jess ingrassellino, October 2020
I was the headmaster at my school for orphans. “No, no, NO! You have to
stand right here. Princess wouldn’t go over there,” I’d command my younger sister, who played every supporting actor role with passion and vigor. We played this game where we pretended to be orphans every day after school. I was probably ten or eleven before we fully quit the game because we got too old for imaginary sanctuaries.
It’s kind of funny to me now, to think back on what I thought teaching and helping were. Mostly, I thought it meant being in-control, and getting to have control. Both equally appealing to my child-mind. It was strange when I realized that teaching, the art, the act, had nothing to do with power or control.
“Miss Jessica. Miss Jessica, will you help me with my card?” This little boy was a first-grader in the classroom where I volunteered after school a few days a week. In a rare moment of clarity, my mom had recommended that I volunteer in classrooms since I was interested in teaching, so I did. I met with the elementary school principal, and the next week, I was volunteering in a first-grade classroom – actually, my first-grade classroom, with my first-grade teacher, who was now in her forties.
“Oh, that’s a beautiful card. Your mom will love it.”
“This card isn’t for my mom,” he replied, “it’s for my Grandma. My mom’s dead.”
As a sixteen year old, that was pretty much peak awkward. I tried my best to recover: “Well, I know your grandmother is just going to love that card.” For weeks after, I felt like a fool for assuming that he had a mother because he was making a card.
Over and over again, my students have called me out — usually inadvertently — highlighting the gaps in my knowledge and limits in my experience. I’ve started to think that teachers are just people who like learning things the hard way. Within my first four months of teaching high school, I was certain I’d lose my job.
“You know what lady, I don’t give a shit!” Eddie shouted. Eddie, the 19-year-old senior. The genuinely nice kid who put on the tough-guy armor to make the world safer for himself.
“Yeah, well, you know what?”
I, all twenty-three years of me, yelled, “I don’t give a shit either. Now go to the principal’s office!”
Yeah. I did it. I lost my entire temper in fifteen seconds. Couldn’t sleep for a week. Kept waiting for my whole career to get upended. You know what they don’t teach you when you study to become a teacher? They don’t teach you that all of the shit you’re struggling to leave behind is the shit that’s going to bite you every day until you deal with it. That illusion of control I had when I was five? It went out the door with Eddie.