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Writing From the Rubber Room

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It was over three years ago that I was selected by the New York City Teaching Fellows program to become a public school teacher. I didn't know, at that time, that I wanted to be a teacher -- I knew only that I liked working with children, and I needed a job. The NYC Teaching Fellows bills itself as a highly competitive program that recruits and prepares "high-quality, dedicated individuals from different backgrounds and careers to become teachers in our city's public schools." At the time I applied to the Teaching Fellows I was a writer and a graduate student, working as a research assistant in a public hospital while earning my Masters degree in Creative Nonfiction from the New School.

I was also a former sex worker. Of this, I made no secret. My academic and creative writing has appeared in numerous publications online and in print since 2006. My work is included in the NY Times acclaimed anthology Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Love, Sex, Money and Work as well as in Sex Work Matters: Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry. I have presented at multiple conferences on the issue of women's participation in the sex industry and regularly participate in literary readings around the city. My thesis at the New School, completed the same semester I was accepted into the Fellows program, was entitled "Selling Sex."

Having spent more than a decade making meaning of my own self and my experiences -- as well as having conducted ethnographic research in the United States and Europe, interviewing prostitutes and other sex workers about themselves and their professions -- I am deeply committed to fighting for the preservation of the rights and integrity of current and former sex workers. Specifically, I advocate for decriminalization and de-stigmatization of the industry, so that women and men who choose to sell sex can do so with greater protection and less fear and so that individuals who choose to exit the industry can do so with a more honest, right-sized understanding of their experiences -- the kind of honest, right-sized understanding I have worked so hard to have for myself.

While I would not say I am the same person in a spiritual sense, what is undeniable is that I was, at one time, a sex worker and was, until recently, a teacher. Writing and sharing my story was and continues to be a part of my recovery from my history. Through writing and performing my work I learned that my feelings matter. My thoughts and experiences are important. Others can relate and be helped by my sharing. As a writer, I learned to trust in the validity of my opinions and that I could humbly express such opinions -- indeed, it is my First Amendment right to do so. No doubt the fact that I was a working writer was partly the reason I was offered a position at PS 70 in the first place, where I taught art and creative writing with a seriousness of purpose unique, I believe, to those of us who go home and live the lessons we teach.

Of all the actions I've taken in my lifetime, there has been no greater source of pride and esteem than I found in working as a teacher. Over the past three years, I grew to love my profession. My first and second years, I worked hard to earn a Masters in Childhood Education while teaching full time, working before and after school to self-design an arts curriculum and create an arts-rich environment in a school that formerly had no art teacher at all. I was involved in my school's community and respected amongst my colleagues. I was as positive an influence on my student's lives as they were on mine.

All this changed the evening of Sunday, September 26th when I received a phone call at my home from a woman that identified herself as the Superintendent of Schools in District 9, informing me that I had been reassigned to administrative duties pending a Special Commissioners Investigation. It was the next day when an article appeared on the front cover of the September 27th edition of the New York Post. This article, headlined "Bronx teacher admits: I'm an ex-hooker," began like this: "Meet Melissa Petro: the teacher who gives a new twist to 'sex-ed.'" In the article I am described as a "tattooed former hooker and stripper" who was "shockingly upfront about [her] past," posting "online accounts" of my so-called "sexcapades" including an essay in which, according to the Post, I "claim" to have been a prostitute. The essay that statement is in reference to is an opinion editorial posted on September 7th at the Huffington Post, in which I disclose having accepted money in exchange for sexual services sold on Craigslist from October 2006 through January 2007, some months prior to my becoming a teacher. In that article I described the lifestyle I was living at that time as "physically demanding, emotionally taxing and spiritually bankrupting" and go on to say that "I hope to never again make the choice to trade sex for cash even as I risk my current job and social standing to speak out for an individual's right to do so."

Since the New York Post's "exclusive," I have sat in reassignment while the Special Commissioners investigated what I had been open and honest about all along. "Reassigned" means that instead of teaching I report to the administrative offices at 65 Court Street where I sit six hours and fifty minutes each weekday in a windowless cubicle at a generic desk designated as mine. The system of reassignment -- formerly called "rubber-rooming" -- is a well reported controversy. We who've been reassigned are scattered inconspicuously throughout the building, indistinguishable from the DOE's actual administrative employees. Publicly the DOE claims that people who have been reassigned are doing administrative work, but the reality is that no such work exists. For the past two months I've been paid my full salary to sit in what amounts to detention.

I believe workers should be allowed to live self determined lives outside the workplace and that, so long as that individual performs competently at his or her job, one's personal life -- particularly one's personal history -- should be inconsequential to his or her employer. In the age of the internet, individuals' lives outside the workplace are becoming increasingly harder to hide. While in my case I made no secret of my identity, neither as a former sex worker nor as a writer, as we advocate for individuals' rights to privacy, I believe what must simultaneously be challenged are society's outdated notions of what kind of individuals -- particularly, what kind of women -- are fit for certain jobs. Certainly, the attention generated by my story illustrates that, for many -- including, it seems, Mr. Bloomberg -- the kind of woman fit for working with children is not the kind of woman who would, at any time in her life, have participated in any aspect of the sex industry -- or, if she had, she certainly wouldn't want to talk about it today.

Two months later and the results are in: As I suspected, the DOE could find no evidence of anything inappropriate about my conduct as a teacher, other than my having an opinion with which many disagree on a controversial topic that few know much about. That is to say that the OSI investigation found nothing other than my work as a writer and that -- though mischaracterized in the report -- I stand behind. I never did anything at work or -- in my opinion, outside of work -- to warrant removal from my job. My writing or opinions on sex work in no way affected my role as a teacher. If people were truly concerned about the children, they would have investigated this privately and found this to be true, rather than plastering my image all over the tabloids and exposing my students to the vague claim that their art teacher is in some way a bad person. The fact is, administration at my school was aware of my situation and was supportive up until the day of my reassignment. At the end of the day, I believe I was put on reassignment not for my work outside of the classroom -- which I have made no secret of from the beginning -- but because the Post embarrassed the DOE.

The DOE may be embarrassed by the New York Post, but I am not. I have no regrets and have done nothing I'm ashamed of. I have worked hard to become the woman I am today -- a woman of dignity and grace, not to mention a competent teacher as well as an accomplished writer. I do not deserve to be shamed or punished or made to feel useless, and yet here I sit in "reassignment." Given the negative attention this situation has received I still hope though do not expect I will be returned to teaching. That said, I firmly believe I should have the right to teach despite my past and despite my conduct outside of the workplace -- which I perceive as courageous and important and certainly not "unbecoming." I believe teachers should not be removed from their positions for living their lives outside the workplace, for having histories from which they've overcome -- overcome, in my case, in large part precisely by speaking out and sharing my story -- and certainly not for having and expressing opinions. I believe an important part of life is making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is what makes us -- as individuals, as well as a society -- evolve. While my conduct prior to my becoming a teacher may be morally reprehensible to some, I harmed no one the way I harmed myself. To those I have harmed, I have made amends. I've asked for God's forgiveness and I have forgiven myself. For me, the punishment of living the lifestyle I lived prior to becoming a teacher was punishment enough. I do not deserve and will not be punished any further. I am entirely comfortable with the who I am today and more proud than ever of the job I did as a teacher, of which even the Post could find no way of describing me other than "well liked."

The way I see it, if anyone's being punished by this situation it's my former students. As far as I know, they still haven't replaced me, which means these kids still don't have an art and writing teacher. Now that's the real shame.