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Trial by Fire (Part III)

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

I entered into a graduate program in Philadelphia whereby I would earn both my teaching credential and Masters in one fell swoop, while also earning a living. It was a good deal, so to speak. The catch was that I would have little to no say in my teaching placement.

I was drawn to teach at the elementary level, in part because I enjoyed the spiritedness of young children, but also because I was genuinely curious about human development and wanted to understand more about what made kids tick. Given that I come from a long line of educators, I was really looking forward to entering the classroom. I had lots of sweet ideas about what teaching would be like-I could see myself inspiring young minds to follow their innate curiosity, reading stories to little people who were only about half my height, and bringing the wonders of the natural world to my students.

When I went in for my placement interview, I was emphatic about my desire to teach elementary school, but the person behind the desk reviewing my resume just shook their head. At first I thought I was being turned down altogether for the position, which was a bit of a shock. But the interviewer explained that at that time, Philadelphia had a dearth of science teachers, so my degree in hard science was a coveted asset to the district.

On the spot, I was deemed qualified to teach high school science and was placed in the secondary track despite my protest.

Meanwhile, Sean was sweating it out in medical school, which was brutal. The competition inbred into the system was intense and unforgiving. By in large, most medical students were playing the long game; working to gain entrance to a top medical school and then aiming for a prestigious residency, all in order to become a successful doctor who could afford to quickly payback the enormous sums of loan money taken out to pay for medical school in the first place.

Sean was a peacekeeper at heart and so he found it difficult to be part of a system that essentially forced you to be selfish if you wanted to survive the stampede. He was supposed to figure out how to collaborate with people who were actively trying to one up him at every turn in order to ensure that they ultimately received the best residency match. The stakes got higher every day and true friends were hard to find within that pirahnic culture. As the demands on him grew, he found himself getting more and more depressed and isolated.

A perfect storm was brewing.

Without a lick of formal training that had any practical value, I was soon on my feet in front of several sections of high school students, attempting to teach science. The school I had been assigned to was a continuation high school. My students had either been expelled from another school in the district or had failed to meet the requirement for graduation. Many were only a couple of years younger than me. Understandably, they were a tough bunch.

Often times, I would be standing up at the front of my classroom, looking out into the sea of disaffection in front of me and sense the intelligence in all those eyes looking back at me as if to say, "We get it. You're just as screwed as us." It was a weird bond to have with them, but at least it was something.

The district was underfunded and so even though I was ostensibly teaching science, for materials, I was provided nothing but a stack of outdated textbooks. No equipment for experiments, no field budget, no models for demonstrations. Just some old books that had been collecting dust.

This was not a movie set for some epic drama where it all works out in the end. This was real life and the reality was that every last one of my students had learning deficits and daunting life circumstances. I was just starting out and while I had some raw talent for teaching, it was not nearly enough to meet the needs of these particular students. Their young lives were hanging in the balance and they couldn't afford to waste any time or effort. They needed the most seasoned educators out there, not a fumbling newbie.

Alas, it was me who kept showing up everyday, holding it down as best I could. I got creative and taught chemistry as if it was a language class. When one of my students started a fire in the trash can in the back of my environmental science class, I took it in stride and used it as a teachable moment. I pushed the administrators to get me some basic equipment so we could actually DO something in class and eventually got somewhere.

But despite the little wins here and there, it became very difficult to wake up and face the day. I had unwittingly signed up for a fire ceremony and I felt like I was walking on hot coals every single day.

As I was spiraling down from the stress, Sean was trying his best to be strong for both of us, but the combination of the pressure from medical school and the intensity of my lean on him became too much. Ironically, he took up smoking cigarettes to cope and our life began to collapse down into the very minimum required to stay afloat and ride out the storm. We weren't cooking or doing fun things with friends or each other anymore. It became take-out, tv and sleep.

We stayed in that holding pattern until my trial by fire school year came to a blessed close. I had survived, but barely.

He managed to give me about a month's recovery time until it was his turn to meltdown.


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