This Morning

This morning I am thinking about appreciation.

Yesterday I tried to recognize the teachers and educators I have worked with (And I still forgot a few — so thank you, Mary Wells, for all that you do, and thank you, Nora Caragan, for being the best paraprofessional in the history of paraprofessionals), and I got a grateful and heartwarming response. Teachers loved hearing what I had to say.

But there’s a problem there: I had to say it.

One of the things I object to, even though I participate in, is the support network that teachers provide for each other. It is a staggeringly wonderful thing: these people, who are already working so hard, and who are already giving so much, turn and without hesitation give even more to each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it: teachers go into each others’ rooms all the time, and frequently the visitor comes in mad or frustrated or down — until they see the face of the person they are visiting, and see that that person is feeling even worse. Suddenly, whatever the teacher came in to complain about or vent or even ask for help with is gone: frustration vanishes in concern, and the visitor says, “What’s wrong?” Prepared, in an instant, to take more burdens onto shoulders already weighed down with overwork and the emotional strain of seeing up close and personal the struggles and sufferings of children (And also with the strain of struggling through the suffering caused by children — and the worst is that it is often the same children, that those who are neediest and most desperate are the most obnoxious people we see. Which is saying something.), not because we don’t need help any more, but simply because a friend, a fellow teacher, needs help more, or even just needs help too: and so we help.

It’s amazing and inspiring. I will say, without any humility, that I participate in this, that I support my fellow teachers at all times and in whatever way they may need, and that I rarely ask for help myself because  I don’t want to trouble them.  I’ve even seen this go too far, when I was part of my union’s negotiating team and we were  fighting for better compensation and working conditions; trying to get teachers to actually stop working, to stop sacrificing, to start asking for something for themselves — and not luxuries, but a living wage and necessary health care and the like —  was nearly impossible. They wanted to give up whatever they had to give up in order to make everyone else happy. The magnificent bastards.

But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t have to do that. Of all the people who should be sacrificing in order to keep teachers sane and healthy, IT SHOULD NOT BE TEACHERS WHO DO IT. That makes no sense. It defeats the purpose. We not only put on someone else’s oxygen mask first, we take ours off and strap it on top of that person’s own oxygen mask just so they can be twice as safe while they watch us suffocate.

If it’s not clear already, this drives me nuts, that teachers do this. I don’t like that I do it, either, but it is without doubt who we are as people, and what the culture of teachers encourages in us. This is why we spend our own goddamn money on school supplies for our students, despite how little we are paid. And perhaps the worst part, though this is not the place to get into this, is that we are therefore propping up a system that is in many ways a terrible system: not terrible for us, though it is that, but terrible for the students, and terrible for the country. Yesterday I bought donuts for all of my students taking the AP Literature test. I encouraged and helped students to “succeed” on a high-stakes test run by a private corporation with disproportionate influence on college admissions. I structure the whole class around that damn test: a test I should be opposing with every fiber of my being. But I bought them donuts.

So here’y my request, for those who want to appreciate teachers — REALLY appreciate us, not simply nod in our direction while we lie bruised and bleeding in a ditch. (I know, it’s hyperbolic, but it’s also the end of the year, and it feels like that. I feel bruised. I feel sick because I haven’t been sleeping, and I feel sore because my body has been too tense for too long: my shoulders honestly ache right now.) Ready?

Make it so we don’t have to hold each other up.

Give us enough support, and take away enough of our burden of responsibility, that a single person can do a teacher’s job alone, or at least can handle the pressure alone.

Specifically, that means essentially three things: money, time, and trust. In the first years of a teacher’s career, there is a fourth, which is: help.

I don’t want as much money as I want, if I can be permitted that sentence. I want as much money as is needed so that I don’t have to worry about it. That’s all. I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, and I still don’t earn enough to own a home, and I don’t have any retirement savings, and I still have debt that I haven’t been able to get rid of.  I want to make enough money to take care of those problems. I don’t need enough to pay for vacations or jet skis or that diamond-encrusted pirate hat I’ve had my eye on; just enough so that I don’t have to suffer from money stress. I want to be middle class. I aspire to the bourgeoisie.

I want enough time in my school day to get my work done in my school day. I don’t mind planning lessons from home; it’s kind of fun sometimes. But I don’t want to have to spend one more weekend grading, not one more evening filling out paperwork. I already work 40 hours a week at school; why is it that I am expected and required to add another 10-20 hours on top of that, every week? It’s because I have too many students, and too many requirements for teaching those students. Too many things I have to cover, too many things I have to compensate for, and too many people I need to report to and satisfy in order to show that I did my job. You know what should be the only evidence needed that I did my job? That my student can read a book, write an essay, discuss a poem. That’s it. Don’t ask me to prove that I did my job: ask the kid. See what he can do. And ask him, honestly, if I helped him do that. Make it his responsibility to prove that I did my job. He is the product, after all. (Please note: this is not a serious suggestion for assessment of teachers. Students shouldn’t have to have that burden either, and too many of them are not reliable witnesses nor reliable learners. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to do it, to prove to all and sundry that I did my own job.)

And anyone who thought “But you get summers off!” just know: I am currently mentally punching you in the brain. Hard. Kicking, too.

The last thing I need is trust. I have proven that I am a good teacher. I’ve won awards, I’ve won accolades, I don’t have anyone who disagrees with that basic premise: not students, not students’ families, not other educators. Of course not everyone likes me or likes my class: but I don’t believe there’s a single person who could genuinely say that I teach badly. So please, I beg you. BACK OFF AND LET ME TEACH. Don’t try to improve my curriculum for me, or my methods. If you’ve got suggestions, I’ll listen, of course; but don’t tell me what to do, especially if you’re not versed in my subject or my profession. Stop assessing me: my driver’s license is valid for 25 MORE YEARS: and that’s based on a single test I took more than 20 years ago. Yet my teaching license expires every three to six years, and requires hundreds of hours spent on learning to be a better teacher. I get observed every year, often twice a year, and have multi-page evaluations, every year. How much proof do you need that I can do this job? The answer is that there will never be enough proof that I can do it, because I will never be trusted to do it. That has nothing to do with me and everything to do with our culture and our system, but I don’t care why it is that way: I just want it to stop.

I already care about my profession, and about my students, and about my subject. I care about my fellow teachers and educators. Please, stop making me also care about and for myself: let someone else do it. Give me some real appreciation.

And don’t let it come from other teachers.

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This Morning

This morning I am thinking about waiting.

Time heals all wounds, we’re told, and it doesn’t. That’s a lie. Not all wounds heal. The implication that we don’t need to do anything actively to heal the wound is often a lie, as well. But it is true that wounds that can heal, will heal with time. I’ve always liked when I see this metaphor taken to completion and the healing described as full medical wound care, because wounds need treatment: once you have cleaned a wound, and applied first aid, and assuming there aren’t deeper complications in the wound and the damage done by the original wound isn’t critical — THEN time heals all wounds.

That doesn’t have the same pithy brevity, though. Too bad: because what could be a valuable piece of advice about patience and waiting and allowing things to happen, rather than going out and forcing them to happen, is somewhat ruined by — well, by impatience, by the need to keep the truism short and to the point. Four words sound good; forty tell the truth; we generally pick the four. It’s faster. Easier.

And, often, false.

Waiting is one of the best things to be good at. One of the hardest things for a new teacher to master is wait time: when you ask a question, you have to stop and give your students time to come up with the answer. It’s hard, because of course you as the teacher already know the answer, so in your brain, the necessary wait time is zero, and there you are, staring out across this room full of blank faces, thinking, “Come on, how do you not know this? It’s hyperbole, for god’s sake! Everyone knows what hyperbole is!” And if no one comes up with it immediately, you turn into that annoying kid who blurts out all the answers. It’s unfair, and it’s not good teaching — but it feels good, because first of all, you know all the answers (Maybe the hardest thing about teaching well is learning to not need to be the smartest person in the room.) and secondly, it’s so awkward, sitting there in a silent room while nobody is saying anything! If you just give the answers right after the questions, then everything moves forward, quick and smooth and easy.

And without learning.

Learning to resist that urge, learning to wait, is extremely difficult. Took me years. It took me enough instances of saying the answer just to have a student say, “I was just going to say that!” and feeling guilty for cutting the student off, and enough instances of recognizing how great it is when they come up with the answer themselves instead of me saying it, to learn to wait for someone to answer. It has made quite a difference in my teaching.

Now, of course, I have also learned to enjoy their (slight) discomfort. I like making them wait in silence. I like making them feel the need to fill that void with something, anything, at least a guess. I like asking hard questions, and watching them have to stop and think. I especially like staggering a smart student, one who is rolling along, doing great, smashing every question out of their way like a marathoner going through those ribbons at the end of the race — and then I ask something that needs more thought, and they have to come to a halt to consider. I like to be the wall the marathoner bounces off of. I love that. (I love it even more when, after a five- or ten- or even twenty-second pause, that same kid comes up with the answer. That’s the best thing.) I might love it too much: I am well known among my students for refusing to give them answers, ever. I’ll ask a difficult question —  why does the author make this choice instead of this other choice — and then they try a few thoughts, and we discuss it and those thoughts don’t work; then a pause, then they try another, and it doesn’t work either. Then somebody says, “Well, will you tell us why?” And my response is generally, “Oh, I’ll never tell you. You’ll figure it out, or you won’t know.” They groan. I grin.

But the point is, the waiting is the key. Time may not heal all wounds, but time is a necessary component of any change: from unprepared to prepared, from sad to happy, from good to great. It is rarely, in my experience, the only component; I think effort is probably equal in almost anything, and also thought — but time is necessary. Patience is necessary.

I’m still learning that. I’m 44, soon to be 45, and I’m still unpublished. (I am traditional enough to think that self-publishing doesn’t count. It does. But it isn’t what I really want, what I really really want, therefore…*) I think my writing has improved, but I haven’t reached my goal. It is not easy to deal with. Ten years ago I blamed everything on callow agents and a heartless publishing industry that just wouldn’t recognize my talent; now I tend to blame myself for not being good enough, for not having the right ideas. But in either case, I still don’t have what I want, and it hurts. It hurts all the time. It bothers me every time I see someone younger than me publishing books. It feels a little better when I see those posts and memes that list the ages of successful artists and authors who were older when they had their first breakthrough; but I’m starting to move into the middle of that pack, too. I saw on Twitter yesterday where someone was trying to give this kind of affirmation, and said, “I didn’t publish my first book until I was 38. Now I’m contracted for my tenth.” And I thought, Shit.

I also don’t always wait and think things through, especially about the effects of my words. I like to just type and go, hit Post, Reply, Send; I like doing that fast. It was a problem when I argued online regularly; now I do that less, but I still have the same problem. And it is a problem, not just  because I often misspeak when I do that; it also means I don’t realize the effect of everything I am about to say before I say it, and so I do things to people that I don’t mean or want to do. I make them angry or I make them sad, or I make them laugh and scoff at me, or I make them feel embarrassed or ashamed. And if I would just stop, and think, before I hit Send, and re-read what I wrote, then I would probably realize, “Oh, no, I shouldn’t say that, I shouldn’t say it that way.” And I’d fix it, and then I would prevent a problem that is caused by my own desire to hurry, my own inability to wait. But I hurry, and so I do harm, to someone else or to myself.

In other words, time may not heal all wounds: but impatience causes them.

Waiting is the key.

 

*Yes, that is a Spice Girls reference. Here, watch this: this will make it better.

What It Means to Be a Writer

Scrolling through my Twitter feed when I found a link to this piece.

I walk by accident into one of London’s über-bookstores to be taken over by a very familiar type of sadness—as a child I used to feel this way when thinking about the cosmos and my own insignificant place in it. This is London’s biggest bookshop: 6.5 km of shelves, the website proudly tells us, as if this particular length and not another were a reason to rejoice. Book after book after book thrown into this worded jungle—a hoard that could be a waking counterpart to a Borgesian wet dream. Fiction books and books on writing fiction. Photography and art books and books on photography and art. And so on: most forms of expression and myriad words of meta-dialogue, some of them even justified or at least nicely edited and with colourful covers. Nothing escapes this total library: no corner of the universe or the mind is left unaccounted for. It is a hideous totality for it is an ordered totality, filtered through the minds of who knows how many marketing specialists; it is effective as a selling platform but it is a desert of anonymity for the diminished names on the shelves. Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).

Okay, first of all, that parenthetical comment at the end gets you a punch in your snooty little snoot with a fist labeled Fuck You. I presume you mean that true poetry, great writing, emerges from the soul as a fait accompli, like Athena cracking her way out of Zeus’s head fully-grown; if a would-be writer is too naive to recognize this immortal truth, and to think that one could simply ASK for a way to be a better writer, then that person is doomed to less than mediocrity. Or else it is the bourgeois feeling of the “writing tips,” the oversimplified, sanitized, pre-packaged saccharine packets that show up in ten-item numbered lists on the various clickbait websites advertised on Facebook. I am more understanding of contempt for those, as I am contemptuous of people who make a living on the internet by telling people how to make a living on the internet – by running a website telling people how to make a living on the internet, which is done (Spoiler alert!) by getting people who want to make a living on the internet to buy your secret to making a living on the internet; and the people who do this always seem to call themselves “writers.” But my contempt is for the people at the top of the pyramid: not for the people down on the ground, choking on dust and sand, dreaming of a way to climb. Those people who want writing tips because they want to be better writers deserve respect for their courage in trying to find a way to get what they want; and their desire to improve, whether or not they know a good path to improvement, is admirable and not at all an indication of their potential as writers. Fuck you in the snoot, sir.

Now let’s talk about the central issue here. You’ve got two problems with this bookstore and the despair it engenders in you. One is that your words will never be truly unique, because somebody out there will say pretty much the same thing you say – or in Borges’s universe that you reference later, with his infinite Library of Babel that holds all combinations of letters and thus every possible book, one of the other volumes on the shelves will say exactly what you say. And maybe Borges was right and it does repeat in a chaotic pattern for eternity, if such a thing can be said to exist. Right? All the kilometers of fiction books, the books about art and photography and writing; all been done before, nothing is new, nothing is original. Somebody get me a cigarette and a bottle of cheap red wine, and build a Parisian basement cafe around me for a tomb.

The second problem is that you will never be the one person whose words everyone reads, everyone knows, everyone talks about; because there will always be so many others putting words on the page, that it is impossible that your words would be the ones that capture every reader at once. Particularly not if you want to capture every non-reader as well. This problem seems to be the larger one, as you speak more of being lost in the noise than you do about repeating what has already been said.

The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.

This is a poor proof. Your message in a bottle being surrounded by other messages in a bottle does not make your message pointless. Not even in the metaphor: so long as one person finds your message and reads it, and – I suppose – comes to rescue you from your desert island of despair (Perhaps your bottle message is something entirely different, something like “If you let your eyes go unfocused, a Moen kitchen faucet starts to look like a snobbish sheep with a very long snout. But it’s hard to recapture the magic once your eyes go back to normal and the sheep turns back into a faucet, so don’t waste it.” In that case, you won’t be rescued, but somebody may spend a lot of time squinting at their kitchen sink because of you, which is pretty funny, really. I’d call that success.), then your bottle was a success. You won. You did what you set out to do. You made your point. Wherefore, then, does it become pointless? Is the idea that the thousand bottles around your bottle make it less likely that your bottle will be read? This is not true for the same reason your enormous bookstore should not lead to despair. Ready for the reason? Here it is.

There is more than one person reading. (Shocking, I know. Hold onto your snoot, Buttercup.)

Let’s start with the metaphor. There are a thousand bottles with messages in them, bobbing in the water by the seashore. If there was only one person walking by, and for some reason that person had sworn a sacred vow to read only one bottled message, then your chances of being read are a thousand to one. Agreed, and that would suck. But in the – ahem – “real world” of this fantasy, that one guy wouldn’t stop at one bottle: he’d keep opening bottles. Because if he was doing it out of curiosity, out of a need to see what was written on those messages; or if he was looking for the perfect message, the one that would speak directly to his soul, then reading one message would never be enough. He’d read another, and another, and another. He’d probably try to read them all. I would. Wouldn’t you? If you saw a thousand bottles bobbing in the water with message inside them?

And if it was more than one guy on the shoreline? If it was actually a crowded beach, with tourists, and beachcombers, and dogwalkers, and a tai chi group, and a bunch of hungover teenagers wrapped in sandy blankets and the stench of wet cigarette butts? The bottles would catch all of their interests. They would all want to open their own bottle, be the first to read a message. Then they would share the messages they found with each other. They’d be diving into the water, throwing bottles back onto the shore, shouting and laughing and waving their messages over their heads. The more bottles there were in the water, the bigger the spectacle would be, and the more those people would be drawn to where the bottles were. They might even come back the next day to look for more bottles.

Are you following me, sir? Those bookstores with the kilometers of shelves? They are not only filled with books, they are filled with people. People who read books. And those people never stop at just one book. I know: I used to frequent a very similar establishment, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Five floors of twelve-foot-high bookshelves, covering an entire city block. I never expect to see so many books on display in a single place in my life again. I could spend the rest of my life reading (Ah, bliss!) and not finish a single floor’s worth of books. I went there every month for the ten years I lived in Oregon, to buy books, and you know what? That place was always packed with people. With readers. Never mind the kilometers worth of shelves: how many kilometers of people do you think go through those stores on any given day? 3,000 people, on the average. [source] Average front-to-back measurement of a person is approximately ten inches; I’m an American and we’re thicc, so let’s bump that up to a round foot. (Screw the metric system, though I’ll convert for your convenience, sir.) 3,000 feet of human every day, which is very nearly one kilometer of human flesh – around 915 meters, to be precise. And that’s not even lying down head-to-foot. That means that in a week, if the London store has a similar number of visitors, the people looking at those books outdistance the books they are looking at. And I can tell you that the turnover rate for the people looking is far higher than the turnover for the books on the shelves.

There are an enormous number of books in the world, and it grows every day. It is impossible for one person to read them all, and realistically impossible that one of them will be read by all people.

But that doesn’t mean that my book won’t be read. It doesn’t mean that your words will never be seen.

I think about selling my books, which I have not yet succeeded in doing. But let’s imagine that I do so: imagine if my sales, by every measure of the publishing industry, are absymal. Let’s pretend that I only sell one thousand copies of my novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate. So lame, right? I am – what was your phrase? – “lost in this desert of words.”

A thousand people bought my book. Presumably that means a thousand people read it. (Some surely would cast it aside in disgust or disappointment, sure, but I think some of them would like it enough to share with someone else, or else resell it. Let’s just imagine that one sale equals one reading.) Think about that. I have never been in a room with a thousand people who all know me: not in the way that a reader knows at least an aspect of a writer. I have spoken to thousands of people in my life, but I doubt that a full one thousand of them cared about what I had to say: cared enough to sit down, in a quiet room, and spend hours just listening to my words, thinking about my thoughts. Hearing me. If I could sell just one thousand copies of my book, then I could achieve that. So what if at that same time a million people were listening to Stephen King, and ten million were listening to Kim Kardashian? So what if the world is larger than I can speak to at once? So what if all I can have is one small corner –with one thousand people listening to me?

Isn’t that enough?

Think about it in terms of time. I don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but the pirate book was finished in about a year, so let’s use that. It’s a pretty fast read, I think; someone could finish it in maybe ten hours of reading at a leisurely pace, maybe even less. If a thousand people spend ten hours reading my book, then the year of my life spent writing it (And of course the vast majority of that year was spent sleeping, working, eating, singing in the shower, watching TV, playing The Sims, et cetera) has turned into ten thousand hours of other people’s lives spent – on me. There are 8,760 hours in a year (And 525,600 minutes), so even if I had spent every single one of them working on my book, that time spent is balanced by time spent reading my book if only a thousand people were to read it. More than balanced.

So the question is, what more could you possibly want?

If the only thing that would make writing worthwhile, that would give this endeavor a point, is if every single person on Earth read your work, and only your work, then I agree that writing would be pointless. But I can’t fathom a writer, a real writer, being that childish, that selfish, to think that the world must revolve around your work and your work alone. I mean, the only cultural phenomenon with that impact is Wyld Stallyns. Granted, you’re not them, and neither am I. And that stings a bit, I’ll bet. Yeah, it does me too.

I’ll comfort myself just thinking about how easy it would be to get a thousand people in the world to read a decent book. Shit, if all I want is readers, I could offer it for free and get that many readers without even trying. You wrote this obnoxious angsty piece of snobbery, and I read it, and then spent – mmm – more than an hour responding to it. See? The time you spent on this crud then earned for you this time spent out of my life. Time I could have been reading, ya selfish bastard.

And honestly, I think this is enough time spent on you. I am sorry that your life is so empty and meaningless, and sorry that I threw a couple of hours of my life into your black hole of an ego. Do us both a favor: gain some perspective, will you? Thanks.

(I have to say: the rest of the piece has some valid points about marketing on social media, and about the democratization and banalisation [His word] of writing that has occurred through the internet. There is some good thought here. If there hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have read all the way to the end, and then taken the time to write a response. I don’t disagree with everything he says. Just the central premise. I dream of having a thousand readers, and I am absolutely sure that, even in a world inundated with voluminous writers of every imaginable quality and a limited number of readers with a limited number of books they will read, still: I will hit that mark. And it will be worth it.

(Thank you for inspiring me to write this, sir. Now pull up your fucking pants.)