No Longer Afraid Part 1: The Beginning
I can't believe I'm about to share this. I've only shared it with a little over a handful of people - and it happened over 7 years ago.
When I tell people I lived in Tennessee most of my adult life, taught special ed for 25 years, and came back to Birmingham because my parents are at the age they need someone around, I wasn't lying.
However, I was leaving out an important detail.
One of the main reasons I moved back here was because I left my job. You might ask why that was a big deal - pretty much everyone has lost a job at some point for one reason or another. Personally, I've been devastated some of those times I was fired/let go/was no longer needed.
This was different - waaaay different.
Technically, I resigned. Technically, I wasn't fired. Technically, it was my choice.
But it wasn't.
Back in the fall of 2015, I made a mistake. It was a big mistake and it's one that has changed the course of my life in tremendous ways - both good and bad.
Before I go into that (maybe the fear isn't ALL gone), let me explain a little background.
I'm a very weird combination of rebel and rule follower. Maybe a better term is "one who questions everything" (and I do mean everything). Maybe the best word for it is stubborn. There's definitely a lot of pride and arrogance mixed in there.
When I graduated college at the top of my class and then graduated with my Master's at the top of my class, and then took additional classes beyond those required, I thought I knew it all. Now that I think about it, I guess that's actually age-appropriate, especially for an overachiever like me.
But I held onto that belief for way too long. As the years passed and I settled into my favorite and longest-lasting role - teaching preschoolers with special needs - I took advantage of every opportunity to increase my skills and knowledge and stay up to date with the latest theories and techniques for teaching these little ones.
I loved it - and I thought I was good at it. I know that my students made progress and at least most of their parents loved me.
But as the years passed and frankly, as my supervisors and then later, the government, tried to tell me how to teach, I bucked up. Yes, I honestly did know more than they did about teaching this very specific population of students, but looking back, I'm sure my attitude wasn't the best.
I taught how I was told to teach by the higher-ups.. to an extent. Whenever I could, I did it the way I felt was best. I held on to my beliefs about teaching like a starving dog holds onto a big, juicy bone. Needless to say, I wasn't very teachable.
Time, perspective, and lots and lots of therapy and wise counsel change how you look at things. At the time, I really thought I was doing what was best for my students. Now I realize there were a lot of better ways I could have handled certain situations.
But there are other areas where I still believe I was right. Yes, even in those situations I could have probably made other choices without compromising what I believed, but I hold to my overall decisions in those situations.
I won't go into them all, for the sake of those involved, but I'll just sum it up - there was a time when I made several recommendations for my students' programs that didn't agree with what my administration wanted. Even with everything that happened after, I still wouldn't change anything about what I did in those situations, even though I could have probably gotten the same result in a better way.
But I did what I thought was right - and I did it the only way I thought I could at the time.
It's hard to know how to proceed with this. I'm spending too much time justifying what I did and not enough on the point of this post. So, I'll try to sum it up.
One more quick insight into all this... this is my perspective after years of thinking, praying, crying, wondering, and talking to the few that I told. It might not be the whole truth, as I couldn't read the administration's minds. But this is my best guess.
I feel I initially got on the administration's radar because I didn't teach the way the government told me I should. I stood up for myself and my assistants (and my students, as I mentioned earlier). For someone terrified to stand up for myself, there were times I was pretty vocal about how I felt.
Add to that... I was very burnt out. For several years before this, I wanted out of the field. As much as I loved teaching, I couldn't stand the government telling me how to teach - when they had no idea what I was up against.
I had tried to find something else. I looked at school systems near me but they didn't have any openings that I felt I could do. I literally wasn't trained for anything else. With one exception of a short time I did some clerical work, every job I ever had revolved around children. I had worked in nurseries, daycares, and schools. I've been a nanny for two different families. I didn't know anything else.
I was also a single parent with an ex-husband who was tens of thousands of dollars behind in child support. I wasn't making much as a teacher but I made ends meet. At my age, I couldn't take a pay cut to start a new career.
One more thing... (again, this is not an excuse, just an explanation of where I was). I had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, type 2. I was diagnosed with pretty extreme depression and anxiety but no psych medications worked (probably at least in part due to the misdiagnosis). I also had anger issues that I literally had no idea about until about 4-5 years after all this happened.
So, after 20+ years of teaching, it got to the point I had to turn in my lesson plans like I was a first-year teacher. I could be formally observed by an administrator at literally any moment in the day. I was watched like a hawk.
Combine that pressure with my know-it-all attitude, burn-out, and mental health issues and it was a powder keg ready to explode. And like I described earlier, I felt stuck. It wasn't a good place to be.
Then "the incident" happened. (That's all I could call it for years).
Let me set the scene.
I had a behavior-disordered student who was very difficult to keep in line. I was constantly worrying about him hurting someone or running away. I had asked and asked for help from the school system's behavior specialist, but she hadn't gotten back to me.
Because our students all had to be signed out, we dismissed early and we brought our class to the front hallway of the school in order for their parents to pick them up. It was a big area and there were older students moving between classes.
It was a chaotic time, as parents had to sign out their children every day - and often I needed to talk to the parents for a minute before they left. At that time of day, I had one assistant.
That afternoon there were a couple of students who needed to go to the bathroom. One was the student I mentioned earlier.
My assistant signaled to me that this child was spitting in the bathroom. Because of the germs and other issues with body fluids like saliva, I knew it couldn't just be ignored.
I walked over and got the child and sat him down with the other students. I told him with a stern voice to stay there and went back to helping parents sign their children out, while I kept an eagle eye on him.
I didn't think anything of it. I think it was two days later, I got summoned to the principal's office (and yes, it struck that same fear as if I was an elementary school child). He told me that a parent had reported me for pushing a child down and yelling at him.
I was dumbfounded. That's not what happened. I literally didn't know what to say. Yes, I had sat him down. Yes, I had spoken loudly and sternly to him. But I hadn't done anything I hadn't seen other teachers do at times. I hadn't hurt him in any way. In fact, the next morning when he got to school, he literally ran to me for a hug first thing.
The shock continued when I was told I was being put on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted.
I had already been having gallbladder problems and was about to schedule surgery, so when I left abruptly, everyone assumed (or was told) it was because of my gallbladder.
Okay... even though I'm now not afraid to share it, reliving this time is extremely triggering for me and I've tried to block this from my memory for so long, I'm fuzzy on details. My stomach is killing me thinking about it. So I'm going to finish with a few random bullet points about what happened (not in chronological order - just as I think of them).
- During the investigation, fellow teachers and assistants were interviewed and they said some horrible stuff about me. I was absolutely shocked and, at the time, I was positive they were lying. I still don't feel it was true but I wonder if my perspective was skewed. Keep this in mind - I never hurt a child. But it's possible my anger, frustration, and anxiety spilled over when I was teaching much more than I realized. (After all, I literally thought I didn't have anger issues at that time.)
- The school system kept what was going on a secret because they didn't want it in the news. I was very thankful because one of my biggest concerns was my reputation. I didn't want to be judged by the public when I knew I would be reinstated to my position. However, because I was so worried about the press and my reputation, I didn't hire a lawyer even though I had liability insurance. I was sure that it would work out without going that route.
- I became mostly a recluse. I was absolutely terrified that I would run into someone who would ask about what was going on. I would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to check online for the newspaper's daily topics so that I would have a warning before I got a bunch of phone calls asking what happened.
- Along with barely leaving the house, I tried to handle it all by myself. I was too ashamed of telling anyone, so I had almost no support.
- The school reported what happened to the Department of Human Services (DHS) and every day I also dreaded getting a phone call or visit from them. (Their investigation showed no issues and I never heard from them at all, by the way).
- Finally, after about two months of going back and forth with the school system, a meeting was scheduled to tell me the outcome. Of course, I was scared it would be bad news but I knew I had done nothing bad enough to fire me. I really thought it would turn out okay.
- It didn't. I was told that they were going to recommend to the school board that I be fired. This would then be public information. They gave me the choice to resign, which I did.
- I knew that my teaching license was also suspended. I can't remember what I thought would happen, but I was again shocked when I got a notice that it was revoked. I really didn't think it would go that far. I had always been one to work so hard to make sure that I kept it updated - I went beyond what was needed so it would never accidentally lapse. This was the final blow.
Anyway... one day soon I plan to write about all of the post-incident stuff and one way God provided in the middle of it that is amazing.
You might be wondering, "Why now? Why share this on a random Thursday when you've held it in so long?"
Again, I'll try to explain more later, but all I can say is that earlier today I was thinking about the future and the thought came in (as it almost always does)... "What about "the incident"? What if it's found out and everyone thinks horrible things about me?
I've fought those questions now for years. I had finally gotten to the place where I accepted that it didn't matter because the people who loved me would know that it wasn't true.
But the problem with that is... what if it was true? What if it was worse than I thought? What if my perspective was so messed up due to my mental health issues that they were right? Then the argument about truth was no longer valid.
For the first time in the many, many, many times I've had that thought and then those questions and all of the incredible anxiety and fear that accompanied them, I recognized what I actually needed to know.
It really felt like this concept dropped straight into my spirit: It doesn't matter. Not because the people who know and love me also don't believe it's true, but because I'm not that person anymore. I don't think I was the person they thought I was then, but even if I was, I'm not that person anymore.
All this is the past. Just like I wouldn't hold judgment against a friend who has made mistakes, even really major ones, I can't hold it against myself.
I'm finally free.