A Reformed Ed-reformer

Once upon a time, I was that young, white, teacher that really believed that the problem with my local urban school and our mismanaged district was the teachers’ union and the teachers that just didn’t work or care hard enough.

giphy1

I remember going to see Waiting for Superman and crying in the theater. Yes, I pumped my naïve fists at the screen, it is the teachers’ union. Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravich were evil and brave groundbreakers like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp where champions of our youth. I used to think that a teachers’ strike was selfish and irresponsible. I thought they were putting their needs first, and not thinking about the children they were charged with teaching. The term education reform made me giddy with excitement. Did I mention I was 22? And while I haven’t completely changed my mind about all things education reform, I watch the brave teachers striking in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado, and I applaud their efforts because I know it’s not just about them, but also their schools, their students, and the future of public education in this country.

What We Blame Teachers For

giphy2

Lately, it seems like no matter what is happening, teachers are easy targets. Movies like Waiting for Superman and anti-public school talking heads like Michelle Rhee (who only taught for 3 years BTW) have painted this picture of the curmudgeon public school teacher who doesn’t care about students and simply comes in for the paycheck. The average income for teachers in America is currently around 39,000 dollars a year. For context, that is the same salary as tree pruners, dental assistants, healthcare workers (secretaries and assistants), and constructions works. And this year, just for a sampling, these are things that my teacher friends have had said to them

  • “You’re removing me? Well, this class is an ass wipe anyway.” (from a student)
  • “I better not find out where you live.” (by a parent)
  • “If you don’t fix my sons attendance you’re not getting paid.” (by a parent)
  • “You’re a petty bitch.” (by a student).
  • “Parenting comes 90% from teachers and 10% from parents.” (by a parent)

It takes real money to fix a school system, but it’s completely free to blame teachers for not performing. So that’s what we’ve decided to do as a country: Blame teachers because it’s free. And if teachers were really in it for just the paycheck, they could probably just go and become one of these many other jobs (not that those jobs are easy!) and probably avoid being called a Wild Cunt (true story, it’s happened to me).

Teachers Matter, but I’m Going to Say it, They Don’t Matter that Much.

Study after study shows us that a good teacher is a wonderful thing for a classroom of kids. A good teacher can help students raise reading scores and provide a lifelong positive association with school and learning. Saying teachers are important is a no-brainer, but when did teachers become the only important factor, the all-powerful, the Oz behind the curtain? We all want the best doctor, but imagine, if while being prepped for surgery the doctor told us that his surgical instruments are 45 years old, and because of budget reasons, they actually had to let the anesthesiologist go this morning, but don’t worry, they’re just gonna get the x-ray tech to step in. Also, because the hospital is overcrowded, he is actually going to be performing your surgery and another surgery simultaneously. It doesn’t matter how good the doctor is if he’s set up for failure like that.

Similarly, what if you’ve been stuffing your face with Big Macs and Häagen-Dazs for your whole life and the best doctor in the world tells you that you need to lose some weight and change your lifestyle or else your obese ass is going to have a heart attack.

giphy3

If you keep pushing those burgers down your gullet, even though your trained and qualified and caring doctor prepared a great plan for you, is it the doctor’s fault when your heart explodes? Here’s the thing, we can’t simultaneously say that teachers single-handedly hold the key to turning around a failing system and then get mad when they asked to be paid like they are turning around a failing system.

The White Knight Reformer

giphy4

We have created an image in this country of the teacher as a Mother Teresa figure, and this is problematic in so many ways. For one, this savior is generally a white, privileged person who is really taking a risk and really putting themselves out to help the underprivileged inner-city community. i.e. Michelle Pfeiffer and her leather jacket, Hilary Swank and her pearls, Matthew Perry and his one million rules.  Don’t worry, Stephanie is here, and she’s 22 and got a degree in bio and despite what her parents said, she’s going to help poor black kids.

Teach for America has been extremely harmful to the professionalism of teachers. Teaching is a craft that takes years to develop. It requires training and practice and dedication, and to say that well-intentioned kids can learn that craft in one summer belittles the entire profession. I have met wonderful teachers who are Teach for America and they continue to dedicate their lives to the craft to teaching, but more often than not, they come in for a year or two, save all the black and brown kids they can get their hands on,  move back to the suburbs and apply for grad school. Can I just say this? Black and Hispanic people don’t need White people to save them. We all need help from one another at times, but if you go into a situation thinking you are going to save people, chances are your motivation isn’t coming from the right place.

The Only Thing I Know Now

  1. It’s complicated.

So what if teachers want better pay. It doesn’t make them monsters. They deserve it. And paying teachers more only translates to better workers and better outcomes for our children. These teachers across the country aren’t striking so they can afford a new BMW or a vacation to Bali, they are fighting for their students, supplies for their classrooms, adequate staffing, and dare I say it, a living wage that they have worked hard for. Recently, Chris Taylor, a Bridgeport Board of Education Member, the district I used to teach in, had this gem to say about the teachers in his district when discussing budget cuts. “News flash — we already have Bridgeport teachers that are underpaid. They are here because they love their job. They love their students … They should be paid $100,000. Unfortunately, we don’t have it. And if they are going to leave over 6 percent, we don’t want them here anyway. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” So first of all, this guy sucks, and second of all, it’s not just a 6% pay cut. Bridgeport, like many other inner cities across the country, has a serious qualified teacher shortage to the point where it isn’t uncommon to have a rotating door of substitutes for an entire year. Since when does knowing your worth and asking for it make you “bad rubbish”?

  1. Not all Ed Reform is bad.

I used to work for an education non-profit called Educators4Excellence. They were fighting to see policy change that was designed and written by teachers for teachers and their students. They believed in getting teachers more involved in their unions to strengthen their unified voice. We have gotten ourselves into a real pickle when it comes to American public education in this country. We are going to need all hands on deck to help turn this sinking ship around, but the voices at the forefront must belong to those in the classroom. Not politicians, not philanthropists, not non-profit leaders, but teachers. The first step is learning to trust our educators. Trust their professionalism, trust their good intentions, trust their expertise and stop seeing them as the enemy.

Just as a good rule of thumb before you try to tell a teacher how to do her job or assume that she isn’t working hard enough I want you to engage in this little activity: Think back to the time that a teacher came into your office, decided she was an expert at your job because she read a few articles about your job or saw a few movies, gave you new initiatives to follow, tried to change your pay based on how you performed at those initiatives, and then decided that you where lazy and heartless because according to her, you weren’t working hard enough. Oh, that never happened? That’s what I thought.

giphy

Why the Parkland shooting cannot be about mental illness

It is not that America doesn’t desperately need mental health reform. We do.  But if we make the pervasive instances of school shootings solely about mental illness, we are doing mental health care reform a serious injustice. Avoiding gun reform by focusing on mental health reform cheapens our need for revisions to our mental health care system and deflects from the real issue. It demonizes the mentally ill and associates them with mass shooters, further stigmatizing mental illness and making it even more difficult to speak up and attain help.

We need to increase access to mental health services for Americans.  We need to acknowledge the trauma that is caused by living in poverty, and what the ramifications of that trauma are on the individual. We need mental health counseling in our schools. Why, on average, are we seeing only 1 school counselor for every 491 students when the American School Counselor Association recommends a 1:250 ratio, in the least. We need to make medications to treat mental illness more affordable. And connected to all of these initiatives, we need to eliminate the stigma of mental illness. These are truths that are separate from the gun debate that is currently taking place in America.

Trump tweeted on Thursday,

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

Are we moving closer to the criminalization of the mentally ill in order to avoid a conversation about gun reform?

To say that school shootings are an issue of mental illness may not be wrong, but what is wrong is to hide the need for gun reform inside the mental illness argument. Politicians have been blaming mental illness since Columbine, and yet, where are the reforms? If we’re going to avoid the conversation about gun reform and instead, insist that this is an issue of mental illness, then we should at least be seeing improvements to our mental health care system.

I can’t help but feel that this concern over the state of the nation’s mental health seems forced and insincere. It feels like we’re talking about mental illness as a way to avoid the conversation that we need to be having about gun control. The terrorists in these mass shootings are all men and overwhelmingly white. If we look at Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland, all three communities are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. White men get the luxury of being mentally ill as opposed to being labeled terrorist, which further stigmatizes mental illness. The face of mental illness is becoming the younger, white, angry man who is struggling with violent tendencies, impulse control, isolation, a proclivity for harming animals and an inability to manage his temper. This is not the vast majority of people who have a mental illness, and by making this the face of mental illness, as a country, we are making it harder and harder for people to seek help and still feel “normal.”

Despite calling for improvements to the state of mental health care in our country, Trump’s tax bill would actually slash important mental health departments. All evidence points to the fact that Trump and the Republicans don’t really care about mental health care reform, and they are just using it to keep us from talking about the issue of gun reform. If Republicans aren’t just protecting their NRA connection and are actually concerned about the state of American’s mental health, why hasn’t the issue of mental health been brought up sooner? Where was the call to improved mental health after the 1992 riots? Why weren’t Republicans talking then about the trauma caused by poverty and the subsequent PTSD that may have come from witnessing or being party to the riots or the beating of Rodney King? Where was the call to improved mental health care during the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s? An entire population of Americans, shoved into the shadows to die and watch each other die, without the legal or medical health care of the country that was supposed to protect them. Where was the call to improved mental health care during the crack epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s? No one was addressing the mental toll of watching a family member suffer from addiction. Where was the increased school counseling for children whose parents were incarcerated? Where is the call for mental health access for Puerto Ricans who have been displaced or who have witnessed their homes and communities swept away?

Where is the evidence that our political leaders really care about mental health care reform? It seems like we only care about improving mental health care in our country when it means protecting the NRA and our antiquated 2nd amendment rights.

It is not that we don’t need mental health reform in this country. We desperately do, but the last thing we need is the poster boy for mental illness to be a deranged murder. The fight for mental health reform is needed and important, but Americans should not be deterred from insisting on gun control reform for the consolation prize of empty promises to improve our mental health care system.

 

These Two Douche Bags

Yesterday I stumbled upon two serious douche bags. I was getting work done at the Starbucks on the Post Road in Fairfield Connecticut, and these douche bags introduced themselves to the room by stomping up the stairs (it’s a two-floor establishment) while one of them boomed to the other, “Yeah my divorce lawyer is a real bitch.”

They were salt and peppered, attractive, white, older men in their late forties or early fifty. After they finished berating their ex-wives and their bitchy divorce lawyers, they got to work, taking up four seats and one table, making sure to really spread out and get comfortable in the packed Starbucks. They yelled into their phones, conducting their business on speaker phone, disrupting the peace and quiet for the other patrons. They swore loudly, and people got up and left. Even from across the room with headphones on, I could hear them easily.

Honestly, I didn’t mind the distraction too much, because I love a good distraction while I’m trying to write, but then they started talking about the women they were currently and had in the past, been “fucking.” I muted my headphones and wrote down parts of their conversation because it was just too good not to.

giphy3

“Here’s the thing. She was hot, like a Playmate hot, but I’m not gonna commit because I’ll tell you, I’ve got four more years of alimony to pay, and I’ve got all these women in rotation. And it’s like my dad used to say, if it drives, flies, or fucks, rent it. Don’t buy it.” 

The women around me looked over at them, and we exchanged looks with each other. giphy4But we didn’t say anything to the men. I thought about it. I thought about walking over and politely asking them if they could keep it down. I imagined yelling from across the room, you guys are rude douche bags! I thought about sauntering over and giving them a good feminist rant. I thought about a lot of different scenarios, because, like I said, I was trying to do anything to keep from actually writing. But in the end, I didn’t say anything. I put my music louder and I finished the piece I had been working on.

I thought about those Douche Bags all night last night, and I woke up thinking about them this morning. Should I have said something to them? Why didn’t I say something to them?

Part of the reason why I didn’t say anything to them is that I didn’t want to come off as a delicate snowflake. I mean, I like a good racy joke. I swear like a sailor. I’m no prude and I like to think that I save my “that’s offensives” for really really offensive stuff. If I had gone over to them and said, “I’m sorry, but your language is really offensive to me,” I’m sure they would have quieted down, but it wouldn’t have changed their mindset. I didnt’ want them to quiet down, I wanted them to think differently. It wouldn’t have altered their perception of women and it wouldn’t have gotten to the core issue of why they think it’s acceptable to not just talk about women that way, but think about women that way. And honestly, I wasn’t offended. I posted this picture of the Douche Bags on my Instagram, laughably explaining the situation and a friend kindly responded, “I’m sorry you had to hear that. It’s very offensive.” But this word, offend, has taken on such a bullshit connotation.

giphy5

Technically, an offense is an annoyance or resentment caused by a perceived insult. To use the word offensive suggests that the person doing the offending could be right. The offense has to do with your individual beliefs. It has to do with you personally and your individual ideals, and that is where the problem lies. As long as we are looking at the way women are treated, viewed, exploited, stigmatized, threatened, and so on, as a personal issue, and not a societal and cultural issue, we’re not going to get anywhere. I wasn’t offended. They were just wrong. If these guys had been jerking off at Starbucks, I wouldn’t have gone over to them and quietly said, “I’m sorry but that is offensive to me.” It’s not offensive. It’s wrong. And talking and thinking and treating women like that should be as socially unlawful as jerking off in public. We’re not going to do it because it’s the wrong the thing to do.

Another reason why I didn’t say anything is because I honestly didn’t think it would change anything. I succumbed to apathy. I resorted to the “these guys are douche bags and I’m not going to change their minds and being confronted by a woman while they’re talking about women is only going to solidify their ideas about women, so fuck it, I’ll just check Facebook again, I mean, finish this project.” But maybe the point shouldn’t have been to change the minds of these men, but to publically let them know that what they’re saying is wrong. I’m a firm believer that everyone has a right to their opinion and should be able to freely express their ideas, even if I don’t agree with those ideas. The problem here is that, as a society, we are still very gray on issues of right or wrong in terms of human equality and treatment. Mistreating a person based on their gender/ gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnicity is wrong. It is not an issue of personal belief systems or ideas. It was cowardly of me to say to myself, “well even those Douche Bags have a right to their opinion and ideas,” because when a person’s opinions and ideas lead to inequality and potential violence, then those “opinions” are wrong. The more we stand up to these ideas, the more unacceptable they become.

Even still, with all of this contemplation and reflection, I don’t know how I’d treat the situation if I had a do-over. The truth is, I’m still scared to be a woman sometimes. I’m scared to be “that girl” or to be too vocal or “make a scene” or get too emotional. I’m worried about coming off as too bitchy or like a “know it all.” I was scared of confronting those men because there was a part of me that questioned whether I would have been right or wrong to call them out. Hell, there is still a part of me that feels weird about buying tampons from a male cashier.

giphy7

 

How am I going to confront two grown, white men and tell them that their views on women are wrong? I was scared that I would have been ostracized in that Starbucks, and if things got intense, no one would have had my back.

I blew it this time, but something tells me I’ll have another chance because there are a lot of Douche Bags out there.

giphy6

Remember When We Used to Have “Going Out” Clothes?

A few weeks ago, I was getting on a train in New York City. It was 1am, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I went into the city. I wore an outfit. I drank cocktails that were way too much money, and then I even went to a second location that involved walking down a dark flight of stairs into a tiny sweaty room full of people dancing and nowhere to put my coat where I danced and drank more cocktails.

giphy

My old ass trying to rage

At one, I was getting on the train, and gaggles of young women were just arriving. They were wearing valor jumpsuits, high-waisted shorts with platform sandals, sunglasses in the shape of hearts and black lace chokers. They were laughing with each other and taking long swigs from cute little flasks that they pulled out of their tiny purses. They took pictures of the ceiling of Grand Central Station and selfies with one another.

For a second, I rolled my 35-year-old eyes at these groups of girls. Little girls. Girls who, in the moment, might be feeling grown, but I knew, I knew so much better. They were babies, and they should be in bed, or heading home on the 1am train to their beds, not gallivanting all over the…and then I stopped myself.

giphy1

Once upon a time, I was one of those girls. I would put on ridiculously cute outfits that didn’t match the weather at all and gallivant across cities with too little clothing on, laughing too loudly, full of too much alcohol and confidence, surrounded by my girls feeling unstoppable. I had one particularly infamous outfit.

butterfly

This isn’t the shirt exactly, but you get the idea. (I had to google “slutty butterfly shirt” to find this image)

It consisted of stretch jeans that somehow had glitter built into their fabric, high black platform sandals, and the most amazing “shirt” ever created. It was a butterfly made out of sparkly sequence. The wings flapped out to (barely) cover my boobs, and stretched down to not even come close to covering my belly button. To get into it, I had to hold the butterfly against my chest, while at least two girlfriends weaved the lace up back in place and tied me into it, tightly. Once in this shirt, I would slather glitter lotion all over my body and have more best friends slather it on my back so it would sparkle under the lights of the club. I would wear this outfit out, proudly, into the New England winter with no coat, because who could afford the 5 dollar coat check? I tear up now, thinking about the sheer class of this scene.

Those late teens to early twenties, although filled with unreasonable outfits and questionable moral choices were a vital part of my development, and were no less important than my exploration of womanhood in my 30s. This turbulent and often confusing part of my life taught me about friendship and love. It taught me about what I would and wouldn’t accept from men: as sexual partners, as dance partners, as boyfriends, as study partners, and as friends.  The late teens and early twenties were a time to practice being an adult. They were full of mistakes that felt cripplingly permeant. There was such a limited point of reference and all of a sudden we were doing such adult things that we had no way to evaluate. There was this intense pressure to figure it all out.

If I could go back to that 21-year-old, I would tell her that she’s doing great. I would encourage her to rage hard and I would promise her that even though it doesn’t feel like it, she really is figuring it all out. I would high five her and tell her that she’s going to grow and change in ways that she can’t even imagine and when she feels like it’s all coming to end, it is actually the start of something that she can’t really understand yet. I would tell her to trust herself.

I wonder what my 40 something-year-old self would tell the 35-year-old me. As women, we have so much to learn from one another, at every stage of our lives. It often feels like we’ve been so trained to compete with one another and see one another as adversaries that we don’t open ourselves to the lessons of our sisters. And since we are trained to ruthlessly doubt and criticize ourselves, we end up turning that on one another too.

Before I wrote this, I walked into a coffee shop to work for the day. At two tables pushed together, there was a group of “older” woman. They were probably in their 40s or 50s. They looked good, and they laughed openly with one another. One of them was wearing a “birthday queen” pin. The only thing I can do is hope that when I am their age, I will be an even better woman than I am right now. On my journey to that woman, I’ll look for female role models, of all ages, to help guide me. And when I see women rocking their womanhood, at every age, I’ll celebrate them.

giphy2

 

 

Why We Run: Supporting IRIS and their Run For Refugees

I published this piece on the blog of one of my clients, One6Three the Pizza Joint. They donate pizzas to this race each year and are very involved in the East Rock Community. I create pieces for their blog that highlight their connection to the community, the personality of the employees and owners, and fun pieces about their menu items and restaurant events. 

The Race

On Super Bowl Sunday, February 4th, IRIS will be holding their annual Run For Refugees. They are hoping to exceed their number of participants from last year’s race and host over 3,000 runners for a fun, fast, 5k through East Rock’s beautiful neighborhood. One6Three has joined many of New Haven’s local businesses, like Archie Moore’s, Koffee, and mActivity to support this cause by donating goods and services for the race. The money raised will allow IRIS to help refugees “establish new lives, regain hope, and contribute to the vitality of the Connecticut community.” To do this, IRIS will provide housing, food, education, healthcare, and legal services as well as emotional and social support to the refuges that they work with.

iris1

The Reason

In recent years, refugee resettlement in the United States has been a hotly debated issue. Opponents of refugee resettlement point to fears surrounding national security and the perceived cost as reasons to reduce the number of refugees who enter the country. Although extensive measures have been taken to ensure that refugees do not pose a security threat, and that, in fact, welcoming refugees into our country will only strengthen the economy, a fear-based mentality has cast a xenophobic shadow across this issue.  It does not help that Mr. Trump has reinforced these fears, aggressively altering laws surrounding the welcoming and support of refugees into America. During his administration, he has capped the number of refugees entering the country to 50,000, the lowest number since 1980. Additionally, Trump has furthered his “America First” agenda by pulling out of the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. He has also repealed a “follow to join” path to citizenship that aimed to reunite refugees with their families who are still in their countries of origin.

In 2016, over 900 refuges came to Connecticut, and out of that number 475 were welcomed by IRIS. These refuges came from a variety of places including The Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. With very little help from the federal government, organizations like IRIS must rely on donors and fundraising to raise the majority of the funds that they use to serve America’s newest citizens. Aside from the humanitarian cause of helping displaced people, there is an economic benefit to supporting refuges when they enter the country. While it has been proven that “the macroeconomic effect from the refuge serge is likely to be a modest increase in GDP growth” in order for countries like America to reap the long term financial gains that refugees can offer, investing in initial supports and resettlement programs are essential. Job training and placement, language lessons, and social and emotional support can all speed up the integration process.  Although some would argue that resettlement supports place an unfair burden on the American tax payer, studies have shown that “over their first 20 years in the United States, refugees who arrived as adults aged 18-45 contributed more in taxes than they received in relocation benefits and other public assistance.”

Ideally, America wouldn’t need financial reasoning to continue one of their oldest and proudest cultural traditions of welcoming people fleeing persecution. In the perfect world, coming to terms with humanitarian facts and figures such as the 12 million Syrians who have been displaced since the start of the war,  or that violence in The Democratic Republic of Congo has forced more than 10,000 citizens to flee into neighboring Uganda, or that an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in the South Sudan since their civil war began in 2013, would be reason enough to open our arms to those in need. IRIS believes strongly in supporting refuges and helping them create a new life in America. Their Run for Refuges allows their talented team to support refugees as they become happy, safe, active, members of our communities.

There is still time to sign up for the run or make a donation to IRIS before race day on February 4th.  I’ll be there representing One6Three, will I see you there?

iris2

Is the Creation of Art a Privilege of the Rich?

The creation of art generally doesn’t equate to the creation of money. Since it can take years to see any sort of profit, if a profit ever comes at all, poor kids don’t pursue art. I’m sorry, let me rephrase that, poor kids can’t pursue art because they don’t have a backer to pay their bills for them while they do so. They have no safety net. They have no parent’s health insurance they can jump on. They don’t have the time or resources to pursue something that many in the lower and middle classes would classify as a hobby.

And if poor kids do pursue art? There is an immense guilt that they feel and an immense imposter syndrome. Working class people don’t paint pictures. We don’t write poems. We don’t spend hours writing and rewriting the same pages for the pursuit of beauty because well, that is a frivolous endeavor.

What is the real problem with this reality? Is the real problem that only rich kids have the option to take the time to pursue the arts? Or is it that as a society, we don’t value the arts in the ways that we should?  Artists don’t brandish the same ohs and ahs as doctors or lawyers. We are such a product-driven society, a society that is fixated on goods and tangible services, and working at the production of a product that doesn’t fit inside of previously formatted parameters is difficult for other people to understand.

At the risk of sounding like a ridiculous hippie, why is making money the most important pursuit?giphy6This is where the poor kid in me starts to roll my eyes at myself. I start to yell at my computer screen “So you don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck! So you can afford an apartment in a safe neighborhood! So you can eat something other than mac and cheese for dinner every night! (I mean, mac and cheese is delicious and everything but….). There are very few hippies I’ve met in my life who come from poverty. It is a wonderful choice to make the conscious decision to move away from materialism and move closer to nature, but many times this involves a start in life that included materialism.  It is a wonderful choice to choose to pursue happiness instead of financial success, but what is often overlooked is that it is a very privileged choice that someone gets to make to shirk financial stability. The poor know that you can’t shirk something that you never had. You can’t turn away from something that was never yours.  In wealthy households, children are taught that their possibilities are endless. They are raised believing they can, and should be and do anything they want. They have the security to dream and explore.

giphy4

So what is the consequence? As our society moves into this dangerous realm where everyone goes to college and there is a formal training for every job, what does that mean for the arts? There are nearly 300 MFA programs across the country today (three decades ago, there were barely 50).  The creative writing majors and the fine arts majors are overflowing with all the kids from the right side of the tracks, all the trust funds, and all of the offspring who don’t know what an overdraft fee is. And the poor kids who love to write, love to draw, love to create, but can’t justify spending 40 grand a year on an education that won’t guarantee them a steady position are siphoned out. I know very few poor kids who made it to college just to study art. The studios and creative writing majors are filled with rich kids who have the privilege to pursue their passion with a financial safety net to protect them. What does that mean for the art that finds its way to our bookshelves, gallery walls, Spotify stations, and stages? When I read a new book, I can’t help but wonder who I’m not reading. I wonder whose voice has been left out of our societal narrative because they couldn’t finish their book because they were just trying to pay their rent. What can be done to counteract this dangerous trend and what happens when art becomes a privilege of the upper class?

For now, I’m going to argue for the good old-fashioned patron, because I’m not sure what else to do. So if there is a king somewhere or a member of the nobility or some aristocrat who is willing to fund my life while I make art, I’m taking applications.

giphy5

How I Quit My Career to be a Writer

unhappy teacher

This is my actual 2016/2017 school picture. This is in the yearbook, friends.

For nearly 12 years, I worked in inner-city education. The cities I worked in were some of the most impoverished in the state. The students and families I served were some of the most deserving, hardworking people, and I was honored to work for them.

But after 12 years of working as a high school English teacher and non-profit teacher organizer, I was pretty much burnt out to a laughable degree. I would drive to work and think to myself, I wish I would just get rear-ended. Nothing serious, I don’t have enough money for a new car or anything, but just enough to get me to the hospital for the day with some minor neck pain and a doctor’s note. I was to the point where a day in the hospital, wearing an open-in-the-back-smock, sleeping in a hospital bed, surrounded by the stank of death and disinfectant sounded better to me than going to work. And this seemed normal to me. Crying in the shower before work was normal to me. Trudging through the day just to get back into bed seemed normal.

The last 2 and half years of my career, I worked in a high stakes charter network that claimed to care about teacher professionalism (they didn’t) and claimed to care about student achievement (they really didn’t) and working inside of what I perceived to be a militant, racist system was slowly crushing my soul.

But I’m a realist. I’m a lower, middle-class girl from a broken home and my family is not the type of family that says ridiculous things like, “Follow your dreams!” They are more of the, “Who’s going to pay your bills?” kinda group. My parents didn’t have careers. They had jobs (sometimes). They went to work, and they expected me to do the same, and get a paycheck, and shut up about it. I had a few degrees under my belt, and a “good”, “secure” job, and by all definitions, I was lucky and I had tremendous guilt and fear about leaving a good job because I was unhappy. It was such a millennial mindset. It was a mindset for spoiled brats, or so I told myself.

According to a recent Harris Poll, only 33% of Americans are happy. And if we analyze some of this data a little closer, we can lean on the Easterlin Paradox that suggests that “there is no link between the level of economic development of a society and the overall happiness of the citizens.” But I was on a path, that I felt I had little control to alter. At the end of the 2017 school year, I was coming close to 35 and trying to wrap my head around embracing my unhappiness. To make myself feel better, I told myself that everyone feels like this. All the people I worked with hated their jobs. All my friends more or less hated their jobs. So what? Just suck it up and keep working, keep your head down, and trudge along and one day, in about 30 years you can retire, and then you can die, and then you can stop whining.

I started applying for other teaching jobs, but nothing was panning out. I thought about switching careers and getting back into the non-profit sector that I spent almost two years in, but the pay was so much less for what I imagined would be, lots of extra stress, and I didn’t really want to do that work anyway. The last thing I wanted was to jump from one miserable job to another. I started writing list after list looking for a good reason to stay at my current job. My lists looked like this:

Reasons to stay at your job: Good pay. Summers off. Health benefits are good (free birth control). You like the kids. Sometimes there are cupcakes in the breakroom. Your coworkers are cool. You like telling people you are a teacher. Only babies quit. Don’t be a baby. Suck it up. Remember: the cupcakes.  You’re too scared to quit. You’d fail at another job. You’ll fail. You’re scared. You’re too scared. You’re way too scared. You can’t just start over. You’re thirty-freaking-five. You don’t start over at 35.

giphy1

Reasons to leave your job: No growth opportunities. Charter school work is sucking the life out of you. Racist establishment. The kids call the principal and deans white supremacists behind their backs. 60+ hour work weeks. You cry in the shower in the morning. You hate it. You want to be a writer. You hate it. You want to be a writer. You hate it.

giphy2

In the end, I decided that being scared was the only real reason I had to stay, and being scared to leave is not a good enough reason to stay anywhere. So I left. I told my principal in a meeting. I was one semester away from finishing my MFA and I told him I wanted to focus on writing. He said to me, “What are you even getting a degree in? What are you going to be, A Writer? He then offered me a part-time position so I could spend time on my “stories” which would include half the pay, no benefits, and if I were lucky, 15 hours less a week of work. No thank you. I left that office floating.

But there are lots of practical challenges to leaving your profession, the career you’ve been cultivating for years, the position you thought you’d retire in, to jump into the virtual unknown. Here are some practical steps to leave your job for a new job that is unstable and terrifyingly exciting.

  1. You’re going to want to drink a lot with your friends and get to the point where you are all saying things like, “Yes, totally! You can totally do this!” Thanks Pam.
  2. You need to save up some money. I saved up a month’s worth of all my bills. I knew that freelance writing would take a while to get up and running and I needed something to keep me floating while I could build a base.
  3. Acknowledge your privilege. I am lucky to have most possibly the best husband in all of human history and I was able to get on his health insurance. I’m 35. I need a few monthly pills and yearly checks. I also have three higher education degrees. A B.S. in Secondary Education and English Literature, an M.A. in English Literature and an MFA in writing. I realize that these degrees make me more marketable and more likely to receive certain jobs. I could leave my job with a decent amount of confidence that I would be ok.
  4. Get brave. I tend to be mostly insecure about most things, so leaving a career and a profession that I had worked at and become good at over the course of 12 years was terrifying. Suddenly I was a newbie. Suddenly I had to learn how to do everything all over again. I had to develop new routines and new plans and then when those plans didn’t work, I had to try again. I had to tell that voice in the back of my head that was jumping up and down and laughing and pointing at me and screaming, You suck! You can’t do this! Why would you think you can do this? to shut up.
  5. Get humble. I still needed to pay my bills. My husband and I had a long talk about finances and in the end, we realized that his job and the dynamic of our relationship would require me to still be a 50/50 partner in our financial life. It was beyond important for me to still maintain my equal contribution to your finances. I needed a way to pay bills. All through college I worked at Applebee’s. (Please never eat their Riblets. Ever.) I had to go back to basics and get a waitressing job. Luckily my brother was just opening a pizza place and I went to work for him.

It’s been almost 5 months since I started writing (and waitressing) full time. I have a handful of clients, a handful of online publications I write for, and I’ve even gotten one of my creative pieces published.

I usually don’t cry in the shower anymore.

giphy3