Eating Lunch Alone
Posted on October 14th, 2016
“Work is always a little sordid.” –Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun
The shock of a new job came like fall this year, an icy unexpected blast at the end of a lazy hot summer. After three years at my previous teaching job, my only actual “professional” experience, I had moved on. Nothing had been typical about the position that I left. I founded the school in the South Bronx straight out of Columbia with nine other educators, over half of them under thirty, with all the bright eyed wonder of someone who had moved to New York from suburban Texas only eleven months before. Needless to say I had my teeth metaphorically kicked in, repeatedly, in a variety of different ways. That is not so uncommon for a first year teacher, but being a first year teacher in a first year school I do think exacerbates the typical growing pains a great deal. At the same time I was sometimes staying as late as seven pm with colleagues only to meet them again at seven am the next morning. Some of us lived close to each other, and even those of us who didn’t spent around fifty hours a week together. You don’t spend that type of time with people without bonding in often dramatic ways. For the most part I hadn’t made any friends in New York my first year. As thousands before me experienced upon arrival I found the city lonely, cold, and alienating. My school, the kids and teachers both, became a second chaotic home.
As I cleaned out the closets at the back of my classroom for the last time I found old pairs of shoes, sweaters, stacks of my own books, three years of student papers, and a sign that read “Empathy, Justice, Empowerment”- our school’s core values. I realized amongst the detritus that I had, in fact, been living there in many ways. My decision to leave was a complicated one, which involved crying with my favorite students and a near constant state of existential dread at the change. My students all had my cell-phone number, a rookie mistake I had made early on, and one night walking home from a friend’s loft in Brooklyn, I called my closest student confessing how sad I was to be leaving, both of us telling the other that it would be okay. I wanted to be closer to home, to spend more time with my boyfriend, to write more- none of these motivations made the chasm I was about to create any easier. Working with kids is a strange occupation, that requires a lot of emotional labor that is hard to describe or quantify, but it is real for those of us who live it. If I didn’t already have enough emotional baggage swirling around my head, I had also recently turned down a fully funded MFA offer from Texas State in order to stay with my boyfriend. In some friends’ faces I could almost see the incredulity, as if I was giving up on my dreams for his dreams, but I had long since considered them our dreams and felt I was doing the right thing.
The hard landing at the new school was like nothing I had experienced before. I no longer had the constant pop-in of teachers I knew just saying hi or the camaraderie of extended teacher happy hours to talk about our days. I felt like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, eating lunch all alone on the first day in my room. (I tend to use Mean Girls as a life reference so bear with me on that one). Over the next several weeks I spiraled. When I was young I was the type of kid who cried before every single one of my birthdays. My mother once gave me a self-help book called “Who Moved My Cheese” in an attempt to help me grapple with my seemingly insurmountable dread about the idea of changing teachers or really anything for that matter. I had a lot of angst for a nine year old and at almost every stage in my life since that angst has flooded back in. My poor therapist had to endlessly hear why I thought I’d made the worst decision possible and along with my thinly veiled attempts to parlay this into higher dosages on my meds. I essentially wanted to say, “please make me feel nothing” but of course being committed wouldn’t help anything (although I’ve always fantasized I’d be something like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted if I was- the cool girl at the asylum). When I wasn’t sleeping I spent my nights crafting dramatic Facebook posts, tipsy on red wine, and endlessly texting my old colleagues about how I wanted to come back. I had a near nervous breakdown when I realized I couldn’t access my old school’s e-mail account anymore.
And then I turned it all off, retreated, as I’ve always done when I reach these semi-manic states, embarrassed by my own vulnerability. I turned my phone off for days on end, staring at it across the room like it was some sort of animal ready to attack. I deactivated my Facebook, stopped talking to my parents, and contemplated what it would be like to vanish forever. I began to google things like “how to vanish forever so nobody finds you” and “Canadian Visa pluses and minuses.” My boyfriend watched all of this calmly from the other side of the apartment, occasionally reminding me that my entire world wasn’t doomed. As I cautiously began to call friends again, lamenting how alone I was in the world, they reminded me about my landline only weeks (nobody will call you on a landline) and said that, of course, they are always there for me.
As I mellow out, I find myself asking what the panic is always about, what exactly am I really so afraid of? There are so many decisions and to make one feels like a trap. Sylvia Plath once said, in an oft-quoted line made famous by angst-filled people everywhere, “Why can’t I try on different lives, like dresses, to see which one fits me and is most becoming?” I think in many ways I have never found that fit and like many people I want it all. Perhaps that underlying fear is that wherever I am, whatever choice I have made, I will miss something. Nobody wants to settle, but ultimately don’t we all in one way or another settle? Maybe settling is just making a choice, and finding a way to be content with it.