To Make It Here

To make it here means to push the soul

to the side, be buried alive,

willingly enslaved to something future.

 

We’ve made it, you and I,

we’re so fortunate to be able to put away

our lives somewhere to never be used

except in the case of a dream

or a nightmare.

 

This fear we have is of

each other, our own skin

surrounding us, not quite there

where we need it to be,

away and safe, secured against

ourselves.

That D-Day on the Event Horizon

Scared child

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As a public school student, I recall dreading the first day back after the summer vacation long before that fateful day arrived. Its shadow loomed large and ever increasingly ominous over the last few weeks, tainting my prolonged nocturnal fiction book reading marathons. The sight of back-to-school sales were enough to make my stomach recoil. I imagine that this is how soldiers preparing to storm a certain beach in Normandy would have felt, readying themselves to plunge into an uncertain future that contained at the most death, and at the least, certain horror — though I suppose mixed in there is that unique elated excitement born from the headlong rush into a danger that you know will change you irrevocably.

As a public school teacher, the feeling as the first day of school draws nigh is disturbingly similar. It’s different, of course, because now I am an adult, and I am the teacher, and I am much more in control of certain variables of myself and my situation than I was as a hormonally charged and overly sensitive adolescent desperately scrounging for social and emotional currency. So there’s a bit more of a positive edge to this adrenaline coursed pulsing of nausea that edges and nips at my stomach as I think ahead to that swiftly approaching D-Day, but otherwise it feels more or less the same. It’s not exactly something I relish, as you can probably tell.

It seems to me that there is something odd about some of the traditions and rituals that we cling to in our society. One of them being this prolonged summer vacation between different grades (another being our adherence to daylight savings time). Most of us are aware that disadvantaged students lose a significant portion of their academic gains in learning over the summer. The students that I have been working with, whom are not only disadvantaged socio-economically speaking, but furthermore cognitively speaking, lose nearly all of their learning if they are not practicing their acquired skills during the summer. Which was pretty far back (2-4 grade levels behind) to begin with.

This has been the first summer since I began teaching that I’ve fully enjoyed, as the last two I’ve spent most of taking trainings, exams and classes. And therefore I can state that having extended vacations — during which I am still getting paid — is a very nice thing indeed. But I can also say that I think it’s just a tad overlong. Since coming back from my honeymoon, I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things: waking up early, staying on top of my Twitter and news feeds, responding to emails, putting together to-do lists and checking off items. But it’s really bloody hard when you’ve just completely gone off the whole map of what it means to be in a structured schedule and environment.

I’m not whining. I’m bringing this up to make the point that I don’t think having prolonged summer breaks is good for either students nor adults. Both students and adults may say that we enjoy 2-3 month long summer breaks on principle, but the fact is that even students — except for those sent away to posh summer camps — begin to flounder in the over abundance of free time and get just a little bit, well, bored. Or perhaps just a bit directionless. We all need to have some kind of structure in our lives to help keep us developing and healthy. During the long summer, that structure, unless maintained by strict parenting (on the part of students) or self-discipline (on the part of teachers), tends to fall to the wayside. And much that had been built during the school year is therefore left to fester.

I would much prefer to have more plentiful but shorter vacations, as Kathleen Porter-Magee suggests in this Room for Debate post from a while back. Something on the scale of 2 weeks, as opposed to 2 months. Just long enough to really enjoy it and ease up the pace and tension, but not so long that I’ve forgotten what it means to work entirely. But more importantly, this would much reduce the severity of that adrenaline inducing sense of nausea that the first day of school brings after an overlong summer vacation.

Part of the reason for the fear and nervousness that accompanies the first day of school is not only that summer is ending — it is because you know that you are about to be plunged head-first into a long and seemingly never-ending tunnel of frenzied efforts to stay on top of a pile of emotionally and cognitively and physically demanding tasks during 70 hour work-weeks that never stops piling up in front of you, with only the occasional 3-day weekend or stray “winter recess” or “spring break” to keep you functionally sane and from developing scurvy. If we had more vacations in lieu of a long summer break, these could help keep both the students and adults capable of functioning in a somewhat rational and civilized manner and from developing strange growths in their necks and holes in their stomach linings.

Sigh. Well, yes, I’ve rather been enjoying this summer. Lots of beer (and subsequent belly distending, which I attempt to counterbalance with running) and wine, hanging out with beautiful and wonderful friends and family, savoring fresh pineapple, papaya and coconut. Learning how to cook again. Reveling in my new marriage and amazing catch of a wife. I’ve even been reading fiction books! That have nothing to do with education! Just for the fun of it! (Can you tell that I feel vaguely guilty?)

And as that first day draws ever nearer, I attempt to fight back the eddying fear of the unknown by beginning to prepare in whatever way I can. But here’s the thing, folks. In the world of public education, you can never be fully prepared. So you are just left with that nauseous, sinking, fluttery feeling every morning until suddenly you wake up several weeks after the school year has hit you, and you’ve become fully immersed in your professional self once again . . .

Thoughts at the End of a Rough Day at the End of a Rough Week

Down In It

Had a bad day and couldn’t fully breathe due to the tension, so I went for a walk after work–still dressed in my formal attire–out into the park near my apartment, passing by the inevitable gaggle of teenage boys standing huddled together in the trees near the entryway, going up the stairs and passing the stray couple dry humping on a rock and smoking pot, and finally immersed myself deep in the park with no one else around. Interesting how few people, other than the scattered runners and dog walkers and bird watchers, are really willing to walk deep up into it. Not that I’m complaining. I sat up at the top overlooking the Hudson River and a thought came to me that finally calmed me and let me breathe again. I was thinking about the sort of paradox that the further away we can pull our vision from humanity–such as by looking down at the planet from outer space or simply walking solitary out into nature, out into the woods, up on top of a mountain–the more interconnected we recognize ourselves with others; whereas the more densely we embed ourselves in human culture, such as in megalopolises or in nightlife or what have you, the more disconnected and isolated we can often feel from other people.

Maybe this was the thought that finally centered me and prompted me to return home because it articulated my sense of loneliness in the midst of my life in this here giant city while reminding me of the bigger picture. It allowed me to cast aside the self-importance that lies at the other side of stress and remind myself of the beautiful insignificance of being a part of something much greater than myself.

Planet Earth

Goin’ Crazy

The interior of the Francis M. Drexel School i...

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I feel like this profession is driving me crazy. Just about 80% of the other educators I meet I find either plumb crazy or I just simply can’t relate to them. The very few I can relate to are still pretty darn weird. Now, I ain’t exactly making any claims to normalcy myself. I have what could politely be called eclectic tastes. I drink weird herbal liqueurs and hate watching anything but depressing movies and listen to Norwegian electric guitar jazz or Senegalese mbalax. But I have worked with a pretty diverse amount of people in my time on this here earth, and once I got through my bitter misanthropic phase after college, I’ve mostly gotten along pretty well with the folks I’ve worked with. And I get along with most of the people I work with now, too. But I secretly find them all just frankly weird. I mean this in the sense that I just don’t find much of their actions nor dialogue intelligible.

I’m still confused about whether that’s because teachers in general are crazy or if it’s because public education is crazy and it drives people crazy. But it must be the latter, because now I think I’m goin crazy. I mean, how could you not? There’s so many conflicting values and directives and ideas being thrown at me that I never know which way is up. And I try to do what I do best, which is to examine the system as a whole and then enter into the fray with a structured vision which I then seek to implement. But then it’s like the rug gets pulled out from under me just when I think I’m achieving something.

Eventually, I’ve begun to understand why so many of the teachers I’ve met are such hot messes. They’ve become focused narrowly upon that point on which they know they can achieve something positive, and they lash out at anything that might threaten that unstable piece of manna. They cradle it like a flame from the wind. Because the fact is that the world outside of the classroom–even within the school itself–does not generally have the best interests of the teacher nor students therein in mind. And even when they do–the fact is that some things get very gray when they enter into the realm of classroom reality. People want to go on and on about “students first.” And no one would disagree, of course. But most of these folks have not actually stepped foot into the reality of a classroom in a high poverty district. Try it, folks. Please. See if you can take the abuse that many teachers undergo for an entire working day. Then step back and see if you can keep talking about accountability and high expectations from such a pristine moral vantage.

Schoolwork is messy, in the same manner that work in the ICU unit of a hospital is messy. At least in the NYC public school system in the South Bronx it is. Does it have to be? No. But in the meantime those of us who are crazy–or who are destined to become crazy–are the ones out on the front lines trying to dredge out a garden in the midst of a hailstorm on the precipice of a cliff. Welcome to reality. It can drive you mad.

Spoken

All of the unspoken pent up thoughts of a day string themselves down within your subconscious cells until you’ve sentenced yourself into another sleepless night of breathless anxiety. It is no wonder, in such circumstances, that hordes of the worlds populace herd themselves eagerly into mentalities of the meek, hypocritical doctrines of the downtrodden. Even if words and visions held sacred are somewhat dated, inaccurate, or even completely off the mark, still, they offer the solace of a given naming of the unknown, they can give voice to hidden worlds that are capable of being accepted blindly, or half-heartedly, or at whatever degree of compromise and diligence that one is willing to bestow it in order to make it through another day with one’s mental health still intact, however tenuous. Those of us who are not so accepting of other’s words are doomed to the hell of our own awakenings.

One way or another, there is no escaping your self. The subliminal structures of nature work tirelessly to shock you into conscious awareness of all of the evolving life around you. Look, listen, learn! Yet all you want to do is sleep. To allow the unmanifest worlds within lie dormant for another day, until eventually, of course, they must explode outward from the slowly accumulating pressure. But all one can do momentarily is end the charade of tossing and gasping and sit in front of a computer screen in the early morning hours to vent what little known words there be, with the hope that this sacrifice, this little cutting from the heart will be enough to allow mindlessness again for a little while more. A truce with rebel subconscient forces. However imperfect and ineffective these words might be, at least they are all your own, strung out limply on the roadside from the unspeakable suffering of physical existence.

Anxiety as an Inability to Voice What is Within

A man is programmed to hold his suffering within. And when this becomes too great to bear, his body turns on him, his throat constricts, his arteries strangle his own blood flow, his mind takes control of his lungs and subverts the most basic and essential of functions–breathing. How can this lonely, inexplicable impotence in the face of oneself be shared, voiced, exorcised?

The rush of adrenaline that comes in the face of danger, the so-called fight-or-flight response, is a residue of our evolutionary past, the reptilean brain survival mechanism. When the adrenaline fires without any visible signs of danger, without any immediate reason, how can this be explicated to anyone else? The fight and the flight is activated by oneself, against oneself, almost like an act of spite, an act of contrition, as if you are making yourself suffer for things that you are unable to define. It is not in the vernacular of our society to voice such things. How can one say, I am hurting, I am bleeding, watching people I care about destroying themselves, watching my nation destroy its future? How can one say, I cannot ignore this death around me, I cannot ignore all of the hidden suffering of everyone around me, I cannot pretend to be OK, I cannot pretend that everything is as it appears? How can one say, I am an open wound, I am not healing, I am scared that everyone else is also suffering alone, and there is nothing I can do, and nothing I can say to reach them?

So it is held within, to the point of bursting. It pushes away everyone you love. It expands a gigantic void within yourself, and you stumble through the day like a hollow husk, not knowing what is wrong, fearing the coming of the night, where you will toss and turn despite utter exhaustion, where you will feel like a track runner right before the gun goes off, where you will gasp like a fish at air seemingly devoid of oxygen, no matter how much you take into your lungs.

And how sweet, and how bitter, is the release when the tears suddenly well up in your eyes and your heart springs open to this hidden, inarticulate world of suffering that we smooth over so well everyday. This world of death, and pain, and suicide, and addiction. These are things we do not discuss. These are the things we fear.

Everytime someone you know passes from life, you sense the rupture in the barrier that you had put up between yourself and them. You feel guilty, as if you were involved in their death. Because you pretended that death did not exist, that they could never die, that you could never die. And now what is there to say, when you know how everyone is suffering, alone, hiding it, smiling, working through the day? How can you possibly reach one another across this void that keeps you apart even from yourself? How can you say anything to heal this, when you know that there is no healing of this wound?

Apocalypse Now

It is somehow ironic that what devastates me the most is my own mind.

Here, in this place of adrenaline, shortness of breath, and a terrible self-awareness, I find the truth in just how alone I can feel, even when I am in the midst of comfort. I render myself unable to sleep, unable to breathe, unable to feel anything but suffering. I feel like these are the vestiges of my individuality, struggling to remind me of my bodily constraints. You can’t escape yourself, I seem to tell myself, my throat and veins constricting, my skin growing cold to the touch. You can’t escape your fear, your self-awareness, your thoughts. I can’t control my self.

Is this what we do when we are too comfortable, with too much idle time? Do we torture ourselves? Do we toss and turn in our beds even when we are exhausted, unable to stop thinking? Are we trying to teach ourselves what suffering is all about? Punishing ourselves for our nation’s affluency, for our luck of the draw, for the lethargy of our culture?

This place within myself is a warzone.