Every life has high points and low points. One low point for me occurred a lifetime ago in the fall of 1987. I had my first full-time job as a first-year teacher at Hoke County High School in North Carolina. The poverty level in Hoke County was shocking, and the main employer was the turkey plant. My solidly middle-class life and background had not prepared me for this environment.
The new kid on the block gets the toughest assignments, so I was 1) a floater, which meant I didn’t have a class room of my own and had to travel to a different room for every class, and 2) was given the general math class, where I was expected to take kids, some of whom could not add or subtract, from basic math up through pre-algebra in a school year. Some students tried; some students did not.
One of my floating rooms was a trailer. Somewhere in my second month of teaching, fumbling my way towards learning how to keep a class in line, I was experimenting with a system of checks for misbehavior on the board. Once you earned enough checks, you were kicked out of the room and taken to the principal’s office. (At least in theory.) One particularly bad day, a young man named Curtis reached his limit of checks and my personal tolerance limit, and I told him to leave the room. Curtis was huge, both in height and in muscle, and he started walking to the door – at a rate that would have given a glacier a run for its money. Completely fed up, I pushed his back to hurry him out the door. I’m not sure he even felt the push, but I immediately burst into tears in front of him and the other students.
I’m not sure who, but someone got the principal in there quickly. The powers-that-be put me in the teacher’s lounge, assured me Curtis would no longer be in my class and told me to take a break so I could calm down. In fact, they were so worried about me that they got my husband on the phone, in the days before cell phones, which means they called the plant where he was working 45 minutes away to yank him off the manufacturing floor. And the part that was the most humiliating was that only my husband understood why I was crying. I wasn’t crying because Curtis had hurt me in any way or done anything but mouth off in the way adolescents often do, but because I had failed – I lost control and put my hands on a child. Granted, he was three feet taller than me and outweighed me by about 100 pounds, but he was a child.
So there I was, humiliated and a failure in the profession I had been studying to join for years. And since news at a school telegraphs wirelessly through the air, the faculty and the student body both knew, probably before I left the breakroom that day, that I had pushed a student and cried in class. I won’t ever forget that day. But I got up the next morning and went back to the school and kept on teaching and kept on trying. And slowly, my skills improved as did my temper. Three years later, when the principal told me I had qualified for tenure, he admitted that he never thought he’d see me again after the Curtis day.
Why does this matter? I am at that point right now in my writing, not because I doubt my ability to eventually craft a publishable novel but because I am having an incredibly difficult time carving out the time to write said novel. So yet again, I face a crossroads. Not as dark a crossroads as that fall day in 1987 but a crossroads nonetheless. And because I showed up the next day in 1987, I know the direction I will take – the one that keeps me working towards my dream.
What lessons have you learned from failures or problems? What gives you the courage to move forward after a difficult day? Are there painful memories that help you?