When I wake up, my arms are wound around me — tight— protecting me from something I can’t name. My heart is racing, and I slowly take deep breaths to try and calm myself.
I never know how a morning is going to hit. Most days, I awake feeling excited and eager to hop on my bike for the five minute commute to the beautiful school in Honolulu, Hawaii where I teach middle school English. I am very, very lucky.
Some mornings, though, I am fighting my way out of a deep, dark hole.
I’ve been managing anxiety (and, at times, its cousin, depression) since I was a kid. Like others, I’ve been down as many roads as you can think of trying to “defeat” panic attacks. Some have been less than effective (cutting out gluten and caffeine just made me cranky), and others — therapy, running, prayer — continue to help me get out of bed every day.
Yet, to my surprise, I’ve found one of the most effective remedies in the very place the darkness tries to coax me away from some mornings: at school, with the 96 kids I see at work each day.
Every part of me hurts.
I am trapped right where I am. The darkness of my anxiety grabs onto me and whispers in my ear, “Just where do you think you’re going? You’re an idiot if you think you can do anything today.”
The first step is getting out of bed. I place my hands on the mattress to push up and —
“Why bother? You can’t do this. You’re not going to be able to handle what’s out there.” The “what” is never clear — it’s everything. It’s light and sound; other people and life itself.
“Besides, no one’s gonna put up with you like this anyway.”
Normally, the traits you associate with “introvert” and “anxiety” don’t overlap with “middle school English teacher.” Still, for most of my adult life, that’s the paradox I live. Every day, I see anywhere from 48 to 96 eighth graders, inviting them to write, read, think, and laugh with me. My work allows me to question, engage, and love small humans. They fill me with amusement, encouragement, and awe.
It’s incredibly rewarding, but immensely tiring. The double-edged sword of teaching is the continued (and, often, draining) presence of people throughout your workday. Some of us aptly describe it as having to be “on” — teaching requires a tremendous sense of presence, all while knowing each interaction with a kid can change the culture of your classroom for a day — or more. The stakes are high.
When I first started teaching, the pressure of being “on,” of having to “perform” was tiring. I would end each day emotionally exhausted, barely able to comprehend doing this for the rest of the week, much less year.
After a few years, though, I realized teaching isn’t a performance at all — it’s a relationship. My kids didn’t need me to entertain them. They needed me to enter into kinship with them, to care about them and, at the same time, allow them to care about me.
And in this way, teaching saves my life every single day.
I walk to my front door and place my hand on the handle. The idea of leaving my apartment and seeing actual people feels overwhelming. “You’re just going to screw it all up as soon as you walk out the door.”
Yes, it is tempting to stay. I could lie in bed, wrap myself in a blanket and let myself sink into the darkness. Even after years of trying to manage my anxiety, those days still happen. My body will curl tightly into the fetal position like a rolled up flag trying to survive the storm, and all I can do is cry and cry and cry as I try to claw my way out of the darkness. A death knell, the wail of my voice will try to call me back home to my body.
When I feel anxious or depressed, it’s hard to be around anyone. The darkness whispers that it will be exhausting, that I should just give up and spare everyone around me from my unlovable self.
This is the darkness my students are able to fight with their existence alone. Most kids just want to be loved and love in return. I have yet to find a group of kids who didn’t want to, in some way, have a good time, care about, and enjoy the company of their teachers and peers. Even when, for whatever reason, it is hard for them to trust and express that, showing a student that I care about them has always gained the care and companionship of that kid.
In this way, my students remind me that the voice that says I am unworthy of love or that life is not worthwhile is lying.
Teaching is not for everyone, but seeking love and joy is. If giving love is seeing and seeking the best in someone, being loved is allowing those things to happen for ourselves. In entering into kinship with my students, I don’t just see the best and seek the best for them; I let them show me the best of myself too.
The more I teach, the more I realize it’s one of the best expressions of love I could ask for — the hope, joy, and magic of kids calls me back from the darkness. My students approach life with a zeal and delight that never fails to spark those things inside me too. Whether it’s a joyful bombardment of gecko-based questions or gardenias from a student’s garden “just because,” I am gifted their sense of wonder every day.
Even when life feels hopeless, there is so much unfailing light in the world — especially in children.
And that light is often at the end of the dark tunnel of my own mind, guiding me back home to myself.
I quietly slink into my classroom and have a seat at my desk. How am I going to teach today? “There’s no way I can do this.”
The door opens. I can’t see my student over the chairs stacked on tables, but I see her small footsteps as they dance through the room.
“Hi, Ms. Torres!” she shouts, smiling as she tosses her bag onto the table.
“Hi honey,” I say, as I take a breath to stable myself. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” she calls over to me as she takes a chair down. “I got a new book last night. You wanna see?” She looks up — no expectations, simply wanting to share something nice with me.
Her joy is contagious, and even when I think it’s impossible, I feel a small crack in the dark cast over my heart. I resettle into my desk, pat the table in front of me. “Of course. Tell me all about it.”
She smiles at me, and I can’t help but smile back — I can see the light guiding me back home.