The Riptide Otherwise Known as Teaching

sea turtleAs you all know, my blogging has taken a BIG back burner to my new adventure as a first-year high-school  English teacher. WOW. Do I have so many stories to tell someday! Like, only after I retire, so no one can sue me for privacy infringement. If I had to describe this year, I would say it’s been like learning to surf. So much sea-water has jammed its way down my throat into my digestive system that I lost count.

I’ve been sore on the daily from the mental and emotional anguish called teaching. I’ve laid in the shallow water with sand all up in all my body parts just rubbing me raw like I was some kind of beached whale — the bathing suit crotch pocket was loaded with at least two pounds of sand and rocks. Every. Single. Day. [If you don’t get this crotch-pocket reference, it’s because you’ve never been a female who lived on the beach.] Every day, as a teacher, I would show up at 7 AM hoping to learn to surf and pray to go home by 7 PM, but it rarely happened. The only thing I could ever count on was the water, the sun, and the sand. And, the only thing I couldn’t count on was actually riding a wave. I can say that surfing happened very rarely. Being a rookie teacher is a lot like being a novice surfer. It’s all work, and very very very little euphoria. In fact, this year, I had just a few rare moments of euphoria, but compared to the surfing experience I had in the 80’s with my former boyfriend, Travis Parker, teaching was much of the same: I never even was able to paddle out to the really good waves much less own a single newsworthy ride. I barely even got up for more than 20 seconds. Why? Because it was my first time! And teaching is as hard as hell. The kind of hell that only a teacher knows. Surfers don’t even know this kind of hell. Even after they’ve been bitten by a great white and lost an arm.

Teaching has a lot in common with the trauma I experienced just last November. You see, I went to Hawaii with my husband. On our last day of our 22-year-delayed honeymoon, before flying back home, I went out in the water to get one last snorkel session in. I was alone, and I knew the riptide was dangerous.  But, I thought I could handle it. I didn’t even take fins out. I think I had a mental lapse assuring myself that I could still swim as a native Californian. Except I haven’t lived in California since 1995. I planned to stay close to the shore, as my husband was napping. I knew there was no one around to save me.

All was going well until that damn huge sea turtle. I was enamored. I followed it away out. I watched it in awe. Then I saw another. And another. Was I in heaven? How did I get so lucky? Then, before you  know it, I had a sickening realization — the coral was way too far underneath me. I pulled my head out of the water searching for the shoreline, and I almost died of an immediate panic attack. Or was it a heart attack? I’m not sure. I was probably at least half a mile from the deserted shore. I started paddling and kicking for my life. My CA girl instincts kicked in. “Go with the shore diagonally. Don’t try to go straight in. Don’t panic. Use the waves.” I got about halfway in, and my body that hadn’t had any serious exercise in years (unless you count childbirth) succumbed. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do it. I started to scream. Louder than I have ever screamed. And, I’m a screamer. Just ask my kids. My entire life flashed before my eyes. I thought about my perplexed husband wondering why I never woke him for our missed flight home. My younger-year threats about trying out homelessness for the adventure would be ringing in his ears. Except I wouldn’t be homeless, I would be at home to whatever existence my spirit earned. My body would be devoured by sharks. My five children would go the rest of their lives wondering if I had been seduced by Jack Sparrow.  Yes, all these thoughts and 37 million more went through my head during that 45 seconds of screaming.

So, what am I really trying to say here? Back to teaching. Teaching is a B$#(^. The only people who sign up for the gig are 30% insane, 30% masochistic, and 40% passionate dreamers. The pay sucks. You all already know this. As an intern teacher this year, the pay was half of suck. I thought being 46 and having five kids would have prepared me to be a rock-star teacher. I thought being a recent college graduate with the latest theories and pedagogies stamped into me by some of the best college professors would make me 500 times better than any other new teachers. I thought being hired by one of the most prestigious high schools in the state of Utah with amazing capable colleagues would fill in the gaps. But, none of any of these things made my job easier. Every day, I was half out to sea with just myself to save me. This year, it felt like the only thing I had going for me was my willingness to show up day after day to be pounded. And, my sheer stubbornness that wasn’t going to let ANYONE (and by anyone I mean tyrannical teenagers) pull my dream of inspiring a generation out from under me. I mean, I might have lost the board many times every day, but lucky for me it was always tethered to my ankle. There was no way I would ever give up and untie the board. Also, lucky for me, I never drowned. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” And swim I did. I swam a lot, but I only got up on the board a few times. For less than twenty seconds. I might have done better than that. In fact, I probably did, but I was too tired to really notice or acknowledge it because another riptide was coming.

But, next year. Next year, I will get up on that board at least twice as much. And, in five more years, I expect to sign a contract as a Pro. I just have to make it that far. Did you know that 50% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years?

“Why do I plan to stay?” you ask. Because I broke up with Travis Parker before I ever learned how to really surf. And, I always wonder what could have been. With the surfing, not with Travis. {Hi Travis!! I still love you, but, you know, as well, as I do, that we weren’t meant to be. I hope you are loving your job as a more-seasoned teacher. Will you send me some advice if you get a second?}

So, back to the riptide. I kept swimming and kicking and praying. I would dead-man float every little bit and scream, but I couldn’t afford to scream long because the tide would pull me back out. After what seemed like the longest ten minutes of my life, a young girl appeared ashore. She was about twelve. The palm trees split and she arrived from the park on the other side with a lovely sun-shining conduit straight from heaven ushering her to the sand. I have never been so relieved to see another person in my entire life. She looked a lot like myself at twelve. She was overweight with a great tan and long dark hair. It was as if God was giving me a moment to observe myself as a totally unconfident but capable twelve-year-old watching my totally uncofindent but capable 46-year-old self. He was telling me that I was alright. Then. And now. Right as she waved and hollered asking if I needed help, I felt my feet hit the rocky bottom of the great Pacific. I rode a tiny wave in, and hugged the sand as the wave pulled my bathing suit off my top. I laid flat modestly only lifting my head and said, “Thank you so much. I’m okay. I’m okay.” She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “You idiot! What have you gotten yourself into now?” I was too tired to answer her, but a sentiment screamed from my cerebellum, “Aw. C’mon. Give me a break. I know I’m not a native, but I’m fine. I don’t need you anymore. I’ve got this totally under control. I made it this far, didn’t I?”

And then I went and woke my husband, drove to the airport, flew home, and went back to school the next day. I stood in front of that one class that was out to get me all year long and thought the same thoughts as they exchanged texts of ugly memes about me under their desks, “Aw. C’mon. Give me a break. I know I’m not a native, but I’m fine. I don’t need you anymore. I’ve got this totally under control. I made it this far didn’t I?” But, it felt like more of a lie than that silent conversation in Hawaii. I couldn’t feel my feet on the rocks. But, this lie was at least a little familiar. Why?  Because I had told myself the same thing daily for the last 200+ days. That lie was the only way to survive the humiliation of first-year teaching, the humiliation we call figuring things out as you go.

Here were some pieces of hope along the way. Straight from the sea turtles:

Mrs. Gold, I know I didn’t attend your class too often but I really wish I had. You are one of my favorite teachers for lots of reasons, you’re funny, you’re kind, and you were always willing to help me with whatever I needed… you made it a safe place for me…and I really really appreciate everything you have done for my family.

Hi Mrs. Gold, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate all that you’ve done this year for us… As this was your first year of teaching, you did very well. If there was a rating system for teachers, I’d give you 10/10 for organization, 3/10 for staying on task (but that’s fine because it was mostly hilarious experiences that won’t be forgotten quickly), 10/10 for keeping teenagers entertained and interested, and finally 10/10 for being an amazing teacher overall. So, thank you for helping me with assignments when needed, thank you for making class a little more fun, and thank you for being a great teacher overall.

Hi Mrs Gold,  I just want to say thank you for being the most amazing teacher! You definitely were my favorite and always knew what to say to make everyone around you laughing, feel loved, and happy. Thank you for always listening to me and especially the one time when I walked into class and you just saw me and knew instantly to ask if I was okay after I had gone through a heartbreak. Thank you again, I will miss you very much!!

Gold, Thank you for all that you have done for me. You have helped me have a confidence I didn’t even know I had. The memories that we have made will be with me forever. I have never had a teacher I have been so close to. You are such an amazing teacher and NEVER forget that!! You are practically perfect in every way (haha stole mary poppins line). I am going to miss you so so so much as a teacher. I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed English as much as I did while you were my teacher.  HAHA you are hilarious and everyday I think of a joke or something you said, and I can’t help but laugh out loud!! I will always remember the things you have done for me and the big inspiration you have been. You are probably one of the biggest role models in my life. Thank you for supporting me in all the things that have happened in my life. You will be my twin forever. I love you!! …P.P.P.S MAMMA GOLDDD IN THE HOUSEEE WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Gold, this year has been A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. All thanks to you. I remember the first day of your class I thought it was going to be the most fun adventure of my sophomore year….. and little did I know it would be so much more than that. From the very beginning you showed genuine care for each and every one of us. Each. And. Every. One. Through pushing your students, helping and caring, and opening your arms with love you have changed the lives of so many people this year. From the bottom of my heart I want to say thank you, thank you for being the best teacher on the planet, thank you for being yourself, thank you for loving, thank you for caring, thank you for lifting others up, thank you for hosting karaoke , and lunchtime parties, thank you for investing in what you love, thank you for showing dreams can come true and thank you for who you are.  I truly believe I will never forget the amazing memories. The finger twerking, the karaoke, the pencil throwing, the messages on the white board, the Rick Astley memes, the off-key songs, the random videos we played in your room… the burnt popcorn smell, the walks, the unimaginable love, the genuine care, and the strength you have given all of us.

thank you! imma miss you!
Hi Mrs. Gold!
How are you? I miss your class!
Mrs. Gold, I watched your video tonight and you seriously made me cry! I love you so much and I can’t thank you enough for putting up with me and teaching me all that I have learned in English this year! I will for sure miss you and hope to get in contact with you after I graduate! I just owe you the biggest thanks! So thank you for everything!!!
Mrs. Gold, I just wanted to send a short letter to tell you thank you so much for all of your hard work on our behalf.  Teaching is such a hard profession!  My son … has loved being in your class!  He says you are one of his favorite teachers he has ever had!  … says out of all his teachers, you are the one that cares about the students and works so hard to prepare fun lessons that are interesting!  Warmest thanks!
Hey Gold, I just want to thank you for all that you are doing for me and for all of your students, you really are a great teacher.

The sea turtles are the real reason we teachers teach. If you don’t believe me, just look around the country right now during COVID-19. Remember that the sea turtles that are in your homes driving you crazy are so enamoring to the few, the proud, the educators. We see them for what they are: majestic beings full of unlimited endless potential. We care that we don’t get paid anywhere near what we are worth, but like the surfers, we just take it for what it is because that HUGE wave and the Pro Surfing tour is waiting on us. And the sea turtles wouldn’t get to the front pages of National Geographic without the humans who see them for what they are.

Even if every night, usually in the dark, I had to paddle away from my sea turtles, back to a dirty house to make dinner for my own full home, do homework with my own kids, and clean the mess to be ready for another early morning, I always did so with the hopes that tomorrow I could reach the ones I was supposed to and ignore the ones that shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders.
And thanks to the sea turtles that I taught how to write, I think I didn’t end up doing so terrible. I mean, I didn’t drown or die of a heart attack. I at least made it back to the shore. But, next year. Next year, I will be in way better shape, and I am going to have a way better surf board.   Bring on more sea turtles.

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