Safia Jama taught high school English in New York City for 10 years. She will pursue a master's degree in poetry at Rutgers University-Newark this fall while also teaching an undergraduate writing class.
The Heart of the Matter: Why I Left the High School Classroom
Monday, July 08, 2013 - 03:36 PM
Somewhere on my bookshelf lined with books about writing is Mary Oliver’s Poetry Handbook, in which she mentions her early decision not to teach for fear that she would find the work “too interesting,” to the detriment of her work as a poet. Consider also that when Robert Frost was 38 years old, he sold the farm, quit his job teaching high school English and moved his wife and four kids to England in a courageous literary career move.
I too have reached the point in my life when two roads diverge in a wood.
I recently finished my last day at Townsend Harris High School, a thriving New York City public school where I taught for the past six years. As soon as I arrived at the school, I felt a sense of comfort about being there. It felt right. It felt good.
Townsend Harris emphasizes the humanities. It’s a rigorous curriculum and the students expect mountains of homework. I did my best to keep up, reading many classic texts that were new to me, thanks to the school’s Great Books curriculum. I cracked open Ovid’s Metamorphoses and read about the man-eating Minotaur in the labyrinth. Studying Hawthorne’s breakout novel with my juniors, I read about Hester Prynne in another labyrinth, one that existed in her mind after she followed her heart and fell for the handsome minister. In many ways I identified with Hester, and also with Pearl, her illegitimate “elf child,” running wild and shunned by her society and her own father. I am the daughter of a white mother and black father who broke the rules when they fell in love in 1966.
Once I got a handle on the workload of a New York City public school teacher, which took a full-year of adjustment after teaching less than half the number of students at a private school in Brooklyn, I took a deep breath. I looked around the apartment, stuffed with books by writers who had taken a chance. When the threat of school budget cuts rolled around each May, along with the forsythia, I secretly hoped I would be cast out of the village and made to live on the edge of the woods with Hester Prynne and Pearl.
After one too many mornings of crying into my 6 a.m. cup of coffee, my husband gestured at the stack of books on our coffee table and said: “Stop reading about other people’s writing and write!”
That was some tough love. Yet his frustration helped me to take action. I began writing poetry.
That June, my principal let me attend the Cave Canem writing retreat for black poets during Regents week. The Townsend Harris Alumni Association supported me with a grant, and I felt glad to be in a place where I was encouraged to grow. Yet when I mentioned there would be two more retreats in the next five years, the principal frowned and said, “I can’t promise I can say yes to those.”
Going to Cave Canem was big, both for my confidence and my sense of identity. I spent seven days working with some of the most inspiring poets I have ever met, including our nation’s current poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey. By writing poetry, I could at least name my fears, and feel both joy and woe while doing so.
I believe that if we take our dreams seriously—and we are patient—a door appears out of nowhere. This spring I got a phone call offering me a fellowship to study and write poetry full-time for the next two years.
I applied for an unpaid leave of absence, so that I would have the chance to return to teach at Townsend Harris after two years, but secretly I hoped that other opportunities would materialize. When the Department of Education swiftly rejected my leave application, I was nonplussed. To accept the fellowship, I would have to resign from my teaching job. So be it.
Although my path has taken me out of the high school classroom it doesn't come easily. I felt the need to explain my departure to my students. I showed them a short clip of an interview with Joseph Campbell in which he distills a lifetime of studying mythology into one piece of advice: “Follow your bliss!”
“I won’t be here next year,” I began. As I told them the news, my own tears surprised me. It was as if a lifetime of longing bubbled up from the deep. “Follow your bliss,” I said, reaching for the box of tissues I kept in the drawer. There was an uncomfortable silence. Then one by one, my students lined up to hug me, smiles on their faces.