Monthly Archives: November 2013

Starting by Finishing

Library_of_Ashurbanipal_synonym_list_tabletPeriodically, I feel compelled to present capricious visitations of ideas—random brainstorms that never make it as complete essays or posts. Maybe somewhere in these 25 openings is a longer composition, but they seemed complete almost before I finished expressing them…

1. When it comes time to write another post, I often have only the first line, and everything unreels from it.

2. One impulse from childhood has never left me—if I see a branch barely hanging from a tree, or find a hole not quite punched out of a page of loose leaf, or hear a song nearing its end as I leave a store, or notice a speck of lint on a woman’s black sweater, or encounter a gate just ajar—well, you get the idea.

3. As you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

4. In third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard when my teacher called me up to her desk to tell me to smile.

5. People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough—I don’t miss their hints and I don’t think they’re wrong—but agreeing doesn’t seem to get me far.

6. Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat.

7. Sometimes I imagine famous writers looking over my shoulder as I compose my posts, and they are almost always full of disdain.

8. Whenever someone pauses for comments, or asks some assembly whether anyone has an announcement, or if I visit a place with a guest book waiting for my name, home, and some short note, I’m always tempted to paraphrase Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling”—for some reason, that sentence is, reliably, the first thought passing through my mind.

9. I’d love to write about the great abiding things in life—stars and seasons, small talk and people in cars glancing my way, the sudden smile of someone who’s just had a revelation or eyes cast down or away—but I wonder if I could make them interesting again.

10. Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

11. Perhaps a valuable object is among items I’ve squirreled away in disused drawers and boxes in boxes, but I didn’t put them there to save them—I wanted them out of my sight.

12. My peculiar brand of egotism includes believing I’ve got the market cornered on laments, that no one can speak to feelings of inadequacy better than I can.

13. The other night, when I couldn’t sleep I tried to remember places I only visited once and discovered how very many such places there are.

14. Reading poetry always makes me want to write, and sometimes I don’t finish a poem, half-afraid it will get to what I want to say.

15. Is it terrible that I think humans might have had their chance?

16. All my life I’ve been saving material for the one time I’m allowed to write about having nothing to write about.

17. I use so many analogies in my daily conversation I’ve tried to come up with an analogy for why they seem so useful.

18. It’s occurred to me that not being able to play a single card in solitaire may be far more rare than winning.

19. Once someone asked me, “If you were in an airplane of famous poets, and it was going down, sure to crash, and there was only one parachute left, what poet would you give it up for?” I still don’t have an answer because I can’t get past visualizing the hypothetical.

20. My conversation and writing abound with phrasing and vocabulary I’ve encountered (and reencountered and reencountered) in books and poems I’ve taught, and I keep hoping someone notices.

21. Track workouts in high school taught me how to count tortures. “After this lap,” I told myself, “I can say ‘after this one, I can say, “after this one, one more.”’”

22. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” so I’ve been studying the right moment to get lost.

23. One of my students asked me if I thought I had “a novel in me,” and I wish I’d considered how she’d react before I answered, “Sure, I’m a sack of novels just waiting to rip open.”

24. I’d like to assemble all the people I care about (but lost track of) so I can apologize.

25. In middle school a forensic event called “Extemporaneous Speaking” taught me you can always find something worthless to say.

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The Parade of Maladies

IMG_4856A very little story for a very busy week…

She wanted to stage a spectacle, to gather the identifiably flawed in a chain of equally weak links, but, when her doorway filled and refilled with claimants, she lost the will to differentiate.

Some couldn’t walk. Others couldn’t see or hear or gather a fist to shake at the sky. Some moaned, and others laughed too loudly. Numbers of them seemed, to an untrained sensibility, absolutely intact. Yet, if she couldn’t see their black spots, she assumed they were internal, growing deep.

The children surprised her most. They looked from new eyes, yet she saw, or thought she saw, some glow of pain ignited there. She shepherded them gently, resting her hand lightly on the centers of their backs and guiding them to their places in the parade. Their weak smiles warmed her. They were unused to being touched.

By mid-morning the street in front of her house filled with people. At first she thought to organize them and place them in bands and layers and companies that might prepare them to move through the city. Quite a few would need to be carried, and, while wagons and carts and wheelbarrows appeared near her door, they weren’t enough. The less damaged would have to bear a load. Every time she considered instructing people, though, they fulfilled her instructions, lifting the frailest bodies as if they were spare wings. Soon she had no job at all because, without a thought, they knew what she wanted from them. They arranged themselves, and she altogether missed the signal when the parade started. Everyone knew to take the first step in unison, and they did, in raw silence, tipping their heads to look into the windows above the street as they passed by.

She didn’t see anyone in the windows. It appeared the entire town came out to walk in the parade. Perhaps whatever percentage believed they didn’t belong didn’t come near their windows. Maybe they sat at tables, eating or drinking and secure in their remove. She pictured them. They would settle into chairs. They would lift forks to their lips and wipe grease away with clean napkins. She registered odd pity as the throng marched through the narrow lanes winding past the town’s most formidable homes.

Her plans never included a destination, but suddenly, all together, the crowd stopped. When their footsteps died, circumstances they’d missed—the stir of air around them, a light chill, the slant of a veiled sun over slate roofs, birds’ shrieks, and a baby’s plaintive cry—occupied the world. She listened and gazed. They all did. As with all such moments, the instant barely held before it passed.

Then they dispersed. Some clasped hands or hugged before going, but none lingered long. The day moved toward noon. They vanished even more quickly than they gathered and left her on a corner far from her door, grateful, alone without feeling so lonely.

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Haitus Ahead

get-out-of-work-freeThe last of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching.

No thirty-third year of teaching awaits me next fall. More accurately, it won’t happen until 2015-16 because my school awarded me a sabbatical to study schools that don’t give grades. August won’t find me in a classroom for the first time in fifty years.

That news probably should have opened these five essays. I meant to say so—I tagged each essay with “Sabbaticals”—but I never revealed I’m off next year.

Why?

1. I hope next year will relieve some of the worries I’ve expressed here—and offer the chance to fix an airplane then no longer in flight—but maybe I wanted to keep exhaustion separate from relief. I’ll write about solutions later but don’t have them now. I have only questions and the spent feeling of struggling to reach a landing strip.

2. A teacher soldiering on, I thought, might have more credibility than one who has a sabbatical ahead. How can you moan when the solution to your lament is only months away? How can you explain a trapped feeling if the cage door stands ajar?

3. You may think me an ingrate. I wouldn’t have you believe I’m insensitive to the gift my school has given me. Some colleagues would never consider asking for a break. Others missed the opportunity when the school approved my proposal. Maybe I only wanted to justify the school’s choice, to demonstrate how needy I am.

4. I care about my students, and regret leaving. When a junior says, “I’d hoped to be in your class,” it breaks my heart. I can’t be happy to announce my liberation.

5. And maybe I’m ashamed, disappointed I’m so tired, tired of being so self-pitying, of looking at my devotion to this career and still asking, “How long can I go on?” Is something wrong with me that I need a break? Is something wrong with me I’m giving up?

Really, I’m not sure. Sometimes I worry—absurdly, I know—a year won’t be enough. My sabbatical, after all, isn’t truly a rest, just industry in a different direction. My proposal would never have been approved if I’d written, “Oh please let me take a personal year!” or if I’d asked, “Oh, please give me anything to interrupt the grind of grading!”

I fought the temptation to word my request exactly so.

What I came up with, however, was better. My area of study for the sabbatical seems oddly perfect for my state of mind. In focusing on intrinsic instead of extrinsic motivation, it amounts to, “What are we doing here, anyway?” In answering for students, perhaps I’ll approach an answer myself.

Given the accumulation of years, the overlapping calendars of academic quarters, the revisited and revised assignments, the insinuating syntax of quoted passages, the rolling repetition of daily schedules and teaching blocks, the conversations strangely familiar and new, the meetings about meetings past, I need to ask, “Why?”

Who knows what the 16 months of my sabbatical will be like? Right now, I’m thinking about being ready for the week, the day, the class period ahead. I won’t allow myself to consider resting, but the break lurks.

I picture returning with perspective, with energy, with conviction. I imagine being new. I know no other way to find relief. I know no other way to restart.

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The Golden Years

Teacher Effects Eternity - ThumbnailThe fourth in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

We teachers affect eternity. We’re told so, and it’s true. Though I’ve always taught in small schools, you can multiply the average number of students per year by the years I’ve been in classrooms and reach, conservatively, 2,000 or so. That doesn’t seem large compared to eternal crowds gathered by public school teachers. Still, it’s a lot, and the memory of individuals in that crowd might suggest numbers matter. Classes and faces stick with me. Had I stayed at one school, children of former students would appear to resurrect recollections of their parents.

I appreciate notes and emails from ex-students. I’m pleased they remember me at all and moved they take the trouble to tell me so. Cards and letters go into a special file to bolster my confidence on dark days. I’m grateful. I am.

That said, eternity isn’t solicitous. She smiles when she pleases, and you cannot—cannot—ask for affection. She is coy because eternity continues. She isn’t finished, and perhaps your effect will wane. Maybe it’s waning now.

So gratitude won’t fuel careers. Imagine you desire wealth and find gold dust everywhere. Sure, it’s only dust, but it accumulates quickly—in a scoop of earth, in the still pools along a stream, on the bottoms of your boots when you walk home. You’re happy to put it aside in bags that gather by the door. Then, slowly, you notice supplies dwindling. And you no longer find the dust casually. It takes energy to shovel stream beds, to pan the soil. You know the process too well. Seldom do you find that boot-bottom gold anymore.

I’ll stop because I don’t like listening. I sound ungrateful. At first, teaching’s rewards came easily. I recognized I reached people and drew inspiration from it. Repetition, however, inured me to its pleasures. The once novel becomes regular, and the regular becomes, at times, tedious. If you’re going to pan for gold, you need either abundant returns or easy access.

The worst combination is inadequate returns for immense effort. Yet that’s what many teachers experience, particularly when, for good or bad reasons, their students start to see them as serviceable and undistinguished, another part of the place. “Oh, you have him,” I overheard a freshman saying in August, “hasn’t he been around for, like, forever?” She wasn’t talking about me, but I fear her 14 year-old “forever” might include me.

Go to sites offering advice on teacher burn-out, and they abound with inspiration for keeping yourself fresh and relevant, for capturing students’ curiosity. These sites suggest you teach familiar material in unfamiliar ways, choose new books rather than repeating ones you’ve encountered multiple times, experiment with new technology to revitalize students’ interest, organize your work and streamline your effort, come to school earlier so you can leave the job behind as you exit the building, find some hobby—perhaps keeping a blog—to curb obsessive thoughts about students’ progress, make a change by teaching new subjects or at new grade levels, and establish fixed times to talk to other teachers about their strategies for avoiding burnout.

Experienced in these methods—there are more,  but these I’ve tried—I see them as laborious access to once abundant gold. Perhaps it isn’t fair to group them under the command “Work harder” because the returns are greater. New books and subjects are intellectually stimulating, always exciting. Yet the start-up costs—studying and planning—wear you down when students may not know the difference or not appreciate fresh materials and methods any more than old. New technology is especially laborious, as adolescents tolerate trial and error poorly. Imagine watching someone tie his shoes for the first time.

Sometimes my mind drifts. I’m in a brownstone with eight to ten devoted young scholars. They love learning as I do, know its labors well, and turn simple instructions into brilliant, illuminating insight. We read new books together, and most discussion comes from students. They don’t worry as much about getting into college as they do about understanding what’s before them today. They use technology without worshiping it and don’t automatically equate “new” and “good.” Though I’m their teacher, I need no plans. I nudge them in one direction or another but mostly revel in their excitement, which isn’t admiration or appreciation for me but the joy of having the company of an enthusiastic guide.

Gold dust rains, and I don’t think about eternity or labor or exhaustion.

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Listen

lit-match-head1The third in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching.

During the first few years at my first school, I talked to an older teacher about some hot issue under discussion at the lunch table. He offered what I thought profound wisdom, and I said, “You’re right! You should say that at the next faculty meeting.”

He chuckled and shook his head, “No one wants to hear me say that.”

I thought colleagues ought to listen but understand better now. He was right both in his wisdom and his assessment of its reception. Schools can be confusing for older faculty, simultaneously deferential and dismissive. The meeting might agree and still couldn’t hear it. Old hands have experience to speak—colleagues listen politely—but schools run on youthful energy. Some veterans feel compelled to speak. Others accept the unconscious suspicion greeting remarks so far behind the times.

I’m often forgiven for being out of touch now. I’m like the colleague I remember, reluctant to contribute, generally content to listen to younger voices… until I can no longer stand to remain silent. Then, frequently, I regret speaking.

My first year I taught a class made up of budding mean-girl sixth graders, and they took a dislike to me immediately. My other sections seemed to accept my authority (or at least to like me well enough), but this group actively loathed me. They thought me rigid, unfair, and stuck-up, and, in response, I became more rigid, unfair, and stuck-up. Whatever I proposed, they opposed. I insisted, they resisted. It’s funny how quickly a class spirals downward when students distrust you, and you, in turn, come to distrust them. It took a while to learn that.

I remember the ring-leader’s name, the one who hated me most. She holds a curiously warm place in my heart because, one fateful day, we made up. “Look,” I said to her, “we just have to give each other a chance tomorrow. Let’s like each other and see what happens.” I still can’t believe it worked. What wonders come from risk. What risks we abide when young. Class morale and productivity rose. They learned to tolerate me, and I got to teach another year. It was a year of a little more self-control and restraint. Since then, they’ve all been. That’s what it means to be a professional.

But I lost something too. My job once felt volatile, filled with days of danger and unaccountable excitement. I rarely worry now—perils have faded as I’ve leaned into an even strain. “Pace yourself,” one of my early mentors told me, “don’t take anything personally.” Her strategy has worked too well. Young teachers experience a different level of vitality. Though a class, a day, or a week might run them to exhaustion, they test assumptions and believe in different outcomes. They innovate and renovate and wouldn’t say, as I caught myself thinking the other day about curriculum revision, “I’m sure it doesn’t matter much.”

No misunderstanding, please. I mean only to report where I sit. Co-workers may say they admire my energy, my dedication, my continued relevance. Some might even express a wish to become me, to be as relevant when they reach my station on the salary scale. I appreciate these sentiments. Yet veneration isn’t significance. It’s a haven for faded impact, emeritus ambition, passé originality, civil gentility. The venerable are harmless, no threat, no risk to new agendas, no meaningful obstacle or addition.

For the first few years, I howled after every graduation ceremony. On the way home in my car, I’d turn the music loud and honk the horn at no one. I felt as though I’d driven through rings of fire. I celebrated mountains and valleys, ascent and descent. I thought teaching was harrowing but, as long as June arrived, I was content. I’d not yet learned to be reliable, consistent, and composed. Students loved and hated me. Other teachers—older teachers—shook their heads. Class was consequential, real, rewarding of labor and sacrifice.

It still is, I think, but I don’t always know it.

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As It Should Be and Is

HughAtkinsOntheBeachweb_0The second in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

Maybe all teachers have models they’d like to be or become. I’m been lucky. I’ve met many exemplars with diverse styles and talents. If you ask me which teacher I’ve envied, however, I can reduce the number to one.

Forget that he finished tasks well ahead of deadlines and without sweat, that he graded and returned papers sometimes on their due date, or that he, unaccountably and invisibly, forged consensus among members of a department trained in making barely differentiated but essential distinctions. Forget that he discussed every new book, read every magazine, already knew anything you might mention having seen or heard—after probably having absorbed them all at once in his armchair, watching sports. The work engaged him, yet he found time every school day to write exactly one page in this journal, an ellipsis dotting the last sentence at the end of the page. He made teaching look relaxing because he loved it, every day. He made time to reread and mark new passages. He found time to doodle. He found time to laugh. Students universally admired him and loved talking to him and, no matter how busy he was, he always had time for them.

He seemed built for professional longevity and spent each moment in the moment. Hilarious and moving, playful and dramatic, organized and improvisational, demanding and fun, spontaneous and steady, he never seemed to be working, though undoubtedly he was. Around him, everyone worked hard (and obviously) to look half as capable.

He could be fiery. No one wanted to disappoint his expectations twice. Yet his approval meant more. It meant more than awards, and, whether students feared or loved him (or loved and feared him), he pulled the best from them. We taught fall and spring versions of the same course, and I watched students stretch well beyond themselves in his tasks, his papers, his final projects. I wanted to know how he did it—his secret—and asked frequently. But the key is he did it. I didn’t inspire my students nearly as vividly and, at times, felt dispositionally disadvantaged staring at the last minute, half-baked products of my charges’ labors. His students produced mobiles with albatross wingspans. Mine floated a walnut shell sailboat in a shoebox lid full of catsup. His spoke eloquently about justifications and implications for every choice. Mine said, “I just felt like it.”

With his returns, I might discover fuel to teach forever.

Yet I knew, almost instantly, I wouldn’t become him. I couldn’t draw as much from students because I wasn’t and would never be him.

That discovery was my first disillusionment as a teacher, the first intimation of my limits and unwinding clock. My parents taught me that labor could overcome any deficit, but sometimes not. Perhaps every profession illuminates people so suited to its tasks, so observant, and so shrewd they grow into “naturals,” but they seem especially rare in teaching where you assume you can always master something novel, where belief in self-improvement is unshakable faith.

My triumphs have been exhausting. I’ve been diligent. I’ve been self-consciously personable. I’ve been painstaking. I’ve been earnest. I’ve stumbled upon success through effort and desire, but mostly effort.

One question education won’t prepare you for—how long can learning last? For years, I’ve become a more efficient, sensible, and composed teacher, but dependability and predictability mix finally. I’d like to be new everyday, as my model was, but returns diminish. Your desire to pull a lesson from a folder overwhelms ambition, and, for most older teachers, little appears fresh anymore.

The few who find the sweet spot between work and play promise hope and envy, an ideal, an aspiration stretching ahead, a picture of what could—and should—be.

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I Hesitate to Say

techer-burnout-300x300The first of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

Words can be descriptive and prescriptive. They can identify what’s known—“My, that sandwich looks delicious!”—or they can name and maybe label evermore what remained unidentified up to that point—“Why are you so hostile whenever I ask for a bite of your sandwich? Why are you hostile all the time?”

Some words you fear using. Someone told me once about the afternoon his wife mentioned divorce and compared her saying the word to summoning a dark spirit. Once it was uttered, it could not be unuttered and, after months in couple therapy, they split.

When you see an image hidden in a painting or sign, it’s hard to see anything else. I think sometimes about the words I don’t dare evoke because they may eliminate other possibilities. My list is short. I don’t have to step around too many shadows. But one word I avoid particularly, and ten sentences have passed without my being able to say it.

The word is “burn-out.” It’s not a bad word for most people—Neil Young, after all, tells us it’s preferable to fading away—but it’s scary for a teacher. People speak abstractly of teacher burn-out all the time. They discuss it as a phenomenon, addressing its causes and manifestations. Websites like Edutopia list questions to expose warning signs, like , “Do you feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy?” and “Are you becoming frustrated with parts of your job?” But it’s hard to imagine any working person not answering such questions affirmatively, at least on a dark evening after a frustrating day.

For me, a giant step separates saying “Yes” and saying “burn-out” aloud. Speaking the word is starting a clock, dividing feelings of fatigue from a sense of diminishing returns. It’s distinguishing between a need for a good night’s sleep and inertia or paralysis.

Websites warn exercisers about “overtraining,” but few people ever reach that point. Will gives up long before the body, and most sensible folks will pause, hands on hips or knees, panting, until they are ready to begin again. Only someone with deep faith in mind over matter could ever achieve overtraining. But those who do, suffer. Having passed up short respites, they need longer ones. Then they come back too soon. They mistake debilitation for momentary exhaustion and dig deeper and deeper into quicksand.

Teachers are idealistic. Most are not in it for the money (because the money is never great) or the stature (because society mostly admires teachers for their sacrifice, not for their consequence) or the human returns (because their clientele often arrives at gratitude years later, if at all). Teachers rely on belief and the assumption that, whatever the immediate satisfactions, they do something good by teaching. Their business is “Mind over matter” and, though some teachers experience profound disillusionment when they confront reality, many cling to idealism despite mounds of contrary evidence.

Those teachers burn-out because relentless effort wears their engines. They burn-out because they follow the same calendar hoping for something better. They burn-out because they borrow on capital when interest proves insufficient income.

None of which really—still—addresses my use of “burn-out,” a word that, even in this essay about burn-out, seems too scary to apply to myself.

I don’t like to believe this daily bone-weariness is the start of the end. I have two children in college and can use the monetary compensation—whatever it is—and I’m not ready to retire with pride… or with any sort of plan. I’ve given years to this profession I believe in.

Some might judge me for whining about my three months off or my shortened workday or my not being grateful for the privilege of being in the presence of all these vibrant young people. But I am tired. I worry sometimes that putting my hands on my hips or knees won’t help. And—on this dark, post daylight savings time evening—I worry no one can do this job for long enough.

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