CHICAGO — My days usually begin at 4 a.m. This leaves just enough time to shower, finish prepping for the day’s lessons, eat breakfast and scurry off to catch a bus so I can get to school early enough to make enough copies for my four classes. My lunch periods are spent with students I’ve held for detention or who want extra help with material. After school lets out, I work with students, clean up my classroom or run off to graduate school until about 9 p.m. By the end of the day, I collapse on the couch we purchased off Craig’s List and forcefully will myself to grade papers and drowsily make Powerpoint slides for the following day’s activities.
I thought I’d be great at teaching. I had images of captivated classrooms and eager students who ran home after school to tell their parents that they had never loved reading before they met Ms. Ng. I thought about the book of my students’ writing that Oprah would publish. I thought few endeavors would be as difficult as my tenure at Yale, that time management wouldn’t be too considerable an obstacle and that I’d be able to continue to dance and volunteer outside of work. I recognized that it would be hard and time-consuming. But I did not realize how trying and, for lack of a better term, life-consuming the job would be.
Real talk: I think about quitting every day.
For the first few weeks, I wept – in my principal’s office on the first day of school, in my apartment while lesson planning, in Walgreens while people around me filmed a Wrigley’s commercial, on the train while listening to Jimmy Eat World (“The Middle” speaks to me in many more different ways than it did when I was in seventh grade).
Recently, I have stopped weeping as much. I have not started sleeping enough.
When people ask me how things are going, I find myself continually revolving to an equivocal phrase: “It is what it is.”
I say this because there is no clear way to paint the reality I see every day. There is beauty, and there is brokenness. Students curse at me, yell out and sleep in class on a daily basis. They tell me they don’t want to be at the school — “Well I want to play football, and be an entrepreneur.”
Then there are the students who sit for an hour and 40 minutes after school to dissect a sentence into its disparate parts of speech, asking as we walk out of the building, “So how early can I come in tomorrow morning to work some more?” There are the ones who carry my bags and walk me to the train station because they “don’t like the idea of you taking the train by yourself at night, Ms. Ng; that’s dangerous,” the ones who push other kids out of the way in the hall to “make way for my pride leader!” and the ones who yell at the kids who try to sleep in my class — “What are you doing!? That is so disrespectful! Pick your head up! She’s trying to teach you something!”
Real Talk: This is difficult to admit, but I think that I do not love teaching. I do desperately love the kids.
Beyond Yale’s walls, I have gained more than an unabashed hatred for the word “finna” and reverent appreciation for the bribery value of candy. After four years of spouting “the only A that matters is the one between the Y and the L,” I find myself in a place where the name on my degree holds no credence.
Here, I am learning that this is how you gain respect: you work. You love in any and every way possible until something works. When it doesn’t, and 15-year-old boys disrespect you on a daily basis, you forgive recklessly and work harder.
I find myself torn; on one hand, I yearn to return to a place where I felt appreciated and accomplished, where my efforts had the chance to be fruitful, and where I felt that a full and multifaceted life was possible. On the other hand, I am afraid to return to campus. I am afraid that this world that I thought was so much bigger than my expectations and abilities will seem small in comparison to what comes after it, that it will seem petty and impractical compared to my three walls and partition in East Garfield Park. That it will seem small compared to the stories and experiences of the young men in red ties and navy blazers whom I push into lockers and quiz about grammar each day.
Real talk: I do not know what will happen after this year, but I do know that I’m not ready to quit just yet.