This June, when I retired from teaching, I also retired “Ms. Schmitt,” and for that, I grieve. The place where I worked, Freeport High School, allowed me to remain “Ms. Schmitt” even after I legally changed my name when I married in 1994. For that I always will be grateful.
Although “Ms. Schmitt” is mine, she also belongs to my dad and my nana. While in the process of dying from heart failure, my nana pulled aside a doctor, pointed to me and told him I was a teacher. I was younger then, only a few years into this career, and questioning whether it were worth it, when I witnessed firsthand how much she valued what I did.
My father had felt that teaching would be a good career choice for me since it would give me the same vacations as my future children — and summers off. When I informed him that I could not study education in college because I did not have a car to student teach, he offered to lend me his car from Monday to Friday as long as I came home on weekends so he could use the it to go to the Laundromat, church and the grocery store. I wanted a car, so I accepted his offer.
“Ms. Schmitt” is the product of much mentoring. My first job was at a Catholic school in New York City where the nuns and laypeople nurtured me and forgave me when I moved on to a different, private school with smaller classes and a more progressive philosophy. My dad, always the pragmatist, urged me to find a public-school job so I would have a pension.
I was “excessed” from my first public-school job, leading me to doubt my profession. Was teaching the best use of my resources? Instead of helping others learn to use their voices as an English teacher, maybe I should be the voice.
That year, one of my 10th graders said that I reminded him of Velma in “Scooby Doo.” Was committing myself to teaching going to turn me into a cartoon character? During that time, schools were also basking in the social and financial support spawned by “A Nation at Risk” (a 1983 report by the U.S. Department of Education that aimed to improve schools), which offered me hope — so I applied for more teaching jobs.
Four years after joining the faculty of Freeport High School, I met my future husband. Like one of my sisters-in-law and many friends, I floated the idea of keeping my maiden name after we married. After he let me know how much my taking his name would mean to him and his parents, I sought a compromise. I asked my school for permission to go by “Ms. Schmitt” with my students while changing my name on everything else.
In 2002, when the No Child Left Behind law, which held schools accountable for students’ progress, began to suck the oxygen out of teacher-led reform and I began to feel voiceless, I started to lean heavily on “Ms. Schmitt.” I tried my best to tap into her idealistic belief in individual students, not schoolwide test scores.
I remembered how the proud father of “Ms. Schmitt” would tell strangers on lines at the bank that his daughter was a teacher. I thought of the past mentors and students that made this suddenly thankless job worth salvaging.
“Ms. Schmitt” had not followed the rules when they got in the way of connecting with students, parents and herself. I have worked hard to stay “Ms. Schmitt” despite the current more top-down management style in education. I am proud of her. This is why it is so hard to let her go.
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