By the time I was twelve weeks into teaching in New Orleans I had lost almost forty pounds, felt like a massively inept individual, and for the first time in my life, considered quitting a job before having another. Some nights, I’d replace dinner with a bottle of red after a fifteen hour day and each and every morning will myself to go to work.
At breakfast, Taylor might turn, twirl-like, hand on her hip, lips pursed and ask, “Ms. Arndt, did you brush your hair today?” Me, smoothing my hair down, would respond, “What’s wrong with it?” To which, Kiana would offer, “Here, girrrrllll you need this,” digging thru her book sack to find a comb. I’d take it as my eyes scanned the tables for possible debauchery and begin to comb what wasn’t even there.
Months earlier, I had a generous salary back in Chicago, lifelong friends, family, and was uneasily comfortable–if that makes any sense. Geographically challenged, I’d get less lost in stretches of street from the northside, across Jackson and Pulaski into the heart of westside to due south of the city. Cultivating professional networks of teachers, leaders, colleagues who I respected and truly loved had taken years. Learning how to teach well had humbled me. While I was never the best teacher, I wasn’t this degree of bad either.
Things were well, eas-ier.
So, of course it would follow that I’d swap logic for adventure, driving 15 hours into a city situated on a swamp. Now, months into my move, I knew little of New Orleans or or myself for that matter. I began to question. Every. Damn, Thing. And felt like crap.
“New Orleans either works for you or against you,” Sally Ann cooed, her smile warm and wide over the crystal ball. “If you weren’t supposed to be here.. well, you wouldn’t be. You’d already be gone, my dear,” her rings a symphony, sing-song of metal across the crystal ball as she spoke.
“That’s how New Orleans works,” she offered matter-of-factly.
The murmur of voices outside the beaded curtain, interrupting my concentration, “Now, what you are doing, the way you are doing it, it’s not sustainable. In no way, shape. Or form. That is why you feel like you are going crazy, because it’s nuts,” She pauses to adjust one of her rings, “Make no mistake. New Orleans wants you to stay… just not in this manner.”
This theme of sustainability–and well, me feeling like an imposter– had come up with colleagues in multiple conversations. We were all working hard. But..you ever become a version of yourself that you don’t recognize? Well, I had become her.
“Here’s the thing though, about you that I can see. You are concerned with this idea of moral obligation. So, when you feel like your moral compass does not align- it’s a struggle.”
I lean away from the table, shaking my wrist, and pinch my eyes with my right hand, the tears collecting in the cradle of my hand. College-lined paper dotted with tears. Carrying around so many of my own worries coupled with my kids needs, so much guilt for leaving dad to care for my mom, this backpack of absolute shit was becoming too damn heavy. What Sally Ann didn’t know, what she COULD NOT know.. is that my students and I had been working through this same question for weeks:
In what ways are people morally obligated to one another?
Teaching Milkweed about orphans during WWII, this question had evolved into different iterations. A top my board for weeks, we had been examining this question through the choices Uri and other characters were making in the book. And now, I was sitting in a dim room, a crystal ball between myself and a complete stranger in the New Orleans Healing Center, she telling me about my reality–and the city I was trying to understand, feeling misunderstood.
“Regardless of all of the crap that is a part of us, it is what makes us, us,” former Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson stated in reference to the beauty and challenges present in New Orleans, “Not in any shape, form or fashion should we get away from it.”
Amen. Trying to deny where you are, who you are, what your struggles adds a layer of shit you just don’t need. Your crap, feelings of failure, uncertainty–those things make you, you. To deny any or all of it, is a shame. An injustice, I would argue.
My mom though, now might disagree. Dad saying months ago, shaking his head, “Your mother will never admit she has Alzheimer’s.”
True, she is losing her mind. But her resolve deny her most dreaded reality usurps the disease. each and every time I am home, she says this:
“Love yourself. Everyone needs to love themselves. If not, who will?
Yes, mom. We all have our own realities. Some of us have to be braver than others-on a more consistent basis. Some of us have learned ways to cope, to address the demands of the day. As an educator, I am morally obligated to give kids what they need to learn about who they are-academically, socially, emotionally. My job may require them to sit through a too-hard test, that is ridiculously timed and long, but I can support this work in a responsive, informed, loving way. Helping each other cultivate the best versions of self, without a crystal ball.