Could I?, Should I?, Would I?
‘Can you still teach?’
‘Kind of,’ I answered.
‘You either can or you can’t. We can’t continue with this process if you can still teach.’
It was November 2012, and I didn’t know how to respond to the CalSTRS (California State Teachers’ Retirement System) repre-sentative sitting across from my husband and me.
‘Can you still teach?’
There was a part of me that could still teach, that still wanted to teach. I’d only been teaching for twelve years. I wasn’t supposed to be looking into retirement this soon.
But this wouldn’t be a traditional retirement. This would be a ‘retirement due to a disability. ’
Could I still teach?
In my mind, the answer was simple. Yes. I still had the passion and the drive to go to school each day and create an environment within room 7 where children felt loved, safe, and empowered to try their best.
Should I continue to teach?
That was a different question. The answer was more complicated, and I was becoming less and less sure. I knew I shouldn’t be spending my lunchtime alone in my classroom, leaving voicemails for doctors, crying and pleading for their soonest possible appointment. I knew I shouldn’t be biting my lip, struggling with pain in my left leg, as I walked around the classroom checking on my students as they worked independently at their desks.
Yet, how could I admit I was no longer able to teach? I had gone to college with one purpose—to become a teacher. Teaching is what I did, and who I was. If I wasn’t a teacher anymore, who would I be?
I continued teaching after I first became ill, and I continued teaching after receiving my diagnosis almost a year-and-a-half later.
I had initially considered my disease as nothing more than a minor inconvenience. It was a chronic condition, but so was my asthma. And fortunately, my asthma didn’t affect me on a daily basis. I assumed my autoimmune disease would work the same way.
I assumed wrong. I learned that my disease wasn’t just a chronic medical condition; it was a chronic medical condition causing chronic pain.
I told doctors that sometimes my legs hurt, as if I had repeatedly bumped into the sharp corners of a coffee table. Sometimes my legs felt heavy, as if someone had placed piles of books on them. Sometimes, it felt as if invisible shackles were attached to my lower legs, making it impossible for me to walk as quickly as I wanted. Sometimes my left calf felt hard and tight as if it was experiencing a never-ending charley horse.
I had always prided myself on being a “tough chick.” I didn’t give up on things just because they were hard or more challenging or less desirable. After all, I was the girl who had gone to college while commuting on city buses. (A commute that required six buses a day and involved a total travel time of between three and-a-half to four hours.)
I was the woman who had taught fourth graders until two days before my son was born. I was the woman who walked into the hospital on a Sunday afternoon, and six hours later, delivered my son through a natural, non-medicated childbirth.
But this situation was different. There was no end in sight. This disease wasn’t temporary. I came home each day with less and less of myself to give my family. My thirty-plus fourth-grade students got the best part of me. I came home, and my toddler son got the rest of my energy. By the time he was in bed, I had almost nothing of myself to offer my husband. I felt increasingly fatigued, unhappy, and uncertain about how I could maintain my current pace.
Working as an elementary school teacher didn’t provide me with a lot of opportunity for special accommodations or modifications. I couldn’t cut back on hours. I couldn’t just take a day off at the last minute. (A teacher’s absence must be called in ahead of time, sub plans must be provided; it is often more work to be absent than it is worth.) My rheumatologist had provided me with a note exempting me from teaching physical education. (I partnered with another teacher who helped during p.e. time.) I used the school elevator when I wasn’t with my students. But other than that, there was no way to lessen the burden, the stress, and the sheer will it took to effectively teach a roomful of children.
I hadn’t even known there was an alternative. I thought I was living the life I was meant to be living. I had everything I had wanted—a healthy son, a loving husband, a fulfilling teaching career. Daily pain was just an unwelcome addition.
My rheumatologist had advised me to explore my retirement options. At each appointment, he’d ask if I was still working. ‘Of course,’ I answered early on.
My answers gradually changed. ‘Yes,’ I’d answer with slightly less enthusiasm.
‘I’m trying,’ I admitted.
My husband and I met with the representative of the teachers’ retirement program to find out how the process worked. After the initial meeting, I spent hours completing pages and pages of forms that also required comprehensive medical documentation. My rheumatologist had his own packet of forms to complete, and I found out later, my school principal was also required to fill out her own set of forms. Upon receipt of my application, it would be reviewed to determine if I qualified for retirement. I was told the review process could take months. I asked my doctor if he thought I’d qualify, and he believed, without a doubt, I would.
If I didn’t qualify, the decision would be made for me. I would continue to teach. This disease affected every aspect of my daily life—my sleep, my mood, my energy. I wanted to feel better for my son, for my husband, for myself. But I didn’t know if giving up teaching was the way to accomplish that.
And, I still didn’t see myself as disabled. In my mind, my late grandmother had been disabled. She was a senior citizen who had suffered several strokes, whose body struggled with rheumatoid arthritis. She relied on a wheelchair on her bad days, and a cane on her better days. That wasn’t me.
But I also knew that physically, I wasn’t the same teacher I had been when I had started teaching. Walking field trips were no longer possible. We used to walk to a neighbourhood park for picnics with our pen pals from another elementary school. We used to walk to the local Apple store for workshops. Those field trips had ceased. And, my leg had “given out” one morning while my class was testing, and I had fallen. (I quickly popped back up and assured my students I was fine though I was quite shaken.)
The final decision came within days, not months. The state of California had approved my request for retirement due to a disability. I didn’t know what to make of the quick acceptance. Had the state of California quickly (and much more readily) acknowledged what I had spent over two years trying to ignore and deny?
The school principal wrote a letter to my students’ families, telling them of my upcoming retirement and reassuring them that a substitute would finish up the school year. My students told me later that they knew something was wrong before I passed out the letters and told them the news. I closed our classroom door, something I usually only did during testing situations. They told me my face turned red. They told me I looked like I wanted to cry.
They cried. I cried. I promised them that they were still stuck with me for about one more month. I told them we still had a lot of work to do. Nothing was changing during our last month together. One of my students told me he would start rubbing his bracelet, the kids called it a “superhero bracelet,” and ask it to fix my leg. And I wondered if I was doing the right thing.
My co-workers wanted to throw me a retirement party. But I didn’t want to celebrate. I regarded retiring as failing. I couldn’t teach any more. My body couldn’t do it. I was disabled. What was there to celebrate?
On the last day of my teaching career, my students came to school in their pyjamas for ‘Read Across America’ day. My students snacked and read with their second-grade reading buddies. And for the first time in my career, I didn’t participate. I couldn’t end my teaching career in flannel pyjamas. I needed my pants.
The school acknowledged me with speeches and flowers at our weekly all-school assembly. And after school, we gathered at a nearby restaurant. Almost our whole staff, former teachers, our former principal. Colleagues who generally didn’t attend anyone’s retirement celebration came to mine.
It was March 1st, 2013, and I was less than a week away from my thirty-seventh birthday.
To a certain extent, I have become a different woman since then. I am a stay-at-home mom. And when asked what I do, I reply: ‘I’m a writer,’ instead of ‘I was a teacher.’
But there are times I desperately miss teaching. I miss bringing my electric grill to school and making quesadillas for Cinco de Mayo. I miss reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda with my class and then showing them the Danny DeVito film, as we compare and contrast the novel and the film (while snacking on honey graham crackers, in honor of the character Miss Honey). I miss our games—vocabulary bingo, multiplication volleyball, MadLibs. I miss taking my kids to sit outside on the front lawn for a social studies lesson, encouraging them to imagine they’re really college students, out on the front lawn of the quad…
‘Can you still teach?’
Seven years later, and I still don’t have a simple answer to that question.
No, I can’t still teach in a traditional classroom setting. There are days I wake up and slowly shuffle out of bed and am grateful I don’t have to stand in front of a room full of children all day long. There are days I struggle to get out of my desk chair, and I’m thankful that no one is around to see me struggle.
But, yes, I can still teach. I won’t ever stop teaching. I teach my son every day. I teach him values and morals. I use my extra teacher resources to supplement his classroom lessons. I teach him tricks to learn his nine times tables.
And I am a freelance writer. I draw upon the experiences of my teaching career to write about education-related topics such as why we should never stop reading aloud to our children and how to get the most out of a parent/teacher conference. Most importantly, I am teaching through the use of my written words, educating others about my autoimmune disease and invisible disability.
Retiring from teaching was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. And at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it was my decision to make. I used to see my retirement as a sign of failure. As a very public acknowledgement of what had largely remained hidden and invisible.
Now, seven years later, I don’t see my retirement as a sign of failure, but as an act of bravery.
Can I still teach?
I taught myself that bravery takes many forms. And taking a leap of faith, being forced to imagine my life differently, is brave. AQ