My chest started to get tight. It was an earwig I constantly tried to shoo out of my mind: I need to get my oil changed. It wasn’t urgent; my 2001 Volvo still ran, but my step-dad’s disapproving frown weighed heavily on my brain at times. It takes 20 minutes and if you don’t, you’ll kill your car. He’d give me $20 to go do it. Yes! (I’d agree with my internal monologue), I promise to do it that week.
I’d routinely get so serious about buckling down to do it that I’d collect oil change coupons from the value-pak junk mailers and magnetize them to my fridge until months after their expiration dates when I’d trash them and refresh with new ones.
I’d carefully plan each upcoming Saturday fully intending to do it, but for months and months it never happened.
I’m honestly not even sure I ever actually did it. What the hell was wrong with me?
One spring afternoon I was teaching high school standing in front of my class of senior English students. I was trying to singlehandedly catapult 30 tons of senioritis-ridden, intellectual deadweight over the Great Wall of Canonical Literature. We were “reading” (correction, I alone was reading) a mandatory novel that could double as a child’s booster seat, when this “change your oil” shame slithered its way back into my consciousness.
My seniors had been especially challenging that year. How could I support them if I couldn’t even get my car’s oil changed like a normal adult?
I’d half-heartedly rationalize that I was pouring myself into caring for them in lieu of taking care of basics in my own life. Most people are in a cubicle all day pushing paper and I was out saving these kids and maybe even molding their futures! I didn’t have time for stupid non-heroic shit like car maintenance. I was probably even more of an evolved adult than your ordinary oil changing adult. I was sacrificing my cute blue Volvo for the children. I was doing something with meaning and purpose and putting myself second. I was ... Gahhh, I couldn’t even fool myself for a second with this narrative.
Minutes before the final bell, I jumped into my normal end-of-class manic teacher mode: mosquito nag + inspirational visionary and life coach + homework bookkeeper smashing grades into decades-outdated grading software. Final order of business was to collect signed grade average printouts from 4–5 stragglers who hadn’t yet had their parents look and sign acknowledgement of their child’s current grade.
In a community where dropping out of high school was a well-trodden path, I really wanted every single one of my seniors to graduate.
They were all so close. I had well-planned strategic offense and defense tactics to get them ALL to the graduation finish line come hell or high water.
A diminutive girl with a front row seat and a borderline failing grade average told me that, yet again, she didn’t have the paper signed. She was typically fairly responsible; however, each day she kept showing me the paper (oh good you didn’t lose it!) and that it was unsigned. (Huh? Unsigned still? Just fake the signature like everyone else, I’ll never know! Why is this so hard?!) I knew too well that I needed to nip this procrastination in the bud.
I knelt down to her desk and activated a more serious tone of tough love. I told her about how important it was to me that she graduate and emphasized that I was certain her parents wanted to support her in getting across the finish line. “Just have them look and sign it tonight.”
“But…umm…I don’t live with my parents.” She looked at me with her eyebrows bunched together like a sad cartoon cat as she explained why she was stuck. Ah, poor girl. I finally understood and felt like an insensitive idiot.
“Oh I’m so sorry. I just meant your parents or guardians — either is fine. Whoever you live with. I want you to get their support.”
She looked around again pausing, still confused.
“Guardian? Like my husband? Should he sign it? That’s who I live with.”
My tiny brain somersaulted for a minute trying to wrap itself around that. I momentarily thought of my Volvo that was out in the school parking lot, probably gasping for some oil. Maybe it would break down driving home.
“Oh uh haha errr yeah good question! I hadn’t thought of that. Let’s um just skip it then if you promise you’ll graduate.”
“Yeah Ms. C — I already wanna graduate.” She stated this as an indisputable fact. “I’m gonna do my homework and pass so I can graduate.”
And she did, all on her own.