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The Truth About Quitting and other winners

bullhorn_blog_pshrink.JPGWe received well over three hundred entries to our essay contest, and today announce the winners. All the prize checks (totaling $2,000) have been sent, and the winning essays lined up in our post bank for you to enjoy over coming weeks (several essays already appear on the site).

Culling the best essays was a tough job, and ranking the final eight tougher still. But reading the top entries over and over again was pure pleasure. Here are the winners:

Grand Prize
Theresa Collins of New Jersey, for The Truth About Quitting, which appears below. While puncturing the conceit of traditional Western thought that life should be free of contradictions, Theresa’s essay story reminds us that quitting doesn’t mean failing, and that sometimes, happiness comes not from achieving goals, but rather “from revising them, from lovingly sorting through them and discarding the ones that don’t work.”

Second Place
Yuvi Zalkow of Portland, Oregon for Dogs and Dolphins, a wonderfully funny piece that turns the “I quit my awful job to do something I love” form upside-down—sort of. Dogs and Dolphins will appear on this page Monday, July 28.

Third Place
Vance H. White of Niceville, Florida took third prize with The Bard of Gooseneck Bay, another piece about teaching—but with a twist. We’ll feature The Bard later this summer.

Runnerups
Ken Korczak’s delightful Twenty-Seven Years of Zen Destroyed My Life appeared on Soul Shelter earlier this month, and we featured Melissa Hanser’s powerful Lighting the Way for Others in May. Terri Davis Smith’s moving essay, originally entitled No More Sweater Sets, appeared in May.

We loved the gritty detail of Simon A. Smith’s These Things Happen, posted June 22. And finally, keep your eyes out for Knuckle Down, Knuckle Up, by the deeply talented Ainsley Drew. Now, enjoy The Truth About Quitting.

The Truth About Quitting by Theresa Collins

classroom_misbehavior.jpgWhat if I had listened to Mr. Howard? I was nineteen years old, tote bag hitched under my arm, sensible shoes on my feet, the cushiony kind you can stand in all day, and I was walking down the endless hallway after my first day subbing seventh grade. It was June, two weeks left of school, and there was no air conditioning.

And I was almost in tears, the kind where you’re not quite crying, but your eyes are swollen pink from tears about to slosh over.

Mr. Howard stood at his door, flashed a kind smile, and asked how my day went. When he saw the look on my face, he waved me in. I sat on the edge of a wobbly student chair and Mr. Howard handed me a tissue. “It’s okay,” he said.

And I felt a little better. Mr. Howard was a thirtysomethingish teacher, new that year to the school, my old high school. And he was friendly, brown eyed, charismatic. Everyone’s new favorite teacher.

I prepared myself for inspiration, for a speech about how subbing isn’t like real teaching, how the first year is always tough, but how you learn, you get better, you change the lives of children and it’s all worth it. I wanted a real-life version of a teacher movie, a guide to becoming Michelle Pfeiffer.

But what he said was this: “You should quit now.”

I didn’t think I heard him correctly. “What?”

Perhaps he didn’t understand my situation. I told him what happened, how the students threw wads of paper at each other (and me), how theyyes_no_dice.jpg kept switching the fan and radio on and off when I looked away, how they didn’t want to learn. “But it’s subbing, and it’s the end of June, and I’m brand-new. I’m sure that’s why.”

He shook his head sadly. “After this year I think teaching is like triage. Everyone is hurting and you can’t help them all. It’s true that most of the kids don’t want to learn, and they prevent you from really helping the ones who do.”

He went on to give the most un-inspirational advice I’ve ever heard, affirming all my worst fears about entering the profession.

And I felt angry, defensive, challenged him when he raked my beloved theorists Piaget and Kohlberg over coals and described the disconnect between learning about teaching from people with PhDs and actually teaching. I leaned back in my chair, stared him down. “So what are you going to do about it? Are you quitting?”

“I’m handing in my resignation letter today actually.”

I have to tell you, I didn’t believe him. But he did it. He really did hand in his letter that day, and he wasn’t back the next year. I returned though. I subbed at my high school for three springs before I graduated and landed a full-time gig teaching middle school.

Before I left the room that day, Mr. Howard gave me his number, and I thumbed it into my cell phone. Call me, he said, if you have any questions about teaching.

I never called him.

chalkboard_with_book.jpgI was an optimist, and one bitter, vocal teacher and a bad day couldn’t stop me. I’d invested four years of sweat and tears earning my B.A. in English Education, so how could I throw it away and give up?

Quitting was not an option. So I spent the next year at college taking education classes and yammering off the ears of my roommates with constant soul-searching. I wondered whether I should teach Elementary or Secondary Education, whether I should get a Master’s in Administration or Counseling, or maybe even a PhD, so I could instruct future teachers. I had my whole future hypothetically planned out.

The thing is, I never seriously entertained the gaping hole of dread floating between my heart and my stomach, the feeling that the future I meticulously planned was all wrong for me.

Student teaching came and went, and my doubts grew. My boyfriend comforted me each night and one night, sprawled on the floor of my dorm amid stacks of student papers, I asked him if he thought I could ever enjoy teaching.

And he said, “You should quit now. It’s killing you.”

I almost broke up with him on the spot. I clutched the student papers. “You clearly don’t know me! I can’t throw away a semester’s worth of tuition! I have to finish.”

So I finished student teaching, earned an A minus, and taught middle school for two years before I reached my breaking point. I snapped at my loved ones, cried in my classroom after school with the door shut, cried at home, felt anger and bitterness stiffening my spirit like ice.

I finally quit in June, the end of my second year, to the surprise of everyone, especially my supervisor. She told me I’d been a great teacher.

Maybe, I thought to myself, but maybe not. I think that was one of the hardest parts. I left teaching feeling like I had a red, teacher’s-pen ‘F’ scrawled across my forehead. I desperately wished I had a heartwarming story to tell, a moment of lucidity with a child in need, a feeling that all the hard work paid off. For years, ever since I did a career report in eighth grade, I’d labeled myself “future teacher” and later, “teacher.” To me, “teacher” meant a kind person, a person who patiently loved children, a lifetime devoted to kindness. And the dreaded alternative, “business,” meant pure, money-grubbing evil.

direction_signs_blank.jpgIt’s hard to leave behind a label, an expectation you’ve had your whole adult life, the dream you worked towards in college. When I stopped calling myself a teacher and awkwardly described my new, quasi-human resources position at barbeques and holidays, I started feeling that I’d quit being a kind person too.

It’s been a year now, and I haven’t found my dream job, but I finally feel like I’m on my way. I’m working in human resources at an office, and I started noticing things. I’m happier. And I don’t cry at night, and I haven’t morphed into an evil, greedy ogre.

When I handed in my resignation letter and walked out of my supervisor’s office last year, I was surprised by the relief I felt. I wasn’t wracked with doubt, the way I’d lived for years. I was free, and I felt alive, vibrant. My inner world sparkled.

For me, happiness hasn’t come from achieving my goals, it’s come from revising them, from lovingly sorting through them and discarding the ones that don’t work, the labels that don’t describe me anymore. To do that, I’ve had to entertain doubts, to accept the idea that maybe, just maybe, certain professions aren’t right for me, and that it’s okay to make a mistake, and then fix it.

I’ve discovered that quitting doesn’t mean failure.

I think Mr. Howard knew the truth about quitting, but, like so much advice, we can’t follow it until we discover it ourselves. Ultimately, I’m not sorry that I taught for two years. I’m just grateful that after two years I finally listened to myself and made the decision to quit before I taught for two more years. Mr. Howard described teaching as triage, picking the most wounded person and concentrating your efforts there. And sometimes, when that wounded person is you, it’s best to quit, to leap into the chilly unknown and dare to believe that it can become better than what you left behind.

You may also enjoy:

Creativity Vs. Commerce: Stalking the Spotlight

The Soul of an Entrepreneur, the DNA of a Business

6 Comments to The Truth About Quitting and other winners

On Jul 17, 2008, Sara at On Simplicity commented:

Wow. This is so similar to my story story, right down to the grade. I also found that I was defining myself in terms of whether my career made me a “good” or “bad” person, which is completely ridiculous in retrospect.

Struggle can make us stronger, wiser, better. But when every day is a struggle, it can just be a sign that you’re not catering to your natural talents and skills. I feel twinges of guilt about not teaching anymore when it comes up, but in all honesty, I also feel a sense of relief.

This was really moving for me. I almost wish more of us could have quitting mentors.

On Jul 18, 2008, Jon commented:

I worked briefly as a teacher and hated it. I wasn’t as committed to the profession as Theresa, but still I felt like a loser for quitting. You really bring up a good point, not just for teachers, but for anyone struggling to find their career.

On Jul 18, 2008, Joan commented:

Congrats to Theresa Collins, WAY TO GO! I nearly cried as I read her work, as I completely identified with her feelings which she expressed so eloquently about quitting. It’s so difficult to ignore the pessimists when you are stumbling around in the dark. Pessimists come in many forms. It makes you so angry because you know down deep you are going to do your thing come hell or high water.

For instance, I have logged in endless hours of writing, yet when I tell some people I’m a writer, they stare blankly and not even bother asking about who I write for or what project I’m currently working on. Theresa so completely addressed this outer, indifferent world, and what really struck a chord was when she said: “…for me, happiness hasn’t come from achieving my goals, it’s come from revising them, from lovingly sorting through them and discarding the ones that don’t work, the labels that don’t describe me anymore.” I hope she keeps inspiring people who need it most. I know I’m one of them.

On Jul 18, 2008, Chris Guillebeau commented:

300 entries! That’s incredible. To me, that is an insane (in a good way) success on its own. I hope you’ll write more about that soon.

All the best,

Chris

On Jul 21, 2008, Nick Atnite commented:

What ever happened to Mr. Howard? Where is he now? Call him! Awesome essay. Thanks for the balm.

On Aug 24, 2008, Dave commented:

I earned a BA in English because I liked reading and discussing books, essays, and the like, and I said to myself, “If I like reading and discussion, I will certainly like teaching English or language arts.” Of course, I was wrong – being a student of English is NOTHING like being a teacher of English.

I finished my Master’s Degree in Education, including a semester of student teaching, a little over a year ago. I enjoyed the college coursework tremendously, but student teaching had me stressed to the hilt.

This was my schedule: Teach during the school day; take a quick after-school nap; plan lessons and grade papers in the evening; plan lessons and grade papers during dinner; coffee; plan lessons and grade papers before bed; coffee; plan lessons and grade papers a little more before bed; plan lessons and grade papers while watching time on clock radio pass 2:00 am; hastily finish lessons while wondering why anyone does this for any extended period of time; pass out tired and wake up tired; prep coffee; shower and dress; eat “breakfast” and pack things for school; coffee; drive to school while sipping coffee and mentally tweaking already planned lessons; arrive at school; coffee; sit in car for ten minutes, re-tweaking lessons and pondering quitting; enter school, enter classroom, sit; coffee; sit and look at lessons; look at clock; go to door and heard students into room; bell; pledge; roll call; ask Ryan to be quiet; tell Ryan to be quiet; collect thoughts and begin tap dancing.

It should be clear that I did not pursue teaching as a profession. I did finish student teaching, however, and I managed to ace the only college course I had that semester as well. I graduated and meandered around finding a suitable teaching job until, one day, I was called in to interview – later the same day – at a local school. At that point, I came clean to myself and my parents. I was not going to teach, ever. No, I did not know what I would do at that point. I took a year off and here I am. I managed to get an offer for a low-pay and low-stress job at a non-profit community center. The hourly wage offer comes in tomorrow, and I think I’m going to take it.

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