The Wall that Broke Me

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!” On my first chance, I went out and bought a hammer and a couple of nails to hang my greatest accomplishment. Heh, there was a guy in line at Home Hardware that asked, “Working on a big project, huh?” He had no idea how big it was in my eyes.

Next step: a teaching degree, which for me meant moving to Presque Isle, Maine. Even though I knew there was still a lot of hard work ahead of me, 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 and even higher essay scores.

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 3,000 words. So if you plan on reading it, get comfortable.)

For years, people told me I would make a good teacher. It wasn’t just that I was a big kid at heart and could create a rapport with children. I also legitimately cared about them and actively listened to them. When I returned to university in 2003 and became a keener student in the front row, the end goal was always teaching. I’d heard that males were in higher need in elementary schools, as well, which I thought might give me a chance of getting a good contract job. Not necessarily over a better qualified female teacher, I should add. 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 students handling drug abuse, pregnancies, etc. And I’d always had a better relationship with younger kids than I did older ones. I’d heard from various the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s program was excellent, so that’s where I chose to go.

I hated living in Presque Isle. Maybe I was spoiled from living in Toronto for five years, because I went from that to a tiny town whose biggest, happening place was maybe a Wal-Mart. It was a tiny American town with nothing to do and nowhere to go. I also didn’t live on campus, unlike most people in my program, so I was not only incredibly lonely 90% of the time, but doubly so when I saw all these new, close friendships and groups forming around me. I’m terrible at making new friends and especially maintaining friendships, so that year was incredibly lonely for me. I had some very bad bouts of depression, some to the point that Dad occasionally 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 about behavioural techniques, being creative in lesson plans, and a particular 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 even started imagining what my classroom might look like.

My absolute favourite classes were Behavioural Studies and Special Needs, both taught by Bill Breton. He commanded over a class like I’d never seen before. He was a big, imposing man on the surface, but was incredibly good-natured, had a great sense of humour, and gave every student his undivided attention. If I casted him in a movie, he’d be played by Frank Langella because they looked alike and had a similar demeanour. We were like putty in his hands.

In both classes, he did something special for our first test.

In Behavioural, for example, he came in exactly at the start of class, handed out the test with barely a word to us, and said, “Okay, pencils up, heads down, get to work.” Already, this was out of character for him because normally he was 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 writing and said, “It’s clear to me that none of you are 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. I’ll put you in groups and we’ll 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.”

My god, this was brilliant. In 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, etc. I knew what he was trying to do because I expected it this time (Special Needs was in the second semester), but I played along and tried translating the questions as best I could. Part Two, we were asked to continue the test sitting on our writing hand (my right hand) and continue using our other hand (my left hand).Again, I struggled but did what I could do. Part Three, we had to read an essay and then answer related questions. But the essay soon read like gobbledegook, with the typing suddenly reading backwards or even diagonally down the page. He explained later what each part represents: Part One showcases the language barrier that students whose first language wasn’t English struggle with. Part Two was physical handicaps and how those students struggle without assistance. Part Three was for students with dyslexia.

For me, my heart undoubtedly went out the most to these students with special needs. Part of my program included doing many hours of observational work in classrooms, watching teachers in action and writing reports on my observations. I was always immediately and constantly drawn to the most troubled students. Like a little boy in a Grade 1 class who was disruptive, developmentally behind the other students, 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 him.

Academically, I excelled at Presque Isle. I did so well, in fact, that I made it onto the Dean’s List in both semesters. In fact, I found the academic work to be mostly a cakewalk. I was so used to the rigid academic structure of 3rd and 4th English course essays that the more laid back, personal nature of these assignments were so easy for me, I could do them in my sleep. I still put everything I had into the assignments, carrying over all my essay-writing experience with it, including still following an MLA style, which pleasantly surprised many instructors.

After the program was done, it was time to choose where to do my practicum. The way UMPI’s program works was you did all the academic work first, then do the practicum. I chose to return to Fredericton, since ideally, I wanted to settle down there, if possible. The class that took me on was a combination Kindergarten/Grade 1 class in a small elementary school on the outskirt of Fredericton. My parents were wonderful enough to let me have their second car to travel 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 on me because I was felt constantly on edge, feeling like I was screwing up everything I did. The teacher I worked under would point out little things that I’d then constantly stress out over. Be more confident and energetic while teaching. 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 felt completely overwhelmed with the number of things I kept trying to remember, let alone trying to teach any kind of 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 underprepared and wrote terrible, rushed lesson plans.

Even after almost two months, I still hadn’t taken over the class as I should have. The most I was doing was the morning greeting (attendance, weather, national anthem, some introductory lessons in math and letters) and leading 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 in the class. 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 from that time. I loved reading stories to the class, which I definitely 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 in his jacket sleeves, pretending to be armless. I said to him, “Oh no! Let’s perform some surgery!” and pulled his hands out with a vocal “Pop! Pop!” Then a little girl, who had seen the whole incident, 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, when it came time for progress report meetings with the UMPI representative and my teacher, they ended with me in tears, usually having to leave early for the day. I was doing so many things wrong. They pointed out how I had little control of the classroom, like when during an indoor lunch period (because of the weather), two kids ran out of the classroom and I hadn’t seen it. They were fine and returned shortly after, but it was still something that hurt me greatly because I felt so irresponsible. How the hell could I be a teacher with all these problems? There was no way I’d succeed in this practicum if I couldn’t even confidentially take over the classroom. The supervising teacher even wrote, word-for-word, “I would not recommend Nick for a teaching position.” Looking back, 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 decided to drop out of the teaching program. They suggested I could 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 straight from high school and honestly still had that mentality. I, along with a few other fellow older students, felt like the only ones that actually wanted to be there, or at the very least, want to do the work. 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 going back 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 asked every other student if they’d done each chapter along the way or all at once, but he refused to answer that. I dropped out of the program the same day. Looking back, I find it hilariously ironic – and highly hypocritical – that the head instructor, who preached helping people with special needs, would so willingly turn his back on someone with special needs.

At that point, I struggled with small, 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’d been working towards being a teacher for years. I dreamed of it. It was the end goal to everything I’d wanted. And I failed. 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 during that time that it didn’t feel like an accomplishment at all. It was published through a small, print-on-demand publisher, so it was on Amazon, but I struggled to get it into any bookstores locally. 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 still 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 at the time. And I just…I don’t know what to do anymore. I feel broken. I feel like a failure. I feel like a loser. I feel like nothing can or will fix me. I don’t know what I want in life anymore and I don’t even know where to begin looking for it. I’m seeing a psychiatrist and I’ve also attended workshops at Teamworks, a local group that helps people with disabilities get into the workforce. But 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’ve wasted the last 20 years of my life and I don’t know what I’d talk about. What? My constant failures in life? My ongoing 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 or families or anything else would just further depress me.

I thought life would get better once I got my Bachelor’s Degree, but it only got worse. The place where I thought I’d finally belong turned out to be the worst place for me. I never felt more out of place in that elementary school than anywhere else. 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 at this wall and I’m smashed beyond repair.

About Nick C. Piers

Writer and creator of the Armadillo Mysteries, I've had a passion for the creative arts all his life. I'm an avid comic book fan, a DDP yoga practitioner , and urban cyclist.
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