One thing you wouldn’t know just by looking at me: I’ve been to hell. It’s true. I’ve walked its hot slick cobblestones. I’ve wandered its church-stained halls smelling of old rubber toys and rotting wood. I’ve seen its jungles. I’ve watched its trees shed skin like snakes; its grasses sprout yellow and short with death. In hell, I was kind. I threw back balls over the fences and knelt down to tie the shoes of those who couldn’t do for themselves. Worst of all, I’ve met Satan. I even worked for her. I’ve gotten up long before the sun and driven into her hot belly city, just to take notes on “how to” and “why not.” Then, with hands cracked from the chill of the fire, and a mouth covered firmly with cloth, I’d teach the children woefully enrolled in her school.
One thing you might not know just by looking at the city: hell is in Fells Point. It’s true. It’s in walking distance from the Sandlot, only a stone’s throw away from Pitango, and shares a building with a physical therapy office.
After my glorious stint as an enumerator for the 2020 Decennial Census Bureau, I was unemployed. And not “funemployed” as I’ve seen a lot of millennials caption on the internet. There was nothing fun about it. Often, I’d wake up from a dream about a conversation I had one night 4 years ago with a science PhD who rattled off an abbreviated list of the 1,200 jobs he applied to before landing one at Hopkins only to move two years later when the gig was up and the search began again. And there was the one about that other recent MFA grad, just like me, who spent months applying to teaching positions only to land an adjunct load as long as the Nile and still cash out just below the poverty line.
Awaking from one of these nightmares on a Tuesday, riddled with anxiety and pending bankruptcy, I decided it was time to apply to jobs. I sat down at the kitchen table, the light streaming in high-yellow through the orange curtain, and my hands sweating like a plum. I began with Indeed. Luckily, I had taught some classes in grad school, so I figured maybe I should look for teaching jobs.
I scrolled through the listings. I uploaded my resume and cover letter. I pressed enter three times. I tasted the sweat over my lip. I looked up and the light had shifted to tanning bed orange. I was exhausted. I took a nap.
You know that saying about the devil in a blue dress? Or the one where it’s sunny outside and the rain comes and it’s the devil beating his wife? Well, only 3 days later, the sun was shining and my phone rang. A blue song. A lot like rain. And loud in the sunny dress of the day. Nervously, I answered.
-Hi, we’d like to interview you for the job at [hell].
– Me?! Er–, yes, of course.
-Can you come in tomorrow?
Touring hell, you would never know where you were. You would mistake the red brick for health. The greenhouse for growth. The children as a sign that there were systems in place to educate and protect them. I had learned about logical fallacies in high school, but was never taught to regard a playground as a slippery slope.
At the end of the interview with the head of school, I met with the woman I would be replacing. She was pregnant and for the length of her maternity leave, I was to be her long-term sub.
-So you want the job for the whole year?
– Me?! I thought I was just here until you came back?
– Oh, they don’t know this, but I’m definitely not NOT NOT coming back.
And it followed. I accepted the offer. I’d teach 5th- 8th grade with 2 sections of English Language Arts (ELA), a planning period, and 2 sections of Geography.
On my first day, at drop-off in the morning, I introduced myself to the other teachers and asked each one the same question: how do you like it here? To which all, but two, replied, I just started two months ago. Strange, I thought. And why were the two outliers immigrants?
(Not so quickly, I caught on. Hell was a lot like Jonestown, Guyana. It was powered by the underclass. Its recruits were the desperate, the hungry and the brown. If, like hell, Jim could have sponsored Visas for immigrants he would have. But Jim had no true bank to back (or feed) his cult. But hell? Hell had it all.)
On my first day, I was asked to come into the office. Here I met Satan. Like most oligarchies Satan was not the head-of-school, but rather a close colleague – an on-the-surface jolly white woman who wore pink – a color as close to red as any. She spoke incessantly and flamboyantly, talking wildly with her hands as if she were swatting at the flies that made their home in her.
-I was wondering! Would you actually mind teaching 3rd-8th grade ELA! And no geography! It’ll be easier!
– Me?! Er– but what will I teach them?
– Oh you know! Stuff! Look on Teachers Pay Teachers! Look at the Common Core!
Let’s pause here. Imagine you just found out you’re pregnant and you need an abortion. You call your local abortion fund hotline and say, hey, I’m in crisis. Can you help me? What should I do? And the person on the other side says, you know the constitution right? Yeah, look at that. And when you’re done, dig into the Bill of Rights. Would that be helpful? No. It’s as helpful a response as “look at the Common Core.” Again, slow to it and very naïve, I caught on: this school had no curriculum, no materials, no nurse, no counselor, and not nearly enough educators.
(Months later, working diligently in the upper section of the office, I sent an email to Satan asking for an agenda for our weekly meeting. A meeting that consistently cut into the only 30 minutes I had all day to plan my lessons, do my grades, and answer emails from the helicopter parents.
– Oh my god! She’s so rude! Very overconfident! Who does she think she is! She can’t talk to us like this!
Satan was malfunctioning. She didn’t appreciate my question. And I didn’t appreciate her. Not how she arrived late to school every day to spend the few remaining hours gossiping, like a turtle on a log, about the teachers whom she had no real plan to support.
After letting her talk for a while,
– Hey, I can hear you talking about me.
– Oh! We weren’t! Talking about you!
But I did it and I was kind. Despite the pandemic raging. Despite 3-4th being in one classroom. Despite the 5th grade girls fighting each other like sisters. Despite 6th-8th grade being in one classroom. Despite teaching hybrid – online and in-person – to an audience of very sometimey and mostly asleep attendees. Despite acting as the nurse, the counselor, and the teacher of six grades of children. I did it and I was kind.
And then, my uncle Junie died. And, heartbroken, I sent the head of school a text.
– Hi, I need to take off tomorrow to attend my uncle’s funeral.
– Hmm… are you sure? We don’t have anyone to cover you. We’d have to close the classroom and as you know, that’s the entire middle school. Can you write a letter to the parents explaining this?
And the day after.
-Who DIED?! Somebody you loVED IS DEAD!! (an adult)
-Yeah, we heard somebody DIED, Miss Lynn. (a child)
– Mhmmm. Oh, someone died! You must be sooooo SAd!!! (satan)
Just like hell has an entrance it also has an exit. At the end of the year, I got fired. The owners of the school thought it was my time. I agreed. Apparently, I wasn’t dif-fer-en-tia-ting enough! (Satan’s words). Apparently, the whole time I was supposed to be assessing each individual child’s need, creating a lesson for each one, and teaching at the exact pace they needed to be taught at.
After letting me go, they brought me into the office. I had this strange feeling. A mix of dread and relief. The kind you get after taking a really big dump.
– Yeah it’s a tough job, but thanks for working here.
– Yeah! I couldn’t do it!
I had all these thoughts, okay, but neither of you ever sat in on any of my lessons. I was never observed. I was never offered any feedback. I was never even given teaching materials. But then I thought of freedom. What it would feel like to drive away from those hot coals. To taste the quenching sting of cold water again. To see a playground and trust its joy. To no longer daily gnash my teeth at the fishy smell of the Harbor. And then, I did something that surprised myself.
– Thank you for the opportunity. I said. Because I knew I had survived. Despite, despite, despite.