What I Really Wanted

If you are a non-child bearing or rearing adult, your Saturday morning is probably spent sleeping in, making coffee, and checking your social media.  Mine is now spent fighting evil, trash sneezing monsters that are polluting the ocean and killing all the fish, with the help of the characters from Paw Patrol, whose names I actually know.  About five minutes into this week’s battle, which consisted of Paxton throwing karate moves and me throwing bark at the play structure, I paused for a water break–our rules of engagement being slightly different than that of the current day military.

“Paxton, can I ask how this bad guy turned bad?  I mean, did he always sneeze trash at people for fun?”

“No, he used to be a good guy, but then a bad guy tricked him and said he’d give him candy if he sneezed trash on people.  Now, he’s been doing it for so long that he just does it for fun.”

“Wow….I kinda feel bad for him now.  Sounds like he had a rough childhood without anyone to teach him or take care of him.”

Sigh.  “Are you going to say we should forgive him now and not kill him?  That’s what my mom always says that you have to forgive everyone.  That’s the rule.”

And I paused.  The adult in me, the habits from years of being an authority figure, and the ghost of a Pentecostal upbringing, all urged me to agree with his mom.  But I couldn’t, so I didn’t.  I went on to tell him that, although he has a great mom, I disagree with her on this one.  And that even though it usually makes us feel better to forgive, there is nothing that says you have to, and in fact, you might have very good reasons for not forgiving (especially if you are a four year old getting bullied at preschool, with a new baby brother that dethrones you from being the only child).  “Besides,” I ended with, “it’s not real forgiveness if someone makes you do it.”  We then went on to brutally slay the evil, trash sneezing monster together.  Side note: it made for some very delicious evil monster sushi, so we did use what we killed 😉

As I cleaned my house this afternoon, letting my mind wander with scrubbing and vacuuming, it hit me.  That moment was and is a huge part of what I really wanted with teaching (especially in my latter years), what I rarely feel I reached, with the exception of social moments with students.  It’s part of why I grew increasingly frustrated.  Where the curriculum, both created and forced on us, looked at a subject from one angle, or with one application in mind, I wanted to teach in 360 degrees, full of paradox, application, and mess–aka how we actually learn outside of the school environment.  Common Core promised some of this, and I approached it independently in my own classroom and with colleagues over the years, but it never flowered.  I lacked skill and energy, and the system was only adaptable to a certain point.  Especially here in Silicon Valley, it was difficult to create learners because grades were more status, yours and/or your parents, and a future big paycheck.

This of course simplifies the issues in play, but I’m writing a personal blog post here, not a treatise on the problems in public education.  So what would this look like?  Good question since I’ve never gotten very close to it.  If I taught in 360, I’d be able to tell a student, “I will be wrong about so many things while we’re together, because no one knows you like you do, but I am going to ask you to trust me anyways.  Trust me and challenge me when you think I’m full of it.”  Ownership.  Acknowledgement of shared humanity.  I’d have more than a year or two in which to develop that environment.  Maybe not a full ten or twelve like I’ve heard of in some Waldorf schools, but we’d be stuck with each other until we could work our shit out.

I’d be able to OPENLY bring into question ALL the unquestionables: the authority of parents-church-government-medicine, social constructs like success and gender, physical realities like time, and the list goes on.  I’d be able to do this without having an apocalyptic parental/administrative response.  And if there was a kerfluffle with parents, I’d have few enough students that I could sit down with a parent for an hour and talk it through without that hour costing me three of my weekend.  I’d have few enough students that if someone wanted to skip studying one thing, I could send them off to read and learn as they please, and actually check back in with them.

And what about the planned curriculum?  Let me take one example from my English teacher life: the plot line.  All students, almost every year, learn and revisit the parts of a plot.  The hope is that each time you revisit the knowledge, it is deepened in some way.  In theory, this is great, but the plot line can only get so fucking deep before a kid’s eye rolls and moans are 110% justified.  Now here’s the thing, I think knowledge of the plot line is tremendously valuable, but for totally different reasons: changing your personal story mid-course, predicting and avoiding mistakes in history, being able to step back from the stories that come to you each day and see the greater human significance, also to see the individual players and who is gaining/losing in the midst of each story.  Why are there multiple versions of the same story?  What do we say to the stories that have been lost, either by accident or by force?  Why are we so easily controlled by advertising?  How does the brain function in storing and making meaning of stories?  I may be fucking insane, but I think answers to most of these questions, and way far juicier ones, are resident in the simple, boring plot line.  What if we could look at all of it?

And the truth is, we can’t.  Not in the system we have now.  Probably not even completely in the best of alternative schools.  But that’s what I really wanted.  I wanted them to not have to wait till college for messy learning.  I felt my shoulders drop and my exhale sound when I straight up told a four year old that his mom could be awesome, but still be wrong, and that there could be other ways to look at it.  Forgiveness could be a virtue, but not a law, and it could still be okay to want to kill a monster, even one with a tragic backstory.

There are no solutions in this understanding, but there is relief in being able to articulate, at least a little better, what was missing.

Surprise! You are Burnt Out!

Burnout.

It’s not a word I’ve actively avoided or feared, it’s just something I didn’t think applied to me.  Well-meaning friend leans in with the conspiratorial whisper: “So, is it burnout, is that why you’re leaving??”  “No, it’s not that, it’s…”

But last weekend I sat with a friend in her backyard, which looks very close to what I imagine the Garden of Eden would, and had a lovely meandering chat, basking in her refracted Burning Man glow.  We found our way to the subject of public education, as two teachers-at-heart are prone to do, when she said something that I recognized as truth for myself: “When I left teaching, there was a lot of shame around being burnt out.”

Exhale.  Yes, this.  God damn it!  Gentle truth can be so sneaky!!  I haven’t wanted to see what is clearly in front of me.  Even now I sit here thinking about how I could minimize it: explain that it’s not that bad so no one worries, focus on the positives of my current life change to the exclusion of stating it simply, remind people that it’s not the only reason I left, go through a pointless recap of why it happens.  But the unaltered truth is that I am burnt out.

Time spent working in the last three months vs. time I would’ve spent at school teachering–using a conservative estimate, about three hundred hours less, and it still feels like too much.  For the first few months of the summer, passing time in the camp office in between owies, I would scan job alerts every morning.  Here’s what the conversation sounded like in my head: “I could do that, nah…I could do that one too, nah…and that one….”  When someone throws too many directions at me at once, like my new fast talking flower shop boss, I almost instantly glaze over.  On days when I’m able, I happily nap 3-4 hours a day, and then wander around at night like a happy little monkey.  I find myself wondering why so much of the music is so annoying, when I used to almost always have my headphones in.  If I have to face conflict or go even remotely fast on any given day, I feel it like a hangover the next day.  In one conversation in particular, after a parent at camp was mildly upset with me, I got off the phone sweating, heart racing, hands shaking.  It was a response that was wildly disproportionate to the conversation I just had.

So why not recognize it and say it earlier?  I can’t really articulate what feels like a full and satisfying answer to that question.  For starters?  It feels really inconvenient to recognize myself as someone who both deserves and needs care that I may or may not fully be able to give.  How do you “heal” burnout?  I can’t just not work.  I feel the most satisfaction right now in things that I can’t really get wrong, in things that are physical, in things that are play, in things where there is not a constant escalation of expectations.  Looking at books on Amazon (my other usual go-to) doesn’t help either.  Listen to these fucking titles, my personal favorites out of the first thirty or so:

Burnout: Resting in God’s Fairness (no thanks, didn’t work the first time), High Octane Women: How Superachievers can Avoid Burnout (the fetching woman on the cover in the pantsuit really speaks to me), Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome (great, so now it has a fancy medical name and we are all collectively fucked up by it), The Secret of Vigor (lots of people jumping up and down on this one–not great for those of us who have to deal with boob jiggle), Burnout: What is Burnout & How to Bounce Back! (this book features a man with his face buried in his hands, and the author–no joke–is Wilson Worst), Do No Work (okay, that one does sound a little appealing), and my personal favorite, Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education (I want to send Pollyanna to personally beat the crap out of you Debbie Thompson Silver).

I think the “answer” is going to be what it always is–listen and follow my intuition.  I will reknit the frayed places when they reknit, there is no making it sooner than it is going to be.  Until then, I take this arriving knowledge as an invitation to continue to actively participate in my life and to rewrite the rules.  For example, today at work was supremely slow.  It was one of those days where you make up stuff for yourself to do that may or may not actually need doing.  After three hours or so I had the following conversation with myself: “This is a waste of time.  You should go home.”  “I can’t go home, I’m supposed to be here for two more hours.”  “But you’re standing at the register, staring out the window, eating Doritos, and no orders have come in for over an hour.”  “Fine, I’ll go home, but you’re a trouble maker!!”

So I asked/let Reina know I was going to leave rather than keep standing around and wasting my time and Judy’s money.  She said okay with that look you give to rulebreakers, and I walked out the door.  On the way home I was aware of feeling like a “bad” person.  Reina had told me shop history today while we worked, and even things about her sister who works there some days.  What if everyone in America all of a sudden decided to order flowers five minutes after walking out the door and I had left her stranded?

Then it hit me: my hunger for belonging is so great, that I’ve been willing to do things that don’t make sense, or don’t make sense anymore, including things that might hurt me physically, emotionally, or spiritually.  This has always been the case.  I sat outside my second real boyfriend’s house, many years ago, for three days in a row, crying my eyes out, intending to go in and break up with him, but never doing it.  But as I walked home today I realized that I don’t have to pay those kinds of prices for belonging anymore.  I can just find my belonging elsewhere.

The price for belonging in public education was very high for me, despite every gorgeous piece of magic I witnessed and created in thirteen years.  I don’t have to be embarrassed that the payments bankrupted me.  I still am, but I don’t have to be.

 

 

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Why schools?

I didn’t have room for it yesterday, but this morning I woke up sad.  None of the usual Friday feeling, but rather images of panicked students and law enforcement running through my brain.  Even though I’ve long since stopped following the details of these occurrences, the refrain in my head plays all the way to work.  Oregon.  More death.  It’s happened again.

As a teacher, each incidence of school violence is not only national, but personal.  “It could have been me.  It could have been my students.”  After a while, you either accept it as an occupational hazard and push the black blob of fear down, or you don’t/can’t/won’t, and figure out what to do from there.

However, what is not so matter-of-fact for me this morning is a question I’ve been holding for years now.  A question I haven’t asked for fear of exposing my ignorance on politics and other grown-up things.  A question I haven’t asked for fear of smart people contradicting the truth that I know.

The question I have is this: why schools?

Why aren’t the majority of these shootings at malls, movie theaters, churches, parks, or any other spaces with lots of innocent people?  There has to be at least one or two places that are easier to get guns and other homemade weaponry into than schools.  Maybe the familiarity or habit of school makes it the safe and easy choice, especially for those who are mentally unbalanced?  But that doesn’t ring true either.  I have many students who spend almost as much time at Starbucks or the park as they do at school.  Maybe it’s media coverage?  But would a school shooting really get more coverage than any other type of shooting?  I watched horrified as the coverage of the church shooting in Charleston continued to wash through the media in waves.  Maybe I just don’t understand the mind of someone desperate enough to walk into a place, any place, and start shooting.

I’ve been round and round with this question in my mind to no avail, so the lack of public discussion about it still floors me.  I think we’re right as a nation to be talking about gun control and the treatment of mental illness when these thefts of life occur, and I don’t want to downplay those in the slightest.  However, I think we are wrong not to ask about the setting of these grisly stories.  For me, the setting says only one thing: people go to schools to hurt because they are hurt at schools.

Their voices are denied or ignored, by teachers and fellow students, when they do not fit the dominant paradigm.  Narcotics, both legal and illegal, can not heal the experience of being invisible, unheard.  The pressure builds and drastic steps are taken, drastic steps that could have been avoided.  Yes, this hurt may be in them already when they come to school, but when they come to a place that is rumored to hold hope, ideas, and answers, and find only conform, conform, conform, they are let down in a way that burns.

This grieves me more deeply than I can find adequate words for because I have also seen children’s lives saved or discovered at school.  Teachers lay down hundreds of thousands of hours each year in love, sweat, and tears to meet the needs of those given to them.  So how do you even begin to do that math?  One life saved is a total victory.  One life lost is a total defeat.  Where does it leave us?  Well, where we are now I suppose–not talking about it, swimming in stasis, inertia, intention with little integrated action.  Forced as educators to ignore the obvious pain of some in order to keep the ship moving.  Forced as parents to choose public education because anything else is ridiculously out of the price range of most.

I don’t have answers, but I do have the ability to invite students to dissent within the classroom, to laugh at and point out the obvious ironies of the system we are in, to smile into the eyes of each child who walks through the door, and to start our day with, “Okay my beloveds, let’s get to our warm up.”  Until more people will entertain the question of ‘why schools?’, it will have to be enough.  Teachers, parents, students…let’s stop sitting on the question.  ‘Why’ has the power to sprout and take root in unexpected ways.