My parents recently dropped off a few boxes of my old stuff. Like something out of a State Farm commercial circa 2009, my parents viewed my new home ownership as a chance to reclaim my childhood bedroom. While no one is suggesting a dojo or a sauna, it has become my dad's second office. This meant that he wanted to clear out the contents of and on my desk to better set up his new work station. They came over with three or so boxes of binders and papers and knick knacks and quickly allocated it to the basement, not ready to clutter up my newly-settled house.
After a week of gathering dust in the basement, I finally got the gumption to go through these boxes of essential junk. There was no rhyme or reason to the boxes; it was apparent that my parents just placed any item anywhere and expected me to sort it out. I started with the easier stuff -- stacks of old CDs, pen holders with the pens still in them -- and found places throughout the house for these old relics of my past. Underneath the seemingly random items that had cluttered the top of my old desk was collection of memories that I was not ready for.
Like all my souvenirs from my time in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
In 2008, I spent part of my summer in Belfast. I was fulfilling one of my goals for college: spend a semester abroad. Granted, it was a summer semester, but a semester all the same.
I consider my days in Belfast one of the most influential times in my life. I learned how I am away from every single one of my comfort zones. I explored new lands, made new friends, and realized just how much I loved teaching. Granted, as I've mentioned a time or eight, that realization quickly turned into burnout, but still, at that time, it was nothing short of enlightenment.
I was amazed at what I was able to find in one of the boxes. Not because I didn't think I had saved everything (because, even back then, I hoarded souvenirs and tickets like they were bars of gold), but because I had previously assumed that everything previously had been lost. But, suddenly, I'm finding mementos from my weekend in Dublin -- ticket stubs from the Guinness Factory and Dublin Castle, bus ticket from Belfast to Dublin -- as well as mementos from the peace conference, our weekend at Corrymeela, our visits to Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rope Bridge.
It was like I was back at Queen's University, staying in my little dorm, going out to pubs practically every night, only to congregate with my abroad friends in the common room and drink some more (because hey, when in Rome...or Ireland...). I could see as clear as day the roads I would walk down to get to the Downtown Area, where I would catch a bus to the school I worked at, where I would meet up with friends at designated times (because none of us has international plans on our cell phones. Things like, "international data" did not exist in 2008 for us common folk). I could feel the sun coming up at 4 in the morning (after only setting at 10 that night) and I could remember how refreshed I felt even after only a few hours of sleep, only to fight to keep my eyes open during a lecture. I could still hear the opening notes to Eurovision coming from the television in our new Irish friend's flat.
I had a good stack of folders in this collection. Mostly from the lectures we went to (as the abroad trip was not the standard, "Take classes at a university," so much was it a, "Meet with important people and learn about the sociological intricacies of the city."), a few from the various places we had visited. Underneath everything was a blank white folder. Inside was a small collection of pictures and notes, all written in washable marker. Drawings of rainbows and stick figures. Each had a caption underneath their picture -- usually, "I love you," or "I hope you loved our class!" One boy had a note reminded me to never, ever forget him.
I placed these drawings on the stack of Belfast items, sat down on the basement, and cried.
To backtrack, earlier that day, I had gone on a walk through the woods. Our house borders 3 square miles of forest, with nature trails as far as you'd ever want to go. I had avoided them during the summer, as the area was mosquito heaven, but felt safe venturing forward with the crisp fall air behind me.
I went without music during my walk. As a result, my mind bounced from thought to thought, relishing in the extra cognitive space given by the severe lack of an iPod. After waxing philosophical on everything from brains-as-radios-picking-up-our-mind's-consciousness to ex-boyfriends who got insanely fat, my mind settled on my brief career as an early education teacher.
To keep it as brief as possible, the thoughts were not positive. I thought about every time I had lost my cool with my students. I thought about every time I had made an unfair decision. I thought about every time I had let my frustrations with administration trickle down into how I interacted with the classroom. I thought about every time I could've been a little more patient and a little more understanding. I thought about how I burnt out and kept going anyway and how I probably did more damage than good by staying. After a solid ten minutes of berating myself, I came to the only logical conclusion: that I had done no good, made no benefits, and was better off pretending like I had never been a teacher. I was a burnout. I was the little teacher that couldn't. And there was no use thinking about the past because I was far from perfect.
I was far from perfect with my Belfast students as well. I didn't know how to handle bullies. I didn't know how to interact with the kids who had been bullied. I had a horrible tendency of talking down to the kids when explaining things instead of using simpler terms (and, trust me, there's a difference between "talking down" and "simplifying"). But here was a handful of pictures, drawn for a teacher that they only had for a very brief amount of time, tell her that they loved her. One child did everything he could to make a lasting impression on me, because he wanted me to remember him forever and forever (his name was Nialle and I hope I always remember him in some fashion).
My husband called soon after this discovery, and I tearfully told him why finding my Belfast stuff had awoken such sad emotions in me. I told him how I felt like I was better off forgetting that I had ever been a teacher, to which he adamantly replied, "No. Never. You are doing such a disservice to yourself by remember every time you messed up." He went on to point out G*, the little Chinese boy who, like Lin, did not understand English and was inconsolable. He wasn't even my student -- just a child who was dropped off in my room before the other teachers arrived -- but, through holding him and singing the only Chinese song I really knew (a crude version of the "Good Morning" song in Cantonese) and following him wherever he pointed his finger towards, I won him over, to the point that, by the third or fourth drop-off, he was playing. First by himself, then around kids, then with kids. He would sneak out of his classroom and come to my door, just to wave, "Hi."
"Your students loved you. Students that weren't even yours loved you," my husband went on to say. I wiped the remaining tears from my eyes and tried my best to quiet the part of my brain that had decided that my teaching career was a wash.
Granted, I found the Belfast items at the same time that I found my 9th grade history notebook, so my baseline was already raised quite a bit. But finding those pictures was exactly what I needed. Just a little something to remind me that all my frustration and stress over the years had not be for naught. The nagging feeling that I had been an abysmal failure as a teacher has been something that has been nagging at me ever since I handed in my resignation letter. A feeling that took an hour-long walk without music to really, truly, fully surface, and a feeling that took a simple "I love you" of a 7-year-old to break.