I follow @ByMariAndrew on Instagram; she has become quite a social media sensation over the last couple of years, posting thoughtful watercolor doodles of hurdles most 20-somethings face, like overcoming uncertainty, finding purpose, falling in love, heartbreak and loss, and discovering yourself. She recently published a book, the driving concept of which is that there is no perfect map to adulthood for anyone, and some of us need an extra bit of wandering along the way. I ordered it on Amazon, and each night before bed, I flipped through a few pages, consoled that a stranger could so perfectly illustrate many of the trials and personal developments I have experienced over the last few years.
Explorer though I may be, I like the idea of a map to follow. I kind of thought I had a direct one — college, grad school, travel, settle down, teach. A modern American Dream, happily ever after. But the map went rogue on me, because this first year teaching has continued to be a slog. I wrestled with my dissatisfaction through the Spring and dialouged openly with administration, but I ultimately submitted my letter of resignation back in March and will not be teaching next year. I am leaving on good terms, but the job journey has been feeling a heck of a lot more loop-de-loop lately.
My principal gave me three pieces of advice last summer:
- Love the kids for who they are, not who you want them to be
- Start each day anew
- Have fun!
I wrote the suggestions on three index cards that were posted on my wall all year, but I found it difficult to genuinely heed any of them. Behaviorally and as learners, my students were so not who I wanted them to be, and it became increasingly challenging to accept their disrespect, ignorance, and learned helplessness.
I did find a little bit of solace in the monthly Saturday hiking trips I organized this past semester. On the last one in May, the group sat by Triple Falls picnicking, summer sun really shining down in its full blaze for the first time this season. I asked one of my students if I seemed the same or different outside the classroom, passing out extra granola bars rather than posting daily agendas.
“Well, you still seem like Ms. Compton…like, you still make sure that I’m okay and doing what I should be, you know, not falling into the waterfall or something, just like you make sure I have what I need in class and that I understand what to do. But you also seem a lot less stressed. The students, they really wind you up.”
The students know me as a teacher better than I know myself. The school environment has progressively affected me, more toxic day by day, unbearably stressful and chaotic, no matter how prepared I seem to be for a lesson.
I feel most free and happy on the trail. As word got out to students that I was quitting, many of them asked me why. “Just can’t handle these Carolina students, huh?”
“Sometimes,” I acquiesce. “But it’s really that I’m not the best version of myself teaching here. I’m not very patient or kind. You deserve that.” The trail version of myself is the one I need to find in my workplace.
I tried to start my mornings off with a peaceful quiet time, consciously setting my posture for the day to be one of a calm and joyful demeanor. The smile on my face may have been authentic during first block planning, but it was wrecked in second, plastered back on in third, and altogether gone by fourth block. The general noise and lack of control, no matter what behavior systems we implemented, put me perpetually on edge.
The last week of school, I had students write a reflection on the year and offer some feedback to Mr. Kellett and me on our strengths and weaknesses. The overriding theme for me was that I was helpful and stayed on people (usually in a good way), but I’m too sensitive and I “can’t let these kids get to me.” They told Mr. Kellett he was chill and needed to teach more (things were a little English heavy in our Humanities class this year…)
We metaphorically dragged a handful of students across the finish line, giving everyone a whole week to identify missing assignments and submit makeup work. When I think of those students, I’m not happy or proud that they passed. I’m mainly just frustrated. Pissed, even. Why do they think they can do the bare minimum, or really a lot less than that, and succeed? What other school allows students to turn in work that was assigned three months ago? What’s the point of giving them a due date at all when they are literally allowed to turn assignments in whenever they want with almost no penalty?
Embarrassingly, I must admit that the final teacher work week of the year without irresponsible teenagers was such a relief. Knowing I wouldn’t have to deal with students asking for another copy of something, or repeating instructions for the bajillionth time, or kids that somehow actually have no idea what is going on… Ahhh, heaven.
Which was momentarily interrupted on the last official day of school, the day teachers had to submit grades, by two students who seemed genuinely shocked that they would be failing. One email began, “So far my grade isn’t looking right.” Homeboy had returned from alternative school (for getting caught having sex in the bathroom) a month ago, was only re-enrolled in English, plagiarized the one major quote analysis he had to do, and had the nerve to end his e-mail, “All I ask is for you to fix my final grade. I will pass this course Ms.Compton.” You will, huh? You should have, absolutely. But no, my friend, you will not be passing Humanities.
I was re-reading the full email chain to my sister, Rosa Marie, exasperation rising in my voice as I continued. She cut me off. “Okay Jessica, you need to stop. You’re just making yourself angry all over again.” As I write this, I feel the same antipathy bubbling up. In mid-May, RoRie was at my house on a Friday when I came home and exploded.
“I hate it SO much! Agghhhhh! They’re SO BAD and I am OVER IT! It’s never going to to end, Ro!!”
“Um, Jessica, I think you should go on a run.” She has a knack for offering calm, sage advice to her older sister.
I don’t think it’s teaching overall. As I have navigated the last few months and tried to figure out what to do next, I have gotten enough encouragement from other teachers and coworkers to know that I have strong “teacher bones.” When I shared a journaling list of my frustrations with RoRie, she insightfully pointed out that they were all very circumstantial to my specific situation. Teaching could be totally different somewhere else. But I did not successfully secure a teaching position at another school this past spring, and I am so burned out by this last year that I’m ready to try a job in a totally different career field.
A few months ago, I applied to be a trip leader for Backroads, a company that facilitates high-end hiking, biking, and multi-adventure travel experiences all over the world. Even though the work is seasonal and meant that I would be away from Greenville for five-month chunks, I was really revved about the idea of leading outdoor travel trips. I asked Mariah, one of my best friends and rock-solid backpacking companion, to write a personal reference for me. She blew it out of the water; it was the kind of letter that would debunk any hesitations a hiring committee might have about a candidate.
I applied at the tail-end of the hiring season, but I ultimately still made it to the in-person hiring day, which takes place in Salt Lake City. I wasn’t even hired yet, but I felt elated, ecstatic about the possibility. I booked my exorbitantly priced last-minute ticket West for that weekend and consulted my principal the next day to make sure there was a way the last two weeks of the school year (makeup work and teacher workdays) could be covered by my co-teacher. He shot me down and said it wasn’t possible.
I know I signed a contract in August, but this just was not the response I expected. My heart squeezed up a little as I canceled my flight within the 24-hour booking window. The pang in my gut following that conversation felt all too similar to the one that sets in when heartache or grief drop by.
Two weeks later, the weekend just before Backroads training would have begun, I was sharing a spread of sweet and savory crepes at Tandem with my family. My sister cheerily told us about her neighbors’ new piglet we could go visit. Other diners seemed engrossed in their own happy conversations, sipping cappuccinos and enjoying a contentedly idle Saturday morning pace.
I couldn’t. Not fully, when it felt like I should have been boarding a plane to Utah that day. Tears brimmed in my eyes. Mama, sitting next to me, scooted closer and put her arm around my shoulders, letting me nuzzle into the crook of her neck.
“I’m just…not quite over Backroads yet. I don’t even know if I would have gotten hired, but I wish I were done with school and going to train for something I know I’d like. And if Mr. Delaney’s no-go is the Lord’s way of helping me set roots in Greenville or accept that it’s not right, then fine. But right now I’m still pretty sad.”
“That’s understandable, Jessica.” Tilting my my chin up to meet her eyes, she continued. “But honey, you have to trust that God has another opportunity six months down the road that you can’t even imagine right now, one that is altogether better.”
“I just don’t know what’s next, and I’m tired of not knowing.”
The perpetual LinkedIn new job notifications and scrolling through GlassDoor and Indeed became added sources of stress. I flirted with returning to the marketing world but had to be honest with myself that paid ad analytics really don’t get me going. By May, I decided to take a break from considering other jobs and just focus on making it to the end of the school year. I’m not too good at trusting God, but I have been praying for big doors to swing wide open.
My friend and other go-to travel companion Sarah suggested that I consider financial advising, which is what she does. Right now I’m in the multi-stage application process to train to be an Edward Jones FA. I don’t feel excited about it the same way I did about Backroads, but I would get to develop long-term relationships with people and teach and help them in an environment with more flexibility and independence. I’m also beginning to tap into the world of networking, just letting friends and influencers know who I am and what I’m looking for.
It is still a little hard for me to reconcile that I’m not going to teach. Being an educator has been a part of my identity for most of my life. I thought it was a true vocational calling. Why would anyone enter this profession otherwise? If I don’t teach, what was the point of grad school in New Zealand, and this past helluva year? What does it all add up or lead to? How will it tie into my future someday? Will it? Once again, I suppose I will have to trust.
I walked into Mr. Delaney’s office for my exit interview on the last day of school.
“Whelp, I survived.”
“Yes, you sure did, ma’am, which is an accomplishment. Some people don’t make it this far.”
“But surviving isn’t good enough.” He shook his head in agreement. “You told me at the beginning of the year to have fun. I haven’t gotten to do that almost at all.”
I don’t know what kind of difference, if any, my presence made at Carolina High this past year. Are any students going to think of me as “that one teacher” they still remember, the one who pushed them to be more than they thought they could, or offered a few desperately needed extra does of love? One student gave me a letter: “Thanks for helping me pass this class. Good luck with whatever you do next. Stay cute.” (I absolutely leveraged teenage boy crushes for any classroom management advantage I could have.) When some of the students walked out that last day, it really was good riddance scenario. I hate that I’ve become that jaded, but they were that bad, sucking out any last bit of compassion I should have. There were a handful, however, that I’m thankful for, that stuck with me enough to write them Happy Summer letters.
My co-teacher Mr. Kellett left me a note, too. “You’re a kickass broad who can do anything she sets her mind to. I hope you find your bliss.”
I have never put much credence in the pursuit of happiness, because I don’t think our lives are all about us, and because suffering is guaranteed in a broken world. I still hold to this thinking, but personal fulfillment is a key component to satisfying work. In one of Mari’s chapters, she ponders life purpose and what she’d want her metaphorical life summary gravestone to say. “Here lies Mari Andrew; She _____…” What? Climbed every mountain? Created unique art? Worked hard and made lots of money? Had a family? Mari concluded that hers would say, “She enjoyed herself.” Perhaps she is onto something.
When we have the agency to change the source of our misery, why not? I still need to serve, but not at the perpetual cost of my wellness. I have told people all semester that it’s a strange dichotomy for my personal life to be going so great while my professional life has just been plain tough. If one is going to suck, I’d definitely choose for the imbalance to be the way it is. But I am also 25, and should I take risks – and I am not one naturally inclined to do that – now is an opportune time to do so. I am independent and only responsible for myself, and I have the chance to try a variety of jobs without hurting anyone else or causing them to make sacrifices too.
Though settling into my house, finding community at church, spending quality time with my siblings, continuing to expand my friend network, and digging into new hobbies have all been sources of joy, my dissatisfaction day-in and day-out at school has injured me, causing parts of my professional identity as a confident go-getter and my belief in my own capabilities to bleed out. Now that I officially made it through the school year, I need to step away from the Greenville grind. I need to rest and explore, since that is the best remedy I know to restore my soul. For the rest of June, a new edition of #JCompAdventures and #BlazerontheAT is releasing, this time gallivanting through New England. First stop: a nine-day section hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, summiting the Presidentials and solo backpacking, something I (and my mother) were not ready for in 2014.
Mari and I are both wondering when we are going to “get there.” Maybe she feels a little more like she has arrived now that she has published a book and is sharing her story. Am I there yet? That would be a resounding, “NO.” But I suppose your twenties are all about buckling up and navigating that zig-zag road, discovering all the things you don’t want to do, and hopefully landing on a few passions along the way too. I’m ready for wherever the loop-de-loop journey ahead may lead.