Tag Archives: decisions

The Big Question


I constantly feel the need to tell people what a dedicated teacher I was. Is it guilt from leaving my profession and the children behind? To me, it’s the big question–Do I need this? I’ve been looking for the answer to this question for months now. 

I began teaching in January of 1999, second grade. It was a long-term sub position for a teacher out having a baby. I have to be honest–it kicked my butt. All those grand ideas of going in and transforming lives with the gentle words coming from my mouth flew right down the toilet. I looked about 17. The children didn’t respect me. I didn’t know what I was doing and my feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness manifested themselves in screaming. I interviewed for a full-time position at this school and didn’t get it. I wasn’t surprised and I was a bit relieved.

As much as I was disillusioned about the teaching profession, I knew I needed a job and this was the degree that I held. I sent out 53 resumes and got 4 interviews. The job that I took was from a first-year principal teaching at a 50+ year-old school in the projects of Greenville. 99% of the children lived below poverty level. Drugs were rampant throughout the neighborhood and most of the children parent’s didn’t give a rat’s ass about what they did at school or even where they were most of the time. It was sad, but it felt like a calling. The principal called me a few hours after our interview and she said she had a good feeling about me. I accepted a job as the only 4K teacher at Hollis Academy. It was Greenville County’s only year-round school, which meant that I’d be starting school in just 3 weeks. I’d had the most experience with 5 year-old Kindergarten in practicums and student teaching, so I quickly threw together a simplified version of 5K in my sad little room. It was located in the basement of this terribly old school and it smelled of mold and dust. There were dead roaches in the cabinets and mouse traps on top of them. The children’s bathroom was down two flights of stairs and around the corner. There were no windows in the room. The walls were made of brown brick.

I met my assistant, screened about 120 children for 40 slots in my class (there were 2 half-day sessions at this point), called the parents, told them they were accepted and set appointments for home visits. I didn’t know about Mapquest at this time, so I got my map of Greenville County and set out to conduct home visits with each child.

I grew up in a nice, clean home with great parents so I had no idea what I was about to walk into. The homes of these children were dark, dirty and hot. The children were often dirty and in clothes that looked like they had been worn a few days in a row. More often than not, their parents wouldn’t even turn off the big screen tv that was blaring along one wall of the house. 12 of the 40 children didn’t even speak English. At the end of these sad and eye-opening days, I cried. I began to feel guilty for the nice things that I had and I began to love these children who hadn’t seen much love in their short lives. I wanted to save them all.
I became obsessed with making the toys and classroom as beautiful as it could be for these children, though it all look like it had been there as long as the school. I bought sandpaper and a gallon of paint to sand down all the wooden furniture and paint it a cheery lavender. I bought fabric with clouds on it to create the look of windows and made little curtains to hang on each side. I put artwork up all over the classroom. I cleaned and I worked until it was ready. 

I’ll never forget the first day of school. I went into the hallway to gather my class and a little boy stood up with tears streaming down his face and threw up right at my feet. I was horrified. What was I supposed to do? I wasn’t going to TOUCH him or his throw up. I asked my assistant to take care of the little boy and the mess and I took the other 19 children to our classroom. The adventure began.

They didn’t know how to walk in a line. They didn’t understand what “put your bags in your cubby” meant. They went in the room and immediately began to get into toys and pull things off the shelves. Half of them needed to go to the bathroom and the other half were crying for their mother. There was only one of me and the bathroom was a maze to get to. I felt like crying, too, at this point. After making it to the bathroom and back without losing any children, I then had to take them to the cafeteria for breakfast. They didn’t know how to hold a tray or where to sit or how to open a milk carton. An hour later when we made it back to the room, the children didn’t want to sing a song with me, they didn’t want to listen to a story, they just wanted to play. I gave in and let them. They did what 4 year-olds do best–they pulled all the toys off the shelves, mixed them together and ran around the room. I wanted to quit.

Two weeks later the director of 4K came to my room. She very boldly took down half the things I had in my room, pulled toys off shelves and sat me down. She took me under her wing and she began to teach me how to teach 4 year-olds. Slowly but surely, it got better. I read books. I stayed until nearly 6:00 every night getting ready for the next day and it was down in the moldy, dark basement of an old school in the middle of the worst neighborhood in Greenville that I stopped just surviving each day with these children and I became a teacher.

The next year the program went full-day and we moved into a new building half way through the year. The principal gave me the biggest classroom in the school with a rounded wall of windows overlooking the playground. I had my own private office and storage room, 3 brand new computers and a bathroom in the classroom. The director of 4K used a lot of her funds to purchase new furniture and materials for the room. I kept some of the purple furniture, just for the memories. I found my voice with the children and their parents. I found a way to reach them. I found a way to teach them more than anyone thought they could learn. I went into their homes and asked them to turn their televisions off. I talked to them about how to read to their child. I talked to them about the influences they were allowing in their children’s lives. I talked to them about problems they had at school and how they could help me solve them. The parents began to respect me and several of them are close friends to this day. I loved on children who were difficult to love. I taught concepts over and over until they got them. The progress I made with these children didn’t go unnoticed. My job became more than a job. It was down under my skin and it was who I was.

I taught at Hollis Academy for 5 years. I hated to leave, but my husband I were building our first home in Greer. I got a transfer to Dunbar Child Development Center, one of 5 Child Development Centers in Greenville County. These centers house only 4 year-old classes and it is very difficult to get a job working at one of them. The centers are jewels for the school district–very well taken care of and full of only the best for young children. Though they are beautiful, they are strategically placed in poverty-stricken neighborhoods to serve the children who need it the most. It was important to me to continue to serve the children and families who needed me. At the end of my first year at Dunbar, the other teachers at the centers had voted me Teacher of the Year for the next school year. To be thought of in such a way by other, more experienced teachers was a huge honor for me. It was one that I took seriously and intended to live up to for a long, long time.

At the beginning of my second year at Dunbar, I got pregnant. 8 weeks later I had a miscarriage and wasn’t sure I wanted to be pregnant again. I pushed through and prayed through the pain and decided to try again. I got pregnant on the first try. At the end of my second year, I was 7 months pregnant and carefully organizing my lesson plans and materials for the long-term sub that would be starting out the next school year for me. There was no talk of my not returning. In my mind, that just couldn’t happen. This was who I was. This is what I did.

Carter was born on August 28. I took 12 weeks of maternity leave with him. My mother-in-law was set to keep Carter 3 days a week, my dad one day a week and Jeff the other. He wouldn’t be going to daycare, he would be at our house. I went back the first week of November. On Thursday of that week, I went into my director’s office in tears. I told her I couldn’t be a teacher anymore. That same day the director of 4K came to visit me and I had to tell her the same thing. Something had happened inside of me. I didn’t loose the love for those children or their families, I just gained a bigger love for Carter and a bigger need to be the one to raise my child. I wanted to wake him up each morning. I wanted to be the one to comfort him when he cried. I wanted to set his schedule and make the decisions each day that formed his life. I needed to be a mother–and not just for 3 or 4 hours each day, but full time.

I worked until the first week of January so that they would have time to find a new teacher. I could almost feel a riiiipppp as I walked out the door on that last day. I felt panic overtake me. What have a done? What did I just give up? I may never get back into a center again. I may never get to teach 4K again. Mandi, what did you do? What if I need this? But I kept walking, knowing that what was done was done. Regrets were worth nothing at this point.

The first 2 weeks at home were heaven, but then that big question hit me again–What if I need this? Jeff was giving Carter a bath one Friday night and it had been a particularly exhausting day. I was coming down off of the high and I began to miss the way that other adults had respected me and looked to me as a person of authority. So, I asked Jeff–What if I need to be a teacher? Of course, there was nothing he could say. It was done. He reassured me that Carter needed me more. He needed me to learn all their was about him and how to care for him just like I had learned how to be a teacher. He needed me to be his expert. That really struck me and I felt settled.

Two weeks ago I had to go back to Dunbar to help screen the children for next year. While I was there, I saw parents of students I’d had in the past, I saw my old classroom, I was asked to come back and it gave me a good feeling. I thought long and hard about it. The last day that I was there, I came home and asked Jeff–What if I need this? He asked me a question in return–Could you walk out the door each morning and leave Carter? No. I knew I couldn’t and that was the end of my battle. I went back to the school. I cleaned out all the things I had left behind. I said goodbye to all my old friends and I walked out those doors again. This time there was no riiippp as I went out the door. Really, there was nothing.

A few days ago, I was playing with Carter. I was “getting him” (creeping towards him and blowing a zerbert on his neck). I held him up and he leaned forward, cackling and smiling, and did the same thing to me. All my questions had been answered.