“I was suicidally depressed. I wasn’t making any headway with my student…”

Posted by on June 12, 2018

Sarah Comerford’s story

I have a history of buyer’s remorse every time I start a new job, in part because I fail to manage my expectations, but also because some jobs turn out to be a terrible mistake. It’s gotten better! I’m self-employed now, thanks to be sacrifices I made when first joining the workforce, paying my dues, and finally kissing that shitty job good-bye. At the time, however, I felt completely stuck, abuses by my co-workers and the children we cared for, unable to avoid the crushing depression that was fueled by the misery I felt at work. Way back when, I went to college to become a professional interpreter. After graduation, though, I found myself unprepared to work in that capacity and I had to find other, tangentially related placements. I was a long-term sub assistant at an elementary school, then I landed a permanent position as an educational aide at a school for students with special needs. I was really excited; I really enjoy teaching, and I like kids. I was also very naive. When I arrive on my first day, I have no room assignment. You see, at this institution, each classroom has a teacher and an aide or two, depending on the students’ needs. No one knew where I was supposed to go, but since it was the first day back for staff after winter break, the kids were still at home. They opened the door to one of the rooms in the elementary wing. “The teacher for this room is taking a personal day, so why don’t you just tidy up in here before the students come back tomorrow.” Tidy up the classroom.

For eight hours. My stomach twisted. What was this job actually going to look like? Previously when I had worked for a school as a temp aide, I worked really closely with students, one-on-one or in small groups, to study concepts from their content classes so they could get up to par with their peers. I enjoyed that work, and I felt I was pretty good at it. Now I had a job as a permanent aide, and I was cleaning the classroom on my first day, no teacher with whom to plan or take direction, and no idea who my students were going to be. I found out soon enough, though. The class to which I was assigned was a mix of 4th and 5th graders. Six kids in all (this is a very small school). When I first met the classroom teacher the next day, she explained that my role in her classroom would be to manage one particular student who had some severe behavioral problems. Without having had any previous training, and without having been notified prior to accepting the position, I was reclassified as a rehabilitation behavioral tech, told to follow the student’s behavioral safety plan, and document the results. I was an aide in name only. For the rest of the year in that classroom, I would be solely responsible for keeping this kid in line and make sure that they learned something. I had a little support. The classroom teacher had been working with this same student for a full semester prior to my coming on board. There was one tiny problem, however: that teacher was an absolute, unrepentant bitch. When we first met, she told me how disappointed she was that the school had hired a new person (me) and didn’t offer the permanent position to the sub EA that had been working in her classroom the prior semester. (Parenthetically it should be noted that I also thought that was a dick move.)

In the weeks to come, our rapport would not improve. This woman appeared to me to be perpetually, grievously disappointed in everyone and everything around her. Certainly, nothing That I said or did seemed to meet her expectation. She would express disdain for my behavioral management of the student (when I had no training), my sign language skills (the primary language used by the students), and that bitch never once laughed at any of my jokes. She would just sit there, staring balefully at me with her watery blue eyes, judging me. I’ve had mental health issues since I was a kid, which got worse when my parents died in the late aughts. When I took the job at the school, I was excited that I would now have insurance, and I’d be able to start treatment and manage my grief. Little did I know at the time that my job wouldn’t only give me insurance, it would also give me all more reason to use that coverage. About two months into the job, I was suicidally depressed. I wasn’t making any headway with my student, and since I was the one-on-one, most of their outbursts were directed at me. I didn’t have the training to meet this student’s needs and keep both of us safe, and I had no support from the classroom teacher or the administration. The first time this kid punched me, I reported it to the administration and the student was suspended.

The second time, I was told it was my fault for mishandling the student’s behavior. I asked for more support and training in order to improve my work environment, but I was told there was nothing more they could do — the behavioral support plan was already in place and had been approved by the school psychologist. All I had to do was follow it, they said. I tried. I was trying every day to do my job the best I could, while Ms. Micromanage breathed down my back and whispered disparagingly, while this student continued to make me fear for my physical safety, and while I became acutely aware that I was becoming a greater threat to my own safety each day. And then that little bastard kicked me in the goddamn face. This is what happened: as usual, my student was getting up out of his seat during class time and roaming around the room. The support plan said that in that instance I would shadow the student, redirect them, and in a round-about way, get them back in their seat.

So I was standing beside the student while they were cross-legged on the floor, refusing to get up. I repeated the directions I had been directed to give: “It’s class time now. Please go sit down.” The student remained seated until, quite suddenly, they rose into a crouch beside me, before rolling into a handstand. As the student’s legs went up in the air, one of their shod feet hit me across the right side of my face, missing my eye but hitting me squarely in the jaw. I felt the bone go sideways. I heard something pop. And as taken by surprise as I was, and considering how strung up being in that classroom had made me, I did what came naturally: I screamed bloody murder and fled. In retrospect, I see how triggered I was. At that time, my doctor and I hadn’t quite put a finger on what was wrong with me, in a mental health sense.

Depression, certainly, but also mood swings, hypomania, anxiety, binging behavior. It would be a few years before the term “post-traumatic stress” would appear in my medical record. Now I can look back and say with certainty: that environment, with that student, under the gaze of that teacher, was a perfect storm, pushing me closer and closer to a nervous breakdown. That day, with my broken face in my hands, I was pretty sure I was going to die. Not that my injuries were that serious — I knew they weren’t — but in my fight-or-flight ravaged mind, I was in imminent danger, and this place that I truly loved (swear to god, I loved my students, even the one who hurt me) was no longer safe. After going to the hospital, getting x-rays, and having a consult with a maxillofacial specialist, I was informed that my injury was not serious. Nothing was broken, the bruises and the scrapes would heal, and my jaw would regain mobility.

I do, however, have a persistent click when I chew on the right side which is sometimes painful when I am noshing on something tough. I now have a permanent case of temporomandibular joint injury (also called TMJ), owing to the fact that my jaw is no longer perfectly seated in the joint on the right side. I told the school that if they didn’t move me to a new classroom or a new posting within the school, I was going to call my union and share with them what had happened to me while caring for a student with behavioral needs, without proper training. They reassigned me the next day. You can imagine how Ms. Snootysnout handled that news. “I have nothing good to say about that person!” she told the classroom teacher to whom I was reassigned.

She went on to impugn my work with her other students and my overall personality. As cold a fish as she had been all of the six months we worked together, I was a little surprised by her outburst, but not much. I returned to that school to work one more year, but I transferred out when I found a different job working for people with disabilities. My time there was invaluable for many reasons, and there are things I learned there that benefit me even today, not the least of which is perseverance. My time working for the school tested my limits, and pushed me to the brink in terms of my mental health. I could afford to not work, though, so I stuck it out — I was literally depressed for a living! It’s empowering to know that I withstood the misery and came out (mostly) unscathed on the other side. (My jaw still bloody clicks, though, goddammit.)

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