By 8 a.m., sweat has soaked through my shirt. I am overweight, so most people assume the sweat is because I am out of shape. The secondary students in my English Language Arts classes are particularly rude about it, pointing out the dark stains on my chest and underarms.
“Mr. Sweeney, why you sweatin’?” a student says in the underdeveloped vernacular of the poverty-stricken area our school serves in Richmond, Virginia. “You ain’t doin’ nothin’.”
Then they laugh. Always, they laugh.
The students’ assumptions about my sweat are only partly true–I am out of shape, after all–but there’s more to the sweat that I am afraid to tell them.
“I get hot when I’m working hard,” I reply. On rare occasions, when I’m feeling especially chipper, I may say something more combative, like: “Mature people sweat; you’ll find out one day.” This usually gets a laugh out of one or two students.
I forgive them. They’re just kids, after all. Most of them don’t see me as a person: they see me as their teacher.
Still, the remarks sting. Because I am a person: in particular, a person struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and mild ADD. And while my sweating may draw attention to my weight issues, it’s not caused by it.
I sweat because it’s a side effect of Effexor, the go-to medication to treat anxiety. Ironic, really. It forms a perfect loop: the kids notice me sweating, they make comments about it, which makes me more depressed and anxious, which makes me need Effexor.
But, of course, I can’t tell anyone this.
The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors
The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors, lest they think that my mental acuity has been somehow compromised. It hasn’t, but the stigma around mental health in education runs deep.
My mental health challenges can often make my job more stressful. My principal wants me to appear organized and clean, but my ADD often leads to clutter. When I grade students’ essays, parents me to challenge them to succeed to greater heights, but my depression sometimes affects my mood while grading, making such efforts difficult. Students look to me for answers, but my anxiety causes me to sometimes make mistakes, like muddling my words or misspelling something on the blackboard.
“How you gonna teach us to write and you can’t spell?” a student says. In response, I tell the student that writing isn’t as much about spelling as it is about putting ideas across.
Mental acuity, communication: these are the most prized skills in education. Anxiety and depression may occasionally effect little things like spelling, but they do not impact my ability to communicate ideas or think critically.
As I’ve learned in therapy, life is a series of coping skills. My mental conditions are nothing to be ashamed about.
The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness.
The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness. What one may call clutter, I like to call systemized chaos. When students want advice, I can empathize to the best of my ability and be honest.
A plump young girl in glasses taps my shoulder.
“Mr. Sweeney, doesn’t it hurt your feelings when these other students call you fat?”
“It does hurt,” I admit.
“How do you deal with that?”
I have rehearsed the answer many times in my head. I’m almost excited that she asked.
“I remind myself that I have ideas and abilities that make me unique. And I work in a profession where I get to show off my intelligence and pass these valuable things on to others. That feels better than the hurt.”
She adjusts her glasses, and makes my day.
“Mr. Sweeney, it doesn’t matter if you sweat,” she says. “I like your class.”