At Work One Life, Going Forward: Why I Quit Teaching in 2016
“Like most people in education, I wanted to make a difference.”
In 2016, after almost twenty years of classroom teaching, I decided to stop. Not to take a break, which I’ve done before, but to end my public school career with the certainty that I would never go back to having my own classroom of children. I had published a novel in 2015 and wanted to have time to write another one. My husband started a business and needed help with the office work. We were possibly going to move out of Austin. These were my stated reasons for leaving. What I never said was that I was having a hard time maintaining my optimism around children, that instead of feeling hope when looking into their eager faces, I felt despair at how much we’ve failed them and how little of everything we were leaving for them—how little of the earth, how little joy, how little justice, how little of the things I was telling them every day the world was about. Maybe because I didn’t have any young children of my own, my body rejected a biological imperative to believe in the inevitability of their survival.
I started teaching on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1995. Like most people in education, I wanted to make a difference, to live a life of service. I liked interacting with a group of roughly twenty children every day, but I had little stamina for the rest of it: the meetings, the curriculum planning, the research, the recordkeeping, the organizing of materials and space. I worked alongside some exceptionally gifted teachers and saw how much preparation and self-sacrifice it would take to become that kind of teacher, but I could never quite reach the same level of commitment. I started to gravitate toward other efforts, becoming involved in a number of mainly South Asian or Asian American activist groups focused on police brutality, criminalization, political prisoners, the people’s war in Nepal, post 9/11 repression, and the invasion of Iraq.
I was also on the board of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, where I slowly started to build up an identity as a writer. Eventually, in 2002, I pursued an MFA at Hunter College. For two out of the three years I took to finish that program, I was still teaching full time and still involved in a few activist groups. I didn’t know what my contribution to the world ought to be. I cared very much about everything, and even while I felt I was failing in all of my endeavors, I was engaged with people around me in a way that was both meaningful and exhausting. By 2005, when I graduated from my MFA program, I was so frazzled that I couldn’t do anything but get in a car and drive away. I felt my life in New York had lacked focus; it was time to reflect on what I wanted for myself, and be happy.
I ended up in Austin, Texas, where my last ten years have been all about focus. I’ve balanced my existence on three pillars: a simple social life revolving mainly around my husband, whom I met upon leaving New York; a writing life carved out in the early mornings, weekends, school holidays and summers; and a teaching life that I happily returned to, this time in a middle-class neighborhood of North Austin where success, frankly, takes a little less effort. Any interest in politics or activism was diverted into fiction or set aside for future projects. I wanted to be one of those people who just got on with life, never troubled by anxiety about the state of the world, or at least able to shrug it off with the conviction that there was nothing to be done about it. To whatever extent I was able to, I avoided the news, and political discussions, and interactions with places or people that might upset me. In that time I wrote and published a novel. I helped raise my stepson. I bought a house with my husband. I made myself believe that my personal happiness had to be preserved at all costs, that nothing was more important.
But trying to keep the news from filtering in, even into my first grade classroom, was like patching a leaky roof. When I couldn’t avoid the news, I often fell into periods of panic and uncontrollable crying fits, triggered by things I thought I should recover from quickly. People who loved me tried to get me to cheer up. After all, that school where kids were gunned down for no reason at all was not my school, and that photograph of an overloaded boat of refugees capsizing was just that, a single view of a singular event, and the newest climate report shouldn’t keep me from appreciating the gorgeous Austin winter, and when I’m pulled over for a minor traffic violation, chances are I’ll make it out alive. The kids in my class wanted to talk about these things, and they did: The mass shootings and the oceans dying and the wars abroad and they talked about Trump. What could I say, except that they were safe, that being kind to each other was enough, that there have always been leaders who made the world a better place, that they could be leaders too?
2016 was the year the roof came crashing down. For a decade I’ve lived in fear of this period of my life ending, a period of productivity born from willful ignorance, but I couldn’t have anticipated how much this fear, this terror gripping me right now, has forced me to give up my illusions. I can’t lie to children anymore, and if I can’t lie to children I have no business being a teacher, not in this world, not in the way it exists now. I don’t know exactly what the way forward is, but I know that I can’t base it on perception. Perception has been a false shield. I want to know why the world is this way and why it isn’t getting better, despite the fact that nearly everyone I know wants it to get better. I want to know if there is a better way for people to live on Earth, and I do think this is knowable.
This has been a painful break for me, as it is for everyone who looks at their long-held hopes and beliefs and can no longer find any truth in them. These aren’t small ruptures, to no longer believe humanity can survive under capitalism, to no longer believe that empires die quietly, and to no longer believe that this system of cutthroat competition is the only one suited to human nature. As someone who has worked with children from many different backgrounds, I’ve had a chance to observe people close to their natural state. We’re not as vicious or as incapable of change as some thought leaders would like us to believe. Yet in my adult life I have gotten the message from every angle that there is no viable alternative, that the future has been determined and there is nothing better than this. Well, I’m not ready to hand this to our children and say, “here you go, sorry about the mess,” hoping they’ll be able to one day fix something that is unfixable.
It isn’t my desire to be in contention all the time. I want to appreciate beauty when it’s in front of me, but I can’t spend the rest of my life retreating from reality. I’m forty-six years old, too old to feel I have time to explore, and too young to say I’ve already done my time. I’m at the age where I have to decide what the rest of my life is going to be about. Over the years, I’ve learned to craft different identities for different purposes, fracturing my consciousness into a million pieces so that if one part looks at an unnecessary horror and questions it, every other part of me can go on as if nothing has happened. As a teacher, the harmony and happiness of my class depended on my ability to fracture myself in this way. Now it’s time to live one life, operating from the deepest love I can fathom.