My name is Thomas Harper, and I’m going to start this story with the story that set up this story. Wow, now that I look back at that, that is a whole helluva lot of stories in that sentence. I should probably delete that, but I won’t. And now, without further ado—voila!
I sat there, eyes downcast, fingers tensed with anxiety. It felt like a game of cat and mouse because my therapist, Dr. Devan Kendal, sat there trying to make eye contact with me. After a few minutes of this game, Kendal gave up and asked, “So, what do you want to talk about?”
I just shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know.”
In true him style, he just sighed and replied, “Alright. We can sit here until you are ready.”
And so, we sat there for a half hour minutes, Kendal watching me as I ruminated on the past, about all the times that I had been abandoned by people who swore they would never abandon me; of all the times that I’ve felt that it would be better if he just stopped existing, or had never been born.
Every single gods-damned experience in my life has been a fight. Just getting through each semester is like liturgy of desperation, triumphing in the end, but that much closer to the liturgy of death—and longing for it.
I finally broke the silence, whispering exasperatedly, “Why does it all have to be so hard?”
“Can you explain what you mean by everything. Try and give at least one example or as many as you want.”
“I can’t pick one because every experience is there, playing on a loop, but not just playing, reexperiencing: the emotions, the senses, everything.”
Kendal nodded understandingly, “I’ve heard it said that post-traumatic stress flashbacks are not linear memories. They’re more like random snippets, memories replayed wholebodied, as if you are reliving those moments. And you can either choose to make it linear or maintain its non-linear nature, looking at the event that just made you remember what you remembered. I think it would be good for you to write about it.”
“I’m not that good of a writer,” I replied, vigorously shaking my head.
“You do yourself a disservice, Thomas. You are, after all, in a writing PhD.”
“Well, it’s technically rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean that I’m good at writing.”
“Doesn’t it? Look, no one can tell your story for you, only you can do it justice. So, try it.”
Going forward, it’s going to be very non-linear. The story will be like nesting dolls of traumatic memories, flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. This is me, for better or worse, these are my lived experiences daily. And thus, I began to write and the rest is probably forgotten history because most likely nobody’s even going to read this.
I sat in my chair, feeling like I was wearing a 200-pound suit of armor. I wanted to move, but every movement weighs so much and I had to be careful not to use up too much of my energy because I still had to teach and go to class in a couple of hours. This has been happening more and more since March, getting progressively worse with each day.
I unlocked my phone and saw that I had an e-mail. I began to read it,
It has come to my attention that you are late turning in your annual review materials. I should not need to impress on you the importance of a timely completion of this important requirement. It is simply unacceptable for a responsible professional…
And then suddenly, I’m back in Fall 2015, writing my thesis proposal. I’m on my 31st draft because my advisor hasn’t been happy with the previous 30. I’m exhausted, nearly burnt out, and anxious because there aren’t that many weeks left of the semester and I need to defend this in this semester or else I won’t graduate in the Spring. Because my university says that you can’t defend your thesis in the same semester as you defended your thesis proposal.
So, I go to his office to meet with him on my 31st draft. I sit down and he begins to look it over. He then proceeds to do what he has done with the other 30 drafts, deleting and rewriting entire sections saying that sounds better. I know that in a week, he will decide that that isn’t better and that I shouldn’t have written it that way…even though they are his words.
He takes complex concepts that I explained simply and rewrites them in a way I don’t even understand. I’m becoming more and more anxious because this is supposed be my thesis, this is supposed to be a representation of how I write and exist as an academic. I’ve talked with my boss about this and she has told me that I should take control of my thesis, because that is the only strategy that will end with me writing it, defending it, and graduating.
So, I take a deep breath and say, “Stop.”
He looks taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Stop rewriting my sentences, stop deleting things that I have written, just stop! This,” I said, pointing to the paper, “is the best representation of how I write. I can’t continue to do this. You writing style is not mine and the end of the semester is 3 weeks away and I need to be done with this. I can’t do any more drafts. I-I’m not going to do any more drafts. This is it.”
My advisor looks down, sighing. “Okay.” He says judgmentally.
We sit there in silence for a few minutes. Finally, I ask him, “What are your thoughts.”
“I’m disappointed,” That cuts me like a filleting knife on a hobbit, but he continues, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. You know, not everyone is made for this discipline, because they call it a discipline for a reason.”
And now I’m back in 2014. I’m a special education teacher in a high school setting.
I’m sitting at my desk when I get a call from my supervisor, Beth Anders. “Sam, come see me in my office.”
“I can’t right now, I have students in my classroom.”
“Figure it out and come see me.” She replies and, with that, hangs up the phone.
I walk over to my colleague’s classrooms to see if they had a paraprofessional who could watch my students while I met with my supervisor. I walk into the classroom of the teacher I student taught under, Erica Brandee, and she stares at me angrily. She and her para, Staci Ferne, are sitting at the table in the middle of the room. The students are sitting at desks surrounding the outside of the room. “What do you want?”
Ms. Brandee asks curtly. I look down and ask, “I have to meet with my supervisor.”
“Yeah, so what does that have to do with me?”
“I have students in my room, so I was wondering if I could borrow one of the paras to watch my room while I go meet.”
“I can’t spare my para.”
“What is she doing?”
“She is helping the students.” Ms. Brandee says with a curled lip.
The para spoke up, “I can watch his students.”
“No, you cannot.” The room goes silent as her students hear the tone of her voice. “Go find someone else to do your work.”
“Right,” I turn to the para, “Thank you for trying to help.” With that, I leave the room and go next door to my second colleague. She is willing to watch my students as I go meet with Beth.
Once all of the students are set up in her classroom, I head over to meet my supervisor. Once I get to her room, I find that the door is closed. I knock and she opens the door, asking me, “What took you so long?”
“Trying to find out what to do with the students.” I reply, knowing that I was in a no-win situation.
“Well, whatever.” She walks back to her desk and sits down, but there is nowhere for me to sit. She folds her hands and looks at me as she says, “So, there are some complaints against you.”
I furrow my eyebrows in confusion, “What are the complaints?”
“There are three, the first is that you let your students play games during your study skills classes, the second is that you never teach, and the third is that you sit behind your desk all the time.” I swallow a lump in my throat, and fight a bitter laugh.
I had come to teach at this high school when the person I student taught under spread rumors and accused my predecessor of “letting students play games, never teaching, and sitting behind his desk.” I knew where these complaints had come from.
“You need to do what’s best for the students, not what is best for Thomas Harper.” I feel like she just socked me in the gut. My greatest fear is that I will do a disservice to my students by being their teacher. And she had just said that I am doing them a disservice. And then she kicks me when I’m already down, “Thomas, I think it is important for you to know that not everyone is made out for this profession.”
And now I’m back to Spring 2012, I’m a student teacher under Erica Brandee and I have a meeting with my student teaching supervisor, Nicole Tristin, in Case High School at noon. It is the second to last day of student teaching.
It’s 11:45am and I’m teaching class when a fellow student teacher, who’s supervisor is also Nicole, rushes in and says, breathless, “Nicole changed the location of the meeting to campus,” and rushes out.
I’m left confused because I had been in the frame of mind of teaching, but now I have to figure out what is going on. So, I decide to go back to teaching the class because that’s what I’m expected to do as a student teacher.
After class is done at 11:55, I find that I have five missed calls from Nicole. I call her up and she demands, “Where are you?”
“I’m at Case High School, where we are scheduled to meet.”
“No, we are scheduled to meet at Adonis University.”
“I remember we were sitting in the classroom and you said that the ‘attendance of this meeting is very important,’ and then we agreed to have it in the room next to where I am right now.”
“I specifically remember the opposite.”
“We had scheduled it that way because I have to teach class an hour after we were to first meet.”
There is a slight pause, until she states, “You need to get here.”
“I can’t get to St. Francis State University because I don’t have a car. It would take one hour just to get to St. Francis State University and I don’t know how long this meeting will take, but if it’s an hour, then that’s two hours, but I have to get back here. By that time, school will be out. Is it possible for you to come here?”
“No, you will come here.”
“My cooperating teacher is expecting me to teach in one hour, due to that fact, I will be unable to make it to campus today. Is it possible to reschedule it for tomorrow?”
“No, we need to do it today.”
“Okay, can we reschedule it for later today once school is done, say around 5?”
“No, because that’s when the celebration party is for student teachers.”
“I don’t know what to say, I’m unable to leave here right now because it would take too long to get there and back and my cooperating teacher is expecting me to teach a class in one hour.”
“So you are saying you aren’t going to do it?”
I reply, exasperated, “That is not at all what I am saying. I am asking for a simple accommodation because I don’t have a car and I am unable to get to campus, meet, and then get back here in the time that I have.”
“Okay, then bye!” With that, she hangs up. I am so frustrated that I can barely breathe. I had tried to set this meeting so I would be able to attend, but she was not accommodating for me at all.
I’m supposed to be eating, but I’m too anxious and stressed to do that. I had had issues with Nicole all semester. At one point, Nicole made me do a roleplay where I had to act like a “normal person” (her exact words).
Let me take a quick aside by giving an example of how I greet people. First, people ask me how I am doing (or begin by asking, “what’s up?”) and then, they often reach out their hand for a handshake, a high-five, or the thrice-damned-by-the-gods knuckle bump (In case you can’t tell, I fucking hate knuckle bumps).
So, when people ask me “what’s up,” I answer, “I don’t know the answer to such a deep philosophical question.” When they ask me how I am, I reply, “tired” because that is how I almost always am. Most of the time, the human I am interacting with grins and we talk about why I am tired and they usually respond that they are tired as well. For the physical touch, I reach out my hand limply so it’s hanging down and wait for them to decide what to do.
Anyways, back to the roleplay bullshit. My supervisor wanted me to answer her question of “how are you” with a “normal” response like “good or great” as well as shaking her hand. While I know I should have done it, I refused and continued to do what I was doing. She probably didn’t like that I didn’t participate, but that was the third time I had met with her and I was not going to act “normal” for her or anyone for that matter.
So, forty-five minutes after the call at 12:55 (five minutes before I had to teach class), I got an e-mail from the director of the special education department at Adonis University, saying, “It has been brought to my attention that you are trying to get out of meeting with your supervisor. You cannot get out of this requirement, it is expected that you meet with your supervisor to discuss your e-portfolio by the end of the day. If you fail to do this, you will have to repeat the student teaching experience. Have a good day!”
The students start coming in and they can see how stressed I am. One of them speaks up to everyone else, saying, “Everyone, we are going to give him a break today. Nobody have any behaviors or you’ll have to deal with me.” I realize at that point that students—even students who are put into special education for bad behavior—are often more well behaved than administrators.
After class ended, I send an e-mail back to the director explaining how I had suggested alternatives to having to miss out on my second to last day of student teaching. I received an e-mail back from her saying, “I didn’t know about your continued attempts to reschedule as well as the transportation issue. Gloria, please work with Mr. Harvey to reschedule the meeting while taking into account his transportation issues.”
With that, I call Gloria. She says, “Are we going to fixate on the communication error, or are we going to fix this? Can you come to campus at 8:30am tomorrow morning?”
“I want to fix this. Unfortunately, 8:30am tomorrow doesn’t work.”
She replies, “But Case High School doesn’t start until 9:30am.”
“That’s correct, but I don’t have a vehicle and the bus takes forty-five minutes to get here assuming I get on it on time. So, I would be missing a large chunk of a class that I have to lead.”
She sighs, annoyed, “Well, what do you propose, then?”
I think about it for a bit and come up with an idea, “Could we just meet over the phone? You just look at my ePortfolio and give me feedback over the phone.”
“Fine, I can do that.” A few minutes later, she replies, “You are missing a bunch of assignments that are required to be on here.”
“Which assignments am I missing?”
“Well, I will read them off to you, if you insist. The learning strategies paper, for one.”
Confused, I say, “That’s an assignment required for a specific learning disabilities major and I am emotional/behavioral disorders major.”
“Oh! Um, well, you are also missing the functional skills assignment.”
“That’s an assignment required for a developmental cognitive delay major.” She proceeds to list a few more assignments that were not required for emotional/behavioral disorders and I used the same line for each.
After we go through the entire thing, she says, “Fine, I guess you have all of the required assignments. Do you have any questions for me?”
“Well, thank you for your flexibility in meeting over the phone,” I say. I have no idea why I ask this question, “I do have one question, do you have any advice for me once I’m a teacher.”
She pauses for a second, and replies, “Just remember that not everyone is cut out for this job.”
I walk back to my classroom after meeting with my supervisor. This year sucks shit! I have been put on an action plan where I have to send daily lesson plans that are unique to each of my 6 classes and I have to stop sitting behind my desk.
I sit down and think how to do that last one. And I come up with it. I send an e-mail to the principal and my supervisor asking them to remove my desk from the classroom. Twenty minutes later, they respond, “That will not solve the problem. You need to teach and not let your students play games.”
I’m left feeling completely and irrevocably hopeless. How am I supposed to fix something when I know how to fix it, but they won’t let me fix it? Why would they do it? The proverbial writing is on the wall.
I walk out of his office, tears threatening to force themselves out. I left his office right after he told me that not everyone is made out for this discipline. I’m left feeling utterly helpless. I walk to my boss’s office and she asks me, “How did it go?” I can’t even speak because the tears are right there. I just shake my head.
My stomach feels like it’s being twisted into a Gordian knot. The only way to get rid of it is to cut it. The anxiety builds as I stand there looking at her. “Hey, I’m going to get cookies, come with me.” We walk out and go to the store to buy cookies, and once we get into the car, the tears break through the barrier. I’m sobbing as I remember what he said to me…as I remember what my supervisor at Case said to me in 2014…as I remember what my student teaching supervisor said to me in 2012.
Is my life just story after story of being told that I’m not cut out to do something that I am positive I am. I told her what happened, pausing constantly as a new bout of sobs begins. “He said that there’s a reason they call rhetoric a discipline.”
And she says to me, rage in her voice directed at my supervisor, “Yeah, well fuck that academia military bullshit. I would recommend you change supervisors because Thomas, you deserve better than this. You have a unique style of writing that isn’t your supervisor’s style, and I’ve always enjoyed reading your writing because it’s unique to you—it’s a part of you.”
We get back to campus and I am no longer sobbing, I’m not crying. My boss encourages me to get a second opinion on my thesis proposal who isn’t her because, “I’m particularly biased with anything regarding you. I would recommend you meet with Professor Shell and let her read your paper.”
I meet with Professor Shell who comments that I use a lot of metalanguage in my thesis proposal. She explains it as explaining what I am thinking about and the stages of my thinking. She recommended I make that metalanguage explicit as a part of my methodology and explain why I use it.
I walk back to my boss’s office and tell her what Professor Shell said, and my boss agrees that I should make it explicit and that the metalanguage comment almost sounds like an autoethnography. An autoethnography is a genre of writing where you take academic research that you are doing and combine it with a story about yourself. This story about yourself could come in the form of the thoughts and experiences you had while conducting the research.
And so, I realize that I can do this. There are people who support me here and want to see me succeed as me, not a carbon copy of them.
And finally, I was back in the future, reading the e-mail.
It has come to my attention that you are late turning in your annual review materials. I should not need to impress on you the importance of a timely completion of this important requirement. It is simply unacceptable for a responsible professional to miss a deadline for submitting annual evaluation materials. If you are successful in your career, you will need to do this regularly and often. And the stakes are high. Please consider them such here too.
I read the implications in the e-mail; the mantra “not everyone is meant for this job” has chased me all my life. I relive these experiences, a nesting doll of forgotten memories and senses, brought forth to light from an inconspicuous moment. Words are not my friend because they weren’t made to explain the experiences I have every day of my life. But I’ll try…