More than six months have passed since my last blog post.
On June 27th, I finished my first year as a school leader and my fifth year in public charter schools in Washington, DC. When I take a moment to think about the fact that I have been here for 5 years, I can’t help but tilt my head sideways with raised eyebrows as if to read the rest of this Story. My plan was to come to DC for 2 years, ‘do’ Teach For America, and then move back to Georgia where I’d go to graduate school to earn my MSW and maybe find a husband, too. Instead, I fell in love with teaching and with the first school I taught at in Columbia Heights. I taught at Chavez for 3 years and loved it. Towards the end of that third year, I met the man who would captivate my heart, the one to whom I would make sacred vows just a year later.
Oh, how I love Matt Spainhour.
After that third year of teaching sixth grade math, I spent 6 weeks in Nepal serving, teaching, and doing Life Together with teenage girls in a recovery home for girls and young women recovering from trafficking and abuse. Despite an acceptance to the University of Maryland’s Advanced Standing MSW program for the coming Fall semester, I prayerfully believed God was telling me not to go to graduate school. So I didn’t. I stayed in education and ended up at a school in a different neighborhood. Benning. I was an elementary school special education teacher instead of a middle school general education math teacher. And I fell in love with teaching special education and decided that’s the career path on which I’ll travel for a good many years to come.
Last year, instead of teaching, I served as the Special Education Coordinator, an administrative position. I was one of four campus administrators at a school in its second year of existence that is growing up one year at a time. When it is fully grown, it will serve students in grades 4 – 8. Without question, last year was the most exhaustingly difficult of the five I’ve spent in DC. Forgetting for a moment the fact that we were not a fully staffed campus serving an incredibly high-needs population in a neighborhood known too well to Poverty and its Crushing Limitations, which means I also taught 3 classes, disciplined, counseled, front-desked, lunch-dutied, etc. — forgetting all those things for a moment, last year was a year that I worked harder than ever before to build genuine relationships with a community. The community is black. I am white. Race is a big deal, and a real thing. We talked about it a lot.n And when we didn’t talk about it, we experienced it anyways. Diffusing yelling matches about detention at dismissal. Tears. Hugs. Plenty of yelling. Some screaming and cursing. A lot more laughter. Phone calls until late. Emails for days. Handwritten and decorated, personalized notes home. Countless impromptu meetings after school:
Yes, I am the one to talk to about special education services. Yes, I can talk to you about your child’s homework completion. Yes, I will listen to you talk about the piercing reality of your apartment complex flooding and having to move to a hotel with a new baby coming any moment and no access to public transportation and your daughter’s tardy detentions and I understand that right now, more than anything else, you need someone who will just listen. Yes, I will send home extra work for your child to complete even though he received 2 make-up packets last week. Yes, I will meet with her, informally, one-on-one, to work on her self-esteem. Yes, I will look up his discipline log and homework percentages for you. Yes, I will call you when she arrives each morning so you know she’s safe.
Text messages at 6:45am reminding Auntie that today is an especially important day to make sure [niece] gets her medicine because we have an important test.
The days were beyond draining emotionally, spiritually, and physically. But in those long hours, I grew to love the community. It was the relationships with the individual kids who were so hard and demanding that my hair [actually] started falling out by the end of the year. These relationships pressed so deep into my heart that I learned something of what it must be like to be a mother. I spent more time with these kids than their families did, which is true for most teachers and their students during the school year, and I grew to love them fiercely. Ultimately, I gave my best to those kids and that community. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about them, dreaming about an email I needed to write because so-and-so was trying to get into such-and-such school and needed a recommendation. Or maybe a parent was upset and got a lawyer and I needed to handle it. I often cried on my way home from work when violent, sad, hard things happened to the kids. I cried so much. There was a lot of violence. And I was so tired. … My kids. I responded to text messages on Christmas Day from mothers, wishing them a happy, joyful holiday, too. We celebrated together when the kid passed a Level P text and was now (finally!) reading on grade-level.
Then, June 27th.
The Last Day.
It was over. The kids came and then they went, and then I had some work to do to wrap up the year and then the year was over for me by June 27th. I cried real hard on the night before the students’ last day. Bawling, boo-hooing, devastated tears:
Grief for the end of relationships, the end of a season in which I had worked so hard. Sadness, because I knew long before the students’ last day that my last day was coming, too. Shame, because I couldn’t handle it – I wasn’t strong enough, effective enough, resilient enough, good enough. I wasn’t enough. And I admitted weakness. Fear, because I didn’t know if I could love another group of kids or another community quite like this one. I gave them all I had to give. Fear again, because I suspected I’d feel guilty for having only a 40-hour work week in my new job, and I’d have a lunch break, too! Emptiness, because I had nothing left to give and because just like that, the kids were gone.
So much redemptive, restorative beauty seen in the course of last year. Yet the stress, exhaustion, and constant undertone of anger that plagues that community plagued me, too, and I had to chose a different way … for a while.
Matt and I left for Cambodia the day after that last day. Three weeks later, we returned. (And I might write a thousand words about our time there, but that’s for another thought train). Two weeks after that, I started in my new position at the hospital. I have words for how I feel about my new position at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, and the vast majority of them are gratefully positive.
For now, though, I want to sit for a moment longer with the Benning kids. Because they started their school year yesterday and damn it, I miss the hell out of them.