Censors trip the hallway lights near my office. Most mornings I set them off—they surge to a steady fluorescence as my key turns in the lock. A kickstand holds the office door open, but no one arrives or visits for a while. I have silent moments to put away my coat, stare at the class schedule I’ve posted on the bulletin board over my desk, and fight inertia.
Because I’m on the fifth floor and take the stairs, I always begin a little out of breath.
I relish the moments I’m not “on,” but it sometimes seems I’m always on. Even alone, lists haunt me. If I’m not making progress, I’m falling behind, and if I’m distracted, I’m off the rails and careening down an embankment carving a trench tough to escape.
Sometimes, when students can’t find a mutual free period, they arrange to meet me in the morning, and I prefer that. It’s a strange other time. I almost forget it’s work I’m doing and just talk. I wonder then what work is.
Teachers like to joke that school would be a great place if it weren’t for the students. That’s not really true, of course. Time spent with students is the heart of my day, and, if it’s good, it pumps vitality into every aspect of my job. When that time is frustrating, tedious, baffling, or soporific, all my limbs buzz, my head swims in haze, my vision dims.
My workplace isn’t unique, but imagining another as arduous seems impossible. I always have it hardest, no matter what—because any other place is abstract, because I look for value in my struggles, because I scramble for some theoretical and dubious pinnacle, because when do I ever get to pause and reflect, because it’s hard for me.
Have you ever imagined living time lapse, the tidal filling and emptying of space, the stream of people trickling and flooding, the appearance and disappearance of figures standing before them, the whole day speeding to a blur?
Sometimes, when I remember my day, I can only focus on transitions from copier to class to assembly to grading to conferencing with students, meetings with colleagues, and appointments with panic.
My secret name is Major Exhaustion. My forces include fatigue, distraction, anxiety, distress, aggravation, defeatism, cynicism, bewilderment, ennui, disappointment, gloom, contempt, giddiness, paranoia, dejection, bitterness, resignation, despair, neediness, misery, and hysteria. I started to say they’re under my command but, clearly, they’re not.
Occasionally, when students work in class, they start talking a little louder, which means others talk louder too. Soon the room is too loud. I ask for quiet because I don’t want noise to reach the hall or the next classroom, but it’s hard, asking anyone for less, asking to slow down or pause. You don’t know what’s too much.
We were discussing stress at school once, and I used an analogy I like: whitewater. Nobody minds the times we know we’ll be hurried, harried, and full-out as long as we see that time as finite, and calm water lies ahead. But when whitewater is constant…
“That again,” a colleague harrumphed, “if I have to hear that whitewater thing one more time…”
I hadn’t realized I’d said it so often before. I didn’t realize how annoying it was. I left with another worry to carry.
The milder version of one of my favorite expressions is “five pounds of crap in a three pound bag.” I don’t know how it was invented and would rather not consider how it might be enacted, but I recognize the smell.
Soon it will be Monday. It was Monday, and it is going to be Monday. I’m sitting at home, staring at this screen, waiting for Monday again.