And still I rise
I am unclear of how to start this, as there are a multitude of ideas, thoughts, feelings, whirring through my mind. I suppose I should begin by saying that I have qualified as a teacher! After one of the most difficult years of my life so far. I am really proud of myself, I don’t mind saying this, because I know I have done something incredible. Against all odds given myself (and my children) new potentials in life – a career, the opportunity to have security. It has also opened my mind considerably to what I am personally capable of. And no, not simply academically. Also, from the perspective of resilience and existing outside of my own comfort zones.
I started this year (last September) on crutches, (due to a significant knee injury) and very concerned about one of my children’s mental health. He had been self- harming over the summer, and we had recently had the revelation that he now identified as he (my son is trans). I was told, before we even started this course that this would be the toughest year of my life. I must admit I did not take that seriously, having had so many difficult years already. I stupidly thought: “How much harder can it be?”
At the end of this year, I am aware that all my peers from my teacher training cohort have agreed that it has indeed been one of the toughest years of their lives. So, that suggestion was correct. But what the teacher training hub who have guided us through this year did not fully prepare us for was a) the pandemic: training to be a teacher throughout a pandemic has been hard in a whole host of ways. And b) the other life stuff that can (and does) occur for some people, which can be quite defining, in terms of success. 1 of the trainees had to drop out because he got covid and became very ill. Another could not cope with the balance of life and doing the course. Another had a series of deaths in the family which made it so very hard for him to focus on the tasks at hand. For me…well, I am surprised in many ways I made it to the end because of all that has occurred but somehow, I have. Somehow, I am still here.
I wrote a piece called Resilience the other day, directed at a male (white, male, middle class teacher) who had commented (attempted to whitemansplain) upon my decision to not go immediately into a full-time teaching role this September. Apparently it looked like a lack of resilience. But I do not wish to go into that specifically here. He, and his opinions, are meaningless to me. I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself and do not need that kind of judgement from someone who really, has no right to talk to me about resilience. I think one of the things I have proved to myself in this last year, is that I am more resilient that I have ever fully appreciated. And also, that much as the term resilience gets bandied around a lot (especially in education), it does NOT mean carrying on regardless and continuing to push on without any awareness and care for your own mental health and limits.
I started this year on crutches and concerned about my child’s mental health, but actually no, that is not the sum total of why the start of this year was hard. I started this year off as a single parent with 2 children. As a single parent whose financial state is not good: living in unstable rented accommodation, who does not get much in the way of maintenance from the respective fathers of my children, and who doesn’t have family living close by. I started this year off already slightly worn down by a lifetime of that constant drip drip of othering that comes from being a Black, working class woman. This last point largely underpinning an imposter syndrome that has followed me around most of my life and actually not as a form of paranoia, that I do not belong. The reality being that when you belong to a marginalised group, you ARE often made to feel that you don’t belong. That you are not good enough. I did my degree through Open University and fell pregnant in the middle of it. I continued with the degree anyway, and went back to work when my youngest was just 5 months old, so overall did not get the grade I wanted (or deserved). But for my creative writing module, I was consistently marked down by my tutor, who told me that I needed to write about more relatable girl next door type characters, doing extraordinary things. Not Black, LGBTQI, disabled people living ordinary lives. Apparently, that is not what sells. She thought I was trying too hard to be exotic. When I was externally assessed I got 92%, compared to the average of 60% she marked me at. The upshot being, her white, middle class, middle England view about what constitutes a ‘girl next door’ very much underpinned how she evaluated my work. This is not a one-off occurrence. This sort of thing goes on in education all the time, across disciplines and at all levels. It just presents in different ways. Even at postgraduate level. I had to point out to my lecturers for my PGCE, that not only were most of the specialists and authors they were giving us to learn from male, but every single one of them was white. When I asked for a list of academics and specialists in the field of education who were not white (for my further reading) I was supplied pretty quickly with a list. I had to ask the question of why. Why this was not part of the course anyway. This whitewashing of academia simply maintains socialised ideas upon value and worth. It is shocking on one level but I have experienced this, in different guises my whole life. So, it has unfortunately become normalised. As I also find it interesting that I was only 1 of 2 not white people in my cohort, the only 1 that qualified and the only non white teacher in the 22 person faculty at my host school.
So, I started this teacher training course with a whole host of baggage and feeling worn down already in numerous ways. Yes, we all have our own stories. We all have baggage. But the truth is, some of us have more than others, considerably more. And in terms of life being a race, there are certain groups of people that will always have sandbags attached to their limbs simply by virtue of aspects of their identity. And others that don’t. Or more pertinently, others for whom their race or class or sexual orientation, does not create an immediate barrier. This is life and how privilege works.
My eldest’s mental health has been a consistent concern throughout this year. To put it more bluntly than many perhaps will feel comfortable reading, the rates of suicide/attempted and successful amongst LGBTQI teenagers is high. Any parent of a trans child is acutely aware of this and although self-harming is generally couched as a way to manage emotions and steer themselves away from that precipice, simply knowing that precipice is there causes an overwhelming amount of anxiety.
I have also had not 1, but 2 health issues this year. Bizarrely, covid not being one of them. My knee: I had knee surgery in December, which a) involved a significant amount of time off, and b) has been really tiring getting over it. The physiotherapy. The pain. The worry. Then I developed, after the surgery, strange, still as yet undiagnosed painful attacks in my abdomen. They would initially last 6 hours or so and be debilitating. I would end up in A & E on a regular basis, until the suggestion was made that I just take morphine for the pain. This has been great, because it cuts the amount of time, I’m in pain down to about an hour or 2, but morphine is not great for focus and studying, and it has been a constant source of worry because they still do not know what it is. It may be a stress thing, an autoimmune issue that relates to my nervous system and how I process pain. It is nothing physical they can find.
And yes, like so many people this year, we have had deaths in our family. Close deaths.
I have wanted to quit on so many occasions. Have found myself up until 1am working on too many nights, and then up at 630am on no where near enough sleep, because sleeping when anxious is not easy. Dealing with all of this, as a single parent and throughout a pandemic (so having less social contacts – at points not being able to see anyone) has just felt unfeasible. Torturous even. I have wanted to quit, been desperate to let myself off the hook and quit but there has been a part of me that is too stubborn and proud. No, I do not measure myself against other people, but I am my own worst critic sometimes. I knew I not only had to complete this year (for me) but that I was more than capable (under normal circumstances) of doing so. I knew I had what it takes to be an amazing teacher, and beyond that, I genuinely feel the teaching profession needs more people from marginalised groups. I would not let myself give up. Even when it hurt. Even when I had lost all perspective because anxiety was coming from every direction and flooded me. Even when I felt incapable and low and that old imposter syndrome dripped poison into my ears. Each day, I awoke and convinced myself to get out of bed. That has been what it has felt like. Day by day. Hour by hour some days. I have to say, that my success is not simply down to my own resilience, but certain key figures, in my friendship group and members of the teacher training group, whose support and guidance has been invaluable. I am forever in those individuals debt and am not capable of fully expressing the gratitude I feel towards them.
So here I am. A qualified teacher, and although I have not secured a position for September, I know that really, the world is now my oyster. This year may have stripped me of my energy and resources in a way that it hasn’t for most of the other trainee teachers in my cohort, but you know what? Those sandbags may weigh you down in some ways, but they also make you stronger. Make you more adept at dealing with whatever life throws at you and more able to soar in those moments when you somehow manage to temporarily extricate yourself from them.
In the words of Maya Angelou:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and hope of the slave.