body talk 2

rain in city

(image courtesy DJM75)

(this is a continuation of this post)

I remember a few occasions when my body made a declaration, when it elucidated something as clearly as if it had spoken in a clear and urgent voice.

When I started teaching, I was young. Not age-wise since I was almost thirty by then, but in all other senses of the word; young as in optimistic, vigorous, lively, inexperienced, and naive. I had stamina. You have to be young to choose a career teaching high school English and, like most young people, I truly believed I could do a good job and make a difference. Student-teaching at Boston English, a couple years in Santa Cruz, California, and then eight years at the local public school in Berkeley, I always did the best I could, even when I had multiple new preps and had to invent everything from scratch the night before, even when I had more than 45 students enrolled in one class crammed with 37 desks or when the book room burned down and was never replaced so I had to pay for my own photocopies of books or beg my students’ parents for donations to buy class sets of the required reading.  If I assigned only one essay per month in all five of my classes it would take an additional 50 hours per month to read those essays and make thoughtful and (negligibly) useful comments, even though I saw so many principals come and go I lost count (were there six or seven? I can’t even remember their names.), I still thought that someday I could get it right.

The year I was pregnant with my first child there was a rash of arsons on campus. For months, classes were interrupted by fire alarms at least once a day. We’d have to evacuate the building and take our students to a park off campus while the fire fighters extinguished a garbage can in a bathroom or a book room or simply verified a false alarm. The whole school was permanently infused with the odor of burnt plastic, a smell that clung to my hair and my clothing, a noxious fume my body still vividly remembers if I close my eyes. This was before they took away the teachers’ lounge so every day, my peers and I would tote our tupperwared leftovers to the lunch table where we’d huddle together telling jokes and tittering nervously. When the arsonist succeeded in burning down the B Building it came as a relief– we could finally teach without interruption.

When I wanted to cry, when the problems were so huge and impossible and ludicrous I couldn’t contain them, I’d go talk to my friend Susan, a fellow English teacher.  Susan had been at Berkeley High for years and had the uncanny ability to solve any problem thrown at her.  She’d look at my face, chuckle knowingly, throw an arm around my shoulders, and make some gentle suggestion I hadn’t considered.  “Choose poems that are in the public domain. That way your students can read them online,” she’d tell me. “You can’t read every essay.  It’s humanly impossible. This time, surprise them by giving an A to every paper that’s turned on time.” “Take a long bath tonight, girl, because that’s all you can do.”

Years after the fire, after various students were caught carrying guns and my AP English students wouldn’t do the assigned reading, years of carrying my boxes and bins from one shared classroom to another, I was sitting in a café on Shattuck Avenue before school. This was back when I drank coffee, when I needed caffeine like a junkie needs a fix, needed it to trick my body into going where it didn’t want to go. It was a rainy day and I sat perched on a stool facing the window watching pedestrians whose umbrellas blinded them to puddles, watching buses disgorge and swallow up their passengers ad nauseum and a homeless woman struggle to keep the contents of her holey garbage bag safe from the rain. I tilted my head back to drain the cup and when I felt the grinds between my teeth I knew, I understood in a searing, indisputable flash that penetrated the marrow of my bones, that if I didn’t quit my job immediately I’d die of cancer.

Who knows if my body was right. Who knows if it was truth or just some delirious paranoia worming its way into my brain. Perhaps it was the result of some lasting neurological damage from smoke inhalation or banging my head against walls. But a year after I quit my job, Susan, my good friend, one of the most dedicated, thoughtful, and overworked teachers I ever knew, the woman whose deepest desire was to stay home with her young daughter, died of cancer.

And when she died, I cried as if I was crying for myself.

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

36 comments

  1. Oh. Breathtaking. Literally and figuratively. Of course, you have such a way with fiction that I’m not sure if this is a personal essay or a short story. But it is most certainly well written.

  2. Todd

    Damn you write good.
    I’m sorry about your friend, I’m sure it still hurts.
    I’ve lost several people too and I still wake up crying over some that passed 20 or 30 yrs ago.
    My brother-in-law is teaching High School in Compton and tells similar war stories (not as well).
    He dreams of moving to Vermont and starting an organic farm… before he gets cancer or crazy.

    • Todd! There you are. I was afraid you had disappeared into the mystery from which you’d sprung. It does still hurt. Weird how some hurts never heal, huh? I hope your bil gets out in time.

  3. You are a painter with words…

  4. kb

    wow, I never even questioned it was a true story. Isnt it?
    I just chose to leave my job because the mangers were1) completely incompetent 2) negligent 3) punitive 4)disrespectul 5) gossips 6) capricious.. The atomosphere fairly seethes with resentment. I’ve never worked in such a dysfunctional atmosphere. I was threatened w probation (their usual method of divide, threaten, overwork and force people into quitting) and made the choice to leave rather than let my soul wither in intimidation. I am lucky enough that I have a hirable skill and found something quickly, which hasnt always been the case.
    Despite the management, it was a hard decision because I truly love many of the people I have been working with, and respect them and their courage to arrive where they are. Everyone I got to know had an amazing story. growing up w.o a mother from age 10, a crazy sister living in the back of a truck, a veteran with a sudden devastating medical problem, a son who committed suicide, a famous sister living with a man who threatened her and her children daily. All manner of survivors.
    You have to leave when you feel it in your soul or body.

    {PS feeding the crows dog kibble bc it is soo cold. They had a crow party}

    • It’s the mysterious kb! Hello!

      Yes, it’s a true story. Your story sounds horrid– I’m glad you left that place. What is it about a job title that brings out sadistic tendencies? Like you, it was people that kept me at that job for so long– the students and fellow teachers.

      Your lucky crows. They’re going to fall in love with you if you keep that up.

  5. Wow. That’s unfathomable. No wonder you are looking for a simpler working life… I do believe the body talks. What a tragedy.

  6. macdougalstreetbaby

    I said it the first time and I’ll say it again. These need to be submitted somewhere. Now. of course, as a collection. I agree with rangewriter. The reader is left wondering, “is this fiction or not?” That ambiguity is beguiling.

    • Whenever I start reading something written in the first person, there’s always a groping moment when I’m trying to figure out if it’s fiction or not. For me, first person always blurs that line. Maybe that’s why I rarely use it in fiction.

      But where to submit, MSB? I have no idea where.

  7. A Table in the Sun

    I’ve had the same thought about needing to get out of education for my health….but haven’t had the guts. Too close to retirement. I have been able to switch gears by getting out of the classroom though. And…I set up boundaries. I don’t work late. My body and mind can’t handle it…..and I don’t need to be anyone’s hero anymore. Thanks for a beautiful piece.

  8. Oh my god, can you ever write. This is haunting, Anna.

  9. Yes Anna. The things you write want us to look at them.
    And they touch us, and frighten us, and hold a mirror up at us – all these things they do when they look back.
    Good girl.
    You’re a writer, just being what you are.

  10. Pingback: Just Breathe. | Alarna Rose Gray

  11. I love the first line of this piece. And I really really want to be able to write like you!
    XOs from Provence

  12. Wow, what a beautiful and powerful post. And, for the record, I feel much the same way about teaching. How anyone does it long term, much less in the current anti-teacher atmosphere, is beyond me.

    You are such a wonderful writer, and I hope one day I can read a longer piece of work from you.

    • Sorry about the delayed response, Leah– I don’t know where my head is. Well, trying to write the longer piece I guess. Yes! I’m glad I did it when I was young, vigorous, optimistic, and kid-free but I’ll never do it again.

  13. Wow. I knew teachers had it bad, but I didn’t realize.

    Also . . . you WERE crying for yourself, weren’t you?

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