you & me

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? The Answer: Real.

 

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always had a quick answer. A firefighter, an actress, and most often the answer was teacher.

I saw this vision of myself in a classroom in front of 10-20 elementary-school-aged children sitting on a stool, with an overhead projector, writing out math problems. I saw this vision so clearly in fourth grade that I asked for an overhead projector for my birthday and received it.

I decorated my entire bedroom as a school classroom, and would rush home from school to act out teaching my own homework to my stuffed animals. I had a speakerphone in my room, so I would go in the other room and make fake announcements over the loudspeaker. At the time, I never realized how therapeutic this game was for me.

I was teaching myself by doing my homework aloud, I was expressing myself creatively, I was listening to my gut, and felt in charge in one aspect of my young life. I was happy in my classroom. As time went on, I grew and changed, and the bedroom changed from a classroom into a teenage room filled with posters of Bob Marley and Sublime.

I came home, hung out with my friends, talked on the phone, and never turned on the overhead projector again. When graduating high school, my mother told me I was going to college. She had a way of telling me what I needed to do without often explaining the reason besides something being the right thing to do. This never sat well with me. I wanted to rock the world, and college seemed so boring.

I quit fighting when I got accepted, and was told to pick a major. Teaching, I thought. Elementary Education, of course, since I had always wanted to be a teacher, have that classroom, and change children’s lives by making them feel accepted as I never had been.

So I started college. I attended my classes. I got good, really good, at being a student. By the time I graduated, I had an almost 4.0 GPA and a teaching job offer waiting for me on graduation day. I had made it. Except, I was completely empty. None of this mattered to me, but I kept telling myself it was supposed to matter so much. Isn’t this what I wanted? This is what i worked so hard for.

No way could I actually tell anyone how it all felt wrong. So I started my teaching job that Summer, preparing my classroom, attending seminars, and wearing a costume of a person I never thought I would be. I would be paid $36,000 in North Carolina as a first-year teacher. I had no idea how little this was at the time.

The message my mother, college, and everyone had been sending to me was, I was a college graduate who should be desperate for a job. I should fight to get paid nothing because I am nothing. I am a college graduate, and this means nothing until I have experience.

I got in front of those second-graders morning after morning, not having a clue what to do, not to mention I was teaching as a very low-performing school where one of my second graders didn’t know their alphabet. But I was required to teach these children the beginnings of division. I felt like the lost confused child again, but there was no escaping to my classroom.

This real-life classroom felt more like hell. The other teachers were judgmental, angry, and mostly told me to bribe the children with candy to get them to be quiet. Every fiber of my being felt wrong. I had no idea what to do. I felt like the room was spinning. I couldn’t call my family, tell them that a month in this job was pure hell, and that I wasn’t grateful for this horrible opportunity I was given.

I was supposed to be happy. Instead, I was drowning. I looked around the classroom that afternoon. I saw nothing that resembled my safe space as a child. I was too paralyzed by the pressure to teach myself anything. My creativity was completely stifled by the idea that I was supposed to be someone I wasn’t. I walked out of the classroom and knew I was never coming back.

I got in my car, bawling my eyes out. I drove and drove all around the town crying. I had no idea where to go, so I drove to the hospital. I parked my car, walked into the emergency room, and said, through the tears and snot. The women looked at me confused. I sat down with the nurse. I told her I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be this person, it’s too hard. It’s not me, and it hurts, and my job is awful.

She asked me what kind of work I did, and I told her I was a second grade teacher. She looked at me puzzled, handed me scrubs to wear, and they took me to the psychiatric ward. I had no idea if you walk into a hospital and tell them you want to die, they are not allowed to let you leave. I didn’t care. I didn’t have anywhere to be.

My mother, who is a therapist, came and talked to them, and explained she would take me home. I told them I didn’t have a plan to actually kill myself. They gave me the same look anyone gives you who is confused by the pain that just living can sometimes give. They don’t want to believe that pain is real. They believe we are not supposed to speak about it out loud.

You are supposed to feel it alone, maybe tell a therapist. You don’t just tell people it hurts. This makes you mentally ill, this makes you depressed, anxious. To me, it just meant I was alive. I was a real feeling human. Good, bad, and the ugly.

I cleaned out my classroom, wrote my class a book about their individual strengths, and told them their teacher was sick and needed to leave. I always felt slightly guilty for using the word sick. I didn’t have cancer… how could I really say I was sick? Wasn’t I just being an over-dramatic college graduate who couldn’t handle the heat of a real job?

Wasn’t I just giving up when I should have stuck with it because hard things come from hard work? No, I used to tell myself that narrative for years. I have come to realize it’s not true in the slightest. When you are not being your real authentic self, that’s when you are sick. In one way or another, it may be that you have an eating disorder, alcoholism, self-hatred.

Whatever coping mechanism you use, to deal with not being in your own skin and listening to your true inner voice, is your sickness. I was covered in these sicknesses. I was an over-eater, an avoider, a people-pleaser, a shell of a human.

It has been seven years since I quit that job. I finally realized on the cusp of turning 30 that I do know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a teacher. I want to be a teacher of being authentically myself. I have enjoyed teaching in creative spaces, teaching my two-year-old, and teaching myself over these past seven years. I have realized I am teaching someone something every day.

This is the teaching I was doing and giving myself as a child. The non-judgmental, creative, free-flowing teaching that helps you listen to your inner voice, helps you grow and expand as a person, and realizes sometimes life just hurts and that’s okay.

This teaching doesn’t need a degree on the wall, this teaching is something you learn and teach simultaneously each day you wake up and take another breath on this earth. The only difference is that you have to actively choose this teaching every moment of every day. You can’t turn away and escape with alcohol, you cannot be mean-spirited and judgmental. Otherwise the day’s lessons are lost on you.

Your only job as a student in this classroom is to fully succumb to life. When I started living my life in this way, everything changed. My friendships changed, my parenting changed, and I came into my body in a way I have never been. When you come from within your real self, others feel it and give it back to you, or they run away and that’s okay too. If you feel like you don’t know how to do this, don’t try.

You don’t have to do anything, just find something that fills you up, like teaching in my pretend classroom did, and it will find you. So yes, I do want to be a teacher and a student when I grow up and my classroom will forever be this beautiful life I have been given.

***

Sarah Sooklal is a creative-minded mother of two, artist, and friend. She fills her days with her toddler and pregnant belly listening to Pandora, spending time outdoors, and radiating positivity to others as much as possible. She looks out for the underdog, and wants you to feel the love and acceptance she strives to give herself daily. She is still figuring a lot out but she knows she will never live to please society ever again. She doesn’t fit the mold, so she created one of her own, which involves being a bisexual mother of two in an interracial marriage in the south. She will be the best damn friend you have ever had as long as you’re doing the best you can. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up in the classroom of this extraordinary life.

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