Letter to the Principal

Dear Principal

Last Thursday at the parent teacher conference you mentioned trying to look at the bullying situation through a parent’s lens. From everything you said to me, I’m certain you weren’t quite able to do that. Let me help you see:

Cyrus was born at 25 weeks and 3 days. He was a half-baked fetus who weighed as much as a bottle of ketchup. When he was born, he had no nipples or lips, and his ears were just little flaps of skin easily rolled up if his head was positioned the wrong way. His eyes were closed, like a newborn puppy. It was seven hours after he was born that we, his parents, were finally allowed to see him and touch him. His hand was barely large enough to grip the tip of my pinky. His skin was red and shiny, all the pieces of skull visible through his scalp.

He died several times in the first weeks of his life and had seizures which made his right arm move like he was pumping his fist at a concert. It was then that I started calling him a rock star. He lived in a plastic cube attached to a thousand multicolored cables. He looked something like a motherboard, or like a fuse box, or a large sweet potato decorated with silly string.

His stay in the hospital was 134 days. Over that time, his eyes opened, his lips and ears filled out, he started smiling, but he never learned to eat. After two surgeries: one to reattach his retinas and one to insert a feeding tube and close off his esophagus so he can’t vomit or get heartburn, he came home. And home is where he stayed for a full year, hooked to a feeding pump every three hours for 45 minutes. Home is where the therapists came three times a week, and sometimes the nurses, and sometimes a social worker smelling of stale perfume.

His doctors said he’d never walk and would probably never talk. He had appointments with cardiologists, pediatricians, gastroenterologists, speech language pathologists, ophthalmologists, neurologisists. He wore a helmet for more than six months. He wore braces on his legs for three years.

He learned to walk when he was two and a half, though he never rolled over or crawled. He talked before that, a lot before that.

That pretty much brings us up to the present. Feeding tubes, appointments, seizures,  discussion of milestones, the word delay, the use of the word miracle.  

As you might be able to imagine, this was and can still sometimes be pretty traumatic. There is constant worry of what happens next. There comes a feeling of calm, that things might finally be okay, then something awful happens: a seizure, a black bean stuck in his esophagus, a broken arm which requires surgery. A broken arm. A broken arm which requires surgery. A broken arm which requires surgery now and a year from now.

Now that I’ve adjusted the prescription, let me say some more.

I admit that I’m very protective of my child. I admit that sometimes I let him get away with things because I’m so thankful he’s alive or walking or talking or able to button his pajamas. I admit that I still cry tears of joy when he picks up a pencil and writes a letter. Any letter at all. I am still in awe that he’s able to attend a regular public school at all.However, this does not cloud my judgment or opinion of what is right and wrong in a public school environment.

During the conference you made it a point to tell the story of the pencil, that Cyrus accidentally stabbed someone while they were playing. You then said if someone would’ve done it to him, I would’ve thought it was bullying. You made it clear, once again, that bullying requires an imbalance of power, and that one must feel afraid, that it must be repeated. That is the legal definition of bullying, you said on the phone not too long ago.

I am clever enough to understand the implication of the pencil incident, and it’s offensive. You seem to think I’m incapable of grasping the difference between bullying and accidents that happen during play. I understand you don’t believe anyone is doing anything bad to him because you don’t see it, that he still hangs out with them, that he might be making it up, that I’m over reacting. I understand you don’t know that decisions I make are based on logical, rational thinking, not emotion, as you have implied while trying to see through my parent lens.

I find your tone to be condescending and dismissive.

Here is what I know: Cyrus comes home daily to say he’s being bullied. He has said this since the beginning of the school year. Like you, I wasn’t sure if it was true, and he was unable to communicate the details, so I said nothing to the school or teachers because it wasn’t clear to me what was happening, and I am not one to start drama. Then he broke his arm again, for the third time, at school. It was conveyed to me that adults reported how it happened, that he was chasing a ball and fell. When I asked for more information, to see the accident report, everyone became silent. No one knew the protocol. As you know, it took 9 days to get a copy of the accident report which does not list a witness, as it is required to do. When I asked for a meeting and spoke with everyone, I was told, in fact, no adult saw it happen and that the report was based on what the kids playing said they saw. The group he was playing with includes two of the kid he calls his bullies. It’s interesting that the one day the para (yes, who isn’t his) wasn’t there, this happened. I find this suspect, and I hope you would, too, were you in my situation. I am not upset that an adult wasn’t there, I am upset that the information was hazy. If someone would’ve said, “no adult saw it,” I would’ve have understood. But what ensued was a battle for me to find out the truth.

That alone was upsetting and led me to wonder about what’s happening at school. When he breaks his arm, people are quick to ask what’s wrong with him, what’s wrong with his bones. Poor, fragile, premature Cyrus. Poor Cyrus with the feeding tube. And there are people around him who feed on this energy and attention; It’s not me. The orthopaedic surgeons have said repeatedly that his bones are normal. Yes, he is a little clumsy because he is delayed. He has poor motor skills, as most premature kids do. He has a thick set of glasses. A bully would know that and could easily take advantage.    

Beside the broken arm, there is more and it is most disturbing. Cyrus has said that his bullies have told him to suck his nuts. To be honest, I don’t care that a kid told him to suck his nuts. As I write it, it’s humorous (though I wonder about the environment a kid who would say this comes from). And, if this were the only thing that was said to him, whatever. I heard so much worse when I was his age. What is distressing is someone telling him to kill himself and to break his arm again. The “suck my nuts” I used as an example to prove a specific situation occurred; this is not something Cyrus would say and heard it from someone else. I filled out the bullying report based on this. The school did the investigation and found nothing, of course, so it didn’t happen, though I’m told with what feels like little sincerity that if he perceives someone as bullying, then it’s true.

A seven year old told my seven year old to kill himself.  


What is important for you to know is this: I’ve been lied to. I’ve been talked down to. There is a real or perceived imbalance of power. It has been repeated or has the potential to repeat.




End of (School) Days

There is something beautiful about being in an empty classroom; on the first day of school it’s the symbol of all the possibilities. It’s the beginning of new discoveries for both a teacher and her students. It’s the anticipation of what characters and ideas will be shared in the weeks to come.

I became a teacher accidentally. When I applied to graduate school, I learned that teaching is what grad students typically do. Of course, for students of creative writing, it’s very rare that we’re afforded the opportunity to teach what we’re interested in. Usually, we, like any other grad student of English, teach composition. If you don’t know, composition is what most people would consider the opposite of creative writing: there is specific structure, grading rubrics, assignments which ask students to illustrate, research, and persuade an audience (not that this doesn’t and can’t happen in creative writing). It is not poetry. It is prose which can sometimes take the shape of narrative, but generally requires students to learn about reputable sources, ways of researching, proper formatting of essays, and incorporating others’ ideas into their own writing. It’s not naturally fun. It’s a required course. It’s a classroom of 18 year olds learning how to college correctly. For the student, it feels like busy work and too much writing. For the teacher, it feels like being suffocated under a stack of papers while trying to explain that there are rules for comma usage and no, you can’t just write it the night before it’s due.

A lot of times, it feels like parenting.

Somehow the academy thinks it’s my job to teach them life and college skills. Professors in other departments think it’s my job to teach them how to be amazing writers in just one semester. In fact, we are blamed by universities if the students don’t write well when they get out of our courses.

Here’s what I teach:

1. Don’t email your professor and say, “Hey…”

2. Things have to be turned in on time

3. It’s rude to come to class late

4. Yes, it has to be turned in on time

5. Put the phone away.

6. Classical argument structure

7. MLA formatting (which they can google, but still fail to do correctly)

8. Close reading of texts

9. How to play rugby

10. How to have a meaningful discussion about literature

11. Where the library is

12. How to use a library

13. Yes, you have to go to the library and touch and read an actual book

And though you’ve probably heard me complain before about the awful papers, the hilarious sentences, begging for grades, the way they try to email things to me days after they’re due–I do love teaching. I love meeting new people. I love helping students understand new concepts. I’m touched when I see an evaluation that says, “I always hated English until I took this class.”  Or “Christina really cared if I was learning.” That’s what it’s all about.

I love teaching. But teaching hasn’t loved me, exactly.

As a full time professor, there is more to teaching than just teaching. There is committee work, advising, curriculum redesign, hiring committees, class planning, GRADING, and, for some, their own research and grant writing. The teaching part of teaching is about 5% of how professors spend their time. Maybe less. I have been in that position. I taught as a real, full time professor for three years. Quickly, I realized the school didn’t quite care as much about the students as I thought. It was more about the numbers and money. I no longer wanted to be a part of that culture. So I left.

I’ve been teaching as an adjunct since then (and have held 8 other jobs in those two years). There is a lot less commitment to the university and more to the students. But there is still the planning and grading. When someone adjuncts in this part of the country, the pay is about 9 dollars an hour.

Yes. Some adjuncts earn less than minimum wage.

There are a lot of stories like mine. I have worked my ass off teaching for 9 years here in mid-Missouri. And somehow, I ended up where I started.

I tell you all of this because I think it’s important you are aware of what happens to most teachers you know. We burn out quickly and brightly.

Besides being a symbol of new possibility, an empty classroom can also mean relief. Finally, a break from grading, from poorly written emails, from excuses about late work.

Today was my last class for the semester.


Today was my last class.

Due to budget cuts and low enrollment, I don’t have a job at Mizzou after this semester. I was offered a job to teach two classes at William Woods (8$ an hour to what is basically 20 hours a week). Starting again in August. I don’t think it takes a degree in math to understand why that simply cannot happen.

I didn’t quite realize today was my last day until right before I walked into the classroom. I’ve been so busy with applying to jobs and trying to catch up on grading and laundry that I hadn’t taken the time to think. I brought my students candy and we talked about their final projects and due dates. I’d told them all my struggles of job searching and job finding. I’m open with my students. I show them that teachers are humans, too. One student realized what today was and said, “This is your last day teaching…forever.”

I’ve been teaching now for 11 years. If I’ve done the math correctly, I’ve had 900 students in my classroom. Which means I’ve read 4,500 essays. Which means I’ve commented on 13,500 pages.


I start my new job as a Research Specialist on May 9th. My new job has nothing to do with creative writing, teaching, or English. It does have everything to do with anthropology, skeletons, data, relearning what I once knew, and having two bosses to monitor my work. It is only 40 hours a week. With vacation, sick time, a salary, and insurance. It does not require that I grade papers while I’m waiting at Jiffy Lube, while I’m eating breakfast, while Cyrus is occupied with his Bat Cave, while I’m visiting my parents, while I’m on vacation, or when I’m in the bathroom. I am looking forward to coming home and not having a stack of work with me.

Today was my last class, though there is still a lot of grading to be done.

After the last student left, I paused and looked out into rows of empty chairs still warm from bodies. For four months, they sat there while I talked. They sat in my class for 11 years. Where I was in charge and finally knew what I was doing. Where I could make my own rules. 

Today the empty chairs did not feel like relief; they did not feel like a fresh start.

When I walked out today, I turned one last time to look at those chairs, my classroom. It did not just feel empty, but completely abandoned.


last day mu