It was the summer of 1999. I’d just signed the lease on an apartment I couldn’t afford, had completely fucked over a friend a few days before, and was dating my high school boyfriend again despite his weird relationship with his mother. My twenties were off to a great start.
I’d just graduated with a degree in English, my teaching license, and a desire to live in Brooklyn. I’d told my dad this in early October.
“Over my dead body.” He’d be dead before November.
In a brilliant move I had decided to work one final July in the mountains of southern Vermont. I didn’t want to let go of college summers just yet.
And so here I was, in the heat of August, cutting it more than close. I spent too many days in black suits taking the subway as close to interview sites as I could. I walked through the poorest parts of Brooklyn, and interviewed everyone’s socks off. I talk a fantastic game. Seriously. I interview better than anyone I know. I’ve got a B.A. in B.S. my mom used to say. Pretty much.
I loved the principal at a middle school in Bushwick. And she loved me. I had a feeling she’d offer me a job despite the fact that she pointed out what so many others had: I was so white! I looked so young! I had no experience! I was so tiny! Despite all that she also said she liked my spunk. She saw me succeeding. She thought we’d be a good team and I’d fit with the rest of her staff. I told her I had another interview the next day. she asked where. “You don’t want to work there.” I liked this woman and I had a feeling I should listen to her.
I should tell you now, before we get too far in, that I get “feelings.” And they are ALWAYS. FUCKING. RIGHT. Sadly, I rarely listen to them. More often than not I ignore them to prove a point no will ever see made but me.
Exhibit A: The next day I took the subway to a station that reeked of hot, human piss. For the first time my travels around the bowels of Brooklyn I thought I’d end up dead. Maybe not dead, but injured. A nice guy with prison tats and gang colors said, “Oh, you should not be here.” and walked me to the school. When we arrived it was locked. My cell rang.
“Did we tell you to go to the school?” the principal asked. “Come to the District office.” I told my new friend. He laughed, “Yeah, ‘cuz they know you see this and say ‘aw, hell no!'” We stepped into a bodega nearby where he asked his friend to give me a ride. To this day I’m not sure if it was a car service or not.
The office staff made me wait forever before bringing me into the office. A sickly blue sweaty wall of cinder blocks and drooping spider plants a firm contrast to the crisp white walls and tchotchkes of the Bushwick school. It smelled of dust, paper, and toner. No scented candles here.
The principal wanted to get to lunch, asked predictable questions that gave no indication of my teaching abilities, and cut off the other woman, a special educator and teacher coach, constantly. This other woman’s hair was fried and frazzled, fake blonde and flying. It was a perfect visual representation of the feelings I had about this school. I hated her immediately and fantasized about making fun of her and the ca-caw of her voice. The principal interrupted my reverie “I’d like you to take the CORE job.”
“Is that English?”
“It’s English, Social Studies, and reading – so you see two groups of kids a day. You’ll have 40-50 students per year.”
“I don’t have a license to teach Social Studies.”
“Doesn’t matter – didn’t you minor in history?”
“I had enough credits to call it a minor. But I don’t know how to teach it.”
“The posting said English – is there a position that’s only English?”
“I have no clue how to teach Social Studies. Or Reading.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Oh, I was worried about it. I was worried about everything. But the principal clearly wasn’t. A truth flickered and I latched on. Teaching, while I liked it, wasn’t my passion. Writing was. I wanted to be an author. And with a principal who clearly had zero expectations I wouldn’t feel pressure. Which would mean I wouldn’t spend every night agonizing over every little thing. My student teaching had been like that. It was terrible.
Here, it appeared I could finally relax. I could continue to devote time to my writing. I knew I shouldn’t take this job The neighborhood, the bird woman, the obvious lack of competence. But a job that wouldn’t bring out my completely anxiety-riddled psyche? Hmmmm….
“Would you like to work here?”
My entire being coursed with blood pumping to the rhythm of the right choice. I knew that the second decision of my adult life was easy to make. Go to Bushwick. Go to Bushwick. Go to Bushwick.
“You don’t have to tell us now.” She smiled.
As I walked out I heard them laugh. “She won’t make it a week.”
Before the front door had closed behind me and the humid Brooklyn air had reached my lungs I’d connected the call. “I’d love to work for you.” I’d show her.