Five years ago, I completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature at York University. At the time, it was my biggest accomplishment. I thought to myself, “Finally! After 13 sporadic years in university, I have this blasted 4-year degree! Take that, depression!” In celebration, I bought a hammer and some nails to hang my greatest accomplishment. Heh, a guy in line at Home Hardware asked, “Working on a big project, huh?” He had no idea how big it was to me.
Next step: a teaching degree, which meant moving to Presque Isle, Maine. I knew there was still much hard work ahead of me, but I thought the worst was over. I thought I finally had a handle on my depression. I thought I had some good coping strategies. I thought I learned good academic habits that helped me earn high marks.
I thought, “Finally, I’m closer than ever to finding my way in life, to finding that place where I belong, to feeling like I have some stability in my life.”
I was wrong on all accounts. In fact, I was closer to hitting the proverbial wall that broke me.
(Note: A word of warning. This one got very long and very personal. It’s nearly 2,500 words. So if you plan on reading it, get comfortable.)
People always told me I’d make a good teacher. It wasn’t just that I was a big kid at heart and created a rapport with children. I also legitimately cared and actively listened to them. When I returned to university in 2003 as keen student in the front row, the end goal was always teaching. I’d heard males were in higher need in elementary schools. I thought might give me a chance of getting a good contract job. Not necessarily over a better qualified female teacher, mind you. So I thought teaching elementary would be good for me. I doubted I could do high school, since that would include higher drama and risk like dealing with drug abuse, teen pregnancies, etc. I always had better rapport with younger kids, anyway. Friends told me the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s program was excellent, so that’s where I applied.
I hated living in Presque Isle. Maybe living in Toronto for five years spoiled me. I went from that to a tiny American town whose biggest, happening place was maybe a Wal-Mart. There was almost nothing to do and nowhere to go. I also didn’t live on campus, unlike most people in my program, so I was incredibly lonely most the time. Doubly so when I saw new friendships and groups forming around me. I’m terrible at making new friends and especially maintaining friendships, so that was an incredibly lonely year. I had some very bad bouts of depression, some to the point that Dad sometimes drove 6 hours from Halifax to stay with me for a few days to make sure I didn’t harm myself. I came close a few times, including some scary moments with a knife to my wrist while I sat in the bathtub.
That said, I enjoyed UMPI’s teaching program. I enjoyed learning behavioural techniques, being creative in lesson plans, and a class on teaching children’s literature. I started picturing myself as a teacher, picturing little pranks I’d pull on my class that would be teachable moments. I started imagining what my ideal classroom might look like.
My favourite classes were Bill Breton’s Behavioural Studies and Special Needs. He commanded a class like I’d never seen before. We were like putty in his hands. He was a big, imposing man on the surface, but was good natured, had a great sense of humour, and gave every student his undivided attention. If I casted him in a movie, Frank Langella would play him because they looked alike and had a similar demeanour.
In both classes, he did something special for our first test. In Behavioural, he came in exactly at the start of class, handed out the test with barely a word, and said, “Pencils up, heads down, get to work.” This was uncharacteristic for him because normally he arrived fifteen minutes early to set up his PowerPoint presentation and talk with individual students. My anxiety rose from this odd behaviour, but I tried powering through the test. Halfway through the test, Mr. Breton interrupted the class to admonish a student who he believed was cheating. He said, “Are you looking at their test? Keep your eyes on your own work.” Finally, he stopped us and said, “It’s obvious that none of you prepared for this test. You were all out drinking last night and are hung over, so what’s the point?” Then his entire demeanour changed from stiff to relaxed and said, “Okay, everyone relax. This isn’t actually a test. We’ll get into groups and go through the answers together. Were you getting nervous with how I was acting? Maybe anxious? This is to show you how a teacher’s own behaviour can affect a student, their emotions, and their performance.”
This man was brilliant. In the second semester, for Special Needs, he handed out the test and told us to keep it face down until he said so. Then he said, “Okay, flip it over and just do Part One.” Part One was multiple choice. Except…the questions were in different languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic. I kind of expected him to do something tricky like in the other course, but I played along and tried translating the questions. Part Two asked us to answer questions while sitting on our writing hand (my right hand) and writing with our other hand (my left hand). Again, I struggled but did what I could. Part Three asked us to read an essay and answer related questions. But the essay soon looked like gobbledygook, with the typing reading backwards, upside down, or diagonally. After the text, explained what each part represents: Part One showcases the language barrier for students whose first language wasn’t English. Part Two was physical handicaps and how those students struggle without assistance. Part Three was for students with dyslexia.
My heart went out the most to students with special needs. The program included observational reports in classrooms, watching teachers in action. I was always drawn to the most troubled students. A little boy in a Grade 1 class was disruptive, developmentally lagging, and often overtired. It turned out his mother was often in and out of jail; whenever she was home, she wanted him to stay up late and watch horror movies with her.
Academically, I excelled. So well, in fact, that I made the Dean’s List in both semesters. I found the academic work mostly a cakewalk. I was so used to the rigid structure of third and fourth year English essays that the more laid back, personal nature of these assignments were easy for me. I still worked hard on the assignments, using my essay-writing experience, still following an MLA style, which pleasantly surprised many instructors.
After the program finished, I had to choose where to do my practicum. UMPI’s program had you do all the academic work first, then do the practicum. I chose to return to Fredericton, since ideally, I wanted to settle down there. The class that took me on was a combination Kindergarten/Grade 1 class in a small elementary school just outside of Fredericton. My wonderful parents let me have their second car since the Fredericton bus system for that far out is a little unreliable.
I wish I could say I enjoyed my brief time there, but that’s a lie. It was emotionally stressful. I felt constantly on edge, like constantly I screwed up. The teacher I worked under pointed out little things that I’d constantly stress out over. Be more confident and energetic. Don’t let the kids run the classroom. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t sigh so loudly, even if it’s a stress coping mechanism; the kids will take it personally. I was overwhelmed with everything I had to remember even before teaching any valuable lessons. By the time I got home, I was so emotionally drained, I felt like doing nothing but watching a movie, playing a game, or anything else but think about that classroom. This hurt me back in the classroom because I was under-prepared and wrote terrible, rushed lesson plans.
Even after almost two months, I hadn’t taken full control of the lessons as I should have. The most I did was the morning greeting (attendance, weather, national anthem, some introductory lessons in math and letters) and led one small group during group work. By October, I should have been leading the whole class, but I couldn’t. My confidence was shot and I was terrified to do anything, lest I screw up. Instead of being excited to take control of the class, I looked forward to the end of the morning greeting where I could say, “And now Mrs. So-and-So will take over for me.”
I have some positive memories, though. I loved reading to the class, where I felt the most comfortable and energized, and usually had the full attention of the class. One little boy imitated me always wearing a fedora during outdoor recess by bringing a cheap straw fedora of their own. Or another boy rushed up to me with his arms up his jacket sleeves, pretending to be armless. I said, “Oh no! Let’s perform some surgery!” and pulled his hands out with a vocal “Pop! Pop!” Then a little girl, who watched the “operation,” rushed over with the same problem. I repeated the surgery line and reached for her sleeves, but she suddenly popped her hands out, wiggled them in the air, yelled “HA!” and ran off giggling.
Unfortunately, progress report meetings with the UMPI representative and my teacher, ended with me in tears. Deflated and depressed, I left early those days. I did so many things wrong. They said I had little control of the classroom, like during an indoor lunch period (because of the weather), I hadn’t seen two kids run out of the classroom. They were fine and soon returned, but it still hurt me. I felt so irresponsible. How the hell could I be a teacher with all these personal problems? I’d never succeed in this practicum if I couldn’t confidentially take over the classroom. The supervising teacher wrote, word-for-word, “I would not recommend Nick for a teaching position.” I don’t blame her. I was a wreck. My confidence was shot more than ever before.
On the advice of the UMPI representative and my supervising teacher, I dropped out of the program. They suggested I look into being a teaching assistant, instead. The hours would be the same, but the responsibilities and expectations would be much lower, which might be better for me.
So I applied for and started in a Human Services program at NBCC, the local community college. Again, I did well academically. Many of the other students were younger and still had that high school mentality for homework. My self and some other older students felt like the only ones that actually wanted to do the work. But I constantly questioned whether I should’ve been there, since it didn’t feel like the program I really wanted. The instructor even said it was unlikely I’d get a job in classrooms with this degree.
My depression hit hard soon after and I was admitted into the hospital for a weekend after a suicide attempt. I tried returning to the program, but the head instructor refused to accept a late assignment I couldn’t hand in because I was in the hospital. The assignment was writing short reactions to each textbook chapter. He asked if I’d been writing them along the way. I admitted I hadn’t, but I’d caught up, the assignment was still done, and I wanted to hand it in. I was in tears, pleading that he take it while he literally held his head up and away from me. I asked if he checked with every other student this same way, but he refused to answer. I dropped out of the program the same day. Looking back, it’s ironic – and highly hypocritical – that the head instructor, who preached helping people with special needs, so willingly turned his back on someone with special needs.
After that, I struggled with part-time jobs. I worked seasonal jobs at Chapters and The Source, fighting depression daily, constantly feeling suicidal, asking myself, “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?” I worked towards being a teacher for years. I dreamed of it. It was the end goal to everything I wanted. And I failed miserably. The one thing that I thought I’d strive in, I botched horribly.
My first novel – THE CITY OF SMOKE & MIRRORS – released about this time. But my depression was so bad that it didn’t feel like an accomplishment. It was published through a small, print-on-demand publisher, but I struggled to get it into any local bookstores. Even today, I’m still struggling just to do that. So it didn’t – and still doesn’t – feel like a success to me.
I broke down. My parents convinced me to move back in with them, in Halifax. And I’ve been here for the past two years.
And I just feel…broken. I feel like a complete failure. I’m 38 years old, with no decent job, no career prospects, no family to call my own, and living with my parents. I have two books published that barely anyone has heard of because they’re so small market and niche products. I had another breakdown this past October, which cost me my job and my girlfriend. And I just…I don’t know what to do anymore. I feel like a failure. I feel like a loser. I feel like nothing will fix me. I don’t know what I want in life anymore. I don’t know where to begin looking for it. I’m seeing a psychiatrist. I’ve attended workshops at Teamworks, a local group that helps people with disabilities get into the workforce. Despite all that, nothing feels like it’s working. Only recently, I pulled out of a month-long depression. I still feel lost. I still feel broken. I still feel like a complete and total loser.
My twentieth high school reunion is coming up in July and I’m terrified to even consider going. I feel like I wasted the last 20 years of my life and I don’t know what I’d talk about. My constant failures? My unending depression? The fact that I don’t have so much a lack of ambition but a lack of direction? No. I can’t go. Going and seeing old faces who have all gone on to have careers, families, or anything else would just further depress me.
I thought life would get better once I got my Bachelor’s Degree. It only got worse. The place where I thought I’d finally belong became the worst place for me. I never felt more out of place than in that elementary school. I just want somewhere that I feel like I belong, where I feel wanted, where I’m accepted for who I am.
I’m at a point now where I firmly believe I’ll never find that. I’ve hit a proverbial wall. I feel like a car that drove at full speed into this wall and I’m smashed beyond repair.