The Recycled Teacher
by Jan McCarthy
When I was a child, and the weather prevented me careering up and down the street on my roller-skates, I spent hours in my bedroom, creating tiny books out of scrap paper held together with split pins. These were schoolbooks for my bears Big Ted and Little Ted, and Mamie my chubby doll. I would put my silent companions through their lessons while the rest of my family socialized downstairs. There’s no doubt in my mind that teaching is in my blood.
At school, I developed a love of modern foreign languages, and went on to study French at university. I could have gone into teaching at twenty, so it is rather surprising that, when it came to choosing a career, I shied away from it in favour of secretarial work. Perhaps I lacked confidence. Or perhaps some instinct warned me that teaching would shatter my soul. Certainly, I am convinced it led to the diagnosis of bipolar disorder I have lived with for the past thirteen years.
Teaching caught up with me in my late thirties, in a remote part of West Africa. I was working in development and hiding my light under the bushel of a nice, safe, admin role, when a teaching colleague went down with malaria. I was the only available replacement. I had grown to love and admire the dozen or so students under our care. Coming from several different ethnic language groups, they had left their villages, families and farms to put all their energy into mastering the language of officialdom: French. I spent many afternoons chatting with these remarkable people while they cooked their meals over wood fires in the student compound. The sacrifices I had made to be there were as nothing compared to theirs. I think I would have given my life for them.
My new teaching role gave me the opportunity to offer far more direct help and support than previously, and I felt my mind begin to fizz with creative ideas. I knew these students well, both collectively and as individuals, so I had a good grasp of how to make the lessons relevant – and enjoyable. Nobody needed to tell me that teaching is more about the learner than the person delivering the information. My students’ worried faces lit up when I took over the classes, relieved that I understood, not only where to start, but how to take them forward, step by step. For my part, the glow of elation at the end of each working day was addictive. This is it, I remember thinking, teaching is what I was born for. The euphoria was enough to tip me into a prolonged manic phase.
Upon my return to my home city of Birmingham two years later, still riding the wave of mania, I got my formal teaching qualifications and entered the state secondary education sector. I was anxious to settle in a school where I could be most useful, and eventually found it: an inner city comprehensive where ninety percent of students had English as their second or third language. The English department was understaffed, so when the head of department asked me to help, I jumped at the chance. My experience of teaching languages made me the ideal candidate. I took on a full timetable, and went on to add as many extra responsibilities as I could: Gifted and Talented, AimHigher*, Enterprise Club, Summer School … There was no stopping me, and no end to my devotion! Any observant expert in mental health could have told me I was doing what bipolar people do in manic phases: flying too high, misjudging my stamina, burning myself out. I had no idea of the fragility of my mind.
The inevitable breakdown occurred when I was fifty. All I remember is that I was discovered in the staff-room, banging my head against a metal locker. The management team sent me to Occupational Health, and I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself sitting across a desk from a psychiatrist. The bipolar diagnosis took a few months. There were decades of case history to be taken apart. I was sliding into a major depression as I knocked on the Head Teacher’s door to deliver the news. At that time, a mental health diagnosis virtually guaranteed the death of a career in education. With a rapidity that smacked of previous experience in such matters, ways were found to part company with me. Criticism replaced praise. Colleagues backed off. I lost my sparkle and my motivation. This was, without doubt, the most painful experience of my life.
The diagnosis came as no surprise to those closest to me. The only wonder was how long I had survived, concealing my lifelong struggle with my extreme ups and downs, and the resultant inconsistencies in my performance as a human being.
My world disintegrated. I had no sense of identity, once my career was gone. How could I still lead a useful and meaningful life? I had only to see teenagers in school uniform when I was out taking a walk to be reduced to tears. During three years of psychotherapy, we peeled away the schemata: the masks I had worn since childhood to hide my vulnerability and gain acceptance. My true self began to appear as we removed them. I vowed to rebuild my life on a foundation of authenticity, but for a while I felt very alone in a life that resembled a field that had lain fallow for half a century, removing the rocks, turning the soil, digging in the manure of recovery.
Recovery from depression is different for everyone. For me it involved a lot of sleeping, looking out of my windows at the changing seasons, and soaking up as much good advice as I could; advice on mental strategies, on mood management, on diet; on anything I could, or thought I could, control. Adjustments were also made to my medication. I have the rapid cycling version of bipolar. It doesn’t take much to tip me into an excitable high or a soul-sucking low. Though it went against the grain to stop and be still, the tears of relief were a constant physical proof I needed to slow down and start taking proper notice – and care – of myself. At least now I was beginning to grasp what my triggers were, and to put coping strategies into place.
Meanwhile, I lost my home and was helped to move to a flat on a council-run housing scheme. There I was surrounded by other over-fifties whose lives had, in one way or another, fallen apart. Many, like me, had encountered health problems that tripped them up and stole their dreams. It was then, with the help of my new neighbours, that I discovered that you can build a new life when the old one dies. I acquired a new social life that was safe and therapeutic.
I also discovered that you can take the girl out of teaching, but you can’t take teaching out of the girl. Within a year, I had set up a positive mental health crafting group. Three of the members, having discovered where my passion lay, asked me to lead a writing group and, confidence renewed, I agreed. We’ve been meeting once a month ever since.
Over the years, not only has our writing gone from an amateurish dabble to an elegant, at times scholarly, dive into a variety of genres – and publication in anthologies and online journals – but the friendships have become deep-rooted. When, occasionally, someone new joins us, they cannot fail to respond to our warm welcome, encouragement and enthusiasm.
Last year, I was determined that everyone would finish the year knowing two things: firstly, what their strengths are as writers and secondly, how to improve. Our 2019 Short Story Project led us through a wondrous landscape. I selected a new learning focus for each session and provided printed resources that explained how to build strong characters, create backstory, use literary devices, write a ‘killer’ opening and final paragraph … and each time my friends rose to the challenge with the greatest of good humour. At our Christmas lunch, we raised our glasses to celebrate, not only our literary achievements, but all the happy hours we spent together.
Five minutes after we said our goodbyes, I got a text message from our newest member, Tina: Thankyou! Can’t believe I got so many Christmas cards and hugs! Can’t wait for next time! Xx
The highlight of the Project was, for me, very much to do with the teaching side of my leadership role. It had been a while since I had been reduced to tears, but at our October session I had had to ferret in my pocket for a tissue. Seventy-year-old Eric, a longstanding and faithful attendee, has Asperger’s. He had resisted all attempts to get him to write fiction and was in danger of getting left behind, so I had invited him over for a tutorial. It’s something I offer alongside our monthly meetings. By means of respectful questioning, I had drawn out of him the reason for his mythistorimaphobia. An authoritarian uncle had told him when he was a little boy that stories were were nothing but lies, and to be avoided at all costs.
“But it’s OK to write creative non-fiction, though, isn’t it?” I had asked.
I had explained: you take truth and shape it into something that’s enjoyable to listen to or read.
“I suppose that’s OK, then,” Eric had replied.
That had been the moment of breakthrough, and when, late afternoon at a local beauty spot, we had shared our writing with each other, as we always do in the final hour of our sessions, Eric had done the deed. In fact, he had caught the fire of inspiration and become the first to complete his story, a tale of childhood mischief. He and his friends had built rockets and set them off in various Birmingham parks and gardens, alarming the natives and requiring the attendance of the fire brigade on more than one occasion. He had even rounded off with a dig at the infamous uncle:
“My uncle folded his arms. ‘I could punish you, but I suppose you’ve already started building an even bigger one,’ he said. He was right. It was hiding under my bed in a cardboard box.”
Eric had blushed as he acknowledged a spontaneous round of applause. I had looked around at the smiling faces, glowing in the light of the autumn sun, and a thrill had gone through me. This was my victory too, and I deserved to bask in it.
I am a recycled teacher. Perhaps, better still, I’ve been upcycled. No talent ever dies, and no talent is ever wasted, so long as you refuse to let the spark in you go out.
* An initiative which involves finding ways to help students into further education and apprenticeships where they would be the first in their family to achieve this.
Footnote: Names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned.