Song of the Year, 2014 Edition

Around this time last year, I picked my 2013 song of the year—not the song that I listened to the most, nor the song that I liked the most, nor that annoying ear worm that never goes away (looking at you, Meghan Trainor and every song from a certain wintry Disney film). No, my “song of the year” is the song that encapsulated the year for me. The woeful dissertation-finishing/academic job-hunting year of 2012’s song was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—a lonely song for a lonely time. I followed that up with The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for 2013—another year adrift and trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself, a year of unemployment, transitions, and unhappiness that I managed only intermittently to stave off.

So. What was 2014’s song? Like 2013, it was a year of transitions. I spent the spring in long-term substitute jobs, falling back into love with teaching. I spent the summer going through a teacher certification program and, um, buying a house. In September, I got the first full-time, regular-paycheck-plus-benefits job I’ve had since 2006. The weekend before I started that job, I finished the draft of Ghosts of the Old City. House! Job! Novel! A lot of good things happened in the latter half of 2014.

Here’s the song that goes with them: The Decemberists’ “This is Why We Fight” from The King is Dead.

(No, I do not quite understand why the post-apocalypse despot is young, white Prince.)

For the first time in half a decade, I felt last year like my work was getting me somewhere. It was not what I’d spent all those years in graduate school preparing for, but there’s not much use in crying over spilt time. Although it sounds contradictory, I think I no longer regret chasing my PhD despite wishing that I hadn’t done it. The emotional weight has diminished. (See also: the idea of detachment I wrote about here.)

“This is Why We Fight” is not valedictory, and I don’t really think my 2014 was either. The house, the job, the (draft!) novel…those are not prizes that I won. They’re not some kind of belated justification for the effort I’ve put into my various endeavours. They’re a side effect, one that I greatly appreciate. They’re things that I could not possibly have done without the support of many wonderful people in my life.

Which brings me back around to “This is Why We Fight”: those people, and all the other people I interact with. My kids. My students. My family. My friends. That’s why I fight. That’s why I put up with the commute. That’s why I keep going back to students who have called me names and blown me off and, in one case, written an essay about how much they dislike me.

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

The song’s lyrics are simple. The video—which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this post—is evocative and takes fighting literally (although there’s much to be made of starting a revolution with a white flag). Simple lyrics, though, delivered with Meloy’s emotion and the whole band’s driving instrumentals, make me think of all the reasons that I fight. This is one of those songs that hits me, that can make me tear up the same way I do when I get to tell students how well they’re doing, the same way I did yesterday when my son earnestly told me that maybe he would go to work in government so he could help create justice.

That’s why I fight. That’s one of the things I figured out in 2014. It’s what keeps me going in this young year.

Finity

Humans are bad swimmers.

The shape of our bodies lends itself to climbing trees, running long distances, using tools…and creating lots of turbulence when we propel ourselves through the water. Even Michael Phelps expends a fair amount of energy that doesn’t move him forward.

Being a first year teacher is like learning to swim: you splash and flounder and far, far too much of your energy is spent on turbulence rather than propulsion. You’re inefficient—dreadfully inefficient—but you’re in deep water so you don’t really have much choice but to keep swimming. You expend enormous amounts of energy on the little things: keeping track of papers, filing lesson plans, attending meetings. Then, too, there are the more important things that aren’t directly part of teaching content: classroom management, staying on the same page as your administrators, understanding how the standardized tests work. It’s all turbulence and splashing. There is not, as a first year teacher, that much energy left over for propelling yourself and your students toward actual content knowledge.

We do it anyway, though. How could we not? We love our students. Whether we’re fresh out of school or fresh out of an alternative certification program, we’re teachers because we care about the work. We can wear our cynicism about the system for everybody to see, but it hasn’t had time to deepen and become bitter. We give teaching everything we’ve got.

Here’s the thing, though: that extra energy? It has to come from somewhere. Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” First year teachers put most of our internal multitudes to work on teaching. We get a little boring. We do things like eat raw almonds for lunch because we didn’t make it to the grocery store or because we were thinking hard about the day’s lessons and forgot to pack a proper meal. We don’t get enough sleep. We have to remind ourselves that our kids at home are not our students. Sometimes, we have to hunt down that one of our multitude who washes dishes and does laundry. (That one is really good at hiding.)

Our multitudes are finite. Our energy is finite. For me, writing is one of the things that slipped for a while. NaNo was a bit of a train wreck—I didn’t have a plan when I started, spent the first weekend writing some game stuff, and was still at zero words of actual draft two weeks in. By the end of the third, I decided that continuing to gun for 50K was not going to be at all fun, so I stopped. I did write a few thousand words more before November was out, but it was back to writing for fun. There will be Camp NaNo in April and in July, and (shockingly) I don’t require it to be NaNo to write.

I do require time and energy. I have to find space in the finite. I have to decide, day to day, whether I’ll get more out of washing dishes or writing a few paragraphs, whether to spend a spare twenty minutes jotting down ideas for lesson plans or character development (or sleeping). I have to remind myself that I’m more likely to waste time playing games when I’m tired, and that those twenty minutes would almost always be better spent sleeping.

And teaching never really goes away. It’s nearly as bad as grad school for thoughts of “I should be working” lurking always in the back one’s mind. It doesn’t feel as much like being stalked by a monster as the dissertation did, but it still takes a remarkable amount of headspace. There are constantly things to fix, different points to emphasize, procedures to tweak to make things run more smoothly. I think about particular students. I think about particular lessons. I try to figure out different ways to explain things to my ESL and SPED students…and how to give my GT students something that will actually make them think. Teaching, like art, will fill as much space as you give it.

Finity is a bitch. But I’m learning to be a better swimmer.

Infinite Recursion

I remember, during my first year of T.A.ing a writing-intensive course, asking the exasperated rhetorical “who taught these kids how to write?” It was one of our favorite things to complain about in the T.A. office. Why couldn’t these college freshmen understand the concept of a thesis? Why did one particular student insist on ending every single paragraph of her paper with a summary sentence? (And why did she believe so thoroughly that she was right that it took confirmation from six other T.A.s before she would accept that I was onto something when I told her to stop doing that.) We blamed teachers. We blamed testing and the bizarre standards that go with it. In short, we blamed high school for college problems.

Now I teach middle school. The other day I listened to a colleague explain in detail how she could tell exactly which teacher her problem kids had the previous year. There’s a temptation to blame elementary teachers just as thoroughly as we used to blame high school teachers in the T.A. office. (We also blame parents, mind. Especially for discipline problems.)

I’m sure that if I end up teaching high school, I’ll be immersed in complaints about middle school teachers. That’s the way it goes: when you find a mess, you blame the last person who was in the room. We could run it all the way back to “why weren’t you reading to your kid when she was six months old.” (Seriously, though, read to your little kids! And your bigger ones.) And when we run it back that far, we can start going bigger: Why were you born poor? Why did you inherit that poverty from your parents? Why are achievement levels at your neighborhood elementary so bad that you can get an academic all-star just for meeting grade level expectations? Why?

“Who taught these kids how to write?”

That’s the wrong question. Not entirely wrong, because if we are going to change outcomes and improve the system, we eventually have to get at the systemic questions. Right now, though, we need to shut up about whoever had our students last. I’ve known good teachers and bad ones. I can’t think of a single one who didn’t care about his or her job. Some care more than others, but you don’t stay in teaching if you are not trying to help students learn.

We have students for a few hours each week. That’s it. Regardless of the level we’re teaching at, the students will spend more time outside our classroom than inside. We have to work with what they bring in with them, warts and all.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “how are we going to teach these kids to write?” (Or to understand science, solve math problems, understand history, or whatever.) Blaming other teachers won’t answer that question. Sometimes, when you walk into a messy room, the only real answer is to start cleaning it up.

Once More Unto the Breach

The other day I had to explain the word “trudging” to a bunch of 13-year olds, many of whom spoke English as their second language. Today the word felt apt—not because I was in a Minnesota winter stomping wearily through piles of snow, but because work is work, and sometimes nights are short and work is tough. I think about all the things I have to do (both in the possessive sense and the one of requirement) and it feels like I’ll be trudging until June.

That is why I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year, even though my time is as compressed as it ever was when I was using grad school as an excuse not to do it. I’m doing it because sometimes we have to jump off a (metaphorical) cliff and remember what flying feels like. Sometimes we forget to hit the ground, sometimes we don’t. (And we can be Arthur Dent in both cases.)

I miss the Austin NaNos I haven’t seen in a year (and some I’ve seen at Camp NaNo events). When I “won” eleven months ago, I called them “a community of fellow striver-sufferers.” It still fits. It’s hokey and a little artificial, but the camaraderie of NaNo is still great. I suspect that I’m much more excited for some of my fellow Austin NaNos to write their drafts than I’d ever be to read them. I’m just as sure that some of the stuff is awesome. Thing is, that’s not really the point: the point is to write. Because it’s fun and sometimes it’s more fun to do together.

The fun is the important part. I still have a manuscript sitting around to revise and get edited and published. Part of me wants to kick myself for starting the next book while the first one is still so rough. There’s just no better, more fun part of the year to churn through a novel draft than November. When something means enough, you stop finding time and start making time.

This post has simmered for a few days—from a really abysmal Wednesday and on to Halloween, when the hardest of the hardcore NaNos are spending the holiday evening having a potluck and caffeinating themselves to get going at midnight. My kids are out trick or treating. It’s quiet between trick-or-treaters, and for once I don’t have lessons to plan. I’ve resisted the urge to throw on a movie…because the quiet is good. This is a moment I’m taking to write.

Nothing fancy, words on a screen, and most of those words are about words, which is too often a snake eating its own tail. But I will write. I am writing. I am a writer.

Tomorrow I start a new novel and send Maedoc and Zahra to Trayan. They might not get there and back this November, but they will go. And I will go with them because it is a far, far better thing than to stay here.

And because I’ve been English teacher/nerd enough to be actually using these speeches in the morning to psych myself up, a little Henry the Five, courtesy of Branagh and Olivier:

Let’s jump off the cliff and try to forget about hitting the ground.

Clever? Yes. Wise? Working on it.

Sometime during my sophomore year of college, I realized that being smart and speaking well were not perfectly correlated. One of my good friends–who has since had the most surprisingly adventurous life of my college gang–was pulling steady Bs without really trying. Grade inflation might have blunted that accomplishment, but this friend was taking a fairly serious slate of biology and Japanese classes. At a selective liberal arts college, you’re not supposed to be able to get away with that. This buddy of mine, though, was managing it even though he talked like a dairy farmer from Wisconsin (which he was). He was plenty smart.

Around the same time, I began to seriously think about wisdom. Being “smart” has always been easy for me. I’m particularly good at clever. (It’s the one way I feel like I’ve actually made an impression on my students so far.) I think fast. I mostly respond to new and changing situations with workable solutions.

Clever kept me afloat in grad school. I was good at the necessary half-bluffs of sounding like you know more than you really do. When something truly caught my interest, I could do a reasonable job of getting below the surface and thinking Big Thoughts about it. Day-to-day, though, I relied on being mentally quick rather than being intellectually strong.

Mental agility is pretty damn handy, but clever isn’t enough.

What I have been aspiring to, what I have written about intermittently for years in stuff that nobody sees, is wisdom.

The definition I’ve come up with most recently is this: wisdom is recognizing your feelings but understanding that they don’t have to rule you. This divide between thoughts and emotions crops up fairly often on the blog. Most often, it’s an intellectual understanding that things will get better, that I am capable, that I’ve overcome plenty of obstacles opposed to a feeling that everything will suck forever and I suck, too. When I’m at my most wise, I can recognize that distinction and use it as a source of strength.

Similar principles apply to dealing with people and situations. It’s easy to get angry about things. It’s often even easier to get angry at people. Maintaining some detachment from my emotions helps me control my responses to the people and situations that upset me.

Writing about “detachment” might seem to equate wisdom with coldness. Really, though, when I’m working on wisdom I’m usually able to respond in the best way. That’s most often a warm one–for both practical and ethical purposes. Wisdom becomes a precursor to kindness and humanity. When I act with wisdom, I can do what’s best rather than what I feel like doing.

That’s what I aim for, anyway. I don’t get there as often as I’d like, in part because I’m still working on the more practical wisdom of getting enough sleep and exercise and eating the right food. Wisdom is hard when the body’s playing catch up. It’s hard to be wise when you’re in your third consecutive hour of 30 eighth graders in a small room. Mostly, it’s hard to be wise because we’re still toting around a lot of neurological wiring that kept us alive thousands of generations ago.

That doesn’t stop me from trying. It is, as I tell my kids (and my students) the only way to get better.

Coming Up for Air

It’s hard to believe this is my fourth week of teaching. As with most high-intensity projects, it feels simultaneously like I’ve just started and that I’ve been doing it forever. The days have their rhythm, the gradebook is never caught up, and there’s always some conversation (or six) to snuff out in the middle of teacher talk.

Last night, though, I managed to squash catching up into the same evening as going out. For the second consecutive day, I stayed at school until 6. Monday I was setting up my classroom. Yesterday I was grading and catching up the gradebook so that my students can fully understand just how many assignments they have failed to turn in. Somewhere along the way my (awesome) wife talked me into getting a ticket for the Texas debut of Laurie Anderson’s Landfall (written for and performed with the Kronos Quartet).

I first ran into the Kronos Quartet while learning the ropes of composition as an undergrad. Along with the Bartok and Shostakovich quartets, I spent a good bit of time listening to the Macalester library’s selection of Kronos albums. They became my favorite ensemble, a status that persisted through grad school and only began to wear off when I moved out of the new music world and deeper into the dust of historical musicology.

I had never seen them live before. The year after I graduated from Mac, they played a concert in St. Paul. My wife went. I’ve managed to just miss them a few other times either through busy-ness or penury. Both were the case last night, but I went anyway. Going was harder to resist after I heard David Harrington and Laurie Anderson interviewed on my way home on Monday. I hadn’t known that Anderson was part of the production–she featured in the latter chapters of my dissertation. So…there were a lot of reasons to go.

I sat out the traffic (still thick at 6:15) in a Mexican restaurant an exit up the interstate from my school. My server spoke no English, which kept things interesting. (It was also interesting to discover that the long green strips with my carnitas were jalapeno and not bell pepper.) The food was good and I felt slightly less lame about my Spanish as guests from the neighboring hotel wandered in. Sooner or later, though, I’m going have to get my foreign language centers adapted to not break into German in the middle of trying to speak Spanish.

Traffic remained annoying even after I finished my dinner, but the U.T. campus was not far. I managed to find the parking garage without getting lost, even. (I stubbornly maintain my flip-phone usage, so I couldn’t fall back on GPS.) I still had time to wander around campus a bit before going to the concert hall.

Guys, being on campus on a fall evening as the sun is setting? It is awesome. It reminded me of all the fuzzy reasons that I wanted to be a professor in the first place. Green lawns, trees, big buildings full of books and classrooms and practice rooms…it’s heady, idyllic stuff.

It’s also stuff I was never able to notice as an adjunct, when I was busy rushing from parking lot to classroom and back. None of the campuses were ever mine to hang out on or soak in. My offices–when I had them–were borrowed, and I never really got to do the meditative staring out the window thing. Being on a university campus made me simultaneously miss my nonexistent professorship and glad that I got out of the biz when I did.

Missing the concert hall was less complicated. I spent so many years in and around halls as a performer, as a tech, as composer and student… Even a huge hall like Bass feels homey. Hell, I spent enough time laying out concert programs that even the smell of the ink in the series booklet felt like home. As ambivalent as my relationship with new music got, I still miss being part of that world.

The concert itself was good without being great. It was definitely Laurie Anderson’s show, with Kronos sometimes wholly subservient to Anderson’s electronics and multimedia. The moments in which the quartet got to play on its own were brilliantly clear. Anderson’s music wavered (as it usually does) between ambiance and melody. There were recurring motives and spoken word. The overall effect was dynamic but only intermittently pulled me out of my seat. The lighting and sound design, though, were awesome.

I got home late, and felt the short night this morning. I was almost happy that today was a designated testing day and thus short on the usual coaxing 13-year-olds into learning. I’m still tired. I still have heaps of work to do to get this 9-weeks wrapped up and lay the groundwork for the next one. By tomorrow, it might feel like drowning again, but for one night I got to come up for air.

Now all I need is to get back onto an ultimate field and I might even feel like my human self again.

Zug Zug

I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write about my experiences with my new teaching job. Last week—my first week—I did a lot of smiling and shrugging and saying “eighth graders are eighth graders,” as if I were some street corner philosopher channeling Gertrude Stein. This week? This week the same shoulders that I shrugged last week are so knotted with tension that my range of motion is limited.

The biggest stressor has been catching up with and catching onto my new workplace bureaucracy. There’s a lot of it. I have to document just about everything I do during the day, from lesson plans to grades to whom I work with during tutorials. I have to enter student behaviour—good and bad—into a point-based monitoring system. I’m required to deliver school and district-mandated assessments every two or three weeks. They cut into my teaching time. They require more grading. I also have mandates about how many grades I am supposed to take each week. If I don’t hit that target, I get automated e-mails reminding me I need to remedy the situation. There are also meetings that invariably happen in my prep periods.

Starting four weeks into the school year has exacerbated the problem. Too often, I find out about things after they were supposed to be done. My administrators and instructional lead are supportive, but the stuff still has to get done sooner or later. (And it is always preferably sooner.) I have parent-teacher conferences after eight instructional days with my students. I’m still learning names. I also won’t get paid for another 30 days.

The solution to every problem seems to involve more. More time. More photocopies. More visuals. More choice for the students in what they read and what they write about. Most of all more time, when I’m already hauling my whole show from room to room, the photocopiers do not reliably work (and even small copy jobs become big ones for 85 students across three sections), and the projectors I’m supposed to use for those visuals do not work in some of the rooms I teach in. I’m on campus at least 9 hours a day, and even when I’m caught up I expect to have at least another 10 hours of work to do at home.

Eventually, I know, I will get caught up. Eventually, I will be faster at all the stupid little jobs that are part of the package. But like “eventually, I’ll get a job,” these eventuallys are small consolation in the moment. I think I am doing a reasonably good job given the circumstances. I feel like I was an idiot to decide on this career, that there’s no way to make this transition happen without my shoulders knotting hard enough to literally twist me in two.

But I have good people around me at home and at work. If I could finish a dissertation to spite my institution, I can damn well adapt my teaching to 13-year olds to give them the education they deserve. I will force vigorous exercise and writing into my schedule to help cope with the stress. My awesome spouse will get to cook dinner once in a while. Because I won’t see my kids as much, I will make them hug me every time I do. I will somehow learn to get up at 4 a.m. so I can write, and I will appreciate how quiet the world is when most people are sleeping.

I will remember that when I was 17 I went down to the jousting field on moonless nights and walked on ledges. And that I did it because they were there and because even then I understood we’re made more by our trials than our victories.