I gave my AP Lit students an assignment: they had to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and fill the book with annotations. They turned their books in last week, and as I was looking through them, I noticed something.
I want to be honest. Want to clear the air.
We have a new president. And he may have many good qualities — though hope for that is fading fast — but there are a number of things about him that are highly disturbing. Perhaps the worst are that he is narcissistic, and indifferent to truth, facts, and transparency. And I don’t mean that as a cheap insult, a dig at him based on his political difference from me or even his appalling personality; I mean quite literally that he appears to be a true narcissist, in love only and always with himself; he really doesn’t seem to care what the truth is so long as he can spin it to reflect well on himself. So extreme arrogance, and dishonesty, are the fundamental issues here — though again, that may only be the scum on top of the cesspool. There may be worse stuff lower down. But for now, these will do.
I just got chewed out, a couple of days ago, by a former friend on Facebook for some of my bad habits. And it hurt, but only because he was right, and I have been fooling myself about those bad habits, pretending they aren’t as bad as they are, or that other people wouldn’t even notice them. Not true. I was lying to myself, in order to protect my ego.
I was like President Stump.*
(*I refuse to type his actual name on this blog. Here’s why.)
Okay. Not that bad.
The guy who tore me up is, let it be known, arrogant on a scale I can’t match, and also a manipulative, obnoxious fuckbiscuit. But that doesn’t matter: that’s for him to deal with, not me. I have to deal with me.
See, the thing is, I spend a lot of time on this blog, and in my fiction books, saying what I think is right. And that is an essentially arrogant stance to take. It is worse for me because I base my authority merely on my opinion of myself, and my ability with language. Which is nice and all, being able to string words together, but it certainly doesn’t make me right all the time: the words reflect thoughts, and to be really right words, they have to come from right thoughts.
However, as I was telling my class today, the only thing a writer can ever be sure of is his own opinion of his work. While writers should consider their audience, we can’t really know what people think of our words and our ideas (Which is why comments are always welcome and appreciated! Even critical ones, because then I know when to pull back on the stick.), we can only know what we think. I think my stories are interesting, which is why I write them. I think my insights are insightful, which is why I share them. It’s the only reason I can ever have to share what I write: I think it’s the right thing to say.
I don’t have a problem with that truth. I can accept that my interests are my best subjects, and that if I think something sincerely, then I will write about it better than something I pick because I think other people will like it. I don’t mind at all that other people don’t always like what I like. I accept the basic egotism of being an artist. But I don’t want anyone thinking that I see myself the way President Rump sees himself. I don’t want people to believe that, just because I act like I’m all that and a bag of chips with a philosophy degree, that I, too, am a fuckbiscuit. I’m not.
So here’s the truth.
I’m arrogant. I think of myself as more intelligent than most people out there. I recognize that other people have knowledge and abilities that I don’t, and I know there are things I know nothing about, and could not learn; but I also think those things aren’t as important as what I know and what I’m good at. I have no valid reason for this belief; I just think it because it makes me more awesome. I think fast and I talk fast and I write fast, and voluminously, excessively, mind-numbingly, all three. Too much. All three. What I don’t do enough of is — listen. Read. Learn. If true wisdom is knowing what you don’t know, then I’m an idiot: because I think I’m a genius.
I argue this way. I don’t read carefully enough what my opponent has to say, I just — and this hurts to say, because I tell my students they should never do this — I find a flaw in the argument and then I attack it. I don’t pay attention to the rest of the argument, as long as I have my weak spot to stab at. I elevate my diction in order to seem objective, but really, it’s a cheap dodge to cover the basic flaw of most of my arguments, which is this: I’m making it up on the spot. I don’t have a whole lot of basis for a lot of my opinions. I think they make sense, and I strive to make them make sense, but there’s not a lot of foundation underneath the surface. I am logically shallow, just good at poking at weak points, and also talking really fast and saying a whole lot that doesn’t have much substance behind it. Sounds good, though. Well — to me.
I teach this way. I do not prepare very much, because I know I can entertain a class, and give them at least a veneer of insight that I come up with pretty much off the cuff. But I don’t read literary analysis, nor pedagogy textbooks, and I don’t try to improve what I do on a fundamental level. I change around what the classes read, and when I remember an insight from a past class (I do have a good memory, which helps) I add it in; but the aspects of my teaching style that don’t work very well stay in place because I don’t do the work necessary to change them. Largely because I think that my system is just fine. Because it’s my system. And I’m arrogant.
I write this way. I don’t edit much, or do a whole lot of drafts; I haven’t studied writing other than studying literature. I know there are flaws in my writing — I talk too much, mainly — but I don’t try to fix them. Because the way I write is fine, because it’s the way I write, and surely that’s good enough. My lack of tangible success is a reflection of the world not seeing my genius; not any reason why I need to change.
Along with arrogance is this: I am lazy. I am damned lazy. I know about my bad habits, but I don’t change them, because it would require effort. I thought about doing my exercises tonight, but I just had Cheez-its, instead. I planned to read much more this year, but so far, I’ve mostly spent time playing mindless video games. My usual habit is this: I recognize a problem with my arguing or teaching or writing, or with myself and my lifestyle; I castigate myself for a little while, until I feel like I’ve suffered enough angst for the flaw — and then I tell myself that I can’t change who I am. Then I start building rationalizations, false justifications for just staying the way I am. Not because I think my flaws are good — but because I don’t want to put in the work to change them. I don’t want to edit my writing. That’s hard. I’d rather just bang out a single draft and call it good. Well, really, I’d rather play mindless video games and listen to Hamilton.
I think the best word for me is glib. I react quickly and perhaps wittily, but without a whole lot behind it. I don’t think about things for very long, and I don’t spend time trying to learn what I don’t know. I am facile, and perhaps charming, and so I get encouragement from the people around me, which confirms for me how cool I am. Though I don’t really need that: because I know I’m cool. And my opinion is enough. Anybody who thinks less of me is clearly wrong and probably a jerk.
There’s more: I have a pretty serious temper, and I tend to cover it until I blow, usually without warning, and then I yell and curse a lot, pitch a fit, and then withdraw to feel put-upon and pouty. I can genuinely hurt people when I blow — I have scared students by yelling loudly; I have hurt the feelings of those I love: I have said terrible things to my wife, to my friends, and to my brother and my parents. I have yelled at and terrified my pets, throwing things and hitting things to make loud noises. I’m sarcastic, and often insulting, particularly in argument. For a guy who wants to be honest and usually claims to be fundamentally honest, I sure lie a lot. Mostly to students. Sometimes it’s even justified. And, obviously, I’m a hypocrite: I criticize other people for not being open-minded, for not trying to learn and improve, and then I sit back on my steadily widening ass and eat more Cheez-its. I talk about the importance of deep thought, and of honesty, and of valid, genuine argument. And then I do all the shit I do.
I am sorely tempted to finish this up by talking about my good qualities. But I think for once I will stop myself from going on. This is what I wanted to say: in a lot of ways, a lot of really important ways, I suck.
Just thought you should know.
A last postscript: it is — I don’t know, probably? Definitely? Surely? — true that the fuckbiscuit isn’t really that arrogant. It’s just that he had the gall to point out my flaws, and be right. (He basically said I talk faster and more than I think, get snotty to cover up my own confusion which is caused by my tendency not to take my time and think things through, and that I insult my opponents and then act put-upon and pissy when they call me on my own bullshit. And that I do this so I can stroke my ego, not so I can actually learn or improve myself or my opinions, which is why I claim to argue. So, I’m a liar, too. All true.) And I don’t like the way he did it, but then, it was effective, and I’m not sure that another approach would have been. So if he is manipulative, it might have been, really, for my own good.
Though I’m not taking back the “fuckbiscuit” part.
Further postscript: I recognize that this post seems like a confession that puts the lie to what I’m confessing — I can’t be that arrogant if I talk about how much I suck! I can’t be a liar if I can be this honest! — but this is one step back from years of these bad habits. I don’t think it balances the scales. I really am all of these bad things; this post is just an anomaly. I want to say that I’m working on these things, and maybe I am. But maybe I’m just going to eat more Cheez-its.
Much nicer than my own statement on a similar theme.
Imagine that you are standing before a rose garden. In front of you a series of stems rise from the earth and reach towards the heavens above. Some are tall; some short. Some are straighter than others, and a select few carry more thorns than the rest. Their petals are in various stages of bloom too. Whereas some are wrapped up tightly in sepals, others have opened and allowed their oils to warm in the sun, emitting a fragrance that smells divine.
Imagine kicking off your shoes and stepping into garden. If you have a partner, or a child, or just a friend that you wish to take with you, then grab their hand and ask them to follow. Feel the dirt between your toes, and the heavenly scent on your tastebuds as you carefully weave your way through the maze of stems and thorns. Now imagine finding the perfect rose…
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There are a lot of ways to look at education.
You can see education as a means for students to practice and perfect skills: writing skills, reading skills, math skills, science skills. Incremental improvement in ability over time, largely through careful, guided practice. The steady honing of a functional tool, which will then be slotted into its proper space in the Machine.
You can see education as a place for children to explore: to learn what is out there in the world, and what connections they can make to it, and to each other, and to themselves. School is a big pot of fun ‘n’ friends; the Best Time Of Their Lives.
You can see education as the passing on of a torch, the filling of a vessel with the golden ambrosia of knowledge — or maybe the cooking of a roast. New people come to the school, and they are unburnt, or empty, or raw; and we light them, fill them, roast them, and then they are — like us. Members of a culture and an intellectual tradition, with an awareness of what that means and how they can pass the fire/water/ uh . . . heat? What does cooked meat pass? Calories? A delicious aroma? Whatever, they can pass it on to the next generation.
Or you can see education the way my students do: as the longest, most agonizing obstacle course they have ever faced, filled with everything bad — pain, fear, sorrow, impotent anger, self-loathing, failure, futility, and wedgies — going on for years and years and years, draining every drop of life from them, only to spit them out the end: where they become, most likely, new obstacles on the course for the next batch of runners.
Or you can see education the way I do, the way most teachers do: it’s a job. Better than some, worse than others. Probably not worth what we put into it.
That’s not all it is, though. And I don’t doubt that most people see education as a combination of those things, and maybe a few others — I know there are certainly those who see it as indoctrination; at my last school, in a small rural town in Oregon, I know school was seen by many as the best source for husbands and wives, for fathers and mothers of the next generation, which they saw no reason to wait to produce. There was a daycare in the school building for the children of students. Also the children of teachers and a few children from the general populace, but still: that daycare housed a whole lot of, let’s call them extracurriculars.
However we see education, though — and I don’t think we all need to agree about what it is and what it should be; I think an ongoing debate about education is probably a healthy tension — the one thing we should all agree on is this: it is important. Maybe not school, maybe not for everyone or in every way; but education is a part of how our race survives: because humans are born useless and pathetic. Giraffes and horses and moosen can stand mere minutes after being born, and run not long after that; we can’t even put on our own pants for years. Humans without education are dead. Period. So if we matter, then education matters.
And it takes the same thing to make us matter that it takes to make education matter. That thing is substance. There has to be something inside us, something behind the mask, something that makes us move, that makes us act. Something that tells me the words to say next. Some people are driven by their emotions and passions; some people are driven by their reason; and some people are driven by the desires of something larger than themselves, even if it is larger only in their own minds. That thing could be a religion, or a nation, or a father, or just society’s approval in general; whatever it is, those people take their cue from someone outside themselves, and that is what drives them: they live to please and honor that larger thing. And I don’t mean to denigrate that type of substance, especially not when it is so clearly part of my own motivation. I want to live up to the example of those who came before. I want to please my readers. I want to win awards. And I want to experience and honor my passions, and I want to follow the course set down by my reason. All at once. All mixed up.
Nothing’s ever simple, is it?
(That’s why we need education.)
My strongest motivation is this: I want to make my wife proud. I want to make her happy. I want to take away all of her regrets, and all of her fears, and all of her frustrations; I want to give her a perfect launching pad for her own life, for her own dreams, her own motivations; I want to be the support for her substance. I mean, I want my own substance, too; but I want her to have hers, first. Because she’s better than me. And I am not at all ashamed to say that: I am proud that I am the one she chose, and I am proud that I can work to give her her chance.
And I am furious that she has to deal with bullshit instead of flying free and doing what she wants, what she is capable of. It drives me crazy that she has to claw her way out of the muck of this cesspool of a world before she can become herself. It’s like a giant, sticky, neverending cocoon made of petrified bullshit: and people like my wife, people who are and always have been butterflies, have to kill themselves getting out of it. Goddamn it.
But what this all comes down is substance. I know, I know, I haven’t defined it well. I got onto a rant-tangent — a rangent, if you will (Or tangerant?) — because I am angry about my wife’s fight against bullshit. But let me try to get back to my point. I started with education because that’s what I know best, but it could as easily be politics, or commerce, or family, and the issue would be the same: to be worthwhile, to be something that actually does for humanity what it is supposed to do, the thing must have substance.
For a family to have substance, the family members have to actually do and feel and think the way a family is supposed to, fulfilling the role that family is to fill: they have to love and support one another. There has to be genuine connections between the family members, and all involved have to honor and maintain those connections. When a family has that real bond, then it improves the lives of the members of the family; it gives them shelter in the shit-storm (A veritable shit-climate, in fact), and a way to climb up out of the muck, to break free of their cocoons. (Can I call them poop-cocoons without losing the thread here? It’s just — it’s calling to me. Poop-cocoons. I can’t help it. Sorry.) Because there is something real there, it lends real mass, real energy, real velocity, to the constituent parts; their substance has something to back it up, to drive it, and so they can have real substance.
Am I making sense here? I feel like there’s a genuinely important thing underlying this, and I fear that I’m losing it. Let me keep trying.
When politics works well, then it creates an opportunity for the citizens of the political entity — call it a country for simplicity’s sake — to be something they could not be if they lived in a place where their politics did not work well. Because this country has, through much of its history, had politics that worked well, we have been able to do extraordinary things, to be extraordinary things. Not all of us, for a lot of reasons; but we have been extraordinary. We were the first to fly, and the first to touch the moon; we cured polio; we split the atom; we created the blues, and jazz, and rock and roll, and hip-hop. George Carlin was an American. Those things came out of this nation because the nation’s political structure had substance. It was driven by serious people working for serious reasons (whether those reasons for a particular person were emotional, logical, or ethical), and taking their jobs seriously. They didn’t just live up to the appearance of their role, the mere surface; they went deep inside. And I know that because look at what happened: it worked. We created substance, which only comes from substance. Something doesn’t come from nothing.
Nothing can come from something, though. Sadly. We can come from substance, from something real, and we can turn it into a joke. And there are as many reasons for that as there are for people to live with substance, but they all have one trait in common: they are shallow. Greed, for instance, if we can turn to commerce. When someone runs a business with substance, when they recognize their role in providing goods or services to customers, and earning a fair profit in return, then great things happen: Hollywood movies and Apple computers and Ford motors. But when people seek only profit, and they recognize that creating the appearance of substance is cheaper than actually creating substance — but if the facade is good enough to fool the customers, then they can charge the same as companies that have substance — then you get reality TV, and Goldman-Sachs, and Wal-Mart. Driven only by greed, they create only hollow hills, which collapse under their own weight when we try to climb them. They don’t get us out of the shit: they bury us in more of it. A neverending shit-storm.
When education has substance, no matter what is taught, no matter how fast students learn it or how many students learn it or how much exactly they learn — they learn. When education has substance, students come out of it changed, and improved, even if indirectly. Education with substance comes, only and always, from educators with substance. They don’t have to be teachers, of course, and most of the time, probably, they are not; I’d say the most common educators with substance are parents, followed by best friends. They teach us and they make us better. They use their substance to give us substance.
I do think the majority of teachers bring substance to their work. It’s hard not to, because it’s hard to miss the importance of the job — as I said, without education, there are no people; that’s a heavy weight, which I’m glad we don’t bear alone: but we hold some of it. When we have substance, we teachers, we can hold up a fair amount of that weight. Raise it up out of the shit.
And the worst thing in the goddamn world for teachers is when we are trying to maintain our substance — using up our own personal substance to do it — and we are forced to spend our time and energy instead on surface bullshit. On forms and paperwork that cover the asses of administrators, that stroke the egos of spoiled parents, that allow shallow, empty politicians to get elected one more time by people who don’t really know what the fuck they’re doing in the voting booth.
What precipitated this rant? A lot, actually; a lot of shit. But the clearest trigger was this last weekend, this three-day weekend, a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday (A man of substance, to be sure), which my wife and I spent a large portion of shoveling shit. Not building a structure of substance for our students, or even better, ourselves, to stand on and reach out of the shit; no no no — we were throwing shit. We were working on a syllabus for an Advanced Placement class, because we both teach AP courses at the high school where we work, me AP Literature and AP Language, she AP Art. When you teach an AP class, to be allowed to use the official AP designation, you have to turn a syllabus into the College Board, which runs the AP program (Also the SAT.).
Those syllabuses are bullshit.
The requirements for what has to be included on the syllabus are so entirely unrealistic that I doubt that a single one — not one of the thousands upon thousands of AP courses out there who have gone through this — really represents what happens in the actual class. I know mine certainly don’t reflect reality, not for either of my classes. If I taught to an empty room, I couldn’t cover all of that material, not in the kind of depth that is needed. See, the purpose of an AP class is to earn college credit while still in high school; that’s why my students take it, at least. Well, that’s the surface reason. The real reason is because these classes are challenging, and they give students a better understanding of and ability in the subject. They are classes with substance. I know both of mine are. I go into those classes with everything I have: with my experience, and my expertise, and more preparation and organization than I have ever brought to my regular classes — and I’m a good teacher in a regular class. For the AP classes, I’m better. And my students respond: I watch them grow and improve, and for the most part, I see them succeed. Some of them don’t, but that’s because they don’t bring their substance to the class; they take the class because their friends are in it, or they think I am cool (I am — but only on the surface) and they wanted to take a class, any class, with me; or they didn’t really think about how hard it would be. Or they were put in the class without any input of their own. You know: surface reasons. Bullshit reasons. Those students don’t succeed, necessarily. But the ones who come with real motivation, who do real work for real reasons? They get better. They grow. They become educated. I give them a platform to stand on — which I bust my ass building and maintaining — and they climb up out of the shit. Sometimes they even fly away.
None of that is on my syllabus. Largely because substance takes time and focus, and so you can’t cover a whole lot of ground — it’s dense. Concentrated. Has to be. But the AP syllabus has to cover, for literature, all of Western literature from 1500 to the present day: poetry and drama and prose, both short form and novels. All of it. They have to know what a sonnet is, and how William Shakespeare’s differ from ee cummings’s. They have to know both the traditional canon of dead white men, and they have to be familiar with the contributions to Western literature that have come from non-whites, and from the non-dead, and from non-men (Also called women.). They have to be able to read deeply, and analyze correctly, and write eloquently, and do all of it in 40 minutes.
And I have to spend my weekend correcting a syllabus. To make sure that it covers every one of the required learning components, that it has sufficient evidence to show that it covers every learning component, and that the evidence is in the form the AP auditors prefer. And their feedback looks like this:
Component (Which I’m making up, but isn’t far from the truth) #28: The course shows students the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.
Evaluation guideline: The syllabus must include the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.
Rating: Insufficient evidence
Rationale: The syllabus must list specific literary techniques used in specific titles of specific types (prose, poetry, and drama) by specific authors. The literary techniques, titles, and authors must be specifically connected to specific activities that show specific criteria for student mastery of the wide range of Guadalajaran literature.
Please examine our sample syllabi, or contact a Curriculum Specialist for personalized feedback, though be aware that this latter course will take weeks and weeks and run you right past the deadline for when this syllabus has to be approved for this school year.
So we got this for the syllabus we were working on, right? And we added in “The course shows students the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.”
It’s a lie, because I don’t consider Guadalajaran literature important enough to cover to the depth demanded by the component; instead, I teach the same wide range of literary techniques with, say, Oaxacan literature, which I spend two months on in my class. We add this lie to the syllabus — no substance there, just a surface checkmark to please someone looking only at the surface — and send it in. And get it back. Rejected again. With the exact same feedback.
So we add more evidence. We list out those literary techniques, and we list those Guadalajaran authors, and the Oaxacan ones just for good measure, and then we throw in three or four haiku-writers from Tenochtitlan, just in case. We describe the multiple essays, treatises, and book-length theses the students are going to have to write on each and every one of these elements. And then we send that pile of sloppy, gooey bullshit in.
And that’s the end of it. The College Board doesn’t follow up on this. They don’t come and watch the class. They don’t come and ask the students what they have learned — don’t even correlate test results with specific syllabi, and ask teachers to look for areas for improvement; none of that. They don’t survey students or parents or teachers. They don’t ask us to send in work samples, or example lesson plans. All they want is the syllabus. Which they want to say very, very specific things, but which they don’t write for us; they just keep telling us we’re writing it wrong until we get it right. Which is when it’s all bullshit. Which fact they have to know: there’s no way they couldn’t. Not when every one of those thousands and thousands of syllabi are nothing but bullshit.
Here’s the kicker: once the syllabus is approved, it never has to be resubmitted. It just gets re-approved, every year, automatically. Even though my class, like pretty much every class of substance, changes substantially from year to year. Doesn’t matter. In fact, if the course had a syllabus at the same school with a previous teacher, the College Board encourages the teacher to simply copy and “update” the old syllabus.
It’s all bullshit. I have no doubt that the intent is twofold: to prevent lawsuits from students who fail the AP exam — “I’m sorry your daughter got a -6 on the test, Mr. Svenswinderssonsen, but the syllabus on file from her school clearly states that she was taught all of the Guadalajaran literary techniques.” — and to present the AP program as being extremely rigorous. Is it actually rigorous? Not through any fault of the College Board. And not as it is purported to be on those syllabi. Which took hours and headaches to get right. So that everybody can now ignore them until the end of time.
This turned into a much larger piece than I intended it to be. But I’m feeling pretty deep in the bullshit right now, and it takes a lot of shoveling to get out. Because this isn’t just an AP issue: this is all of school. Everything I do that isn’t actually teaching is related to the same sort of thing: I give bullshit tests to show bullshit data about bullshit growth so the administrators can tell the school board and the politicians that the school has the surface appearance of actual substance. I fill out forms for students who get IEPs for exactly one reason: to avoid lawsuits. To maintain a reputation. To create an appearance of rigor and value and substance. And every hour I spend on that bullshit is one less hour I have to provide actual substance to my actual students.
We’re burying ourselves in bullshit, and ruining the one thing that we actually need, just because — we’re looking at the surface, only at the surface. Not at the substance — or lack thereof — underneath it.
Maybe in this mixed-metaphor ramble, I have uncovered something of substance for you to stand on. Maybe you can make a little more progress on getting out of your poop-cocoon. I hope so, I really do. Some of us have to become butterflies. Some of us have to take to our wings and fly. All of this shit-shoveling has to lead to something good. Something extraordinary.
I’m just afraid that the most extraordinary people are exactly the ones neck-deep and shoveling, and the ones climbing out aren’t butterflies in poop-cocoons: they’re just giant bags of shit. Standing above us, and looking down.
Happy Inauguration Day.
(This, again, was from my former blog 20/Infinity, which started off being about what I would do with a time machine, but quickly turned to — who would have guessed? — ranting. But I like that this one made me giggle while I was writing it, and I actually wrote the giggle into a parenthetical comment.)
Good, But Not Cheap
No time machine needed this week, because this one is appropriate right now. Stop throwing things away.
That’s the best advice I can give. It needs to be said to everyone in this society, including myself. Stop throwing things away.
Because whenever we throw something away and head on down to Wal*Mart to buy a new one, we encourage the culture of consumption that has been gradually built in this country since the 1950’s, and perhaps even earlier — though the scrap metal drives and paper drives and rubber drives and string drives of the WWII era, and the sheer desperation of the Depression before it, lead me to believe that it was indeed the 1950’s, still seen by Republicans across the country as the pinnacle of America, that started us down this road.
We should be able to make things that last, and we don’t do it. And the only reason we don’t do it is because we, as a people, would rather buy something cheap that will only last a short time, and then when it breaks, throw it away and buy a new one. Paper plates, for instance, and paper napkins and Starbucks cups. The only reason we use paper plates is because we can’t be bothered to wash the real ones; ditto paper napkins. Oh — and they’re cheaper. But look at what’s happened: when was the last time you saw cloth napkins outside of a fine restaurant? Does anyone have cloth napkins any more? Where would you even buy them? Maybe I’m just not paying attention, and cloth napkins abound in the linen aisles which I don’t often frequent (Word geek moment: often frequent. That’s a fun phrase. Sorry — back to what I was saying), but I do know that there are a dozen stores that I do frequent, and often (hee hee!), that carry paper napkins. They are the stores I’m in every day, so they are the stores that shape most of my daily purchasing. If they carry paper napkins, chances are good that I’m just going to get paper napkins, and not think about it. And paper plates. And sugar in little paper packets, instead of a bowl. So it goes.
We as a society shape what’s in the stores, and then what’s in the stores shapes us as a society; it’s a kind of biofeedback on a grand scale. When we are given a choice between, say, a $100 toaster that will last for twenty years, and a $30 toaster that will last for two, most of us buy the cheaper toaster, for two reasons: we don’t think that far ahead — the cheap toaster will make toast when I get it home today, and that’s as a far as I’m planning — and we are not willing to wait and save up the $100, or wait and go without the other things we would buy now with the $70 difference. Anyone who can buy the $30 toaster can save up to buy the $100 toaster, but in the interim, there will be no toast — and we can’t abide that. So we buy the cheap toaster, and then when it breaks in two years, we go back out and face the same choice — and come to the same conclusion: this one will make toast now, and I won’t have to wait to spend money elsewhere.
End result? Over twenty years, we spend $300 on toasters, rather than $100. And the landfills are nine toasters closer to overflowing. And the stores stop stocking the $100 toaster, because it doesn’t sell, and after twenty years when we lose our patience and just decide to drop the money on a toaster that lasts, we can’t find one, and we bewail the fact that nobody builds things that last any longer. Oh, yeah: and the toaster repair shop is out of business, because nobody is going to spend the money to fix a $30 toaster (they would to fix a $100 model) and Wal*Mart has built 3,000 new stores and half of the US’s GNP is in Chinese bank accounts.
All right, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and confess. This is not an arbitrary topic, culled from the massive crop of ideas neatly filed in a drawer in my home. This is really about coffee.
My coffeepot doesn’t work. There’s something wrong with the water intake, so when you turn it on it makes that gurgling noise that signals the last sips of water being sucked up, even though there is a full reservoir of water in the machine, waiting to be run through and turned into liquid gold. It’s probably hard water deposits, somewhere inside the tube, because it can be fixed by running vinegar through the Cleaning cycle — it has a cleaning cycle, which I think just makes it go slowly and maybe a little hotter than normal so as to melt away any dirt or coffee oil residue. This happened for the first time last week, and then again today.
The coffee machine is six weeks old.
Now, I admit to drinking a lot of coffee. No, scratch that; I drink an inhuman amount of coffee. It is no mistake that my online handle, for years, has been “Coffeesaint” or some permutation thereof. I invented, and celebrate, Coffee Day (February 11 — join the fun!). I drink something like 6 pints of coffee a day — that would be around 20 cups if I used a normal sized mug, the kind they serve coffee in at Denny’s or IHOP — and on days when I’m tired or crabby, I can hit the gallon mark. I started drinking coffee regularly when I was 18, and for the last 15 years, not one day has gone by that I have not had coffee. So as you can imagine, my coffee maker gets quite a lot of use, since my wife also drinks what most people would consider a lot of coffee on top of what gets poured down my own bottomless coffee-hole. I can understand that my coffee maker will break down sooner than it would in other people’s households.
But six weeks?
We have gone through three coffeepots in the last year, five in the last five years. The last four pots have all come from Wal* Mart, mainly because that is the only large retail store in town, but also because of the monetary impatience I described above. I really don’t want to wait to get a new coffeepot. I don’t want to do without coffee, and I like my morning routine of waking up, turning on the coffeepot (I grind beans and pour water the night before, so all I have to do is hit the button) and then getting in the shower, coming out to fresh coffee. I don’t want to boil water and pour it into a French press or something like that, some low-tech version of a coffeepot that would last many more years without breaking, but would take twice the time and thrice the effort to make my morning coffee. I hate that idea. I just want a coffeepot that will last for more than six weeks, or six months, or two years. I want one that will last, with some maintenance and maybe a trip to a repair shop, for twenty years. But I can’t find one. At least, I can’t find one at a price that will override the momentary temptation of a $29.99 price tag and coffee right now. So I do the same thing everyone else does: I buy that $30 coffee pot and complain.
But here’s an interesting thing. Like most people, I hate being a hypocrite. I hate telling people to do one thing and then doing something different myself. When I assign an essay to my English class, for instance, I often write the essay myself. Even though I don’t want my dog to eat too many salty snacks, if I get out the box of Cheez-its, I give him one — because I shouldn’t be eating them either, so if I can ignore my health for the sake of a happy belly, why can’t he? So now that I have written this little chunk of handy advice, I’m going to have to take it myself. See, I realize that our society is the way it is because we make it so. As I said, there are no decent coffeepots because we don’t buy them, because we’re not willing to do without, or to make do with some less efficient or easy system. We are willing, even eager, to use shoddy goods and throw them away so long as it spares us some effort, so long as it saves us time. And that’s why the goods we buy — everything from our clothes to our computers to our cars to our food — are poorly made, overly disposable, and cheap.
My father told me a maxim many years ago, and it’s amazed me ever since with how many applications it has in daily life (and he’d love that, because he loves aphorisms — I think he’s always wanted to be Ben Franklin. Or maybe Jesus.). I’m positive that it will come up several times in future columns, and I’m not surprised in the least that it has come up in the first five. The maxim is this: “There are three qualities you can have in any thing you pay for: cheap, fast, and good. You can only have two of them at once. If it’s cheap and fast it ain’t good, if it’s cheap and good it ain’t fast, and if it’s fast and good it ain’t cheap.” He told me this in reference to hiring workers, plumbers and electricians and the like, and I’ve found it to be unfailingly true; in fact, sometimes you can only have one of the three. But you certainly never get more than two. Look at my coffee makers: on the whole, machines are faster than percolators and French presses, so I’m always getting fast as one of my qualities; the only question is whether I want a good machine, or a cheap one. For the last five years, I’ve consistently made the same choice.
This is a truth that we as a society need to remember. We have spent long enough buying fast and cheap. We need to go back to good, because good things do not get thrown away, and so they do not use up our resources and they do not fill up our countryside with garbage. Of all the things we can do to improve our world, I think this is the easiest, because honestly, it would make us happier if we owned nice things, good things that worked well and didn’t need to be replaced while we still have the original receipt stuffed in the checkbook.
So my first piece of advice is this: buy good products. If it means you have to save up for the good products, then save the money; make do for a little while now, and then buy something that will actually make your life easier, and save you money, in the long run instead of just saving you money out of this paycheck and simplifying things right now. And my second piece of advice is this: if you, like me, do some things that you know you shouldn’t do, and you let yourself get away with it because it’s easier to ignore the issue than fix the problem, then start giving people advice. It’s like a nicotine patch for hypocrisy.
Now I have to buy a freaking French press.
by David Mitchell
Okay, there are two possibilities here.
Possibility one is that I missed the intricate interweavings of the finest filaments of this novel’s plot. I saw some of them: there is a theme of reincarnation and rebirth that is fairly easy to spot, and also a connection based on storytelling. And maybe that’s the whole point: that we live new lives over and over again, and those lives are connected by the stories we tell, the words we write down. That’s a fairly interesting idea, but while I believe in reincarnation of a sort, I don’t believe in straightforward rebirth/transmogrification of the soul from one body to the next, so that connection was lost on me — and without it, the story connection becomes just kinda precious and clever.
Possibility two is that this novel is too precious and clever.
I am inclined, honestly, to believe possibility one. I think I’m a fairly perceptive reader, but — not always; most of my life has been spent reading genre fiction rather than seriously dense literature, which I’ve really only picked up since I’ve been a teacher. The book has a lot of blurbs by pretty impressive people, including A.S. Byatt and Michael Chabon; everyone says this is a magical, unbelievable work of magnificence. So it is entirely possible that I read right past the lyrical wonders of this novel, that this is one of the books which, as I tell my students, can’t be read, but can only be re-read.
But since the first possibility is not the only one, I’m not going to be re-reading this.
So the idea is that the book is a series of nested stories. It starts with an American traveling through the South China Sea in 1850; then it goes to a British composer in Belgium in 1931; then an investigative reporter in California in the 1970’s; then England in 2004; then a near-future Korea, and finally a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Then it goes back: Korea, England, California, Belgium, South China Seas. Each story is in some way recorded — the first guy wrote a memoir, the second a series of letters to a friend, the third story was novelized, the fourth turned into a movie, the fifth recorded an interview. And each person in the following story encounters the recorded story of the person before; and each of them, it seems, is the reincarnation of the one before. But my trouble with this book is: that’s it. That seems to be the only logical link. I was looking for more; I was hoping that the South China Seas/Korea/Hawaii connection would be meaningful, but I don’t think it was. I was hoping that there would be a causative link, that the revolution hinted at in the Korea story leads to the apocalypse which the Hawaii story is post-. That the composer in Belgium would have something to do with the modern-day England story, in terms of the plot of one connecting to the plot of the other.
And maybe those links were there. But if they were, I missed them.
So it seems to me that the novel is a set of short stories, without a common theme, with dissimilar main characters — because they may each be the reincarnation of each other, but that’s all they have in common — and no real plotline that runs through the whole thing. They are interconnected only the way a book of short stories set in the same town might be interconnected, which is — not really at all. Though of course, with Joyce’s Dubliners (which I’ve never read) and Faulkner’s Abercrombiewhateverthehellit’scalled County novels (which I’ve never read) and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (Which I did read, and liked) all having that sort of connection, I guess that’s enough to make this a tour-de-force that lives up to its blurbs. But for me, it was not terribly exciting.
I probably should have taken the hint when I mentioned to my wife that I was reading this, and she said, “Yeah, it was a movie. We watched it.” Even though I have absolutely no memory of watching this movie. I’m pretty sure I slept through it. I should have slept through the book, too.
#1: “I feel bad when I have a cold when I go to the doctor. I don’t want to get germs all over them.”
#2: The other night she shuffled slowly from the living room into the kitchen, set herself, drew back one slippered foot, and then gently kicked me – really more of a boof – in the shin. Then she said “You called me a poop. Don’t call me a poop.” (Actually what I had called her was Poopzilla.) I hung my head, laughing, and said, “Consider me properly chastised.” She nodded, said, “Okay,” and shuffled away.
#3: Speaking of her students: “If I don’t keep spewing a steady stream of hatred towards them, they just want to talk to me.”
#4: Speaking to a student:
Student: “My brother moved to Utah.”
Jokingly: “Utah? Why, to become a Mormon?”
Student (baffled): “We’re Mexican. We can’t be Mormons.”
You probably watched it already. But in any case, there is nothing else I want to link to right now.
Thank you, sir. For everything.
I never want to be an administrator. I don’t like paperwork. I don’t like dealing with angry people. I don’t like solving people’s problems, unless their problem is, “How do you spell ‘necessary?'” I don’t really like making decisions that affect lots of other people, and I wouldn’t like listening to the bitching that would inevitably result. I know that sounds a little funny coming from a teacher, since I do all of those things; but all of them are less obnoxious for a teacher. I mean, yes, I have too much paperwork to do; but much of it is only seen by students, so the standards are not very high: what I write needs to be helpful, but it doesn’t need to be politic, nor even polite. My students laugh when I make fun of them in the comments. I don’t think the state department of education would chuckle if I put a troll-face meme on the Title I report. And yes, I do some problem solving, but really, most of it is related to my subject, which makes it easy for me to solve; when it isn’t related to my subject — and I have dealt with very different problems, romantic problems, job problems, serious personal issues like drugs and abuse and homelessness — then it is really just one person helping another, and has very little to do with my job. I mean, if a teenager came up to me while I was drinking coffee in a cafe and told me that he was being abused at home, I’d try to do all the same things I do as a teacher, so that doesn’t really feel like part of my job. And making decisions for other people, while also something I do, is something I can very easily dodge responsibility for — “We’re studying this because it’s in the curriculum.” Boom. Buck is passed.
By the same token, I wouldn’t want to be a teacher teacher. I wouldn’t want to teach teachers how to teach, not in a university setting, and not as an inservice trainer. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to follow the current trends, and that’s all those people do; and I certainly wouldn’t want to be that superficially chipper about it. I mean, if I ran an inservice about something that was total bullshit — say, integrating STEM into a literature class, to pick a completely random example — I’d want to be honest, as I am with my students: “I know, guys, this is complete horseshit. But the administrators are making us do this, so let’s try to get through it and then we can do something fun, okay? Like read a poem, or have a debate on a controversial issue.” And if I did that, I’d get fired after the second sentence. If not the first. (Somehow, even though they are adults talking to adults, teacher trainers never let themselves swear. I suppose it’s more professional, but I heard a man, for the first time in my life, use the word “chump” in earnest. And of course it’s because he couldn’t say “asshole.” Or, considering the particular bro I’m talking about, he probably would have said “bitch.” But I’d have more respect for him if he’d sucked it up and said “asshole.” Though less respect if he’d said “bitch.” A little less.)
But despite not wanting those jobs myself, I’m going to give some advice to both administrators and teacher teachers, right now. Because all of those people, despite their general lack of qualifications in my field — their lack of knowledge, and their lack of expertise, skill, or insight — have no trouble at all telling me how to do my job. They do it several times a year, in fact. So now it’s time for me to tell them how to do their jobs.
All right, first, for the teacher trainers: know how to teach. I mean, come on; you are standing in front of a whole room, sometimes a large room, full of teachers. And yeah, a number of them may be new — but some of us have been doing this for a long time. And even among the newbies, many of us are actually quite good at it, and know the way it should be done. So why is it that almost none of you know what I know?
For instance: understand your technology. I get it if you’re bad at technology; I struggle with it sometimes, too. But if you’re going to use a PowerPoint presentation, then use it. There’s nothing more ridiculous than to watch someone skip through slides, saying, “No, we don’t need to go over that.” So then why is the slide there? Or when people set up those cool effects, fades in and out, bullet points that pop up one at a time; and then they just click through all of that stuff to get the final overstuffed slide, which they go through piece by piece. If all you want to do is throw a bunch of information up there all at once, why do the effects? It’s distracting, and it makes you look incompetent.
For another thing, know that you shouldn’t lecture for three hours straight. Give people a break. Include audience participation, maybe some group work. (I mean, I hate that crap, but most teachers are more social than I, and they like it; if you knew your audience, you would include some group work.) Certainly ask some questions, and listen to the answers; maybe have a discussion. Oh — and ice breakers. Don’t do ice breakers. Most of the teachers know each other, and you will never, ever see us again; you don’t need to know our names and what we teach and one wacky thing about ourselves. Don’t make us think of wacky factoids early in the morning the first day back from vacation. Don’t do it. If you really think the ice needs to be broken, then listen to the wisdom of Ogden Nash: “Candy is dandy; but liquor is quicker.”
And please, have basic competence. Speak audibly. Understand a microphone. Know how to make the image fullscreen. Understand how to make your movie clips work, and how to get sound out of them (And get an aux cord. Please don’t hold your microphone up to the laptop speakers, or even worse, crank the volume on the laptop and ask everyone to be real quiet.). Learn how to use the remote, OR DON’T USE IT. Grasp the physics of a whiteboard. Have your materials prepared ahead of time, and make sure they’re the right materials. (All of these, by the way, are things I have seen presenters fail to do, over the course of my 17 years in inservice — errr, I mean teaching. No — I mean Hell.)
Once you get past the same level of presentation competence that I expect from my students, let’s talk about what you’re talking about. Make sure that your presentation is relevant. I know you want the gig — I want to get paid, too! — but I would never take a job as a physics teacher and then show up and talk about poetry. If you are doing an inservice at a high school, don’t talk about elementary school techniques and concepts. Don’t present on English language learners to a school that has a grand total of four of them. I mean, that’s the administration’s fault, too, for hiring you to talk about something essentially irrelevant — but you’re the one that has to stand up there and waste the teachers’ time; I have to think that much hatred focused all on you at once has to be uncomfortable. And if a faculty has already learned everything you have to talk about, don’t go talk to them about it again. Think of something new to say, or cancel the inservice.
Once you know that your subject is relevant, the last key is: talk about your actual subject. Don’t talk about yourself. I’m sure you have fascinating stories about yourself, about your martial arts experience, or your motorcycle, or your world travels, or your penchant for organic gardening (All of those, by the way, were discussed by the same speaker. The only lie in that sentence is the word “fascinating.”), but now is not the time. Teachers, if you didn’t know, have shit to do, especially at the beginning of a semester. We don’t appreciate having our time taken up learning about you and how unbelievably macho you are (“I was doing MMA before MMA was a thing.” Actually, I swear to you, a direct quote. He also used the word “vicarious” when he meant “precarious,” in the sentence, “Now you have put them in a vicarious situation.” I don’t mean to nitpick, but this guy was actually a nit, and he should have been picked, squashed, and flicked at a garbage can. Too harsh? Hang on; there’s more.). Also, don’t insult your audience by saying that you are smarter than them because you got out of teaching (Same guy.), and don’t tell them that anyone who doesn’t sign up for your other, more extensive training is stupid (Yup: also the same guy. Want to guess what precipitated this particular blog?). And I know this is out there — the very idea that someone would actually do this is laughable! — but don’t compare teaching to slaughtering chickens, with the analogy showing how teachers get jaded — just like someone who has cut the heads off of too many chickens.
I really want to say that was a different guy. It wasn’t. Gave a three-hour talk, nonstop, no break, and at the end of it, asked if there were any questions. (By the way: this one is for the teachers in the audience. If, at the end of a multi-hour presentation, the presenter asks if there are any questions, then anyone who actually asks a question, thereby making us all sit there longer and listen to more inanity, is going to go straight to Hell, where they will be strapped into an Iron Maiden and forced to listen to presentations about the variations of Mahjongg, written in Sanskrit and then run through Google translate and read aloud by a drunk with no teeth. Keep your damn questions to yourself. Go up and ask them personally if you have to — AFTER THE REST OF US HAVE LEFT.) The question that was asked (And even though this was a good question, still: straight to Hell.) was basically, “So did you ever tell us the thing we actually need to know?”
To which the answer was, No. He did not. He proceeded to do so, taking about five minutes, which tells me that the entire presentation could have been done in about fifteen minutes, total. In fact, I could do the presentation more effectively in a series of haiku. (No, I won’t torment you with the actual haiku; this was still an education inservice, and nobody who isn’t a teacher should ever go through that, even as a joke.) But then we wouldn’t have heard about his experience pouring concrete, which is what led him into the world of education. Yes, I’m serious.
Administrators: I really only have one piece of advice. Don’t ever hire that guy. Everything else is relatively acceptable. Just. Not. Him.
… A blog about love and epiphanyyyyyy!
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I – like most people – don’t particularly like my job. In some ways, on some days, it’s fine; but all in all, it’s not where I’d prefer to spend my time. I’ll never get a bumper sticker that says “I’d rather be working.” As I tell my students, “If I win the lottery tonight, I won’t be here tomorrow.” I tell people that I’m a teacher, but I don’t actually define myself that way; I consider myself a writer, and a reader, and a nerd, and a family man. Teaching is my source of income, not my identity.
But since a source of income is a necessity, and teaching is a pretty decent one, I thought I’d share some tips for making work a little more manageable – that is, if you can’t get your boss to change your work hours so he/she will stop torturing you. (There’s a scientist who says we should start work around 10am.)
First, figure out when you can say No. I know it’s true for teaching, and I’ll bet it’s true for a whole lot of jobs, that your employer will keep asking you for more for as long as you keep giving what they ask. They’ll ask you to do extra duties, to join committees, to come in early, to stay late, to take work home, to give up your weekends, your evenings, and your vacations. In my case, they ask me to come to meetings, to go to seminars, to agree to be a mentor or a coach or a tutor. They are constantly after my lunchtime, and they’d love it if I could fill in for the various staff members they’ve laid off or cut back – at my school this includes the security guard and the staff psychologist. They want me to train myself, and then train others. And of course, they want me to give every ounce of energy and every minute of time to the doing of my actual job: they want me to grade eight hours a day, prepare new lessons and new curriculum eight hours a day, and spend at least eight hours a day with students, preferably one-on-one. And for all of this, they want me to do it the way they want it done, whether or not I like that way of doing things or think it is the right way: it is their way, and therefore they want it to be my way.
But with teaching, and I’ll bet with a lot of jobs, there is a specific thing or things I’m supposed to be doing. In my case it is two things: first, I need to be a responsible babysitter, meaning that students cannot be hurt under my watch, particularly not by me; and second, my students need to learn. The first is easy to measure: students getting hurt, or students complaining about how I hurt them, are no-nos. The second is more difficult to measure, but figuring out how the bosses measure it was the key to knowing when and why I can say no. For me, it is two things, one positive and one negative. The positive measure is test scores. My students’ test scores can’t be terrible. They don’t have to be perfect, but they can’t be terrible. The – I guess it’s an advantage? – for me is that I have students measured by multiple tests, and as long as they’re doing well on one, then the other is less critical; so in my case, since I teach AP classes, as long as my AP test scores are sufficient, then the school wants to keep me around and keep me happy, even if my state testing scores are less wonderful. They’re not terrible, but they’re not as good as the school wants them to be; but my AP scores are. That gives me more ability to say No. It gives me No-power.
The negative measure of students learning is even better, for me: there can’t be any students or parents complaining about me. As long as none of my students go to the administration and say that the class is unfair, that the grade was too low, that the test was too hard and that the students weren’t prepared for it, then the school feels confident that I am doing my job. And that gives me even more No-power.
It’s not that simple, of course; there is more to it. I do need the credentials that I have, a degree in my subject and years of teaching experience and so on; I get observed twice a year and I have to look like I know what I’m doing; there are meetings I have to attend and duties I have to perform. I have to go to staff meetings, I have to meet with parents on the scheduled days or when parents request it, I have to be available for extra help if students need it. But those are the main things: babysitting, test scores, no complaints.
How did I figure this out? I listened to what people said about the people who used to have my job. The person who had it the year before me actually had a doctorate and college-level teaching experience; but the students thought she didn’t teach them enough. They thought she spent too long on one unit, they thought she didn’t explain things well, and they thought she couldn’t manage a class well enough to get them to listen. I heard the same things about her from other teachers, too. The person before her was a bad babysitter: she left the students locked out in the hallway after the bell rang; she left early and left the students alone in the classroom; she cussed at them when she was mad. So when one of my students told me that I taught him more in five minutes than my predecessor had taught him all year, I knew I was pretty well set. (I already knew I couldn’t lock my students out of the room, nor leave them alone in it. But that’s kind of a gimme, isn’t it? I mean, really.) The other key was watching the person at the top: the best teacher at the school, the one that everybody listens to and looks up to, the one who seems like they can get away with anything. How does that person get to be that powerful? In my school’s case, it’s basically the same answer, though our top teacher is more of a teacher and less of a babysitter – which tells me that there’s leeway in the babysitting aspect, as long as the test scores are good enough, and as long as the students think they learn. In this teacher’s case, it is more than the negative measure, more than a lack of students and parents complaining: our top teacher earns praise from students and parents. He is the one they thank at graduation for having taught them so much. And that gives him all the no-power he could ever need: he openly defies administrative decrees in certain areas, and nothing happens to him. Because the students think he is their best teacher. Even though he calls them deadbeats and degenerates, and threatens to hide their corpses under the soccer field.
So that’s the most important thing: figuring out what is necessary to gain the power to say No, and then deciding where to spend that power – because nobody, not even the best employee, has limitless power to say No. You do still have to show up (too early) and do your job. You can’t spit in your boss’s face. But you probably can skip out of some meetings, or refuse to serve on certain committees, and you can certainly say you aren’t going to that three-day seminar out of town (unless it’s in a good place and they’re paying expenses). That’s the key to keeping your sanity at work. The first one, at least.
The second key is to keep doing your work. Don’t let it pile up. Because it will pile up, and then it will collapse and smother you in an avalanche of catch-up. In my case it’s grading, which I did in fact pile up this last semester’s end, and it did almost smother me. It wasn’t the first time, either; and if I ever leave teaching behind before I win the lottery, that will be why: because I let work pile up and collapse on me once too often.
In the past I have let the work pile up because I’ve avoided doing it: I’ve collected essays and then looked at them and said, “Not today,” over and over and over again. Sometimes for as long as two months, though I was doing other grading in that span. That’s one of the nice things about teaching, even though it doesn’t always feel that way; I doubt there are a lot of jobs that allow that much slacking for that long. But since I didn’t get students filing complaints with the administration, it didn’t get me fired. I did have some pretty serious grumbling by the end of it, and I now have a (well-deserved) reputation for taking too long to grade things; I have made a conscious effort in the last few years to keep that from happening again. This last semester, the work piled up for a different reason: because I didn’t plan well enough, and I had too many major things due all at the end of the semester. It was a sudden deluge instead of a slow build-up; but it still almost took me down. So now I have two things to be aware of: not letting things pile up, and not creating a huge pile that will all fall on me at once. I’m sure someday I’ll learn those habits. And then I’ll probably win the lottery.
But all of that, though I hope it will be useful for some people to know, is not actually the thing I wanted to talk about. There is something else, something that I think is actually unusual, something that I know that most people don’t. This is my epiphany, if you will. And it is this: if you have the chance, then work alongside of the person you love.
I’ve done it a few times, now. When I was a janitor in college, my wife (then unwedded soulmate) worked in the same facility, selling tickets and concessions for the box office while I cleaned the place. When I became a teacher, she spent two summers teaching summer school with me, once in the same room. We met because we were sort of working side by side: she worked in the college bookstore, and I sold student IDs in the same building; I used to get change from her, and she used to pass my table on her way to get coffee or a bottle of water. And now, by a fortuitous set of circumstances, she is the art teacher in the classroom right next to my English class. And it is the best thing about my job.
Now, it is better for me than it is for her. Teaching unquestionably gets easier with experience; this is her first year of full-time teaching, and it’s my seventeenth. I’ve been at the school for two and a half years now, so I have a better idea of how things work and who I can get help from and who I can’t; she is figuring all of that out. She also got screwed over by her predecessor, who cleaned the room out of any useful materials or curriculum, and left the art supplies in a hellish mess; I came to a classroom with class sets of novels and textbooks, and filing cabinets full of quizzes and worksheets and materials I could use. I have a department with three other English teachers who give me help and advice and share good stuff with me; she’s the only art teacher at the school, and one of two in the district – and the other is also brand-new. She’s starting completely from scratch, and it makes the job twice as hard. And it’s pretty goddamn hard to start with. Add to that the fact that she doesn’t particularly like teaching, either; that it isn’t how she defines herself or any part of her identity, and it’s easy to see that it’s been a tough year for her.
But she does have this advantage: I’m right next door. That means that she, like me, always has someone to cover for her if she needs to run to the bathroom. I always have someone to eat lunch with, and to sit with in meetings. When I’ve had a tough class or an annoying meeting, I can go to her and bitch about it. I can complain – no, scratch that; I never complain about my students, the little angel-babies.
No, sorry, can’t say that with a straight face. When I want to complain about my irritating, obnoxious, tiresome students, I can go straight to her and say whatever I really think, without any fear that she will judge me, or get me in trouble for it. I can get advice from her – and regardless of her inexperience with the profession or in the school, I do, because she is naturally brilliant, and because she knows quite a lot about working in general, having dealt with office politics in an actual office, where they are more pervasive and pernicious than they are in a school, where most people work behind closed doors all day. She’s also, it turns out (No surprise to me), a genuinely good teacher, though without the mixed blessing of test scores, it is sometimes harder for her to see it. And because she is a more dedicated artist than I am, being a good teacher means less to her than it does to me; she cares about being a good artist.
She’s that, too.
But it is a lovely thing to have another person there with you, in that place where you have to spend so many hours, and for such pragmatic, uninspiring reasons. (“I just worked a full day! That means I can pay my heating bill! And maybe the electric, too! WOO!”) We keep our behavior appropriate, of course; but I still get hugs, and even a kiss or two. The main thing is just that I get someone to talk to. We go to the water cooler together, and to the lounge to use the microwave. I walk up to the office with her when she has to drop something off, and I’ve helped her learn the eccentricities of our Xerox machine. She is already friendlier with the rest of the staff than I am, and we like and dislike the same people (But never the students! We love every one of them! Angel-babies, they are!). We drive to work together, and leave together, which makes it much easier to run errands after work and to arrange our morning schedules. It’s really been fantastic, having the woman I love with me all day, at work and at home. I know some people would get tired of that much time together; and we are in separate classrooms for most of the workday, which probably helps – but I have had nothing but joy from this arrangement. I recommend it highly.
And the best part is this: I have never, not once in the last four months, had to say goodbye.
Once you let motherfuckers slide, they start to think they can iceskate.
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