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  • Writer's pictureNajah Amatullah

Lessons During Teacher Appreciation Week

It’s teacher appreciation week.

What made you move to Guatemala?

If any of you ever met my grandpa, he was the definition of discipline and pay off. He was born in 1931 in Navasota, TX. He served 20 years (ish) in the US Air Force before using his GI Bill to finish his undergrad and get a master’s to become a physician’s assistant. Until he fell sick, he went to the gym everyday, went to work 3 times a week (post retirement, until about age 77), went to church every Sunday and donated his money. He also came to my jazz concerts and my linguistics conference to listen to me discuss symbolic meaning for an hour. My grandma is still well taken care of. My generation has an inheritance.

Discipline and pay off.

If anyone has ever met me, I am very strong willed. I don’t like to take no for an answer and I can argue any side of an argument. My mama wasn’t this way; so I must have gotten it from my father. When I was a senior in high school, I was offered a full ride to OU. But my friends had all applied for and received full ride scholarships to OCU. I applied and didn’t receive. This was one of the first big no’s of my life and I reacted to it stubbornly, as a 17-year-old does. I told my mom and grandparents that I was going to OCU or nowhere.

In my defense, I was talked down to OCU from Anywhere, New York. My 16-year-old self allowed “out of state fees” to tell me I would stay in Oklahoma. I could not do anymore compromising.

What many of us parents know is that there comes a moment where we have to do the reality check. And it hurts the kids’ feelings, but we can support them emotionally through that. They have to learn.

In my version of revisionist history, the adults allow me to throw a tantrum saying “I won’t go” for a few months, before I realize in July that OU is better than nothing. And then I realize over time that it’s actually a really good experience.

In real history, somehow the adults take my tantrum seriously (I am persuasive), and I go to OCU and I take out PRIVATE student loans to do it.

They have to learn.

My sophomore year of college, I was excelling as a journalism major. I was on the paper’s editorial staff and I was socializing and becoming a rising student leader. In my arts and human values class, I did a project on arts education. The professor pointed out to me the injustice of few Black teachers in the classroom. She reminded me that I have the personality for it. I knew she was right because people have told me that my whole life. I went to talk to my family about it, and my sweet grandpa said “it’s better than journalism, because you’ll always have a job.” The fear of the hiring process in media had been discussed everywhere around me ad nauseum. So over the course of the next year, I changed my major and transferred schools.

It’s teacher appreciation week.

I bet none of us teachers under 35-40 knew how quickly “you’ll always have a job” would turn into “you can’t afford a house, you’re always sick, and your mental health is shot.” I worked several extra jobs while teaching. I practiced the art of spoken word. I published 2 books. I made so many connections.

Discipline pays off…

…unless you’re salary capped by the state and the union.

They have to learn…

…but I hope the lesson is that discipline pays off, not that education is a dying field.

It’s teacher appreciation week.

If we are narrowing down the reasons I moved to Guatemala, despite wanting to return to teaching at my favorite past Oklahoma school, there are only three:

  1. My daughter and I get to become fluent in Spanish.

  2. I get to live near my best friend after years apart.

  3. I got a “raise.”

Without the raise, I wouldn’t have come. But the raise is not in dollars. It’s in housing and insurance and taxes. It’s in selling my car in the states and not needing car insurance.

In December, my hard work made my brain bigger. I “graduated“ with my master’s degree in literature (they mailed the diploma to my cousin). Starting in August, I will receive my extra stipend from school. Here, it’s nearly 3 times what it would have been if I stayed in Oklahoma. My discipline in attending class, reading, writing and editing hasn’t paid off yet. My advisor and I have discussed whether entering the realm of higher education will benefit me, or if it will feel like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. I applied for a non-profit sector part-time job. They turned me for the equivalent of "you're overqualified."

I’ve had a mildly upsetting realization over the course of the school year. I would enjoy remaining at the secondary level for another several years if I were in a community that believed in the importance of school, where my daughter had mirrors and not just windows. Had I stayed, I would have immediately pursued jobs adjunct teaching at junior colleges. I haven’t felt confident about the market for doing that online from here.

I also miss the stage. I could press pause easily while I was in school, but now the stages aren’t anywhere near me. I've read several on TikTok, but my viewership is low. (The image is one of my more recent performances, 2021, ironically at OU.) I want people to remember that I’m both a teacher and a poet. In fact I was a poet first. I, as a poet who teaches the core curriculum, would feel appreciated with book sales and speaking engagements. I would feel appreciated if I could make y’all original poem art for your home offices and cubicles.

“Are you saying you regret moving to Guatemala?”

I do not. Regret isn’t something I connect to very much. I regret demanding OCU and I regret private loans. But moving to Guatemala brought us from “we might not make it” to “critical but stable” condition. And we ARE learning Spanish. And I do really like my best friend. I just still need help figuring out what to do from here.

I’m thankful for being a writer.

Will I get a new publishing deal? Will I sell anymore of the books I’ve already written? Will I ever feel stable enough to sit still long enough to write new books?

I’m thankful I was connected to this job.

Will I get any more chances to teach secondary in the states? Will I ever see the Caribbean coast of Guatemala? Belize? Will it take longer than the length of our contract to be able to visit my family in Panama?

I’m thankful for being an artist.

Will I be able to prep art pieces 3 months in advance and sell them when I come back to the states? Will I be able to go to open mic at Ice or Red Dirt when I arrive in the city in June?

Here's hoping.

Here's asking.

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