by Janet Lake May 15, 2021
I blame my lizard brain for the anxiety I feel whenever I am put under scrutiny and evaluated. It tells me, “You’re a fuck-up and now they are going to be on to you,” and, “You better put on a good show to hide the fact that you fuck up all the time.” I feel like I got away with a big scam because they let me teach in their schools for thirty years and never figured out I was making mistakes every single day of it. But my lizard brain seems to have lost its tail and now all it tells me is, “aaaaaaaa!”
When I graduated from high school I graduated from beauty college on the same day. I never became a hairdresser for one reason: if I fucked up someone’s hair, they would know it instantly and they would know I was the one who did it. I couldn’t face that eventuality so I became a teacher. I figured by the time anyone realized their education had been fucked up, they wouldn’t be able to point to me as the perpetrator because by then they would be long out of high school and had plenty of worse teachers they could foot the blame on before settling on me, although I’m certain I would have shared the culpability.
No, I would never be blamed for a career in wasting people’s time, or worse, a career teaching kids to think and do what a whacked-out American system’s nefarious leaders wanted them to think and do. I don’t really feel much guilt about it, though, because the real reason I got into teaching was for the summers off, not the honorable reason my colleagues did. I was never in it to help anyone except myself. I mean, the weekday hours are short, and the vacation time is long, so I was doing myself a favor by working as a high school English teacher. And up until very recently, I was pretty much left to my own devices because teachers get their own classrooms with little interference from higher-ups. The only drawback I could see was the early start time every morning, but I am good at napping in the afternoons so it all worked out just fine.
But I knew I was hiding a big secret that I didn’t want anyone to find out lest they tell me they weren’t going to let me do that job anymore. I knew I was a big stoner fuck-up. I can say that now because dispensaries sell my drug of choice like sweets in a candy shop, and also because I am just two semesters away from retirement, but for the past 30 years I pretended I was as straight as the rest of them (who aren’t straight at all and were pretending to be as straight as me.) And that is why my lizard brain always freaks out hard whenever I am observed by my administrators or even so much as questioned by my children’s dentist about why I don’t have the proper forms filled out properly. I don’t want to face reality. I have an irrational fear of being told I suck, even though I know I suck and admit to it readily.
If you don’t know it, teachers have an inordinate amount of luck, teacher’s luck, because we do for society what sensible people won’t do, yet is critically important to be done. As a reward, we get lucky. I think that if we didn’t, the teacher shortage would be a national crisis like a water shortage in its tenth year of drought. I have been lucky all along. My administrators left me alone, students and parents didn’t tell on me too much, and my colleagues’ complaints were few and far between. I had a great career and a fabulous lifestyle in Southern California working just 186 days (minus ten sick days) out of every year. I only worked summer school once, and I only worked middle school once. I married a rock-n-roll drummer and had two boys who do their homework without being asked and bring home good grades on their report cards as a matter of course. I have a lot to lose, you see, if anyone yanks my rug out from under me. And now my lizard brain is telling me someone’s yanking and it doesn’t want me to fuck this up.
I’ve been telling myself recently that it’s incredible, really, that they let me teach in their schools this long, that they haven’t fired me or kicked me out or taken my license away. I will admit that I have gone to some pretty great lengths to prevent any of those things from happening. For one, I spend a lot of time in professional development workshops keeping abreast of the latest teaching strategies and reading whatever I can get my hands on to see what good teachers are doing, and then trying them out in my own class. This has had the benefit of giving me the appearance of staying current, while at the same time, being given room to fail since I’m trying out stuff that’s new to me and therefore not expected to do it perfectly yet. I also have spent my career moving from school to school every few years or so. The longest I ever worked at one school was ten years and that was too long because I barely got out of there with my job intact. If I keep moving then my fuck-ups, although known to my principals and exposed out in the open, stay at the school where I was and don’t follow me to the new school where I have put on a pretty dress, flashed my wholesome smile, and aced my interview by discussing the strategies I learned about at all those PDs I went to.
In addition, for school, I dress sharp. I do really well at keeping up appearances. I don’t mean that I wear a suit or a conservative blouse and high-waisted slacks with a comfortable pair of pumps. Nope, I wear cool pencil skirts with boots and black sweaters, or stylish dresses from the Nordstrom Rack on sale and funky jewelry. I’m always dressed up so I look good in front of the class. In this way, my facade distracts them into thinking that I am good. Likewise, my classroom is always clean with student work posted on the walls and the tidy organization of someone who knows what they are doing, my framed teaching credential displayed behind my desk like in a lawyer’s office. Any visitor who doesn’t stay longer than one class period is impressed. And lastly, I spend time being friendly with every person at the school. I chat up secretaries, custodians, teachers, coaches, campus security, and lunch ladies. I show visitors where to go, give Gatorade to repairmen, and snacks to students and their friends. On Back-to-School Night I provide a feast for my students’ families so they come away thinking, “Ms. Lake’s class seems really awesome.” All the people who get to know me think I’m great.
I stand out in a positive way, but not in an academic or results-driven, success-oriented professional sort of way. And as with anything that is all done for the sake of appearances, it holds up for a while, but eventually gives way to reality, and that keeps my lizard brain in a constant state of stress. Zaretta Hammond says that the lizard brain is always on the alert for anything that will take me out of my comfort zone and that it always wants to remain safely inside that comfort zone. (Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, ch. 3) But somewhere along the line, somebody stepped on my lizard brain’s tail and snapped it right off. Now I’m always thinking that the jig is up and my fuck-ups have finally gotten the better of me. I have anxiety and fear and live with the feeling that I can’t do the job anymore, so then the prophecy self-fulfills and I really can’t do the job anymore.
My comfort zone is gone and like a lizard with nowhere to hide, I stand still hoping no one will notice me, or worse, I call in sick so that no one really will be able to see me. Every sound startles me, every movement is a threat. I’m useless and my damn lizard brain’s tail hasn’t regrown. Without it, I’m a paranoid freak incapable of doing much more than freaking out. This, of course, has had the exact opposite effect of what I wanted. Now my administrators are observing my classes every week, writing down what is happening minute by excruciating minute, dissecting every lesson with a fine-tooth comb. My principal is writing volumes of letters of warning, reprimand, and recommendations for suspension. I have three meetings a week at the time of day when I was once napping peacefully, content in the comfortable knowledge that my job was secure. My lizard brain lost its tail, and just keeps screaming, “aaaaaaaaaa!”