As some of you know, I left Teach for America in December. It was a hard decision, and I’ve tried to write about it several times since then, but none of the posts was quite right. I think now I’ve got it close enough to make public.
There’s something of a wall of silence around quitting in TFA. All of us know someone who has done it, and in some corps (including Detroit 2011), a lot of people seem to disappear. Most of those of us who leave don’t want to make a ruckus. We stay quiet because we have friends in the corps and they are doing the sort of amazing work we always hoped to do. We stay quiet because we need to heal and close the wounds. We stay quiet because we have this feeling that, if we just had one more chance to do it over, we could get it right. We stay quiet because TFA said “you are a successful person, so you will succeed” and we haven’t, so there must be something wrong with us.
A story might help illustrate this. It was a dark night, almost any night, and I was driving back from the TFA office along the highway. It’s after midnight, and a school night. I’m thinking about everything I have to do the next day, and suddenly my car hits the rumble strips on the side of the highway. I jerk back to reality and pull my car back into my lane, only to drift back into rumble strips a few minutes later as my eyes close for a second in exhaustion. I wonder if I could take a day off tomorrow to sleep and regroup, but I have no sick days until January (a school policy) and a training class that there will be some mysterious but frightening ramification if I miss. And, honestly, I can’t bring myself to care about a little car carelessness or what it might cause. So I keep driving, fall into bed for a few hours, and get up. The next morning, my braking is jerky and the next night I make friends with the rumble strips again. Over and over and over again. How I never hurt anyone, I have no idea, and I don’t like to think about how long my lucky streak would have lasted. I never told my bosses at my school or TFA, because what could they do? “Nothing, except find you less fit to continue and throw you out of the corps, or berate you and send you back,” said the voice in my head.
A few months later, after I quit, I ran into a friend from Chicago on the street. “You look great!” he squealed. “You’ve gained so much weight!” Having always been on the pudgy side (and gained about 30 pounds since my graduation from college), I made some sound of confusion and hurt. “Honey,” he said gently, “you looked sick this fall. We could watch your face fill back out when you came in for a night and slept while we helped with your grading. You look healthy now.” I had never seen what he was describing in me, but I knew exactly what it was. I had seen fellow corps members, many of whom left, have the same look – thin (regardless of body weight), hollow eyes, and an air of fragility normally associated with the very sick. Most corps members never get it, but those that struggle the most do, and many of us leave.
Like many corps members (whether they complete their service or not), I have mixed feelings on TFA. There are days where I wish I hadn’t gotten in, or gone. These are days where I read an article about leadership development citing TFA and I begin to hyperventilate until someone holds me and convinces me that it’s over, that I don’t have to ever go back. There are days when I am angry at the lack of care for corps members’ schedules, preferences, talents and needs. Why couldn’t they provide the curriculum support I needed? Why did they make me teach something I didn’t understand over all my objections and failures? Other days, I recognize that it made me a better person to have done it, even for only 6 months. I learned that teaching, although not middle school, is a passion of mine. I’m applying to graduate school in the fall so that I can become a professor, which I had never imagined myself doing before. I have all sorts of ideas and experiences about urban education, urban development, and workforce development. I have lots of particular issues and ideas for TFA, but that’s just the sort of person I am. I always want to change the system, improve the formula, find new and better ways of doing. Maybe someday I will.
One last story: about a month before I decided to quit Teach for America for good, I drove to Chicago so I could be there for about 12 hours. I had started having a panic attack during a required Saturday leadership event, and realized the people who could calm me down were in Chicago. So I texted that I was coming after the event, got in my car, and took the highway going the opposite direction of my apartment. I arrived and started calming down. At one point I whispered, “When I’m here, I remember how to be happy.”
To any current or future corps member, please remember that you can be happy. If that’s being in the corps, then do it with all your might and know there is a silent corps ready to support you. But if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to leave. Quitting TFA is a mythical act while you’re in the corps, and no one knows how or what the ramifications will be. It’s shameful and scary and potentially expensive. Do it anyway if you need to. Life on the other side is an adjustment, and you won’t be immediately blissful, but it gets better. You can be successful, and happy, and do the things you want to do. The scariest part is deciding to find that other path.
To my friends, fellow corps members, institute CMA, and family: thank you so much. Thank you for supporting me when I decided to do TFA. Thank you for encouraging me when you saw I wasn’t doing well. Thank you for letting me know it was okay to leave. Thank you for helping me recover since then. I am safe and happy now, and I will be successful again one day.