I’m Okay; You’re Okay: How Labels Make a Teacher

There are days I feel as though I’m nothing but a pile of social constructs, struggling to rid myself from being the mere sum of my parts, fighting against all the labels that define me from the outside in. While that struggle is something that gives me a desire to grow, there is also no denial on my part that I am the product of my culture, and I am what I am because of my experiences. There is also no denial that it will affect the teacher I’m becoming.

I’m not from an affluent family. While members of my family have been firmly middle class to upper-middle class, I am closer to the lower end of the ladder. Born in a trailer park to a homemaker and a telephone lineman, we struggled financially when I was younger. My grandmother, a professional seamstress, made many of my clothes. We ate lots of grits and pasta, cheap staples of my mother’s Italian background and father’s Southern one. Over time, they improved their financial situation through education (My mother returned to school, earning her graduate degree and going on to teach, and my father excelled in the phone company, training others to use computerized switching systems), and my life got easier. I still think that education can change anything. That I allowed the other girls in dance class to tease me for wearing my sister’s hand-me-down leotard is still an episode I don’t like to replay in my head. Dancing was something I loved, and the teasing made me stop doing it. Even though I can’t afford to pay for dance lessons for my three girls, I spent time cleaning the dance studio and doing book work for the instructor so they could have the option of attending if they wanted to (They all have until they left home.). Sometimes learning means being creative.

Twenty years after I left, I moved back to Marion because of my childhood, and because I share so many things in common with others who live here. I did what Texans call serious livin’ while I was gone. Married twice, had three children, divorced twice, moved more times than I can count. Tried a go at college, stopped 12 credit hours short, and went on to be a floral designer for almost 15 years. Single parent, struggling, I got laid off one Christmas Eve. Finally enrolled in college again, and I haven’t looked back since.

Even that short version makes me sound so different from everyone I know. It doesn’t take into account that what I know about civil rights I learned from my father, a white southerner transplanted to New Jersey, who was involved in the movement through music, a folk guitarist swept along in the struggle. It doesn’t show the months he walked the picket line later, when the union went on strike for months at a time, when the CWA signs were the most permanent furniture we had in our living room. It doesn’t show the gym teacher I had in the fifth grade who showed the boys how to play football, and just threw the girls jump ropes. It doesn’t begin to explain why I love power tools and the feel of sanded wood. It leaves out those things that begin to explain the kind of teacher I’m becoming.

I did really well in the floral business, working for years as a manager of a large high-end shop in Texas, catering to the Junior League crowd. Sometimes I was treated as hired help, and other times I was the belle of the ball. My employees were much more diverse than my clients: a middle-aged meth addict, a twenty-something drug dealer, a single mother with an autistic child who lied about having a GED, and a thirty-something man who had left his wife and children to live with his male partner. And then there were the delivery drivers…As frustrating as they could all be, they were talented people who went about their work in very different ways and achieved spectacular results. I can only hope that my new colleagues will do the same.

The long and short of it is that I’ve had an interesting life so far.

The most interesting thing I’ve been, by far, is crazy.

Bipolar is my largest label, and it confines me like no other. I have always been a person of extremes, and my diagnosis wasn’t surprising. It has, however, been terrifying to live with. I learn differently every day, depending on my mood. One day I can sit for hours reading, another, I can read the same sentence five times and still not process it. On the worst days, I make lots of lists so I don’t forget things, and I put in earplugs that keep me from being distracted from whatever task I’m trying to accomplish. But I’ve learned to adjust and handle my illness much better than the people around me. The stigma of mental illness is often more of a struggle to combat than the illness itself.

So here I am: white female, lower class, liberal in the land of conservative republicans, single mother, unemployed, with a mental illness. It doesn’t make me a bad candidate for a secondary English teacher; it makes me open-minded. I know what it feels like to be on the outside of mainstream society, and I go out of my way to see things from other perspectives. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t know near enough to make generalizations. My life has served to slow me down when it comes to making judgments, make me more reflective about what makes me think the way I do, and listen to others more actively. And listening goes a long way—with students and parents. Everyone has something valid to say. Everyone has a story. You just have to be open enough to hear it, and find some common ground. That’s when the break-throughs happen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: