Monthly Archives: February 2006

Once More, With Feeling

I spent the first day back after that weird mid-February break in an existentialist funk. I itched for a community of teachers who collaborate more than complain, who have more time than between bites on a pitiful lunch break to commune. I like my colleagues, I guess. But my school doesn’t make time for interaction between grown-ups, and it’s easier to gossip when you only have 30 seconds.

Mr. W, another new teacher, stole five minutes after ninth period to chat.

“Go home,” he ordered when he found me in my classroom separating essays into piles.

“But there’s always more to do!” I pleaded.

“You’ll be the teacher who finds a way to spend her entire summer planning curriculum,” he accused, noting that when he arrived this morning at 7:30, I had already been there for an hour.

“Dude,” I said, “I do that so I don’t feel like a total asshole in front of my students every day. Not that it works,” I admitted, and he nodded, like, duh. “But that’s the problem,” I declared. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m doing it by myself. In the dark. Gagged and blindfolded.”

It’s the same story, the same sad prayer I’ve been singing since September: I don’t know what I’m doing, so I assume I’m doing it badly, and I live every day in fear that I’m ruining their education. When I say it out loud, it sounds so absurd and self-punitive. But what is education, if not a matter of life and death?

One moment, I am devoted to them, wiling to jump in front of trains for their literacy, attentive and reverent and fierce, teasing out their ideas and epiphanies, endlessly patient. I believe they’ll transform in front of my eyes, immediately. The next, I’m laundry on the line, battered by the gales of their solipsistic whining, their stubborn resistance, their utter lack of perspective. They vanish into short attention span tunnels, and I’m weary with the effort to pull them back. They don’t say what I want them to say. They don’t buy what I’m selling. I point to the light, and they don’t believe me. I’m supposed to call their parents, all the time, over and over, for the same thing: M isn’t turning in his homework; he’s so bright, it would be a shame to see him fail for this. Please make sure L comes to school on time. Please tell E to stop chewing gum in class.

This is my professional life, pleading with the parent of a fourteen-year-old to get her to spit out her gum.

Speaking of utter lacks of perspective: from here, up to my neck in it, I want to take a long hot shower and run for the hills. Naked, screaming.

Say Goodbye to the Nineties

I was packing to leave my Brooklyn apartment for the new cohabitat in Manhattan. I don’t have a lot of stuff to begin with, but I was down to the ruthless last stages of pack vs. throw out, and I came across a plastic bag containing every mix tape given to me since 1998. Do people have tape players anymore? I had one in my station wagon, which was 14 years old, but I sold the car when I moved to the city.

There was “Music for My Emotional Friends,” from my elfin friend J, who became my compatriot one lonely winter in Louisville and took me in the next summer in exchange for weeding his garden, which I ruined. He had been doing impressions of a strange Turkish pen pal he had who left messages on his cell phone that went, “Hello J, I am Zana, I will talk to you late, emotional friend,” in an oblivious monotone, everything lost in the translation. J had a dusty, esoteric record collection, from which he lovingly made mix tapes during the violent summer rain storms Kentucky is famous for.

There was “Braille Dinosaur,” from A, the youngest curmudgeon I ever lived with, who moved, eventually, to Louisville. It was a perfectly calibrated compendium of sing-along-able indie rock, my salvation the summer I was a postal worker. The industrial din of the machines was so loud I could belt songs at the top of my lungs and no one could hear me.

There was the electroclash mix from cool A, 2002, when FischerSpooner and Adult. and Peaches and LadyTron were all the rage.

There was the Bob Dylan mix from JS, who I pined after for months.

“Nostalgia on Tape” was courtesy of D, made the night before she graduated, a year before me, which had the Velvet Underground, Sleater Kinney, Joni Mitchell, and a bunch of riot grrrl bands that sang her particular coming-of-age pathos.

There was “HotBlood,” a beautiful hip-hop tapestry from a boy I slept with on my 21st birthday, on vacation in San Francisco.

I threw them all away.

Tapes sound worse with time; their substance literally degrades after each playing. I wasn’t sure what I was holding onto by stashing them in hard-to-reach closets. I’ll keep the memory of the particular stretch of Route Nine in western Massachusetts that always reminds me of D and the Velvet Underground, the memory of feeling like Dancer in the Dark as I harmonized Built to Spill in front of a postal conveyor belt, the delight at receiving a mix tape from JS at all, which, admittedly, I rarely listened to. As I packed, I played the music (on a laptop) I loved to sing to when I was in college: the Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, Billy Bragg, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nada Surf, the Red House Painters. Bearing witness to the end of an era, the end of my plucky tenure as literary nomad, roommate, commuter. The end of sleeping alone, ever.