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Monday, July 10, 2023

"The Best Job I Ever Had Gave Me Bed Bugs Michelle" by Anne Mangan - 2022 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist




The Best Job I Ever Had Gave Me Bed Bugs

by Michelle Anne Mangan

The year was 2008. Obama had just been voted President of the United States. Brooklyn felt like the most exciting place in the world to call home.

I was 25, and a new teacher in the New York City Public Schools. My workplace was a sturdy brick schoolhouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn that housed 1,200 students in grades K-5. I rode my bike to this sturdy brick building every morning at approximately 6:45 AM, crossing the Gowanus Canal in Carroll Gardens and heading south down 4th Avenue all the way to 47th street. I loved watching the neighborhoods of Brooklyn wake up each morning. I can still smell the cool wet air of those early morning bike rides down 4th Avenue.

Once I arrived at my school, I didn’t get the luxury of working in the actual school building. My classroom was in the “excess” building, one of those haphazard trailers in the back of overstuffed school buildings that are built to house the overflow of extra kids. There were six classrooms in this trailer.

I loved being in this excess building. The other teachers and I formed an immediate bond, as if we were the school rejects. Few other people bothered me in my classroom, so I got to spend my days all alone with a group of 25 2nd grade kids. We created a little haven together in that space, with reading nooks and “Free Time Fridays.” Our class song was Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles, and we sang it together each morning.

It didn’t matter that the heat never quite worked, or that we often had to wear our coats during lessons. It didn’t matter that if someone ran the coffee machine and the microwave at the same time, the fuse would blow in the whole trailer.

A lot of “other duties as assigned” start popping up when you work as a teacher in an urban school district. You’re expected to be a janitor, a nurse, a social worker, and sometimes a pest control specialist. During a nasty period when thousands of bed bugs scuffled around apartment buildings in Brooklyn, I tried to avoid bringing home an invasion by hanging my backpack from a hook on the back of my classroom door. It was a little like going camping and hanging your food from a bear pole.

All day, I would see these flat-bodied brown bugs crawling from my students’ clothes on our reading rug. They hid in the seam of their backpacks. We had to go to extreme efforts to control the outbreak, including storing students’ belongings in black garbage bags when they arrived each morning. In fact, the city asked teachers to collect these bed bugs in scotch tape and mail them into the central office for some sort of entomological/public health research project.

I thought I had escaped unscathed from this bed bug invasion. Until I found a single bed bug crawling across my own apartment’s living room rug one afternoon after work, and the rest was history. My roommate and I threw out our bedding and paid for exterminators to leave a toxic white powder along our baseboards. We cleaned out our closets and washed everything we owned. To this day, I still can’t sleep in a hotel room without checking the sides of the mattress for bugs.

But all of these inconveniences were worth it to me. I was doing something I loved. It was the first time in my young life that I had poured myself so fully into something and truly loved the process. I wasn’t just studying to get good grades like I had in college, and I definitely wasn’t working for the money. But I loved planning ways to light up the faces of those 25 kids each day. I loved the constant creativity and full-body exhaustion of the work.

Even my weekends were filled with thoughts of my students. Every Saturday morning, I would wake up late in my garden-level Boerum Hill apartment and haul my laundry over to the laundromat. While I waited, I would plan a week’s worth of lessons from a window seat in my local coffee shop on Henry Street.

Then I would bring my laundry back home, return to my coffee shop, and keep working all the way until dinner. My roommate even gave me a gift certificate to that coffee shop for Christmas. I spent an unreasonable portion of my small income on lattes and chicken salad wraps that year.

Every teacher I know has a few students that stand out in their memory. Often these are the students that struggled the most, or perhaps the students who needed them the most. My student was named Silvana. She was often sad and lethargic, her dark hair uncombed. She lived in a crowded apartment with her mom and six siblings in Sunset Park. Silvana had beautiful deep brown eyes. She was the kind of kid whose eyes lit up when she got a few minutes of adult attention.

Silvana was very behind in her reading. I spent hours sitting next to her desk practicing her short vowel sounds, but she was easily frustrated and unsure of herself. She improved that year, but she never quite mastered reading as much as I had hoped she would before leaving my classroom.

Silvana loved our field trips. I started a tradition that year of taking my students on a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We would walk halfway across the bridge, gather in a circle, and draw the skyline of Manhattan in our art notebooks. When we returned to school, I would cover one of our classroom walls with all of my students’ variations on the New York City skyline.

I still remember walking that bridge next to Silvana on a windy spring day in 2008 and looking at the buildings of Manhattan together. I remember feeling so lucky that my life had led me to that moment, looking at this beautiful city and standing next to this little girl I felt so lucky to know.

That year, I was just one teacher in a giant school system. All of the problems surrounding me — the Great Recession, countless school reform efforts, and even a bed bug invasion — barely bothered me. I was too busy doing something I loved.

I left Brooklyn many years ago, and I now live in Washington, DC. I wonder often what it would be like to have that same job now. I wonder if the person I am now, a 39-year-old mom with far less time or energy, would be too preoccupied with the bugs and other inconveniences to find the work as meaningful. I wonder if I would be so focused on the discomforts that I would miss the most important parts, like that moment on the Brooklyn Bridge. I wonder if I would even have the guts to take 25 kids on the Brooklyn Bridge now.

I do know that that job job taught me what I was capable of. It taught me that I could pour my full self into something I cared about. It helped me fall in love with Brooklyn in a way I never would have as one of the thousands of people who commute on the F train to offices in Manhattan each morning.

My years of teaching in Sunset Park gave me immense respect for teachers, and it convinced me to come back to working in schools even after I had moved far away from that apartment and my weekend coffee shop in Brooklyn.

A few years after Silvana was in my second grade class, I left that job to attend law school in another state. It was a tough decision that I labored over for months. But I made sure to return to Brooklyn and visit my school before that first class graduated and left for middle school.

When I visited my friend’s 5th grade classroom that spring, I identified Silvana immediately. She came straight over to give me a hug, and she was very excited to show me the used iPod she had gotten for her birthday. She told me that she had put Here Comes the Sun on the iPod. She told me she listened to it all the time.


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