I’ve been lying in bed for an hour at the end of an incredible day. I can’t sleep. Fears and panic have completely consumed me by replaying scenes from one of the most painful events in my life. And I can’t even tell you why it’s so painful, why it can’t heal… aside from the fact that it involves a lie… and I was never proven innocent.
The summer of 2008 was a pretty exciting time. I had just graduated from college, been accepted into a graduate program in Chicago and moved there, along with my husband. I had a clear understanding of my calling: to work with children, to teach – despite the fact that I had never done either. The first part-time job that I applied for was a substitute teaching position at a private preschool in Lincoln Park. I walked in and was charmed by the primary colored walls and incredibly bubbly director. She was incredible. Talking to her was like getting a hug by exactly the right person at exactly the right time. She called me the next day and within 10 days I had filled in seven times. The children were amazing. They climbed up into my lap without inhibition as I read them stories – a new voice for every character. I picked them up when they fell, helped them work through conflicts, and received supernatural confirmation that I was exactly where I was meant to be. Everyone else agreed. I was hired on the next week as an assistant teacher in the 3’s and 4’s room with two incredible teammates. Miss T was sweetness personified, yet wonderfully down to earth. Miss M was sincere, outrageously friendly, and saw the best in everyone. We worked beautifully together. I never felt less because I was just an assistant; doing most of the dirty work and little of the “teaching”. Everything is a learning experience in early childhood education, especially friendship.
I had never put so much of myself into a job before. I had never done something that meant so much to me and gotten paid at the end of the month. This position brought out a part of me that was rarely revealed in the world of adults. Sheer, unadulterated joy; pouring your heart into something; believing you are good at something… those experiences wouldn’t last for two seconds in the “real world”. And though it lasted longer there, my perfect place was shaken.
I wasn’t the only staff change that school year. Several new assistants were brought on, there were new lead teachers, and that little ray of sunshine that was the director bought the company. One of the teachers replaced her and, with the promotion, reinvented herself from the “criss-cross applesauce” sitting preschool teacher to the director of a prestigious preschool, baiting Gold Coast parents the best way she saw fit: in couture. I was still on my teaching “honeymoon” and, though I noted the change (and began to feel a sense of intimidation), I didn’t think much about it. I settled into the position and there were moments when I realized that children are not always beautiful and teaching was not always rewarding. I enjoyed my co-workers, who comprised the majority of my new friends. I felt a sense of comradery with our shared love of kids and passion for teaching, though the degree to which that was true varied from person to person. One of my friends, a fellow teaching assistant, kind of crashed and burned. She rubbed the new director the wrong way and was catty in her interactions with her, frequently talking about her just out of earshot. I should have recognized the danger.
On the Friday the school was celebrating Halloween, this teacher was called into the office… the school was open enough that I realized this, but I didn’t really think about it. She returned to her classroom a while later and then… I was called in. They shut the door. New, intimidating director is there with old, happy director.
New Director: We called you in because we need to talk to you about your behavior. You are too negative with the children.
Me: Too negative?
ND: You are constantly using phrases such as “no” and “don’t” and I have observed you multiple times using a negative tone. We do not use those words at this school.
Me: I don’t understand… did (my cooperating teachers) feel that I was being too negative with the kids?
ND: This has nothing to do with them – they would probably not have said anything even if they did. Do not tell me this hasn’t been happening. I have listened on the other side of the wall and heard you doing this.
My heart was pounding. I’ve never pretended to be perfect – but I loved that job and I loved those kids. I was new to the world of interacting with children, but it came so naturally. My cooperating teachers, parents, and the kids themselves seemed to love me. Naturally, I started to cry.
Old Director: Miss A, I don’t know what happened to the person I hired. I don’t know if there are some personal issues taking place in your life, but I hired a warm, bubbly assistant teacher and I don’t know what has happened to her.
Ambushed. That’s the only way I can describe it. I cried for the rest of the meeting. I cried until the end of my shift – could barely articulate to my co-teachers what had happened (they were equally confused/surprised). Did it matter that the new educational director who trained me had felt that telling me “we use positive redirection” was sufficient training on the matter of dealing with misbehavior? No… the fact that I may have simply not known that those words were “not allowed” was not considered. Not to mention that I had heard other teachers use those words (of course, since it’s nearly impossible not to). Or what about the fact that she had gathered evidence on the matter, seemingly for days, without offering some “positive redirection” to me? Instead they stage an intervention. The terrible, awful, irresponsible teacher is called in and rebuked to the point of tears AND it is insinuated that this trouble arises from her own personal life.
On Monday we worked something out… I assured them of my commitment to the students, assured them that I would not continue to “be negative” with the children and that I had enlisted my co-teachers to tell me immediately when I had spoken incorrectly, and promised them that I was indeed the person that they had hired and that it was painful to let them down as I had. From them on I walked on egg shells. I had nightmares for months. Simply being in the directors’ presence was painful. I was so intimidated of her it was almost crippling. I could barely look her in the eye. It seemed that she looked at me in disgust at times. Some teachers were gently and lovingly encouraged by her, others were like me and seemed to rub her wrong, but not nearly so wrong. I feared her, but couldn’t respect her. When she did things wrong (and everyone does), made inappropriate jokes in meetings, or escalated her heels to four inches I memorized it in an effort to convince myself that she really wasn’t any better than me… since she nearly had me convinced.
There was never any follow up meeting to say “we’re happy with you” or even “we don’t think you’re a terrible person”. I got my summer class schedule in February and it conflicted with my work hours. I went to them to request that perhaps they might keep me on with different hours, but it didn’t work out. Understandably, the assistant position doesn’t offer much flexibility. I worked my heart out until May, but much more carefully. I never sacrificed my demeanor with the students, and continued to have wonderful relationships with my co-teachers and the rest of the staff. When I left, I had a list of parents calling me to babysit and I am still close to two of those families. Fortunately, those families never had any idea what had happened behind the scenes.
My last year of grad school went by quickly, and I would often draw upon the innate connection that I experienced with those first students to build rapport with the 2nd and 5th graders I worked with at my internship site. I healed… somewhat. I even subbed every once and a while and was greeted warmly during those visits. It had been a year and longer; I never had to see her again if I didn’t want to. The past is past.
When I graduated and began looking for full-time teaching positions I realized that I would need to use that work experience as a reference. It was my only paid teaching experience. I tried to bypass the issue by utilizing the educational director as a reference; we had always had a wonderful working relationship and she saw me in the classroom more than any other administrator. She was willing, but I could tell she was hesitant. I had an idea where that hesitancy came from. She knew my strategy… and they shared an office. Nevertheless, she wrote me a lovely letter of recommendation. The first school I did extensive interviewing with asked me back for a teaching demo (which meant they were considering me and only a few other applicants). Two weeks after my interview passed with no contact. After inquiring I was told they went with another candidate. The second school I had an interview with was absolutely ecstatic about me as an applicant. The principal confided that she felt I was exactly what she was looking for. A few days later I received an impersonal voice mail that they had gone with another applicant.
It could have been anything that tipped the scale out of my favor. It could have had nothing to do with me. It could have been the budget, the other candidate, anything. But two-and-a-half years after being called into that office, I am lying awake terrified that it was her.
I did a pretty good job talking myself out of this line of thought until October. I hadn’t found a full-time position and saw that the sister school to the preschool I worked at was hiring an assistant teacher for the exact age-group I had worked with. I called. Old Director picked up. She’s so happy to hear from me. She has the director at the sister school call me back. We schedule an interview for the next afternoon. The interview is canceled, which was fine; she needed to meet with a parent. But it was never rescheduled. She never responded to any of my calls from that point on. Once again I had left on good terms with just one thing left undone; a reference.
If I could turn around to 20 or 21 year-old me and say one thing, I would say, “Adrie, sometimes people aren’t going to like you. You’ll be exactly who you are (because you don’t know how to be anything less) and they’ll hate you for it. But usually… usually that won’t happen. Either way don’t stop. Grow, get stronger, but never stop.”
Self-talk or no. Hindsight or no. I have two serious interviews this week. I can’t wait to show them everything I have to offer… but I’m terrified of this skeleton in my closet. This shame for a sin I never committed. And I don’t know what to do besides pray… and blog about it of course.
It feels good to tell that story. It’s like revealing a scarred part of myself. I hide it, pretend it’s not there… but it needs to breathe every once and a while. Keeping a rosy outlook takes guts.