During my TFA interview a thousand years – and by that I mean not even two years – ago, I knew that I would be asked about whether or not I could ever see myself leaving before my two years were over. My relentless perusal of Relentless Pursuit prepared me for this, and I was ready. My interviewer, for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and who is currently the Executive Director of a charter region, fixed her intense, searching brown eyes on mine. She opened this behemoth question by referring to the innumerable challenges and difficulties that would certainly befall me as a corps member, and that being said, could I think of any reason for which I would leave Teach For America before the end of my two-year commitment?
I did my best to match her intensity as I looked her squarely in the eye. “If I got a terminal illness and only had a few months left to live,” I said, “I probably wouldn’t be very effective in the classroom anymore anyway, so in that case, yes, I would say ‘I need to go die now.’” My intensity rose. “Other than that, no. I take this commitment as seriously as I take my commitment to my four younger brothers.”
Several weeks later, when my interviewer and I spoke over the phone about my acceptance to the corps and my placement in the Bay, she told me that she could see me having a tremendous impact on my students. She also told me that she follows up on the people she interviews. And, “if I ever hear that you’re thinking about quitting, I’m going to call you and remind you of what you said in your interview.” She laughed a little at this point, but we both knew that that was simply a less menacing way of communicating the message, “don’t you dare fuck this up.”
Although I clearly remember her words on my own, I am bracing myself for that phone call. And I know exactly what I will say to her – or, at least, what I want to say to her – if the conversation goes as I imagine it will. Which would be as follows:
Her: Maria, you were so passionate about serving these kids – about righting centuries-old wrongs, and doing what those in power cannot and will not yet do. You told me how committed you were to Teach For America, and to serving as a corps member for two years rather than only one. How can you do this to your students?
Me: [Interviewer's name], I am not doing this TO my students. I am doing this FOR myself, and for the work I will do as a healthy individual in the future. As a teacher, I felt like I was suffocating. Like I was being pushed to run harder and faster than I have ever run in my life, and if I took a moment to stop and breathe I would instead vomit until the world ended, let alone educate forty children. I hardly knew myself, and I wept at what I did know. I realized I’d reached a point at which I likely needed medication simply to keep functioning. I felt dead inside when I pulled up to school in the morning, when I enforced culture items I didn’t believe in, when I yelled at a student even though I knew I shouldn’t, when I came home from a twelve-hour day and realized there was still so much more to do, when I counted down the weeks always standing between myself and those I love in Texas, and when I thought, with terror clenching my stomach, about how trapped I felt in this situation. Depression is more than a challenge or a difficulty, [interviewer's name]. It is like a disease, and it was eating me alive, making me as ineffective in the classroom as I imagined I would have been with a serious illness. The person attempting to lead her students in Room 17 wasn’t me, not after the first few months. So I found a way back to myself. I applied to graduate school, knowing that I would receive the training I needed to work towards righting social wrongs outside a classroom setting. I applied to programs in Texas, knowing that attending one would relieve the formidable burden 1,800 miles can place on a relationship, especially a life-changing one.
And you know what, [interviewer's name]? By the time my admissions decisions began rolling in, and I had the opportunity to actually choose my next path, I knew that I physically could have done a second year if I’d chosen to. I could have survived, and I most likely could have done it with even better results than those I’ve gotten this year. But being not-depressed-anymore is hardly being happy. Surviving is quite different from thriving. Going to graduate school for public policy in the same city as the man I love is exactly what I need in my life right now, as opposed to being a teacher for another year, knowing it isn’t what’s best for me.
At this point she might interject with “But what about what’s best for your students?” as any socially conscious person would. To that, my answer is simple. What is best for my students, [interviewer's name], is to have a passionate teacher who leads them to transformational academic and personal growth every day; here in California, at this time in my life, I cannot be that teacher. What is best for my students is for the teacher who replaces me next year to be nothing less than excellent, which is possible now that I have given my school notice about not returning (which was a risky decision in an at-will employment situation, but the unequivocally right thing to do nonetheless). What is best for my students is for them to be as prepared as possible for the third grade (or for the opportunity to start second grade afresh), and for that reason I will do my absolute best over the next nine weeks to make sure that will be true.
I love my students. I love their families. I love the community in which I have been privileged to work for the past almost-year, and the ways in which that work has opened my eyes to more realities, both beautiful and harsh, than I can put into words. I love that, although this year has been without question THE most difficult time in my life, I am now equipped to go forward in my personal life and my professional life, with even more knowledge about how I’d like to make a difference in my society. (I am most interested in the intersection of education policy and immigration policy, especially for communities like the one in which I work here in San Jose. Several faculty members in my graduate program specialize in either or even both of those, and I couldn’t be more excited to delve into those studies while accruing the quantitative skills I need to enter the field of public policy analysis.)
If you (the general “you” now, not my interviewer) told me two years ago that I would end up leaving TFA before my commitment was over, I probably would have given you the stink eye and a sassy “no way in hell” type of response. What can I say? My life circumstances changed pretty dramatically, even from the time I applied to the time I got placed with Rocketship, and I ultimately changed my path accordingly. Will I look back on this choice and regret not doing my second year? No. For where I am in my life, this is the path I need to be taking, and I could not feel more confident about that. But will I look back and wonder what year two would have been like? Of course. Will I feel bittersweet twinges of curiosity when I try to imagine what my students are doing next year, what they look like, how they’re doing? Absolutely.
Am I humbled and empowered by my experiences with Teach For America? You bet I am. I hope to stay as connected as possible to TFA and its movement in the future. Although I am cutting my official corps-member ties to TFA after this year, I wish current and future corps members nothing but the best in their – in OUR – quest to ensure that children’s skin colors and zip codes will no longer determine their opportunities in life.