- 9th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- Schaal Prize: “Letting It All Be True," Mary Kate O'Leary '20
- Honorable Mention: “The Road Taken," Sara Felsenstein '12
- Honorable Mention: “The Storage Closet," Allie Griffith '17, '19M.Ed.
- Honorable Mention: “Chocolate Lessons," Andrew Robinson '17
- Honorable Mention: “A Day in the Life of a Millennial Homeowner,” Taylor Sheppard ’12
- Honorable Mention: “Invisible Motherhood,” Becky Wagner ’15
- Honorable Mention: “It’s Not Too Bad, Man,” Dylan Walter ’13
The storage closet at Providence Cristo Rey High School had a storied history of uses. Originally a maintenance closet, the narrow, 8-by-3-foot room had a yellow stained sink and crusted cleaning supplies thrown haphazardly in plastic moving crates. My colleagues debated other memories of the storage closet’s uses: detention center, science lab supply closet, favorite dwelling of the school’s rumored ghost, Seth. During my two years at PCR, the storage closet, which connected to my classroom, was used to stockpile a decade’s worth of English Department books. It smelled like a mix of mildew, dust and teenage body odor. It was also where I took my lunch break.
When I started my first “real” job as a high school English teacher at age 22, I offered a polite chuckle to the popular response to my chosen career: “Wow, you must be a saint for working with teenagers.” Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was fresh out of college and decided to pursue a two-year service program teaching in underserved schools. While no saint, I did, however, manifest a flawed sense of moral security in this decision, considering myself noble to embrace the task of educating “disadvantaged” youth. My gut told me I’d be decent, my professors affirmed it would be meaningful, and my ego adapted a “how hard can it be?” attitude.
After my first few weeks of teaching, I dreamed of a million other things I’d rather do. I had replaced a beloved veteran teacher, Ms. Fischer. Consequently, a junior class pact was made in her honor, or so I felt, to neither trust nor listen to a single word I said. Kiana, a spunky gal with a nose ring and red afro, took to writing “FREE KIANA” in Sharpie on her school laptop. I had imprisoned her, it seemed, with my strict classroom management.
One morning, a fight broke out in my classroom. It ended with one girl yanking out another’s weave and the chant: “BRING BACK MS. FISCHER.”
Afterward, I stared at the weave, still splayed out on my classroom floor. Even it possessed more dignity. I glared down at it, jealous.
Why couldn’t I lay down and give up, too?
I closed the door to the storage closet and sat down on a plastic elementary school chair. My body sighed in relief as I listened to the chaos just beyond my door. The storage closet had two entrances: one was through my classroom, the other, a locked door that led to the senior hallway. Locker doors clicked open and slammed. Lil Uzi Vert blared from iPhones. The smell of Victoria Secret body spray wafted through the crack in the door. Basketball boys began their chorus of “Bro, bro, bro, nah forreal” and the step team’s stomps sent shudders through my glass window. Then there was the unprompted, blood curdling scream (because someone was late to class, someone had said something ridiculous, or other reasons lost to me). The students at PCR cherished these five minutes of freedom: unleashed, unmonitored. I, on the other hand, counted down the seconds for the next bell to ring, which meant the next class was starting, which meant I could eat my lunch in silence.
Sometimes, I imagined the locked door suddenly bursting open. A gaggle of students would find me sprawled on my plastic chair, Oreos in hand, headphones in, exposing my well-kept secret: Ms. G doesn’t like it here! That’s why she’s hiding from us! I wish I could tell them it wasn’t them, it was me. That’s just what they need, I thought. Another teacher who doesn’t believe in them. The school had only been open a few years, and already, teacher turnover was the norm. Students confronted me in the first week of my two-year service placement: “So. How long are you staying.”
Not a question, but a statement. The tone was tired and rehearsed.
When the second fight broke out in my classroom, I did the one thing they tell you in “teacher school” never, ever to do: I cried. In front of them. The bell rang and my eyes stung with humiliation and rage as I bolted to the storage closet. Students snickered on their way out.
When the second bell finally rang, signaling lunch, I let the quiet anchor me like a weighted blanket. For 50 minutes, the storage closet was my secret oasis, a cocoon of old books and rusty cleaning supplies where I sulked. I deserve this, I thought as I unwrapped my Oreos and hid myself from 17-year-olds.
In my education classes, we were taught to encourage failure from our students. “You haven't learned it yet!” became our mantra, citing a “growth mindset” coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, the idea that intelligence is malleable, not fixed. We were supposed to adopt this mindset, too. Everyone told me that the first year was the worst. I didn’t buy it in July, still in post-graduation euphoria. How hard could it really be?
Now, in my fifth year of teaching, I realize that my real struggle was not the students, but undoing my lifelong programming to rigidly approach work with an urgency to reach perfection (most recently, I’ve been learning more about my OCPD, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, in therapy). Asking for help or accepting that my practice might be wrong felt fatal. As a result, I was stuck wondering why the control and order I worked so hard to achieve in my life, and my classroom, was tanking.
When Re’Ajah refused to be in Diamond’s group, the source of the second fight, I panicked. It had taken me an entire prep period to arrange the groups just right. Instead of listening to their concerns (someone was dating the other’s ex-boyfriend, I found out later), and reorganizing groups, I held firm.
When the fight broke out, I saw it as a personal failure in classroom management, when in reality, it had been a failure to listen to the needs of my students.
The failure smothered me. I let it press down on my shoulders, as I slouched deeper in my plastic chair in the storage closet.
Keith, a soft-spoken student who often kept his head down, lingered after class to talk to me alone. His plea was urgent:
“Ms. G. You gotta stop letting these kids walk all over you. That’s what happened to Ms. Knight. You can’t let that happen to you. We just don’t know you yet.”
Ms. Knight had quit earlier that year, just before Thanksgiving. Keith wrote about it in a personal essay I assigned on “The American Dream.” Keith wrote about dreams that became nightmares: his dad leaving, his mom working three jobs, his freshmen and sophomore year teachers leaving the school, some even mid-semester, claiming they “couldn’t teach at a place like this.” He wrote about how they had given up.
I nodded solemnly, like he was my dad offering me sage advice. He shook his head and slumped out.
I wondered if he had pulled aside those teachers, too, if I wasn’t the first teacher he had tried to save. I liked to think that he saw something in me, besides fear and exhaustion, guilt and resentment. I liked to think that, somehow, he knew the place I came from: the one where we pretend to be perfect, to avoid shame and vulnerability at all costs, the place where we hide from facing a reality where we admit we have more to learn than to teach, where we avoid getting on our knees to say, “I’m sorry.”
Keith convinced the class to sign a handwritten apology letter, placing it on my desk the next morning. Ms. G, we are sorry for being a bad class. We hope you stay at PCR.
I had work to do. My actions had communicated to them that they were “bad.” I had become the teachers of their past. It was time for me to undo and unlearn.
It should have been no surprise that my colleagues were unaware of the true role of the storage closet before I arrived. The tiny room became whatever the school needed it to be: ghost dwelling, supply closet, and now, private lunch room. In that first year of teaching, I wanted a clear definition of my job and its responsibilities so I could perfect it.
What I’ve learned is that teaching resists one definition. Instead, the job description relies on the students in front of us. It asks that we abandon what we think we should be to make room for who we need to become.
Like the storage closet, we await patiently, albeit a little cluttered and rusty, ready to help create a space with those who know it better than us.
Allie Griffith’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2021 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She is an educator and writer in Indiana.
Names have been changed to protect anonymity.