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.