The Most Difficult Year of My Life
Last September, my little boy was hospitalized twice and placed in intensive care with severe bilateral pneumonia for several weeks. My husband and I took turns sitting by his bedside in forty-eight hour shifts.
When we weren’t at the hospital trying to keep our very active little boy now-permanently-hooked-to-an-IV-stand calm, we were at home trying to reassure our 3 children that their little brother was okay and would be home soon.
A few months later, while coaching my middle school cheerleading team, I received an urgent phone call from my mom telling me that my father had discovered a large tumor in his kidney that needed to be removed immediately. I instantly dropped to my knees and began sobbing in front of my entire cheerleading squad.
A Test of Strength
These things were frightening and they shook me to my core. I started hugging my children and my parents longer, saying ‘I love you’ much more often, and even though I hadn’t been to church in years–I started praying a lot. It was a difficult time that tested my strength as a mother, a daughter, and a wife.
After some time had passed, my son and father began to heal–thanks in no small part to a handful of extremely talented doctors. I felt a profound sense of gratitude and relief that my loved ones were healthy and safe. The heavy cloud that hung over everyday life was finally starting to lift. Things were even starting to feel light again. I took a huge amount of comfort in this lightness and looked forward to the spring.
And then May 4th happened…
An Unexpected Turn of Events
I walked into work on a beautiful spring day and was fired from my job as a teacher in a school that I loved. I was casually dismissed from the job that I poured my heart and soul into. The job that filled me with a sense of purpose. The job that didn’t feel like a job to me.
And I couldn’t hold it together any longer. You see, my entire identity was wrapped up in my role as a teacher at this school. My summers were spent working with our school’s struggling readers and writing curriculum for our photography enrichment program. I coached our school’s cheerleading squad and advised our yearbook and technology clubs, eagerly volunteered to host student teachers in my classroom for two consecutive semesters and presented workshops on ‘best practice in education’ to local superintendents and universities. My writing had even been published on Edutopia–twice–in the months leading up to my dismissal.
So this wasn’t ‘just a job’ to me. This was my passion. It was my entire life.
Most embarrassingly, just a few days prior to my unexpected dismissal, I confidently told the other moms at a class party that I felt ‘incredibly lucky’ to have found a job that ‘challenges me’ in a school that ‘feels like home.’ I felt like such a fool. And I was completely heartbroken.
A Profound Sadness
Over the next few months, I slowly started sinking into a deep depression. I felt completely consumed with worry and anxiety, asking myself why and what if constantly. Why is this happening? Why did I not see the signs? What if I had said or done a instead of b? And the more I entertained these why and what if thoughts, the more I tried to rationalize irrational things, the more depressed I became. I felt paralyzed and trapped in self-loathing.
I was really hurting and it was beginning to affect my entire family. The confident mom with the easy smile and laugh was gone and I had no idea how to get her back. My kids really needed their mom back and I knew that–but I couldn’t stop the negative tape that kept playing and replaying in my head. This went on for months.
A Growing Frustration
After a while, I started to sense those around me becoming frustrated that I couldn’t just let it go. It dawned on me that my grace period was running out. And so I did the worst thing possible; I stopped sharing my feelings with people.
From this point forward, when someone asked me how I was doing, I smiled and told them I was great. I knew that’s what they wanted to hear and frankly, I started to feel embarrassed that months had passed and I was still struggling. Because I wanted to let it go more than anyone else but I was still reeling and just couldn’t get out of my own head. I started to feel really alone. I started to feel hopeless.
A Small Shift that Changed Everything
One day–after months and months of wallowing–the relentless negative tape that played in my head kept getting interrupted. Suddenly, and without intention, my mind kept wandering back to a handful of happy memories that held so much power they literally changed the course of my entire life.
-The time a kind man volunteered his time to visit my son (and many other sick children) in the hospital dressed as Batman.
-The time my husband left a small note of encouragement on the dashboard of my car on a day that he knew would be a tough one.
–The time parents from the school community and my own second-grade students organized meetings in their homes and signed a petition for me to stay on at their school, wrote letters to the Board on my behalf, and came out to several board meetings to read passionate, heartfelt letters about how I’d made a difference in their lives.
-The time a stranger who had read about my story in the local paper looked me up and sent me a letter expressing empathy. She was once in a similar situation and just wanted me to know that someone out there understood my pain.
-The time my students surprised me at dismissal on the last day of school holding huge, bright signs that they had made themselves expressing their love and gratitude for all I’d taught them. They unabashedly held these signs of support as the very school administrator who fired me looked on from just a few feet away. They chanted my name over and over again as they wept– as we wept together–and each gave me their final hugs goodbye. The feeling of pure love that afternoon was profound.
And finally it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was asking myself the wrong question. My subconscious–knowing the futile nature of searching for the why– was trying to remind me of the what. What really matters. What is important. What to do.
I suddenly realized that these kind gestures–the what —were always there and waiting to comfort me–even in my darkest moments. They were waiting to give me hope in a time when I felt hopeless. It became abundantly clear to me that I needed to stop asking myself why and start asking myself what.
This small shift in my line of thinking—from why to what–brought me back into reality. Instead of asking myself why things were happening or what if I had done things differently, I started asking myself what I could do right now to make things better for for those around me. And so I made the choice to do something intentionally kind for at least one person each and every day.
I wrote a thank you letter to a friend who is always there for me, through thick and thin. to me. I let my daughter stay up way past her bedtime so we could do crafts together and just talk. I thanked the neighbor for always putting a bowl of food outside for our cat. I walked around the neighborhood with my kids and placed little notes and flowers from our garden on people’s doorsteps. I secretly paid for a young family’s meal at a local restaurant when picking up takeout.
And slowly but surely, I stopped feeling consumed by anxiety and started feeling happy. I began looking towards the future again instead of being consumed by my past.
A Growing Sense of Well Being
Eventually, I began to feel good enough to put myself back out there professionally–a thought I couldn’t even entertain a few weeks prior. I pitched an article to Edutopia about a teaching strategy I used with my former second grade class. Edutopia accepted my pitch and published my article. It was exactly the boost that I so desperately needed. Okay, I thought to myself, I can do this.
And then something even more amazing happened. I started receiving emails and tweets from teachers across the country thanking me for sharing my ideas and encouraging me to keep writing and inspiring other educators. These people were taking time out of their busy days just to say thank you to a complete stranger. Their expressions of gratitude completely overwhelmed me. If only they had known that just a month prior, I couldn’t even inspire myself to get dressed in the morning.
A Change in Perspective
All of this has made me a true believer in the absolute power of intentional kindness. Kindness pulled me out of a dark time in my life. Kindness told me to start making things happen. And kindness kept on encouraging me after I took that first step.
These acts of kindness had such a profound effect upon me that I can’t help but constantly wonder: How many of the people that I come into contact with each day desperately need a smile or a friendly note of encouragement just like I did a few months ago? And this one constant, persistent, nagging question has changed my entire perspective on life.
UPDATE 11/6/2017: For weeks I wrestled with the idea of putting my story out there for everyone to see. I mean, part of what happened to me last year was public knowledge. There was a very public hearing about my dismissal. It was extensively covered in the local paper. That was my choice and it’s one that I still firmly stand behind. It needed to happen in public.
Still, it wasn’t something I talked about anymore. It was just too hard.And I worried that putting it out there all over again—even within the context of something really positive–would be reopening a wound that already took so long to heal. I knew I didn’t have it in me to experience that pain again. I knew I couldn’t go back to that place.But I believed in the power of the message strongly and eventually took comfort in the fact that the things we are most afraid of doing are usually the things that cause the most growth. Or so I hoped.And once again I am completely overwhelmed in the best way possible.Since this article was published, I have received so much support from so many and I am profoundly grateful for it. Because it’s made me realize that while the wound is still there–probably always will be–it’s now covered in scar tissue. There’s no reopening it. There’s no going back to that place. It’s done now. And that is more freeing than I will ever be able to express in words.And if you want to know part of just why I loved my job so very much, here are two moving examples written and posted on social media. One of the best things that has happened out of all of the chaos of these past 6 months has been forging unexpected friendships like these and so many others. I’ve taken out names and other identifying information simply out of respect for privacy.“
If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” -Booker T. Washington