A Teacher's Addiction Triggers a National Scandal

By Melissa Petro 08/15/11

When the media discovered her past as a sex worker, Melissa Petro was fired from her beloved teaching job, triggering a national firestorm. A year later, she wonders if her embarrassing downfall was the result of her long-time addiction.

The Three Faces of Petro

I got sober less than five months before becoming a teacher, long after I’d stopped selling myself for sex. Three years later, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post which unapologetically disclosed my history as a call girl on Craigslist prior to my becoming a teacher.

I’d had an opinion, and I wanted the world to know it. I thought speaking my opinion was my constitutional right. I wanted to criticize the censoring of Craigslist’s Adult Services section and defend an individual’s choice to sell sex. Knowing the breadth of my history, I considered mine a profile in courage.

Much of the world, it seemed, did not agree.

I was removed from my job as a New York City public school teacher and reassigned to administrative duties pending an investigation, after which the Department of Education sought my termination. The charges: “Conduct Unbecoming a Professional.” Yet because my article had been published weeks prior to my removal, the timing suggested to me that it was not my writing that had instigated my reassignment but, rather, a front and center headline of the NY Post about me which ran the day I was removed. It read: “Bronx Teacher Admits: I’m an Ex-Hooker.”

I am the type that drives drunk, throws drinks, slaps strangers and hurts feelings. Through drinking, sex and drugs, I pursued pleasure well past the point of “fun.” 

A Post reporter, it turned out, had put two and two together, linking my name to my previously published work, including a story I had written in which I candidly discussed the dilemma I faced being a teacher who was also a writer who wrote about my sex work past. From my first day as a teacher, my colleagues at work knew I was a writer and anyone who Googled me—a surprising number, it turned out—knew the content of my work. It was not the controversy it threatened to become, I always figured, because I was appreciated by my administration, well-liked by my colleagues and good at my job. As early as 2006, I had published stories of working as a stripper in college, but not until the piece on The Huffington Post had I admitted that by “sex work,” I also meant prostitution. Even then, I did not consider it a big deal—and for nearly three weeks, it wasn’t. Provocative maybe, but front-page news I was not.

At least I wasn’t until the NY Post reporter showed up at my school—which, my being a public employee, was a matter of public record—interviewing parents and my colleagues, and photographing me with my students.

How dare they? I thought at the time. 

Outraged at the circumstances and confident in the rightness of my actions, I sat down with Marie Claire for an interview about the experience. Of all the media requests I had received—from Joy Behar to Dr. Phil—an interview in Marie Claire had seemed the most legitimate. I wanted to be perceived as legitimate. I was proud of my writing and confident in my political points. The charges against me were based entirely on my writing—my record of conduct in the classroom was impeccable! I was furious to have been removed my job and indignant at the circus that had been created.

But then I saw the headline of the story. “What was a nice girl from Ohio thinking?” it read, reminding me (and the world) what had set the media storm off to begin with.

While I have tried to answer this question many times—in other articles, for friends, for potential employers, for people I’ve just met—the simplest answer is that there is no good explanation for why a person like me behaves the way I do.

“What were you thinking?” is not a useful question for someone in recovery.

At least, it’s not a question we’re encouraged to ask of ourselves. In recovery, we are taught to assume our thinking is “upside down.” We are told to keep it simple. “Figure it out is not a slogan” is my favorite slogan of all.

The simple answer is that I wasn’t. Prior to disclosing my past on the Huffington Post, I had been warned. The administration at my school, aware of my writing, kindly asked I use a pen name. My friends had dissuaded me from publishing similar articles before. Teachers at the university where I had earned my degree in education had warned there could be consequences. I didn’t care. I pushed my luck, and then I pushed it some more. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Sometimes when I get this way, there’s no stopping me.

This is a way of reacting to the world that “normal” people just don’t get—and it’s gotten me in trouble before. Ever since childhood, I have been burdened by this audacity—an inordinate belief that I am entitled to say or do as I feel. Such an attitude has its pros and cons. As a woman, I’ve never had a problem taking up space. I raised my hand in every class, eager to participate and confident in my opinion—some might say in love with the sound of my voice. In high school, my motto was “leap—and the net will appear.” This risk-taking attitude led me to attend a college I couldn’t afford; taking out loans I had no intention of ever paying back, and traveling to exotic locales with no reason for being there.

It has also led to some tragic decisions. Having no big picture for myself, I cheated on boyfriends, destroyed friendships, and quit jobs with no backup. To get my way, I would at times do anything—including lie, cheat and steal. I am the type that drives drunk, throws drinks, slaps strangers and hurts feelings. Through drinking, sex and drugs, I pursued pleasure well past the point of “fun.” As my addictions progressed, my balls-to-the-wall behavior became increasingly destructive. By my late twenties, the girl who’d stripped down to her underwear and jumped into the pool at the party was dangerously close to becoming the body found on the side of the road.

At the end of my drinking, my life had hit a wall. I considered myself a writer, and was on the last semester of a graduate program pursuing an MFA. Now it looked as if I wouldn’t be graduating as I had not once met with my thesis advisor and had long ago stopped going to class. Though money wasn’t yet a problem, my career path had stalled. After four months of selling sex, I was virtually unemployable. Working when I wanted to, doing what I wanted to for hundreds of dollars an hour, I didn't want a “real” job even if I could've gotten one.

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Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and former public school teacher. She has written for The Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Salon, Rumpus.net, xoJane, The Fix, The Gloss and elsewhere. She holds a BA from Antioch College, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the New School, and a Masters in Education from Fordham University. You can follow Melissa on Twitter.