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.


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