It didn't take long for me to get picked up for a long-term, semi-permanent position after LAUSD hired me in the fall of 2014.
I had been subbing with ABC for a little over a year and abruptly decided one day that I wanted to make more money. It might have been because of what my Tia Jenny told me one day. "Mija, get yourself ONE good-paying job with benefits so you don't have to work so hard and you have more time for your baby and your music." So it was at her daughter Aisha's gorgeous one-bedroom apartment that she'd just leased where I logged into her laptop and completed my application to sub in LA. We had been roommates at the time of my brother's murder in our apartment a year prior and parted ways afterwards to rebuild ourselves and our income back to stability, AND she had achieved her goal of getting her own place marginally faster than me...I was inspired to action.
At lightning speed, the Universe moved for me and I was able to move up to the next level in my subbing career, which included higher pay at the cost of more challenging classrooms.
Honestly, if it weren't for that long-term position, I would have never been able to get my own place for the first time in almost two years. I bit the bullet and made moves.
Before I started with LAUSD I was living at my now-deceased aunt's house in Downey, in a gated community. I had been through so much trauma which included a breakup, my brother's murder, my subsequent homelessness, a car accident which left me carless for 9 months, a bicycle accident resulting with a broken nose, maxilla and three cracked teeth and finally identity theft perpetrated by my former roommates that it was time for me to be in an ultra-safe space where I could truly grow, recover and rebuild myself.
In Downey at my aunt's house, I was able to save money, develop a routine that worked for both Cammie and me, buy a laptop so I could work on my singing career from home which included higher quality singing videos and more social media marketing, and more importantly, where I could slowly but surely organize myself to pay off all my debts in order to stack enough money for my own place.
I had to teach myself how to manage my money, time and energy better, transitioning from a survival mindset to a mentality of abundance. No one had taught me this before: I was a sheltered child who knew nothing about how to effectively save and spend since my mother was a stay-at-home mom for so long who simply consumed my dad's income at her whim. My dad was too busy making money to teach me how to be smart about it. When I finally got a job, I didn't save. I spent it, like any unwise teenager would. I knew nothing about investments, either. And when I was accepted to UCLA, all of the money that I wasn't able to procure through my job, work-study and grants was furnished through my oh-so-easy-just-sign-here student loans. When I got pregnant, my mom instructed me to take my ass to the welfare office and apply for everything under the sun that they could give me with my new status as a pregnant teen. And for many years I was humbly, shamefully making ends meet with an EBT card, Medi-Cal, Cash Aid and a part-time job.
The shit hit the fan when I broke up with my high school sweetheart, moved out of his racist parents' house and no longer had anyone to rescue me from the cold, real world. I got jobs that I hated and got fired or quit because I couldn't fake the funk about hating them. I made music and performed at pay-to-play shows and made zero money from both. I drove recklessly and stacked up traffic tickets that I couldn't pay, kept driving and would end up at Collections. GC Services, this middle finger is for you. I got that fancy, expensive Bachelor's Degree from UCLA but nothing could save me from the cold, hard fact that I was NOT street smart, had minimal life skills and had NO CLUE what the fuck I was doing with my life, and to add to it, I now had another life that I was reponsible for, and it wasn't just about breastfeeding, changing diapers and taking pictures for Facebook to gawk at anymore. I was a single mom, I was poor, I was lost, and I was addicted to men who couldn't do anything to help me because they were even worse off than I was. I was being motivated by my emotions half of the time, and the other half I was being motivated by fear.
Rebuilding myself took me many, many nosedives into the concrete. And one of them was a literal one.
It takes courage to face yourself when you're fucking up, you know. I can look back at the old me with love and be thankful that I didn't end up drug-addicted, hooking or dead.
So, it was a time of supreme celebration when I landed that full-time job at Wilmington Middle School teaching sixth graders. Never mind that one of my friends, a DJ that I had met at Zanzibar in Santa Monica, advised me to "stay away from the middle schools."
They were sixth graders. I remembered who I was as a sixth grader and what my class was like fondly, and I agreed without much contemplation.
Sweet Jesus, they ran me through the coals and back.
The class from hell took me back to my own trauma as a middle schooler, to put it lightly and sweetly. And, like a masochist, I kept coming back, firstly because I wanted to show myself that I could persevere, and secondly because I really, really needed the money. In the end, they thanked me for never giving up on them.
Once the teacher I was subbing for ended her maternity leave, I was placed in an unfilled classroom, aka a classroom that never had a teacher to begin with. This one was far, far more than I had bargained for, and I still blush thinking of all the horrific, embarrassing, traumatic experiences I endured in that space. I shudder just remembering some of the kids the teachers, and my shortcomings, and feel an even deeper well of gratitude, knowing that I simply HAD to learn the hard way in order for me to be where I am now.
I was set up for failure but it doesn't mean that I was a failure. I just had no idea what I had signed up for, and because I had such a pleasant demeanor and stellar academic intelligence along with excellent classroom management skills, and most importantly because I was naive, I was thrown in with the sharks, and somehow managed to survive. But before I begin with the details: the reward was that for my months upon months of commitment, I was approved to lease my own apartment in San Pedro for a year...and somehow, that made it ALL worth it.
Essentially, I put myself through hell.
Firstly, I was judged daily. By both my students and my co-workers. It truly was a hostile working environment which forced me to isolate myself instead of attempting to relate to others. After all, I was the youngest teacher in the school. This is where I learned that I couldn’t just wear what I wanted anymore without being crucified for it. If I dressed up, I was slutty. If I dressed down, I was frumpy. My kids had no filter and commented on everything from my hair to my makeup to my shoes.
The joy I had for singing dissipated in this space because firstly, if I sang to my kids some would listen and the rest would laugh. I didn’t have my gimmick anymore of singing to my kids as an incentive to get them to work, because they simply didn’t care. I was just a teacher to them. They didn’t appreciate my voice at all.
I was judged for how I portrayed myself on social media. I couldn’t post anything above rated G for fear of my students finding it and having fuel for gossip later. I was even invited to the assistant principal’s office one afternoon following a series of complaints with regards to my appearance on the Internet. She demanded that I set all of my social media profiles to private in order to maintain my professionalism as an educator in the school.
This was the first and only time my students have ever made me cry. I was given sets of squirrely 6th grade children, half girls who enjoyed gossip, and half boys who enjoyed testing their limits. I couldn’t be the nice teacher anymore, but I didn’t know that. I went from being respected and welcome in any classroom at ABC to being insulted, defied and disrespected daily by these Wilmington kids. I began to cry after a particularly frustrating afternoon and as soon as one of the kids noticed, he remarked, in the tone of a young psychotherapist, “That’s right, Ms. Cervantes. Let it out.”
I realized that wearing heels to school was the easiest way for me to be labeled a slut, according to a computer mouse pad which announced to the computer lab, “Ms. Cervantes is a prostitute.”
I became so depressed that during my conference periods I would leave the campus and hide out in my ex’s house until it was time to return, and one time my exhaustion and despair was so deep I fell asleep on his bed and was stirred awake by a call from the principal, who wondered where I had gone. My obviously drowsy voice replied that I would be right there, and after school I sheepishly apologized and promised that it would never happen again.
I kept coming back for more torture, abuse and pain every day, facing the judgment of my students, colleagues and administrators until, at the end of the year, one of my students said he was glad the year was ending because I was such a bad teacher and next year he would hopefully have a good one.
I had a mentor teacher but things only went well when she was in the room, because as soon as she left they would behave wildly and obstinately once more.
I was supposed to be supported in my lesson planning and development, but I was clueless and my joy of teaching disappeared. There were too many kids with too many learning disabilities and emotional issues using me as a punching bag and I felt like the administrators must have made a mistake in placing me here with them. I couldn’t believe that what I was going through was normal, and yet all of my colleagues were going through the same thing and so it was, in a sense, normal at that school.
All hell froze over when I was in the middle of lecturing one morning and I noticed a bug crawling over the top of one of my student’s heads, and I panicked and began checking every girl and boy for lice in the classroom, sending all girls except for two to the nurse after confirming that they ALL had lice. My long mane of hair had to be fixed in a bun for the rest of the year, and I was reprimanded for the way I handled the situation, since apparently to prevent “shaming” the lice-infested children, I was not supposed to check them myself and was supposed to quietly send them one after the other to be checked, and even then, I was not allowed to send them home because lice did not constitute a reason for a child to be out of school.
I was horrified. I was shocked. I was puzzled.
When the school year finally came to an end, I was instructed to clean out my classroom and prepare it for the next year. So, I literally purged it. I got rid of everything and left it entirely blank save for the books, desks and other reusable supplies.
When my mentor teacher came in she was horrified and seething in anger. She couldn’t believe that I had trashed everything, including several decorations that she had bought herself, but I didn’t understand. I thought that’s what she had wanted me to do, and I didn’t realize until the very end that this “unfilled” position was, in reality, her class that she put me in charge of so that she would be able to work on administrative tasks.
When I took one final look at the dumpster near my bungalow, filled with work that I had grown too overwhelmed to grade, I breathed a sigh of relief. No one had taught me how to grade, how to manage, how to organize a lesson plan, how to discipline children with disabilities, how to handle bullying in the classroom, how to take care of health issues and how to properly report negative behaviors. I was flying by the seat of my pants the entire time on a 30-day substitute permit that I had only had for a little over a year. I was not familiar with the challenges of working in an LAUSD classroom, especially at the middle school level, and I was beyond exhausted. More than anything, I was scared to ask for help because at my staff meetings, everyone was pretending to be a model teacher in front of my so-called mentor coach, but secretly, they lived by the maxim, “I close my door and I do good teaching.”
I had never felt so alone.
Nobody told me that the kids would be exposed to material that they expected to know at their grade level, but that, in reality, they would be reading several grade levels lower than that, and that we were expected to be experts at scaffolding the lessons enough to produce a semblance of rigor. It was all such bullshit.
On the last day of school, I waited for every single one of my students to leave my classroom, and I didn’t take a single look back. I haven’t been at Wilmington Middle School ever since.