Happy New Year: An Exorcism and Onward to 2016

Tree & Cloud
Tree & Cloud

Goodbye to 2015, a year which seems, Janus-like, to present opposing faces as I look back on it.

Navel gazing advisory: the following is entirely personal and most likely of no great interest to you, dear reader, so consider yourself duly warned and advised. I write this, selfishly, for my own exorcism, and share it here because that’s what this blog is, for better or for worse—a selfish undertaking, with some obscure, vague hopes of selflessness imputed somewhere in the offing. A mundane and transparent and unscientific bloodletting, with some already lost dream of connection underlying the catharsis.

Took me some time to process, but I’ve finally recognized a psychological barrier greatly weighing me down at the close of this year. Two thousand fifteen. Overall, the year has been quite good. Quite excellent. But something occurred at the outset of this school year (September, for you non-public-school folks) that entirely sapped my mojo. I’ve avoided talking about it, or even fully grappling emotionally and mentally with it, because it never has had full closure. So now this, disclosure.

I was offered a position, in a very untimely manner, to a district-level role that would have not only significantly bumped up my salary*, but provided me an opportunity to utilize the skills and knowledge I’ve gained in my experience in education thus far, and see how I can share and apply them across hundreds of different schools. I was quite excited about the new role, but it unfortunately was offered at an extremely inopportune time—i.e. 2 weeks before the start of the new school year. I did everything I could to make it happen, including arranging as many interviews, phone and in person, that I could, attending hiring fairs, sending out emails to everyone within my professional network, sending out email blasts to listservs, emailing professors at graduate programs, and so on. And the really frustrating thing is that I had the full support of many others in my efforts.

Essentially, in order for me to take the position, I had to arrange for my own replacement. While there is much talk of teacher shortages, especially in special education, here in NYC it did not apply at the time that I was looking. Those few I was able to interview were either too unskilled, lacking proper certification, or were entirely incompetent (i.e. didn’t have the skills to email properly or even arrange for an interview), for the type of school and role we were seeking. I wasn’t merely looking for a warm body—this is a great position and school to work at.

I will abstain from detailing the interviews that did occur. I can regale you with them over crumpets and tea some time one-on-one, if you’re interested.

So once the school year commenced, and it was clear there was no amazing teacher waiting somewhere hidden in the wings, I washed my hands of the matter and got back to my work—or so I thought. Internally, I was sorely chafed, and it has been a rough transition, emotionally speaking, for me to get my head screwed back on straight. I’m not exactly someone attuned to my emotions — it took me 4 months to get to this current point of awareness, to the point of being able to talk somewhat honestly about it. With unnecessary rhetorical flourishes, of course. Partially, I think, because the position has still been (hypothetically) there for me, in the case I was able to find a replacement, so a part of me kept looking and hoping.

This has been damaging to my motivation and well-being.

So as I look back at 2015, even though the year up until that point had been quite fantastic, really—a busy and productive close to the prior school year (obtained my School Building Leader license), a wonderful and invigorating trip to Ireland and Scotland, and an energizing bit of additional work to close out the summer with an online curriculum company and a geeky study of NYC education history with a nonprofit—I was left with this very negative feeling in the dusty corners of my being. And that’s ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous, and petty, and insufferable. Which is probably why I’ve refused to fully look upon it, in all its puny, grotesque, childish glory.

This has made me recognize a damaging hubris of my character. I apparently feel this compelling need to justify my existence via a feeling of progress which is gained through the recognition of others. How superficial! But that’s how I am. And so I shut down when this opportunity didn’t pan out the way I hoped it would. I stopped writing articles. I turned down (or simply ignored) opportunities outside of my current school work. And I’ve been just a wee bit depressed, really. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s probably other elements involved, like existential notes of loneliness and getting older, but this may be the underlying factor that really squeezed me behind the gills.

So, taking a deep breath, looking at it honestly, and putting a fork in it. And forcing myself to open my eyes to just how incredibly fortunate and lucky I am to have what I have. To live in an apartment next to two beautiful parks here in upper Manhattan. To work in a great school with a professional and hardworking staff and wonderful students and families. To share this existence with my beautiful, hardworking, loving wife, who has been undergoing her own trials and tribulations to finish out an incredibly difficult nursing program (only one semester left!!!). And to come home every day to four vibrant birds (we took on two additional parakeets), who fill our apartment with endless chatter and color and life. To be in good health. To be part of two very different, yet complementary, families, both my wife’s, and my own.

That’s why there is shame involved here, to even be putting this out there. Shame in looking at this and articulating this out loud. Because there’s absolutely no good reason to be feeling this way. But there it is.

So, exorcised.

2016 stands untrammeled before us. Let’s do this right, people. Let’s do this honestly, and embracingly, and joyously. Happy new year.

*An aside on salary: (why do I feel the need to justify this? Why can’t we talk honestly about the importance of salary? This is NYC! Perhaps because I recognize that no matter how much I might pretend to be dancing around that thin red line, I can see all around us so many more in much more dire straights? Yes. That’s probably it.)

Only The Best Every Day

I finished my last graduate courses on Tuesday. As I walked to the train talking with a colleague who had begun the Fellows program at the same time as me, he remarked on how different we had become since that first summer during our initial training before entering the classroom. How innocent we were then! Teaching changes you, indelibly. I remember how on top of the world I felt at that time, even as I knew the challenges that awaited me. I had been a manager at a demanding and innovative grocery retailer and was physically fit, accustomed to breaking down pallets of heavy groceries, dealing with crazy customers, and working on one full meal a day with 4-6 hours of sleep and a 1 1/2 hour to 2 hour commute each way on what was generally a middle of the night series of subway trains. Yes! I finally had adapted to NYC after a recent move from Lake Tahoe and felt I was ready to tackle anything. Phew. Folks. What hubris, what folly.

See, the thing is that teaching takes much more than simple ambition, physical drive, stamina, and dedication. It takes deep internal spiritual and emotional wellsprings to maintain composure and constancy. Every facet of your being will be challenged, every hidden assumption, every underlying prejudice, every underdeveloped part of your psyche and soul, every trigger of anger or annoyance will be released and exposed and prodded and overturned. You will be scraped hollow. You will be on the verge of mental breakdowns–or actually have them, depending on your level of mental stability. You will nearly break into tears–or actually break into tears, depending on your level of stoicism–in front of other adults or students. Oh yes. Teaching changes you.

And there will be days when you wonder, given how close to the breaking point you can come, just at what point a human mind becomes broken and can no longer be made whole again. And at the verge of this question is a rift of despair and anguish so deep that you can’t really quite go there–you have to wall off the reality of the lives of your students from your own life in order to protect your own emotional and mental well-being. Your students. Some of them living lives so unfathomable that you have to build a wall of professionalism in order to protect yourself. Or risk craziness, despair. Breaking down into tears at the mere mention of their name. Because it’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s always about them. And even during the most challenging moments of confrontation, even during the worst days of acting out behavior, you know that this is all about serving them. About becoming a better person so that you can better serve them. Becoming a better teacher so that you can negotiate the land mine pathways of the heart and mind and guide them there by proxy.

Anyone who thinks that they can step into the midst of this situation and create a revolution will not survive. Idealism has little place in the day-to-day marathon battle of seeking to transform the very soil that these children are rooted within, confined within. Only steady, patient, nurturing, every day, constant, consistent, repeated love–love–love. Tough love. Real love. Love that does not accept mediocrity. Love that does not accept falsehood. Love that does not accept anything except the best from your beloved. Because you know that’s what they really are. The best. No matter what they tell themselves. No matter how much they try to show you the worst in them (and they will–it’s a child’s way of testing your commitment). Every day. The best. Only the best. The best in you. The best in them. Even when neither of you have it in you. You come the next day to try again.

Until one day, there is a moment when you look around you, into their eyes, into their hearts, and you feel it. You can feel it. Again, you almost begin crying, but this time, for another reason. It’s love. It’s real. And it is changing you. And if it is changing you, it must be, it must be changing your students, too. This is what you came here to do. And that is the only thing that can keep you going. That hope. That wish. That love.

Keep Your Chin Up, The Sequel

There have been many points within the past few weeks during which all that I can think about is quitting. The kind of day in which I am greeted in the morning by a child who tells me he wants to punch me in the face. And then another child who is angry because of something that happened during a basketball game during lunch (something I am only to piece together much later) and so he begins swearing at me, telling another student that he will slap her, and slamming his desk against the ground. And another student who is unable to stop talking for more than 1 minute, rendering me incapable of completing a full sentence during most points of the day (I’m not exaggerating). And another student who  becomes frustrated when I don’t allow him to do whatever he wants, so he grabs a computer monitor in order to try to break it. And another student who goes into violent hysterics when I gently and quietly suggest that she choose a book where she can read most of the words. And two students who begin punching each other because of something that happened between two other students. And so on and so forth. This is just a snippet of one day I’m talking about here.

I got pretty low there for a while, compounded by sickness. But eventually, I turned the corner. That’s just the way it goes. You get the bear up on your back, digging in his claws, and you’re getting dragged down, but then you turn the corner, and you find some sap and succor to carry you back into positivity. You find those moments of breakthrough, when students have a light in their eyes at the connection they are making to what you are saying.

I’ve also been learning coping strategies, to manage my own anger and upset. I sometimes have to step back and take a moment to allow students to have a completely off topic discussion, or to insult each other, until I can regain my composure and enter back into the fray. Because when I lose control of myself, that’s when my students begin to explode. They are like dry tinder in a forest, just waiting to be sparked. A little bit of anger from anyone, whether myself or another student, will spread like wildfire, and then the day will be spent in putting out flames. So I have to be able to take whatever they throw at me. I have to be the zen master, transforming their reactive stratagems of despair into teachable moments of development.

My students have learning disabilities (in addition to growing up in areas of high poverty), and I’m only just beginning to get a glimpse of what that really means. It means that nobody knows exactly how to teach them in just the way that they need. You can give them fragments of a standard education, but you have to find a way to pitch everything you do in a completely different way. And figuring out how to do that isn’t always clear. For example, a student may only be able to decode words at a kindergarten to early 1st grade level, but their comprehension is high. Meaning that they grow weary of low-level books about dogs and cats very easily. Or a student may be able to read words fluently at a 4th grade level, but their comprehension (or at least, their demonstration of their comprehension) of what they read is minimal. Traditional assessments don’t really convey exactly where they stand, in other words. It just tells you that they are behind, way behind.

So solutions may be, for example, that the student who can’t decode many words needs a graphic novel that requires complex understanding but has few words. And the student who reads fluently with little understanding may need books with clear and well-organized narratives, like well-written children’s books or short stories. But these aren’t solutions that you come to through training. You have to know the student that is in front of you and be able to see through their behaviors and symptoms and into the source of the obstruction to their learning. And you know, with all that free time and money that teachers have, you can develop all your own curriculum, get tons of great books, and tailor it just right for every student! (That last sentence was sarcasm, in case you didn’t catch it.)

I just keep on reminding myself — on those days in which I feel like breaking into tears in the middle of the classroom because my students are insulting each other in a way I would never even consider talking to any human being — that this is the challenge that I was looking for. I sought for it, and I got it.

And I remember last winter at this very time, I was going through the same struggle, in a different sense. I was sitting on the E train at 3 in the morning with the drunk and the homeless, then walking through the icy pre-dawn streets of Queens to shoulder the mythological struggle that is the American Dream. I was getting 4-5 hours of sleep and eating one and a half meals a day. So now, yes, this challenge right now, right here, is exactly what I came here for.

I’m here to work my ass off in order to make my world a better place. And what better place to do that in than New York City, the gateway portal to manifest destiny?

Fortitude

This was a rough week. I have one student who takes meds, but I think there are days where the effects wear off or when he doesn’t take them. It’s kind of disturbing to see the two sides of him: one where he attempts to model an idealistic vision of a ‘good boy’ (it is endearing but also kind of upsetting to see him try so hard to please me), and the other where he erupts into sadistic shrill curses and screams. This darker side of his two faces erupted after something had happened during lunch (a common occurrence with my students), and he began spewing angry verbal filth at me in the middle of a lesson. The guidance counselor couldn’t coax him out of class, and eventually he sat there drawing without saying anything, then finally gathered his things and walked out of class. I had to spend time that day and the next day discussing how to deal with anger and being upset.

What is interesting about this circumstance–and an innumerable number of similar occurrences–is that I constantly discover that I am learning the same things that my students are. It isn’t about multiplying decimals or writing complete sentences or Algonquian Native American wigwams; it’s about learning how to handle our frustration, deal with anger, mediate conflicts, and communicate what we feel in appropriate ways. These are the very areas that my students force me to struggle in. When they cuss me out to my face, when they turn around and have a discussion in the middle of my every sentence, when they are busier squirting glue onto their fingers instead of doing their math, when they fail to perform an activity I had planned, when they cry or yell or insult each other endlessly, when they hit one another . . . these are the times when I find myself struggling to force myself past the anger and hurt and upset and frustration and try to understand the root source of their problems. And most of the time, no, I am not the model of calm fortitude that I wish I could be. I end up yelling, bullying, forcing order and rigor upon their disorganized lives in every manner that I can. And part of this is necessary. Sometimes I have to yell in order to demonstrate that I care. Sometimes I have to be strict to give them the structure that they need. But sometimes, I know that I have failed them as a teacher, and I am yelling to obviate my wounded pride. I am yelling because I don’t fully understand their disabilities. I am yelling because I don’t fully understand their lives and their needs.

And this is what makes it hard. Not the hours of lesson planning every night and all weekend. Not the hours of meetings and paperwork and phone calls. Not the hours organizing bulletin boards and leveling books and creating SMART board presentations. It is the constant holes that are pricked in my self-esteem, the consistent reminders that I am frail human being with emotions and prejudices and self-induced blindness. The feeling and taste and texture of failure. Every single day. And this is the very experience that my students have endured since the beginning of their young lives.

The greatest struggle right now I have is trying to keep my energy levels up. I haven’t been able to run for a long time now, and my health is declining as a result. I’ve lost weight. I have strange growths in my neck. I’m developing asthma. So my focus, beyond simple survival–which is the mode I have been in–is to find a way to establish an exercise routine. And if I can keep myself healthy and keep myself positive, then I can keep myself calm and patient with my students.

Keep your chin up

Hold on, keep your chin up, tackle directly the cutting challenge of each day, even when it burrows right down to the nerve ends of your prior endurance. You must remember those who struggle even harder than you do to make frayed ends meet; those for whom the bottom of the barrel is a constant everyday certitude, not merely a threat. Those single mothers holding down three jobs to stow away their pennies for some distant day for possibly ungrateful children. Those commuters logging in their hours on intransigent trains, patiently enduring the odors of the worser off in their unchanged socks and shoes.

It could be worse. It could be even harder. You could be in some unknown distant land, wielding body armor and a semi-automatic weapon in the name of something you define by pop/country music. You could be slogging through the bloodied remains of a tropical disease. You could be without shelter, without food, without love, without hope.

Bear this in mind, remember those who struggle, everyday, everyday, as a part of everyday existence. The drunken fools, spending their little bit of money in the night in the effort to buy something impermanent, they can’t touch you, they can’t know you. Endure, endure. Hold on. Keep your chin up.

If life is indeed a competition, then the prize goes to those who understand fundamentally that the greatest of rewards already lies within.

Song for Tomorrow

Sprawling Sky

What is there left to say when every day of existence is the grayscale of a wall that can only be chiseled away piece by steady piece? Where is that beauty so quietly hidden, by what means can it become manifest? Is it enough, this promise of a brighter day that comes in vacation segments, this savings accumulation that is someday to be spent carefully and considerately on future investments?

But there is no easy way to develop. This chiseling, this restrained practice of focused everyday yearning for the distant sky, is perhaps the only way to truly know how to feel the sun on one’s skin when it finally breaks through, momentarily, at an angle sweeping out through the morning chill. Everyone is sleeping in various states of shuttered despair, afraid to open themselves up to the effort required to grow. There is no easy way to get what we need. We fight each other, we fight ourselves, what is the difference?

I know that I had been hiding, tucked away in my sheltered enclave, where I could save and then spend, surrounded by my comforting stuff and people who comforted me to be comfortable themselves. Now the only shelter I’ve got lies within my skin, a formation of my bones, the portals of my eyes the sole conveyers of the world so reversibly different from what is captured without. That doesn’t make any sense, but it sounds good, so I’ll leave it be. There is no easy retreat from the challenges of the everyday world anymore. Escape has become recognizable now as what it is: a distant metaphor for death. Life consists in confrontation, struggle, adaptation, mitigation. The diplomatic conveyers of my heart are my hands and my feet. Words fail me, they fall far short of capturing anything but a residual complaint. As I await some space of inspiration to befall me, my body becomes that chiseled wall against the world. Peace by steady peace, the struggle is ever ongoing. To struggle against myself, or to struggle within the world, what is the difference? The inner regalia of bereft desire is seeded carefully into the sewn pockets of each moment, barely acknowledged, the dropping drip flooding of particulate divinity parseled into the lines that encode a face, turned so swiftly into a smile upon another’s reckoning. Smile for me, strange face of the day, that I may sleepingly move into tomorrow.

Rock Facing Water

In this contemporary juncture of my life in the continuum of heart-space-time I am being challenged, challenged by this giant density of city, challenged by the commute out to my work and by the long hours on my feet and by the loss of sleep, challenged by the people in the subway and the street, challenged by my living situation, challenged by my own limitations, challenged by my relationship, challenged by my expectations, challenged by everything that currently exists here and by everything that has led me summarily to this point of now.

I have not been writing frequently, as you may have duly noted, both because I lack free time outside of my days off and because I am having trouble enough grasping physically with my reality not to want to expend effort psychically and mentally untangling my emotions into worded strands. But I have a need. I have the pent up panopticon of my unvented frustrations and shattered hopes to deal with. I have the neglected plot of my blog awaiting tending to, calling out quietly for growth and development, for creativity and courage. I have myself to answer to, to nurture, take care of, love, and maintain.

Suffice to say that the challenges I face are far beyond the expected penance that any great dislocation can incur. I am realizing just how naive I still am, almost 30 but still sheltered in a collegiate sort of way. The struggle to actively prepare for the future is beyond all hopeful reckoning. I am understanding now that I must be prepared for disaster, for worst-case-scenario. I must be prepared to seriously and tenaciously endure. I must be ready to subvert my own natural inclinations and proclivities and breathe slower, breathe deeper, pace myself, hang back and await the unknown mystery that will come. To accept what I am given, patiently, with quiet ambition kept stoked hidden in a secret place from the world, to be unveiled only when the final cards are ready to be faced.

I think I seem to be implying that my reality is terrible, but it really is not. This is my point of this whole story. Things are not bad at all. The things that have been horrifying and distressing me are petty and largely irrelevant but to my battered ego. The challenges that I face wisp away when stood up to in full. My commute is focused reading time of the bounty that I skim from the wonderful NYC library. My work hones my body and teaches me humility and how to relate to a wonderful diversity of people and how to maintain a maturity and integrity of perspective and action. My living situation incorporates me into an extended family who supports and loves me. My relationship is committed, full of daily love and constant tendering. My expectations are evolving to include a much broader range of what my life is meant to be. And this giant, dirty city is teaching me what it means to truly live with and love humanity.

So these challenges, I am finally and wearily realizing, are welcome challenges. Though arriving in completely unexpected ways, rendering me momentarily defenseless, they are exactly and precisely what I desired and required, when seen for what they are. Something within me is rushing to the brink of a certain type of extinction. And beyond this shattering momentary loss and delimitation lies the widened horizon and incorporation of a greater sea.

So go we all. The economy, the body politic, the bedoeling roads of science, culture, and intuitive grasps at divinity. We journey our disparate paths to oneness. However embattled, however frayed, these droplets will find their way to their unexpectedly perfect destination.