I started my second career when I was in my late 30s.
I’m not sure what called me to teaching, especially teaching high school science. High school kids are taller than me, full of more hormones than I ever had and move in packs. It’s like being out in the field, wading through the Everglades in the late summer, dripping with humid desperate sweat, trying to find dry land.
All I can say as to why I started on this path is that everything fell into place.
One day I was home being a happy stay-at-home mom (letting my degrees languish in the Arizona sun). The next day I was in front of my class wallowing in learning objectives, Arizona State Standards and common core curriculum planning. I had the privilege of watching my budding biologists fledge, building their scientific muscles in preparation for flight.
Each year I get 135-plus kids to corral, shepherd or force into a year of hands-on-learning, shoving facts down their throats or dynamic exploration. After a while there are a few students that tear me down, humble me and remind me that we are all imperfectly perfect just the way we are.
Kay was one of those students.
Kay wasd a tough looking girl: greasy, dyed-black hair, tongue ring and eyes that sparkled like the water at sunset. She was heavy, busty and when she wore baggy t-shirts she could be one of those kids you’re not sure of. Is she a he?
Kay’s mouth matched her appearance.
It was backstabbing and mean, with a quick laugh and an apology. Sailors, truck drivers and preteen boys swear less. Her hands are always on her hips. “Psycho-bitch” is thrown at her more than any other term I’ve heard.
Before I knew her story, I assumed the attitude was just from her bipolar moods and other psychological issues. Once I learned that she was a meth addict, an “all kinds of stuff” junkie and on mood stabilizers, then the dramatic mood changes made more sense.
The day would usually start off with war or peace.
She’d give me fair warning, “Sorry Mrs. Rizzo, I’m not doing that shit today. I’m sick of these assholes. I’m only here cause my P.O. makes me.“ she would announce to the class as if it were just the two of us, not the 32 of us.
Students were scared of her; I usually shrank back hoping I could find a shell tough enough to protect me.
Almost always, I’d shrug it off, act like she’d said nothing or restate what I wished she’d said. I could become an ant, only able to hear vibrations with my knees. I couldn’t hear her.
Sometimes I’d send her away, to her counselor, feeling indignant and full of pride. Who was she, to talk to me that way?
But Kay was lost, and not the quiet kind of lost but the loud, come-and-find-me kind. I never knew what would set her off, or how far she would push it.
I was always watching.
In the early 1800s, Asian elephants were used to trample prisoners; a natural type of execution. When Kay was in class, I was constantly ready for her to trample me.
If I was ready for her, she’d sit in class and laugh with her friends or try for a few seconds to humor me and make nice with my assignment. If I wasn’t ready, she’d plow right over me and my stupid white-ass, upper-class attitude.
She liked the days we went to the garden and planted. She watched my environmental videos and was open to listening to “how fucked up everything is.”
During a group discussion of what to bring on a space ship to Mars she became extremely animated. The rules of the discussion were: we were going to Mars, there were 32 of us, and we’d never come back. Our descendants would live on Mars and we’d need to bring enough to sustain all generations.
Kay was open to drinking recycled urine (how else do you bring enough water for eternity? And don’t we do that anyway—if you think of the water cycle?), she was even okay with having a group sleeping area (to reduce our need for fuel).
About ten minutes into the activity some kids got goofy, suggesting that we bring all the animals “just like Noah did.”
Kay’s response: “Shut the fuck up assholes before I come slam my fist into your face. This is the earth we are really talking about, not a fucking spaceship. It is an analogy for the earth and you mother fuckers are the ones that are going to fuck it up just like it is now.”
She got the point.
Kay was smart, insightful and quick. Her biggest strengths were her biggest weaknesses. The second she had the ah-ha moment, my course was in trouble, she’d unleash on the students for being stupid, slow and weak.
I’d meet with Kay and her support staff—her counselors, therapists and mentors—every few months and we’d try and tweak my system. Make it less of one thing and more of another. All of us realizing these tweaks were just silly attempts to let her know that we care.
One day she went too far, said something related to wanting to punch me. I don’t remember the words.
I ignored her as if she was silently taking notes. After class, two very popular boys from the football team came up to me. They had all their muscles and perfect smiles and admitted to wanting to protect me, shield me from Kay. They’d had it, couldn’t put up with her and said they’d “take care of her.”
In all fairness, they deserved a peaceful class room. The best education environment for 18 year-olds doesn’t involve feeling as if they need to be their teacher’s bodyguard. Ignoring her moods was good for me—okay, for her—but awful for everyone else.
I was not allowed to talk about the elephant in the room, so I tried to just pretend her away.
We decided to switch Kay to a smaller class of mine. My after-lunch class was 20 kids, many of whom arrived late. We reminded Kay to watch her mouth and she fit in nicely, thriving with more attention.
Oddly enough, she did not disclose any personal information. The class warmed to her. She became one of the aloof nerds.
Periodically she’d slip into her bitter cussing act, but she came out of it and the class seemed no worse for the experience. We were like a hive, everyone working together for the greater good.
The day of the final, I felt as though Kay finally slammed her fist into my face. She didn’t show up to class.
Her grade was a very high F (brains can’t pick up the pencil for you, perseverance, desire and luck pick it up, and she was very low on those three). Without the final (a district-required 20% of her grade), she’d surely fail.
I called her home, I texted her parents and I emailed her. I had her friends call her. At the end of the day, when all the teachers were going home, I looked up and there she was.
“What the fuck do you want?”
“I want you to take your final,” I replied.
“Why? I’m getting my GED, I’m leaving here, it doesn’t matter if I pass. My step dad called my P.O. and he said I had to come here to get you to shut up.”
“Kay, finish the class. Let’s end what we started.”
Kay smiled, “Mrs. Rizzo why do you care?”
I smiled back. I wasn’t sure what the right response was—when I look in the mirror, you’re me? Or you are everyone? Or, how can we give up on one?
“I learned the hard way. You have to finish things and not quit. I’m 42, why don’t you learn from my mistakes?”
Kay looked at me, and said, “Okay, hand me the fucking thing.”
It took her 20 minutes to take the test. At the end, she said that at first she was just circling randomly, but then she decided it felt good to do the test, and took it in earnest.
She gave me a big hug, “what will I do without you?” Then she laughed and left.
She earned a high A on that test.
Kay is not a real student. She is a collection of students; I tried to capture the essence of those that struggle.
Editor: Lara C.
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