Near the start of January of 2020, before the world closed but after Christmas break had ended, I walked toward my job.
I took two trains and a bus to get here for only a half-a-day’s worth of hours, but I needed this job desperately. I was the head gymnastics coach at a preschool on the Upper East Side, and I was hanging on my a thread.
A man I had never seen before stood outside the building, handing out what looked like flyers. He handed me one, and said:
“The school is closing.”
“What?” I said. I took the paper. He didn’t answer.
Sure enough, the paper he was handing out was a letter informed me that the school hadn’t paid their rent in months and would be closing by the following Monday. All parents were to find replacement daycare for their children. Teachers and employees would have to find work elsewhere.
The school hadn’t had heat in the entire time I worked there, and I was already wearing two pairs of socks and two pairs of pants in the gym. I wasn’t surprised that the school was unable to stay afloat.
I didn’t know that the school’s headmaster had been swindled out of millions, but I figured something was going on if they were willing to risk the Department of Health noticing we had no heat.
The rest of the day, I worked my job in a state of denial. They’d have to deal with this somehow, right? The school has been here for 45 years, and I just started 18 months ago. Though, they were a little late on my paychecks recently… over a week in some cases.
By Wednesday, our boss confirmed: I was to tell every child I had met, taught, and made a connection with, that I would never see them again after Friday.
Leaving a teaching job is always traumatic, but this was particularly jarring. We were told we could take whatever we wanted: books, cleaning products, office supplies. Someone got to all the laminating machines before I could even grab one.
When I had left my previous job, I had felt like I left a part of me behind. I was a preschool teacher in an Upper West Side Universal Pre-K program. I loved my clean and updated classroom, my students, and my coworkers. We were all a family who looked out for one another. I even brought on particular coworker with me when I moved.
The only problem with that school was the administration. The company was actually a chain of preschools and daycares. As though childcare were as simple as opening up a Taco Bell.
All of my bosses lived in different states. The entire IT department was in Israel. Even though I was praised by the Department of Education for my good work, I was constantly belittled by my supervisor. Nobody on our small staff was authorized to order more supplies. I was tired of going weeks at a time without paper towels.
Other jobs were different. There was paper towels, but definitely no IT department.
In the other schools I taught, they hardly even pretended to be well suited for children. This was what their parents could afford. They had to go to work.
Every day as a teacher, no matter where I taught, was traumatizing.
And I wasn’t only triggered by the physical abuse I experienced from the children. That was just a bonus.
The kids at wealthy schools had problems: Some had learning disabilities that their parents were too proud to see. Being affluent means having a disabled kid could be an inconvenience.
For two weeks straight I had to brush and braid a little girl’s hair every day because her parents had not given her a bath. Her hair was a matted mess filled with lint.
My social worker told me not to say anything.
The kids at poor schools had problems that were wholly different. Many students had learning disabilities. Their parents were either too busy to see it, or they simply didn’t have the time or means to do anything about it.
At one school, one of my students, my children, was brought in by an older cousin. She pulls me out of class for a minute, and whispers to me that his mother had a heroin overdose the night before, right in front of him.
“He has been walking around for the past day saying she’s dead, so if he tells you or any of his friends that his mom is dead… just remind him that she’s not. She’s fine, she’s in the hospital.”
I’ll never forget what she said next:
“You know what they say about overdoses. You don’t get three.”
This little boy was four and had a one-year-old little brother.
Every day at my job was traumatic, and some new awful thing was always bound fo occur. I had to experience first-hand the exact trauma and neglect that I had suffered as a child.
Much like therapists and parents, many of us become teachers to heal. We want to heal the wounds of our childhood vicariously through our kids.
As I mentioned, I loved my fellow teachers. I became particularly close friends with a coworker at my upper-west side school. It’s an emotional job, and you need allies.
When I left and she reached out saying she was getting fired, I was quick to help her get a position at my new school.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“I fell asleep during nap time,” she explained.
Sounds a little irresponsible, I thought immediately. But I couldn’t say I’ve never felt like I could doze off in that dark nap room filled with soft music and sleeping children.
After she got the interview, I found out that the story was a little more complicated than she had described. Turns out, she had been drinking on the job.
I told my supervisor, but they had all but decided to accept her already. They really needed the help.
In a panic, I told her that she needed to get this under control before she put any children in danger. How could she bring her own problems into her classroom? I thought.
One tumultuous years later, she was fired from the new school, too.
She texted me sporadically over the next few months, usually terrified over bills or divorce. I kept offering her my ear and my shoulder, but I didn’t have a home for her to go to. I couldn’t find her another job. She had to decide to heal on her own.
Around midnight, lying in a hospital bed after having my first cancer surgery, I got a text that due to some complications with her alcohol abuse, eating disorder, and severe seizures, she had died.
When I think about the stress of my job, I feel utter terror. I wish I could protect every kid I pass on the street. Any time I see a kid who is a little too old holding her dad’s hand, or I see a mother yelling in her little boy’s face, my brain kicks into fight or flight.
I can’t imagine the wounds my friend was trying to heal in herself, but I know how it feels to have your own trauma constantly re-triggered by your career.
I always thought: if I can be the savior of my inner child, I can be a place of solace for another. For ten years, that’s what I did. When the vaccine becomes widespread and the pandemic more manageable, maybe I will even go back.
The children of the world need trauma-informed care. Children deserve compassion. I hope that what we provide them at school is enough to keep them hanging on until they’re older. I hope that the cycle of abuse ends and we keep another traumatized teacher from an early grave.
That’s really all I can hope for.