Notes from the Field: My First Week Unteaching….

I wanted it to be heroic.  I wanted it to be visible proof of good decisions.  If sad, I wanted it to be poignant sadness, a single tear rolling down my cheek to the music of violins.

It has not been any of those things.

My colleagues at Graham went back to school on Monday.  All around the Bay, teacher friends are doing the same this month.  I thought that if not teaching is the opposite of teaching, I would simply listen more than talk this week, not try to control anything, get plenty of sleep, not care what I wore or said, eat well, and focus on the few instead of the many.  Instead I woke up with my alarm Monday morning sobbing.

“I don’t w-w-w-want to go to school–I AM NOT READY,” I wailed to Cat as snot bubbled out of my nose.  I sat there trying to wake up and realized I didn’t have to go to school.  “But wait, everyone is going to school without me!!!”  I started in with a fresh wave of heartbreak.  I threw myself down and set the alarm for another forty five minutes and planned to Uber to work.  Enter the scariest dream I’ve had in a while:  I had been kidnapped, and the kidnappers said they were taking me back to my house to kill my parents and that it would be my fault.  While dream me didn’t know this, me watching the dream somehow knew that my parents were setting me up to see if I really loved them.  I managed to escape from the garage of the house when the stupid kidnapper accidentally locked himself in the car, and I fled through the streets of San Francisco with the second man in hot pursuit.  I found an unlocked building and ran into the antique elevator with cage doors.  The elevator had been freshly painted white and was hanging by just one cable between two floors, but I knew that at least I was safe if I didn’t move too much.

I woke up and emailed four of the many tremendous and rooted women in my life: “Dear Power Rangers, I need help today….”  I got to work somehow but before an hour was up, I slipped in sunscreen I had been putting on little campers and slammed my right side into the ground.  I sat there tearing up.  “Teacher, teacher should we call 911?!?”  No, I thought, you shouldn’t.  I am an almost 40 year old woman lying in sunscreen in the middle of a summer camp office.  I am stupid, I don’t deserve help.  And for the rest of the day the voice continued to pop up like whac-a-mole: stupid, stupid, stupid.  The clumsiness, not a new phenomenon for me during times of emotional stress, continued also.  One girl who had been waiting for her mom in the office for about an hour finally says to me, “Are you okay?  You keep trying to drop things in the trash or put things on the desk and not quite making it.”  At lunch time, the school campus on which we are holding our camp erupted with teachers in the middle of a prepping for work day.  They were purposeful, they looked jolly and collegial, and at one point I kid you not, three of them unlocked and opened their back doors in perfect fucking synchronicity.  All they needed was a musical soundtrack and some cartoon mice to make it a Disney movie  By the time Byron came in to the camp office late afternoon and puked on me, I didn’t even say anything as I cleaned him up.

At dance that night I felt I could rebound.  One of my four Power Rangers brought me flowers as I was laying on the warm concrete stoop of the dance hall, waiting for our teacher to show up.  I started ugly crying as she handed them to me.  She said they were flowers for ‘my big day,’ and asked if she could share the stoop with me.  My big day, I thought, yeah, it is a big day, I am being brave I thought in shock.  Go me!  Before I left to set up the dance hall she said, “Remember I have your back, I mean it.”  Some more of the weight lifted.  The set up crew chatted and laughed as we worked and my breath finally returned and settled completely.  When the warm up finally started, one of the first songs was about being tied in a corner.  No seriously, the song was about being tied in a corner.  Hmmm…coincidence, or the by-product of being friends with your dance teacher?  Either way, I realized I was not going to get away from this dislocation.  That meant one thing: I had to explore it.  If running was not an option, and in some hearty new part of me it really isn’t anymore, then relationship, in all its sticky, delicious fuckery, is where we need to go.

Enter dance teacher as ninja: the topic of tonight’s class was proprioception and exteroception.  Simply put, how do we know where we are in a space, and how do we know what makes up the space around us.  Long story short, it was one of the hardest classes I’ve done in my two plus years of conscious dance.  I cried, I flapped, I panic attack breathed, I walked out of the room and back in.  But at no point did I say or quiet a voice saying, I can’t do anymore tonight.  I felt I was cracking into something vital.  Ask someone on a given day how they know where their elbow is, and there’s not much emotional charge to it.  But halfway through the exercises our dance teacher asked, “What is the relationship between how you understand where you are, and how much risk you are able to take?”

Flashbulb.

The place I compulsively poured myself into is gone.

I don’t know where I am.

If I don’t let my body lend it’s wisdom to this reteaching, I will end up never having done more than just “taken a year off.”  I will go back to teaching because I can.  The sense of being coordinated that one gains from a habit, although comforting, is not as alive as the gracefulness and coordination that comes from a living, breathing investment of trust.

I can articulate this today, but by the end of Monday it was a series of monosyllables and stutters when someone tried to make me talk.  Even now I’m aware of hoping I can sneakily write myself into place even though there is none right now.  Tuesday was a blur of emotional hangover peppered by minute kindnesses.  One of those being a teacher friend that reached out to say that she too was leaving teaching next year.  We continued the conversation this morning, and while my reasons are still full of open questions, hers were unapologetically bold: “It feels stupid to work so hard within a system that we KNOW is broken and has no possibility of correcting itself….”  I hate to see so many teachers hearts end up broken, juiced and left behind, but I loved that she knew where she was in her dissent.  It heartened me so much to talk to her that I was singing by the time I got to work and greeting the trees on Encinal Avenue.  Someone was making the same decisions and transitions as me in real time.  As the wisdom voice in me already knew, I wasn’t stupid.  I just like to move slowly and deeply as I roll and push into transitions, acquire new heart and head knowledge, and make a place where both entities can live.

I would love to end this post on a high note, but twelve hours later I was crying my face off again listening to Save Yourself by Kaleo, thinking of public education writing me a tearful goodbye.  I am going to feel dislocated.  Maybe just for a week, but more likely for a long time.  Last year in my creative writing club after school, one of my fellow creatresses wrote a line that still sticks with me, “Maybe the question we should ask isn’t who am I, but where am I?”  It felt utterly true then and now.  Thus, I will try and take my time and meet my fear of the space around me with a fiery, love stubbornness.

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If we weren’t there…

Walking to work Tuesday morning, I happened to turn my head as I passed a small office building.  There was a woman in a back room, one light on, washing out a coffee pot.  She looked to be in her mid-fifties, was a little heavyset, wearing something floral that no doubt crinkled and rasped instead of breathing.  I wondered about her as I walked.  I figured her name was probably something responsible and stalwart sounding: Pat or Lou Ann, or Barb…yes, definitely Barb.

I wondered how long Barb had been working at the office.  She looked pretty comfortable as she leaned into that sink.  Was it long enough for people to start taking her for granted and forgetting who made the coffee, watered the plants, re-ordered the paper clips?  I started thinking about all the people who are up early, many of us in the dark of deep night or early morning, to make sure that the scene is set for the next day.  Selfless magicians making lunches by the light of time clock on the microwave.  Generals making copies for multiple levels of differentiated curriculum.  Janitors slow dancing weary mops over wet floors like Fred and Ginger stuck in Purgatory.  The list goes on, and I started to compose an ode to them all, feeling it was the only thing that was right after the enormity of their sacrifices…

…except that it wasn’t.  It was making me sick.  I stopped and stared at a lawn of purple blossoms digging electric holes into the green.  “Fuck that,” I told them in no uncertain terms.  “Fuck that all morning and into the afternoon!”  Now, I don’t usually curse at flowers, but I suddenly found myself SOOO angry!!

Why do we glorify the endless sacrifice of these scene-setters?  And besides being glorified for it, why and how can we the scene-setters continue to find it so attractive?  I know I did, and to some extent still do.  I was the teacher who thought through the lesson so thoroughly most days that I had removed every obstacle that was humanly possible for me to remove from student’s learning.  All it took for them was to step into this miracle, and I loved creating this open land for them.  “But you were just doing your job.”  But was I?  In making them believe in seamless beginnings, middles, and ends, was I taking something from them?  Are we making it too easy to have stars in the eyes but no feet on the ground?  All the miracles I know of have moving human parts; susceptible to wear, rust, and all other conditions that make replacement parts necessary.

This is not to say these people aren’t appreciated–there is Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Teacher Appreciation Week, Administrative Assistant Week.  However, appreciation isn’t really the point (what is the point?  maybe the hindrance to community?).  This is also not to say that we should stop preparing for everything.  I went to a class a few months back now where the facilitator so wanted to “co-create” with us, that she spent almost an hour of a four hour workshop talking about choices for what we could do next.  By the end of the day I wanted to kick her woo-woo butt to Woo-wootopia.  In theory the idea of co-creation thrills me, but in practice it is a lot harder embody in a way that works for everyone.

So, how do you set the scene without making the scene setting invisible?

No, it’s not a pointless question.  I have to ask all manner of questions till I figure out why, almost a week later, I’m still thinking about dependable Barb in the window.  What if she, what if all of us who handle logistics and make it possible for important people to do important things, just didn’t show up one day?  What if we were gone for more than a day?  Would people’s ownership of the underpinnings of organizations change?  If nothing else, we’d all get some good sleep.

I know not all scene setters are as meticulous as I was.  Maybe Barb only remembers to wash the coffee pot once every few weeks when she hears someone remark that the coffee tastes funky.  For some people a scene setting job is just another job, same as any.  My worry is for those of us that think it won’t get done if we don’t do it, for those of us who get up in the dark to steal something back from the law of scarcity, who don’t have another outlet for love besides the relentless attention to details.  I think those folks need to do themselves and us a favor and go on vacation, remember there is plenty everywhere.