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?
In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School. I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there. Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for. I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for. Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.
I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet. Even with all the cool discounts.