I finish most of my work days angry. I don’t want to be angry. I want to be able to take a deep, cleansing, Zen-i-fied breath, expel the negativity, and finish the day with a smile on my face.
I plan lessons almost every day, but here is a lesson I need to learn. Nothing is more entertaining to children than an adult losing her shit. They live for it. They strive for it. They coordinate organized plans to inspire it.
When I got to work this morning, I set aside three folders of student essays I wanted to grade. This is the work that I love. The students have turned in a second draft which I will be evaluating for properly embedded quotations and correct citations. They were also to include a works cited page with at least two entries. When I teach writing, I feel “flow.”
There is a psychologist with an impossible to pronounce name (it’s Csikszentimihalyi. Told you.) who describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…” My ego actually never falls away under any circumstances, but other than that, this perfectly describes me when I teach writing. Now that I’ve been at this for nearly thirteen years (Good God, Lemon), I don’t make the mistake of writing long detailed comments on students’ papers.
Now, some of you are thinking, “But I learned tons and tons from all of the comments my teachers wrote on my essays! I lived for those red-penned words of wit and wisdom!” That is because you are a writer and/or an English nerd, or a little apple-polishing teacher’s pet. We are a rare breed, my friends. 98% of students look at the grade and shove the paper in a backpack (if I’m lucky) or the trashcan.
If I could turn off my anger at the end of every day and sit down with my papers, my life would be better. Instead, I fall into a daily trap of parent phone calls, anecdotal notes in my teaching records, and angry emails to administrators, all focusing and refocusing on my failures to spin straw into gold.
Every time I’ve ever made a monumental change in my life, it started with “I cannot live like this anymore.” I leave work with my papers ungraded. I pick up my children from daycare feeling sad, worn-out, angry, frustrated, and self-pitying. I get home and don’t have the energy to do what I love: write, play with my kids, cook, interact with my husband.
I can’t live like this anymore. I won’t.
I know that it is possible to let this job destroy me, inspire me, or neither. I know that the power is mine. I just have to push the play button and live it. I choose to focus on what works for me and shrug off the rest of it. A workshop leader told me “Arguing with a teenager is like trying to nail Jell-o to a tree.” And I fucking hate Jell-o. There is NEVER room for Jell-o.
Odie and I took a walk in Malibu six years ago and admired a gorgeous mansion perched over the Pacific Ocean. “Must be nice,” I sighed enviously. Odie looked at it thoughtfully.
“I’ll bet you anything the person who lives in that house is on anti-depressants.”
There’s a Maslow’s hierarchy of teacher irritation. Once you get them to stop throwing feces at you and each other, you can start being irritated about how they talk over your lesson. Once you get them to shut up, it’s their glazed over fish eyes that get on your last nerve. And on and on it goes.
And so, I take a deep breath and return to the words of Red in “Shawshank Redemption” (although technically it was a poorly attributed quote of Andy’s). Get busy teaching, or get busy sending angry, pointless emails.
That’s goddamn right.