Humidity hung in the air, clogging the metro tunnels. I emerged from the dank underground to find sun sparkling through the shadows of trees as I trekked up hill. Memories of two years of walking these streets played through my mind. Row houses stood like silent soldiers; across the street, kids chased a soccer ball on an emerald green turf. The fenced in field was a new addition. This once familiar neighborhood had changed.
I heard them before I saw them, raucous laughs over the clink of glasses. They greeted me and I squeezed in to a spot at the table. I settled in to the flow of conversation, smiling as I recalled the countless too-long faculty meetings. A few minutes in, she made a comment that has haunted my career ever since, a seed of doubt waiting to blossom.
A well seasoned science teacher, she was revered by adults and students alike. Her strength, power and reputation intimidated me. As the conversation circled to me, she said, “Yeah Mrs. P didn’t like you because you got help no one else ever did.”
I sipped my drink as emotions bubbled. My first year of teaching had been the hardest year of my life. I started at an inner-city high school with only six weeks of summer training. Young, white and deeply naive, I stumbled through those first weeks.
The conditions were similar for all of my coworkers; we had large classes, and most of our students had large gaps in skills. Resources were slim – I had three chalkboards and an overhead projector that only worked if I hit the base hard enough with the palm of my hand. There was never any paper in the copy machine, and the floor in my room was rotting. I had threedifferent classes to prepare for, and the workload was drowning me.
Before school started I had advocated with my department chair, Mrs. P, to switch one of my classes with my colleague, reducing the load to two classes to plan for. My colleague agreed to the switch; it would lighten her load too. But Mrs. P didn’t approve the trade.
On an early October morning, I cowered in the corner of a colleague’s classroom, sobbing as the morning bell rang. I was desperate; something needed to change to stay afloat. My grade level administrative team circled the wagons; they got my schedule completely upended so I could spend time working with a mentor.
I suspect the science teacherwanted me to feel ashamed for asking forand receiving help, that year. And I did. Every time I look back at that experience I feel guilty and inadequate. I had the mindset that if I had to ask for help then there was something missing in me. I equated it with deficiency, and the words of that science teacher confirmed this belief.
As I look back on that time, I recognize there were many factors driving her comment. I am white. My grade level administration was white. We were all new. The science teacher and Mrs. P were black and had been at the school for years and years and years. Within two years, myself and most of the other white teachers would be gone. Mrs. P and the science teacher had probably seen this cycle endlessly, and they were probably (and rightfully) sick of it – the blubbering young teachers farmed into their school, trying to “fix” and “save” everything a la Dangerous Minds. I’d like to think I didn’t give off that attitude, but I probably did.
The thing is, I also like to think that – hadcircumstances been different – I would have stayed at that school longer. The connections I made with my students, especially in my second year, were deeply fulfilling. And, with the support of my colleagues, we did some fun things that made me look forward to going to work. I was learning a lot from my coworkers, felt myself growing as a teacher and wanted to stay at the school because I knew they had pulled strings for me my first year. I wanted to repay that debt.
I never did, though. At the end of my second year, every person on my team left, and I didn’t have the confidence in my own skills to remain with teachers like Mrs. P. So I applied out and left, too.
Nine years later, as I sat in the Head’s office at my current school, all of those feelings swirled up again. She said, “I’m not that worried about you; you do a good job of asking for help when you need it.” Her observation was a shock to me. I didn’t realize I still did that, but more importantly, she saw it as a strength. My workplace embraces support. We’ve spent entire professional development periods dedicated to the idea of being open so that we can learn new things. In turn, I’m starting to embrace the idea that asking for help is a strength rather than a weakness.
Now, as I go about my day, both professionally and personally, I try to let the words of my current Head of School be louder than the words of that science teacher. Vulnerability is uncomfortable and scary, but often my highest highs follow times when my communities lift me up. In those tough moments, there’s a sense of pride at the network of people I’ve webbed around me.
Parivash Goff is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. When not working with students to decipher algebraic expressions, she spends her free time reading, writing and hiking. You can read her writing on her personal blog: Two Halves of One.