(Note: this was mostly written Monday.)
Yesterday I was feeling down. All right, I admit it: I was feeling pissy. I have to go back to work today, after a two-week vacation, part of which was spent visiting my father’s family in San Diego. And as an introvert, I do mean “spent:” it costs me energy and will to go a-visitin’, to put on my happy face first thing in the morning (because I was staying with my aunt and uncle, who are lovely people – but unfortunately early risers, at least my uncle, who was up with or before me every morning) and then keep it there all day, even when I am enjoying myself, as I did on this trip. But the days after a trip like that are precious layers of rest in which I can wrap myself, like armor, against the day I have to go back to being around people (No, my wife and pets don’t count: being with them is restful, as I do not ever have to put on an appearance or affect. And I am supremely grateful that that should be so.). And today’s the day, so yesterday was my last day of resting: hence, pissy. My rest-armor still feels thin.
Plus, today isn’t going to be a good day of work. I frequently enjoy my job, more frequently don’t mind it too much, and sometimes can’t stand it: today is going to be one of those last. My current employer takes the first day of the new semester as a chance for professional development, which they do like the corporation they are: all of the employees at the various sites all have to converge at a single school – luckily, it’s mine; half of the schools are in Phoenix, and those poor bastards have to start their morning with a three-hour commute in order to get in on this little hootenanny – and we start with a motivational speech from our CEO, a polished politician who has probably never taught a day in his life; then a team-building exercise generally involving random groups (for the last two I have been grouped with my boss, who’s a nice guy, but – yikes!) and competition and office supplies: we have built wind-driven vehicles out of pencils and paper and aluminum cans; we have had to open sealed envelopes and break apart chains of paper clips using nothing but a single pencil per team member. Then we will have “breakout sessions,” which are individual seminars on teaching methods, none of which I will ever, ever use. Then a “networking lunch,” and yes, it actually says that on the schedule of events; followed by another “breakout session” and then a final group discussion of the importance of what we do, especially what we have done here today, and the granting of awards which I will never win (My data is insufficiently polished.). It is a complete waste of time. Part of me is happy that I don’t have students to deal with – but more of me realizes that dealing with students is actually what I do, and I do it well and it is better that it be done; therefore any day that is spent without students, and also not spent on preparing for students, is wasted time. Today will be wasted time. I suppose it’s possible that I will find something useful in one of these meetings, but in fifteen years of being professionally developed, that has rarely been true; I’m not holding out much hope for today.
And the last thing is this: I’m dreading Tuesday, too – the return of students. Not because I don’t like my students; I do, most of the time, and some of them all of the time. Not because it’s going to be a terribly hard day of teaching: we’ll mostly go over old work and start orienting ourselves for the new semester, which is more big picture stuff, less actual sifting through the ash for things that survived the fire (Because that’s what I do: the searing heat of modern life has destroyed much of the literature I would have taught fifty years ago, made it impossible for young people today to read and appreciate and gain from, along with the understanding of the importance of the skills centered around that literature, namely reading and writing and thinking.); I’m dreading Tuesday because of grades. Two and a half weeks ago, I gave my students final exams, and collected final projects, and then I did the thing I hate most about teaching: I assigned grades. I passed a final judgment on them, categorized and evaluated them – emphasis on the “value,” in our current view of school as a churn that brings the cream to the top and curdles what’s left, a process in which grades are the vital element, the stick that I thrust up and down and swirl around through them, beating them until they convert from liquid to solid and start turning sour. And now I will have to see them again. I know several of them are going to be upset, generally because that 90% slipped down to an 89%, and their letter went from A to B. And they’re going to want to know why. Oh, I’ll be able to tell them; but it will be upsetting for them to know how they failed to achieve their goal of straight As, to know that they couldn’t quite or didn’t quite muster enough wherewithal to accomplish their best result. They will feel defeated and futile. They will also blame me, though they may not say it, and it will strain our working relationship. And as for me, I will be unable to convince them that grades are meaningless, that nobody should pay attention to them ever, least of all the students who get them. I wish I could convince them of that. I do try. But then, because it is my job, I have to make myself a hypocrite, by assigning grades, by placing them into arbitrary categories which have actual consequences in their real lives, and I have to try to do that in a logical manner, as contradictory as that sounds. Then I have to face them with the result, and admit that I am not right when I say that grades don’t matter. Even though I should be.
So yeah, not a good week ahead of me. And it made my mood go black and jagged Sunday afternoon – despite the fact that I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens earlier on Sunday, and it was awesome. But work, and grades, and breakouts that are a lot more like imprisonings.
But then two things happened last night. One was this: Toni and I watched an episode of Inside Man, a show created by and starring Morgan Spurlock, our favorite documentary filmmaker – Supersize Me quite literally changed our lives, and we’ve watched everything he’s done since then – about immigration. And in the show, Spurlock tries to go into the lives of people involved in a particular issue; in this case, he went and picked oranges with the migrant workers, visited their homes, met their families.
I saw people who work ten hours or more a day, hauling 90-pound bags of oranges up and down 20-foot ladders that aren’t really propped on anything, just sort of leaned against a tree’s leafy boughs and then driven down by the picker’s weight until, hopefully, a branch catches and holds it; they dump these bags into enormous tubs which must hold a half a ton of oranges: a tub for which they are paid 95 cents. On a good day they fill ten tubs – which takes ten-plus bags of oranges per tub — and make a little more than minimum wage. A family of six, with two working parents, lived on around $25,000 a year – and that’s without any social services, as they are illegal immigrants and therefore have no access to health care or food stamps or any other government programs that require a social security card, which they can’t get. The father of the family had open-heart surgery last year, and was back in the orange groves six weeks later, because he doesn’t get disability or sick leave or unemployment, and now he had a hospital bill to pay along with feeding his family. Hey: at least they pay taxes.
And I realized: my god, my job is easy. Well, okay – no, it isn’t; it requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and preparation and dedication and patience and energy to do it, and even more to do it well, which I think I do. But it certainly isn’t back-breaking. It won’t cripple me before I’m fifty, as farm labor will. I won’t say I make a decent living, because I don’t think what I’m paid is decent; but it isn’t obscene, which is what I would call farm labor wages in this day and age. I don’t live my life in fear of being discovered, because any discovery by authorities – anything, a traffic stop, an accident, any official report of any kind – would lead to jail and deportation.
It made my crappy Monday seem a whole lot less onerous. Still unpleasant, but no more than that.
The second thing that happened was this: my mother called and told me that my uncle is seriously ill. Maybe dying. And it’s a cliché, but – how can you not think of the good things in your life when you hear that someone else is about to lose everything? Okay: I have a job that drives me crazy, and a vocation on top of that that frequently leaves me feeling frustrated and insignificant; but I’m not dying. I have years and decades ahead of me to solve the problems that face me now. And even if I never solve them, I have a lovely and pleasant life: I have a wife who is my soulmate, who is my apotheosis of beauty and of kindness, and who makes me laugh all the time; I have pets that love me unconditionally; I live in a beautiful city, where the sun shines almost every day, on rocks inscribed with poems. I have all of my senses, and I can hear music and see art and taste coffee and smell perfume and feel my new warm socks on my feet. I have all of this, and I’m mad because – what? Because I’m going to be bored? People who don’t understand what I do will presume to teach me how to do it better? Because I can’t sit at home for several hours, as I’ve been able to do for most of the past two weeks?
So rather than coming on here and ranting about the irritations and frustrations of teaching, and of working for a corporation with corporate-style management, and of the state of education today (And let me break the narrative thread here and say: it’s Tuesday now, since I didn’t get this piece finished yesterday morning, and after a full day of professional development on Data-Driven Instruction, Toni and I watched the next episode of Inside Man: which was about education. So believe me when I say I have some ranting to do.), I would like to say this: I am grateful. I don’t want to say thankful, as most of the things I have that make me happy are not due to another person’s actions, and of course I believe in neither God nor fate; though I will say I am thankful for those people who did influence me: I am thankful to Stephen King and John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe and Piers Anthony, Robert Frost and William Shakespeare and James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf and all the rest, for writing and publishing their work; I am thankful to Rocco MacDougall and Nick Roberts for teaching what their hearts and minds told them to teach; I am thankful to my parents for raising me to be a thinking person and a compassionate person; I am thankful most of all to Toni for asking me if I wanted gum, and for actually coming when I invited her to my vampire-themed LARPing session: most people would not have done so. I am very thankful that she did.
But beyond that, I am, if not thankful, grateful: a word that comes from gratus, the Latin for “pleasing.” I am pleased: pleased with who I am, and where I am, and what I am. The life around me fills me with pleasure, today, and yesterday, and tomorrow. Life is good, and I have it still.
Now let’s get to work.