Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Weight on My Back (Southwest Philadelphia)

Top: Garth, Jonah, Angela, Gabe, Caleb & Michael, 2009
Below: (top) Brooke, Garth, Sarah, (bottom) Angela, Carole, Johanna, first day of school 1995

I finally weighed by backpack. It's 20 pounds on the nose. That isn't what this post is about. I am referring to the weight of the expectations I have strapped to my back at times in my life and what that has cost me. Walking into Philadelphia forces me to think about what lessons I have learned about how to lighten that load.

I moved to Southwest Philadelphia in late August of 1995, two months after graduating from college. I was starting as a teaching intern at Cornerstone Christian Academy and moved into a house in Southwest Philadelphia with a small group of others who were also interning at the school. I was assigned to help the teachers in the seventh and eighth grades. I had been a journalism major and didn't have any teaching training beyond what I picked up at the Summerbridge program that same summer - working with mini classes of 7 to 8 kids.

These classes were in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 students, but luckily I wasn't the one responsible. I was there to provide help for the full time teachers. Still, some of the days were stressful, especially when it came to establishing and maintaining classroom discipline. I was able to handle it though, especially since as a group of interns we could all go home at the end of the day and commiserate about our respective war stories.

Then February came and a tidal wave hit my carefully constructed cocoon. The eighth grade teacher was fired for drug use in her school-funded apartment and the head of the middle school asked if I could step in as the teacher on a temporary basis. I agreed, but not without a lot of self doubt. All of a sudden the weight of expectations fell all on me. Not only would I be responsible for all those eighth graders, I wouldn't even have an intern to help me.

I remember the night after being asked, with all sorts of fears and worries scurrying through my head. I had trouble sleeping and woke up extra early. I felt a familiar pressure I had known at different points of my childhood - a self imposed type of elevated expectations I never handled well. But instead of opening up to others and sharing my fears, I kept them in. I threw myself into teaching that eighth grade class. February turned into March and March dissolved into Spring and what had been first considered temporary gradually became permanent.

It was undoubtedly the most stressful four and a half months of my life, but somehow I managed to bond with that eighth grade class. In typical 22-year old fashion I personalized every misbehavior and blamed myself for the inability of some of the students to raise their grades. But through it all I was able to keep pushing forward to that finish line in June.

When the last day of school arrived and my eighth graders graduated, it felt like such a colossal weight off my back that I was almost floating around the city. I had a summer trip planned to South Africa and Zimbabwe and a feeling of complete freedom hit me like a cool breeze. All those expectations, all that pressure, gone.

In the excitement of the end of the year, I had agreed to return as a permanent teacher the following school year. You might guess where this is going. As my time in Zimbabwe wound down in August, the weight of my expectations for the next school year start to pile upon me. As the days got closer, they became heavier. I was having a hard time reconciling the intoxicating freedom of my vacation in Southern Africa with the reality that I was soon to return to what suddenly felt like a 9 month prison sentence.

When I returned to prepare for teacher orientation, the pressure got heavier still. My mind started magnifying them, unfavorably comparing the class entering 8th grade with those I taught the previous year. In retrospect, I should have let my friends in on the full scope of my doubts. I should have shared with them how worried I was, laid out some of the crazy expectations I had created for myself so they could have done what friends do and say, "It will be okay. You don't have to do all that. All you got to do is take it one week at a time. The kids will be okay even if you have days that you feel you suck as a teacher. Just roll with it."

I never gave them the chance. Instead, I hesitantly stepped into the first day of school, a bundle of nerves and unrealistic expectations. After the second day, sitting in my classroom after the students left, all I could think of was escape. I took out a piece of paper, wrote a long letter to Seth Cohen who was in charge of the middle school and told him I was leaving. I couldn't do it anymore. Then I was gone. The next day, holed up at my grandparents house in Ardmore, I wouldn't even take his call. In my mind, I had scaled the barbed wire fence and evaded the prison guards. I wasn't looking back.

Less than a month later I was living in Los Angeles and finding an mindless job I wouldn't have to think about for a single second after my workday ended. I wanted a life that felt free. Not free in an objective sense - we are always free in each moment, whether we realize it or not. But free in a subjective sense - free of those expectations and pressures I heaped on myself.

That story has reverberated through my life ever since. I don't regret it, because it had a lesson for me I needed to learn. Experience truly is the greatest teacher. As it turns out, I needed that great teacher a few more times. In the years that have passed since I've come up against those self imposed fears and expectations in a myriad of different ways. Often I have reacted in similar ways as I did back in 1996. The tide, however, is turning.

I am older now. I have more than a few therapy sessions under my belt. Maybe most importantly, I have realized that my mind is not always my friend. It can solve problems, but creates its share as well. It can stop me from trying something I want to do - like finding a job I am passionate about, or walking across country and writing a book about it - by stoking the flames of a deep seeded fear of failure.

What has changed is two fold. First, I now know that the expectations I put on myself are unrealistic, so I know to seek out the counsel of others to give me a reality check. And secondly, I know that "failure" itself is a paper tiger.

So I ask a girl out and she says no. It isn't the end of the world.

I apply for a job and they tell me I'm not what they're looking for. My passport won't be taken away.

I try to write a book about this journey and it turns out not to be as good as I hoped. Well, I have to start somewhere and the next one will be better.

Failure is a teacher, but I have run from that classroom all my life. Up until now. If I don't adopt that type of attitude, I know what will happen. The weight on my back will simply become too much. The 20 actual pounds I have on my back right now is plenty, thank you.

A lot of other good things came from that year in Southwest Philadelphia - my friendship with Angela and Gabe for one. I stayed with them on this night in Southwest Philadelphia, mere blocks from where Angela and I lived as interns in 1995. That year had even a greater effect on their lives. They married three years later and now have two bright young boys - Jonah and Caleb - and another on the way. I'm glad that even though I ran away from that job, I didn't run away from the relationships I formed that year. Those will endure. As will the lessons of that year.


  1. Garth,
    It takes everything to teach - everything you have and everything you don't have. It also takes almost every waking minute and every brain cell/emotional fiber, as you have discovered for yourself in sufficient time to avoid true failure.

    Your writing is luminous and healing.

    Many, many blessings,