Help: Stories about desperate situations

This week, we’re presenting stories about times when we’re overwhelmed and feeling alone. Sometimes, in science, we need help. Sometimes that help is hard to find. And sometimes it comes from an unexpected place.

Part 1: As a first-year math teacher, Matt Baker feels overwhelmed -- especially when his principal is less than supportive.

Check out video from our show with Math for America>>

Matt Baker is a high school math teacher at The Brooklyn Latin School in Brooklyn, NY. After getting his Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering from Bucknell University, he taught English in Japan for two years and then pretended to use his degree in the private sector for several more. Finally he figured out he should be back in the classroom, so he applied for and received a Math for America fellowship, moved to New York City, and got his Masters of Secondary Math Education. He is currently an MƒA Master Teacher and a Desmos Teaching Fellow, and is very active in the math teacher Twitter community with the handle @stoodle.

Part 2: A graduate student is sexually assaulted by a labmate.

Please note: This story contains description of sexual assault that may be disturbing to some listeners. 

This story is appearing anonymously on our podcast. For more on why we made this decision, see our blog post here.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Matt Baker

We were relegated to the top floor of a building in East Harlem with no windows, apparently because the designers in the 1970’s thought that East Harlem was too depressing for children to look at.  We Googled it. 

Our first freshman class was they're good kids.  They're a little rough around the edges but I met some of them at Open House there before and they were just really excited to be part of our school and it was really exciting to help them.  Unfortunately, through some quirk of scheduling, we were 30% Special Ed and we had one solitary Special Ed Coordinator.  Aside from compliance issues, I never taught such a high-needs group before but I had the Math for America network and the optimism and energy of a first-year teacher so I wasn’t that worried at the time. 

Things got a little tricky early on because my principal’s philosophy for discipline was build relationships, and we couldn’t build relationships fast enough.  You all know.  Then one Friday in mid-October, a student was hit by a car.  He's okay, but in the ensuing emotional turmoil, one student blamed another student and that first student attacked the second student and in the process hit one of our teachers and gave her neck problems for three months.  Then the principal didn’t want to suspend the student that did the attacking, and then all of the staff started going to mandatory weekly happy hours that we called ‘getting coffee’. 

I drank a lot of coffee that year.  I also started to flounder.  These lessons that I had worked really, really well in student teaching like, “Imagine a function as a vending machine.”  Bombing.  The kids were not invested.  They weren’t learning.  They were making a ruckus. 

My principal made it very clear that she was not happy with how I was doing.  She would come in and she had a very specific timing that I should use and would literally pull out her phone in the middle of class and start timing me and let me know every second that I was over.  I had to create a sense of urgency.  And when I asked what that meant, it involved carrying a clipboard around.  Four years later I’m still not sure what that means. 

She would share lessons from her two-and-a-half years in a math class and then when I would use one of them for when I knew she was coming to visit, she would go, “Why would anyone use this activity?  It didn’t make any sense.” 

I started to get panic attacks when she would come to visit.  I can remember just feeling short of breath as soon as she walked in with her little notebook.  And I respectfully said that I felt we were starting to develop different philosophies for how students learned. 

And she said, and this is a direct quote, “You are a first-year teacher.  You do not know better than me.  Do what you're told.” 

I appreciate the ‘Boo”.  The night before my formal observation, I wanted so badly to convince her that I was doing good and that she was wrong and that I could do this so I spent an hour-and-a-half on the phone with my MFA advisor just working through exactly what I would say and exactly what I would do and exactly what the lesson would look like.  Finally I got his seal of approval.

Went in the next morning, in comes my principal with someone from the superintendency that I had never met.  She then proceeds to speak loudly during the lesson about how bad the lesson was, how could I ever think that activity was great, and what was I thinking.  This was around the time I started to develop a little bald spot on my chin.  It was a gray spot but the kids all thought it was a bald spot and enjoyed pointing that out in the middle of quadratics lessons when I’m trying to teach factoring. 

After that, after I was graded ineffective across the board.  I was assigned a teacher development plan.  I had to write a four-page scripted lesson plan after meeting with the other math teacher in the school every single day while in addition to making worksheets and slides and teaching literacy and doing advisory and all the other things you do at a first-year school. 

Math for America Master Teacher Matt Baker shares his story at our April 2018 show with Math for America at Caveat in New York. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Math for America Master Teacher Matt Baker shares his story at our April 2018 show with Math for America at Caveat in New York. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

I would stay at school until 6:00 p.m. when school safety would kick me out because the building closed.  Take an hour subway ride home back to Brooklyn, sit on my couch until ten or eleven o’clock at night, go to sleep.  Wake up the next morning and rush back to Harlem hoping that the copiers worked that day so I could actually teach something. 

After a few weeks of this Teacher Development Plan, when I wasn’t showing the improvement that I was supposed to, my principal pulls me aside and says, “You know, you're not getting it.  I don't know what else to say to you.  This school just isn’t a good match.  You should look for another job next year.” 

Mind you, this was in the hallway during ninth period.  And I just kind of stood there because is she being serious right now?  Does she not see how much work I’m putting in?  Why doesn’t she cut me some slack for just being a first-year teacher not knowing what I’m doing?  Why is she being so unkind to me when the same things are happening in other teachers’ classes?  Why is she picking on me?  Why is she scowling at me right now?  Why did she pick this awful mustard color for the lockers?  Why are there so many kids going to the bathroom right now?  Why can’t I not stop crying? 

What do I do?  This is what I thought I was going to do for the rest of my life and, apparently, I’m terrible at it.  So what do I do now?  Because I’m thirty.  Should I not be in the classroom with children?  Like should I just not be alone?  Student teaching wasn’t as bad.  Was everyone just lying to me when I was doing that and telling me that I had good instincts?  Why didn’t I listen to any of my friends when they told me a first-year principal at first-year school was not good for a first-year teacher?  

I used to sell computers and I was terrible at that and I’m terrible at this.  Am I just terrible at literally everything I try?  Do I even find a job next year?  Is anyone even going to hire me after this?  What if she goes after my license?  Do I have to move back to Maryland?  What do I tell Math for America?  Do I have to pay back my master’s?  What do I do?  I thought this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. 

After telling me to, “Toughen up”, another direct quote, my principal left and I went back to my desk to try to plan. 

At the end of that day, some kids came up and wanted to see if I was okay.  I remember one student, Karim, said, “Mister, she fire you?”  He's one of my top students.  He was really great.  Loved math. 

And I said, “No, of course not.  I’m just in a little bit of trouble.  It’s fine.”  How else do you tell a kid you just spent a year building a relationship with that you're not going to be there next year?  So then I helped him with his homework because that’s the job, and he looked relieved that I was going to be around.  Which told me that maybe everything I thought I was doing wasn’t just in my head.  That maybe I was making a difference. 

At happy hour, sorry, coffee that week, the other teachers who had more experience were aghast at what was happening.  They couldn’t believe any of the events from the past week or the year.  I texted my MFA mentors and advisor and was like, “What am I doing wrong?” 

They're like, “Not much.  You're a first-year teacher.  You're doing great.  You have good instincts.” 

My friends at other schools, my MFA cohort that I went through master’s school with, they couldn’t believe the stories I was telling them, and they still tell stories about that year, they were trying to find me jobs at their schools.  I remember, eventually, I got a job offer from my current school and I was in the parking lot of the DMV and I just started hollering like a crazy person and pounding the steering wheel, specifically because it was evidence that I wasn’t a crazy person.  That maybe I did have a future doing this.  I could do this for the rest of my life. 

Another piece of evidence that I wasn’t crazy was that we had 100% staff turnover at the end of that first year.  Yup. 

It’s four years later.  I’m finishing up my fifth year teaching and things are good.  I’m still at the same school.  I get to work with amazing kids that spend an-hour-and-a-half making me a birthday graph on decimals. 

The white spot went away.  I get to work with some amazing people, some of whom are here tonight, and I feel like I’m starting to earn people’s respect and it’s amazing.  Things got better. 

And that first year made me realize two very important things.  First, that it’s a travesty that there are teachers, amazing first-year teachers all over the place that are burning out after their first year because there are principals and schools that are bad.  They are amazing and we need them, because I need to learn from them and steal from them and they're burning out.  This job is hard and exhausting but it shouldn’t be soul crushing. 

And I just want to tell those people that it gets better, as cliché as that is.  It really does. 

And the second thing I realized is that teaching is a team sport.  None of us can do this alone.  You need to find yourself an administrator that understands.  You need to find yourself a department that will go out to dinner with you and laugh at jokes. 

You need to find yourself a community of educators, like Math for America or my online teaching community who I can reach out to and say, “I’m teaching exponentials tomorrow and I have no idea what that looks like.”  And they give you thirty responses in thirty minutes. 

You need to find a group of people who you can say, “I just had the worst lesson of my life,” and they will just say, “Yup.  Been there.  That sucks.”  And they'll listen and they’ll help. 

And we need more teachers because, like I said, I need to steal from you because I need to look good.  Thank you. 

Hear Matt’s story on Soundcloud.


Part 2: Anonymous Storyteller

Ten years ago, I was raped.  It didn’t happen in a dark alley and my rapist was not a dangerous-looking guy.  I was raped while sleeping at a friend’s house by her roommate, a PhD candidate at the same research center where I worked and, in a couple of months, I would have started my own PhD. 

He managed to enter my room and undress me without waking me up.  I woke up to the sound of his belt buckle.  He was unbuckling his belt with one hand while the fingers of his other hand were inside my vagina.  It took me a couple of seconds to understand what was going on.  I went from disoriented to confused to petrified.  For a fraction of a second I thought this could be the end for me. 

I tried to push him away but he didn’t move.  Scared, I asked him what he was doing.  With his fingers still inside my vagina, he asked me if I wanted him to continue.  A clear and categorical no came out of my mouth. 

He still remained inside me for what felt like ages.  I could see him considering whether to ignore me or not.  Finally, he left.  Sometimes, I still wonder how long he was in the room looking at me and thinking how to proceed while I was sleeping peacefully. 

I looked around the bed for my underwear and pajamas, put them back on and stared at the ceiling not knowing what to do or how to feel until, I guess out of exhaustion, I fell asleep again.  I woke up a couple of hours later and went to my friend’s room.  I remember feeling vulnerable and wanting a hug.  I needed to feel comforted and I didn’t want to be alone, especially not in that house. 

My friend looked at me in surprise when I woke her up.  Probably it was really early in the morning.  I couldn’t tell.  I felt like time had stopped.  I hesitated before sharing with her what her roommate had done.  And when I did, she was also confused and unsure what to do.  Eventually, she went to check his room and found it empty.  I just wanted to go home. 

To add another layer of confusion, while I was waiting for the train to go home, he called me.  I didn’t answer at first but he wouldn’t stop calling.  Finally, I answered.  He just repeated how sorry he was and that he was not understanding what was going on for him.  I remember saying that I could report him but I wouldn’t. 

I was so confused, so not myself.  I didn’t even know if what had happened to me was officially rape.  It would take me many years and multiple conversations with lawyers and therapists to believe that, yes, it was. 

As I was on my way back home, I started feeling a cloud come over me.  Sounds were distorted and my vision was blurry.  I don't even know how I got home. 

It took me twenty-four hours to go to the police.  And the fact that I didn’t have a more immediate response still haunts me.  By going to the police, I was making it real, and also I was fearful of the consequences. 

After talking to my sisters and mom I decided to report the assault and my mom and I went to the Catalan police.  They were actually really nice and respectful and handled the situation better than I expected.  They told me my report would go through the system and in a few months could probably go before a judge.  For a brief period of time, I felt like I was putting an end to the nightmare.  Little did I know my nightmare was about to begin. 

It was the beginning of the summer and, in an attempt to escape reality, I hid from the world at my grandma’s beach house, like a wounded Little Red Riding Hood.  I spent the whole summer unable to sleep without locking my bedroom door, suffering daily anxiety attacks and mostly feeling like an empty vessel.  None.  Nothing.  Completely unworthy. 

My behavior became self-destructive and I pushed away people that I loved and that really cared about me. 

When the summer ended, I felt ready to move on and start a new chapter in my life, my PhD.  I don’t remember exactly when, if it was in my first day back at my research center or later, but I walked by the door and there he was, sitting with other PhD students and drinking coffee like nothing happened.  He looked at me and said, “Hi.” 

I ran to the closest bathroom, locked myself in and started crying uncontrollably unable to breathe.  I stayed there the whole day until it was dark outside.  I don't know if someone ever entered either looking for me or just to pee.  I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t relate to reality. 

It was the first of many panic attacks I was going to face during my first year as a PhD student.  At this point, almost everyone from students to faculty they knew, with different level of detail and veracity, what had happened and another slap of reality was beginning.  Almost from one day to the next I went from victim, if I was ever considered like one for some people, to aggressor.  And my aggressor became the victim. 

People I thought were my friends asked me to withdraw the police report because he was truly sorry and he had already sought help and he was going through therapy.  Well, me too. 

At the same time, I had to hear things like, “You exude sex from all your pores,” “You're too hot,” “You can come to work in sweatpants.” 

One professor even told my advisor that I had had a lot of boyfriends and often came to work wearing a miniskirt.  Highly educated people thought that I was the one to blame, not him. 

I felt powerless. 

Because the situation was unbearable and I was not able to work, with my adviser’s support I went to talk to the director of my research center and asked him to transfer my perpetrator at least until the legal situation was resolved.  He told me he didn’t have the power to do so unless I had a restraining order and that he needed legal proof of the assault for him to take action. 

I learned later that he was either lying or mistaken, but clearly he didn’t want to confront the situation.  It was easier for him to minimize it and look the other way.  It was clear he and the institution were not going to help me. 

I felt powerless. 

A few months later, the judge working on my case asked me for a meeting.  As I entered the city court with my lawyer, I felt that maybe in here I was going to find the type of response that I was hoping for. 

I narrated the rape all over again in a room full of strangers staring at me.  It felt like a second violation.  I answered every question.  I clarified every detail. 

At the end of the meeting, the judge told me that he was going to dismiss my case because, in his opinion, I didn’t have one.  He said my rapist didn’t use violence.  He had stopped when I asked him to stop.  And, in his statement, he declared that he called me by my name, which apparently qualifies as asking for consent.  Since I didn’t have witnesses it was my word against his. 

The judge even added that my rapist’s version was more credible because he was a nice PhD student without a criminal record.  It mattered little that I was asleep therefore unable to consent and that I also was a PhD student without a criminal record. 

I felt powerless. 

Failed by my peers, my institution and the legal system, I thought about quitting my PhD, at least to put an end to the torture of seeing him at work every day.  But somewhere over the rainbow, someone believes you and lends you a hand. 

My adviser believed me and in me and she was not going to allow me to quit.  She knew that by staying there I was not going to finish my PhD, so she sent me far away to a different lab, to a different institution, to a different country.  That’s how I came to the U.S.  She used her power to keep me in science. 

This was not my first experience of sexual harassment or assault in an academic environment.  Sadly, it was not the last one either, but it was the hardest and almost defeated me.  It took me ten years to gain my power back, the power to speak up, the power to fight for my rights, the power to help others, the power to say out loud, “Enough!” 

Slowly, I started talking about my experience and found, astonished, that colleagues, friends, family members had gone through similar experiences.  How long are we going to allow people, our institutions, the legal system to overpower women? 

The last push that I needed to share this story for the first time in ten years was the MeToo Movement.  I feel that I belong to the saddest sorority ever, but a powerful one.  Don’t underestimate the power of women.  We started using our voices and we will no longer be silent.