By: H.A. Spinelli
“…so I won’t be able to attend today’s meeting. I’ll get the notes from someone tomorrow.” My department chair gave me a puzzled look. I am a teacher who always attends meetings. I am always early, or at the very least, on time. I rarelymiss meetings or make plans on days when meetings are scheduled. I could tell he sensed something was wrong because he asked, “Is everything okay?” He’d literally never asked me before, even when I was tearing up in the office after receiving some difficult personal news, so why now? I didn’t indulge the thought beyond the moment. I chose to remain silent, not to tell him anything. My body was half-turned towards the door when out of the corner of my eye, I saw his eyes lift with concern and his mouth quiver as if to ask a follow-up question. Too late. My steps echoed from the doorway, through the empty hallway, and bounced behind me as I descended the back stairwell.
I pressed the door handle with more might than I intended. It got caught in the breeze and burst open with a huge “THUD!” I didn’t bother to look back. That’s when the feeling washed over me. The sunlight hit my face for the first time since 7:00 am. I got into my car, turned the key, and I pulled away from the back parking lot with my sunglasses on and the radio turned up. I had the windows rolled down, and the wind in my hair. It was the first time in my professional career that I played hooky from an after school meeting. I’ve worked in several schools and with people from an array of cultural and social backgrounds, however, I’ve never felt as disconnected from my co-workers as I have in my current workspace. On that perfectly sunny day, I couldn’t take it any longer. The bell rang after the last class, and I’m still not sure why, but that’s when I decided that I’d had enough. Enough of the arrogance. Enough of the pettiness. Enough of the “preservation of culture”. Enough of not belonging. Enough of the “boys club” making all the decisions. Enough of it all.
The weather outside was too inviting to sit in a room full of people who unabashedly interrupt one another to hear themselves speak. They’ve worked there for too long. They’re too angry and entitled to make any significant change, or, at the very least, to let the past stay behind them. Their glory days have come and gone. Mine are still in front of me, so I chose to take the first steps along that journey. As I drove down the tiny side streets, a feeling—a distant, yet familiar feeling—bubbled up inside my chest. Freedom? No. Happiness? Not quite. Empowerment? Yes. That was it. Empowerment. I felt it for the first time in years. But what does empowerment entail, exactly? I can only speak for myself and from my personal experience. As the distance grew between that place and me, I reconciled that I abandoned my professional responsibilities to make a healthy personal choice. I abandoned a space and people who have demonstrated time and again that they are not suited for me, nor I for them. For the record, there are worse places to work, and there are people who commit far more egregious acts than those I’ve witnessed and experienced over the last few years, but that doesn’t mean I have to continue on this loop of frustration and obscurity. Instead, I chose to take some much needed time to reflect on it all.
Once I arrived in my neighborhood, I drove my car to the development’s highest point. It’s a hill located on a quiet street in the new subdivision. I was three blocks from my home. It was the first time in months that I’d been in my neighborhood that early on a work day. I parked my car and sat on the hood. I listened to the birds sing. I lifted my face to catch in the sun’s rays. My mind was clear. I had the time and the peace of mind to think. A series of snapshots rippled through my brain and finally settled on those I’d been avoiding; memories of me sitting up late at night and applying to new jobs for three of the four years I’ve spent in my current work environment. This, dear reader, is a major “red flag” I ignored for far too long. I thought hard about why I was seeking new employment. I discovered that I woke up and dreaded getting ready for work. My heart sank when I’d open the door to enter the building. On most days, I ate lunch alone. After two years of trying to socialize and find like-minded people, I started to close my classroom door, teach my classes, and watch the clock with baited breath. My routine was depressing. This is not how I wanted to live. This is not the environment in which I wish to teach. This is not how I wanted to work. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that things were not going to change unless I did. So, I took out my pocket notebook and a pen, and I wrote the following words on the top line: “Today I will…” I made a list of all the things I had the power to do. Here it is:
- Update resume
- Call in those favors! (Ask trusted people for help and take it.)
- Move desk to NOT face the depressing brick wall (it’s the view from the only windows in the room)
- Keep Angela Davis’ quote handy: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
- Envision walking out of that building with a new job in June
- Keep a kindness reservoir. Share it with those who deserve it.
Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing groundbreaking. Just pure purpose and focus. To date, I’ve completed all steps on the list. It’s funny how circumstances and perspectives change once you do. Over the next few months, I discovered (and re-discovered) things I didn’t know about myself. I reignited things I forgot I could do. First, I looked over my resume and felt confident in my experience. I’ve accomplished a lot in a short time. It’s okay to be proud of my efforts.
Second, people are eager to help me. Calling in those favors wasn’t as embarrassing as I envisioned it to be, because my network consists of people who wish to help others succeed. I appreciate their help. They’ve shown me that it’s okay to ask others for assistance. Some even said, “You’re finally asking, and we are ready to help you!”
Third, my colleagues’ attitudes and actions began to change. Those who never seemed to notice me, suddenly recognized my absence. The effects of my self-preservation extended further than I had anticipated. They realized I was no longer the first person to offer a warm welcome, to open their classroom doors when they’re running late (again), to ask about their weekend plans, to ask about their families, to show interest in their lives. Suddenly, they were no longer at the center of someone else’s story. People even started checking in on me when my classroom door was open. Initially, I thought I was being callous, but after 3 years of unanswered kindness, the choice to reserve my good nature for those who deserve it was worth it. I remembered an important lesson: energy attracts energy. My inner negative energy must have been attracting the negativity in my surroundings to find its way to me. Once I shifted my focus, my positive energy transferred to those who return it and cultivate it. This energy and focus transfer yielded powerful returns. New job prospects have finally surfaced. I’ve had successful interviews. This could be the new beginning I’ve craved. For now, I am positive. I believe good things are on the horizon and that I will once again find a better work environment. I am not alone. While this is not my ideal workspace, I do have some intelligent, fascinating, and supportive colleagues in my circle. They are people for whom I am beyond grateful to have in my life. Currently, I am hopeful. I know that the right opportunity will present itself. I am empowered. I took the steps necessary to help myself instead of worrying about doing what’s right by every other person’s and institution’s rules. Sometimes, you have to take the reins and break the rules to find exactly who you are and where you need to be. It’s a process. It’s not perfect. It’s an epiphany.