Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In The Rubble Of The Present

Better not stick around too long
With your ugly words, with your shaky hands
Didn’t want to give up, didn’t want to give up too easy
Oh well, he deserved this
We all lose in the end, don’t we?
We all lose in the end, don’t we?
…wasted what little time he had
The one chance. The one chance.
–Spencer Moody & the MCD, One Vision of May

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

–e.e. cummings [somewhere I have never traveled]

Things relatively unrelated to my work as a teacher took a turn for the awful and the disastrous two weeks ago. These are the kind of things that leave you sitting on Ocean Beach some time after midnight, shivering, with a rapidly emptying bottle of Bushmills between your knees; that leave you suddenly without a vision for how the days will be; that change all the little things that aren’t really little, down to how you feel as you walk up the stairs after that time when you’re away doing this work; that make you question the value of the work, and its place in your hierarchy of things that matter, because it is undeniable that this current disaster finds at least some chunks of causation in the work being as highly placed as it is on said hierarchy; that leave you wandering around your classroom, unable to finish sentences or remember why you opened the cabinet or what you were about to say next.

It’s never been a more dangerous time to teach the kids.

I know I am not the first to find themselves facing a classroom of 7th graders who sit and acquiesce and wonder why their teacher has gone mumbly and smileless, but I don’t know how other people did it, how they continued to do this work through all kinds of stomach-punch pain that makes it almost impossible, literally, to generate anything even remotely approaching the level of energy with which you urge discussion and analysis of question #7 (the way you stand with the whiteboard marker in your hand, not moving, not talking for way longer than is comfortable); I don't know how those other people continued to do this work in denial of the logic-voice that urges departure and removal and ignoring. Call the sub and drink the whiskey.

There was this moment of bizarrely removed clarity, walking through the city streets late on that first night of the post-disaster era, a moment where competing thought-patterns were running their own arguments.

Left shoulder: You can use the work to get through this, you know.

Right shoulder: If you do that, you’ll end up hating the work and hating the kids.

Left shoulder: There is a gaping hole. Stop being self-indulgent and fill the hole with something positive, and beneficial, and real.

Right shoulder: Too much of the hole is already filled that way. You know this.

Left shoulder: Dig deep into the work, into the community, pull the work over your head like a blanket, and read by the light of the flashlight. The kids can be your flashlight.

Right shoulder: That’s not fair to you, or to them. They are recipients of your strength, not providers of it.

Left shoulder: If you don’t the pain will start, and it will grow and continue, like it did that one time, and you are not prepared to fight any of it.

Right shoulder: Then that’s what will happen.

I’m on the ledge already, my friend and mentor has moved on, and now this tragedy sneaks up on me, the disolution of something I've worked and waited years for, years, three, but maybe as many as ten, this tragedy laced with fucking up, and guilt, and the sense that maybe it could’ve been avoided if I hadn’t coached this year, hadn’t taught those Saturdays, hadn’t assigned assignments that required reading and thinking and a written response. It’s all bullshit, but it’s still hard not to think that way, and hard not to walk through the quad and look at the trees and the benches and the kids who show up way too early because there are too many people in their house for them to ever get a good night’s sleep, I see these everyday things and it’s hard not to begrudge the hell out of all of it. It’s harder still when the kids come up short, when they don’t respond, when they give you shit. What is gained is not in balance with what was given, what was taken, and what was lost.

It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true. It doesn’t.

Left shoulder: But what’s your choice? Cuz you can’t go on this way.

Right shoulder: Another strategic withdrawal. Dig the trench a little deeper.

Left shoulder: You don’t have many of those left, and you’re already paying for the temporary respite of the last one.

Right shoulder: That’s not the issue for today.

Left shoulder: Then what is?

Right shoulder: Getting through the night until it’s time to commute, time to teach, time to coach, time to grade, time to place rambling calls to your friends, time to feel the time weighing on you – time of what has gone before, and time of what is to come.

Left shoulder: You’ll get better soon.

Right shoulder: No. I won’t.

Every time I fake a smile, fist-pound, or peace sign to a well-meaning kid passing in the hallways, it feels like the amputation of my entire stomach. I pass a lot of kids in the hallways.


Blogger JeffreygeneHK said...

...wishing you strength from china in this...


12:44 AM  
Blogger Liz Ditz said...

Oh, dear, my deepest sympathies for you.

3:25 AM  
Anonymous fgk said...


best of luck getting through this.

dear abbey was right sometimes. this may be a situation where professional help would be appropriate. it would certainly address the problem of how much of this you should place on your kids.

6:27 AM  
Blogger H. said...


Kind thoughts and friendly wishes.
Sadly, no constructive suggestions.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

"What is gained is not in balance with what was given, what was taken, and what was lost."
My father was an English teacher (retired now) and my mother once told me “The kids get your best and everyone else gets what is left over.” This is the thought that runs through my mind when I am staring down the barrel of yet another personal disaster & calling a sub and grabbing an extra-large bottle of wine seems like the only way to even breathe.
How do you get through it? I wish I had an easy answer or at least one that didn’t sound so clichéd but the truth is…you just do. You stumble through the days and eventually the clouds part and the pain dulls.
In the meantime: cut yourself some slack & give yourself some space to stumble. You obviously need some time to breathe.
Best wishes - Good luck in getting through this.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Jackie said...

Wishing you strength and peace.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Jeri said...

This may make you angry; it may add to your sense of quandary, and yet: sounds like it's time to get out of there. Take a break and do something else.

Maybe you'll come back to it, and maybe you won't. There are other important things to do.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous suzie said...

I was wondering if you were going to blog about this... I suspected the incident couldn't be separated from your work life.

I wish I actually had something constructive to say but it sounds like you're dealing with some really soul-gutting stuff. I wouldn't recommend making any major life-changing decisions right now but I know that doesn't actually help you.

It totally sucks, hang in there.


10:13 AM  
Blogger ms. v. said...

wow. I know I'm reading this with my own script superimposed based on my own experiences... but I'm right there with you. I responded by throwing myself into it for a while... now I'm just feeling bitter and looking for escape... while simultaneously knowing that you can't escape *yourself*... so what to do? what to do? hang in there, whatever happens. the kids will be okay. they're resilient little buggers after all! (as are we!)

sustainability. that's the issue isn't it?

6:03 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hey Suzie P., how goes it? I'm about nine kinds of fucked up. I guess you have a sense how deep this all runs, how far back. Thanks for checking in though, and for the thoughts. Make sure you talk to J. plenty about how much next year's gonna suck, so there's no surprises.

The rest of ya'll are fine folks and I appreciate. It seems silly and self-indulgent to even put shit like this here, I'm not even sure it stay up, but I appreciate.

9:29 PM  
Blogger CBone said...

A month ago, a man called me from Harlem. I met him when he was 13 and I was 22. I hadn't seen Carl in over 40 years. He found my name and called and we talked and I cried and he told me he remembered a lot of what we had talked about in the pasted together darkroom where I taught him photography and used my photos to connect with my kids at school. I too have felt the despair you've captured brilliantly. I used to worry about the same things ... what was it all worth. I'm not going to say that phone call changed my life. It didn't. I'd figured this out some time before. But this phone call confirmed for me that one of those kids you make contact with, no matter how you do it, even the peace sign in the hall, may call you some day and say you were there for them and they made it make a difference. That's all we can do. I have lots of days, some even as awful as yours was, where I share some of your same thoughts. I think perhaps the only thing age has done for me is give me enough examples where my presence in someone's school life made a difference. The important thing for me was realizing they made it make a difference. It wasn't under my control. Only I was under my control. Bless you, Man. Keep going.

2:47 PM  
Anonymous NDC said...

I looked for a way to send you an email, but maybe I didn't look hard enough.

I stalked over from JJ's comment section.

It certainly wasn't my intention to diminish the contribution that you are making with my sweeping generalization about why I don't think others will step up to try to work similar miracles.

Please keep fighting the good fight in the classroom, but in good conscience, you don't actually have to give it all to the job unless you don't actually want anything else. (I say that sincerely; maybe it really does come close to fulfilling you completely.)

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Ivory said...

I work in healthcare and education so I'm familiar with the whole "if I stop working people will suffer" mentality. However, you have to take the long view. It's OK to be a person - not with your patients or your students but with everyone else. Build a space where others can support you for a little while.

I met you once at a dinner in San Jose. You seemed smart, committed and connected to what you do. You may not feel that way now but is that what left shoulder is all about.

Cut yourself a little slack for a while - what you're going through now is not forever and it sounds like you're not in the best space to make decisions with long term consequences.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Ms. W said...

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others... for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy...

Albert Einstein

You're here for others, and they're here for you. It's okay if you need to ask for help; I find most teachers have a hard time doing that sometimes. :)

Best wishes.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Joanne Jacobs said...

I've tagged you with the "seven random things" meme here.

11:04 AM  
Blogger j m holland said...

I sincerely urge your to talk about what is going on in your life on TLN. I have seen many excellent teachers brought back from the edge by others who have looked over and even jumped.

12:42 PM  

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