Miscellany

Doing Better than Distraction

Sometimes, a flood of thoughts is worse for writing than not being able to come up with any. This has been one of those weeks. Even last week’s Nicking from Novels, about a book that I truly enjoyed reading, seemed…trivial. There has been so much happening in the world, so much happening at home. Some of it has just been busy-ness: events, appointments, getting ductwork replaced so the air conditioner conditions all of the house’s air. More of the flood has come from the ugliness of the news. I’ve seen calls for armed revolt just because a politician didn’t get indicted. I’ve seen somebody write “White people can’t speak our mind in this country anymore” in support of a comparison of Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan.

And all of that leaves out what actually happened: people were killed with bullets and with bombs, in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas and Baghdad. Riot police looking like stormtroopers hauling in women in summer dresses. Protesters throwing rocks and rebar and fireworks at police on I-94. Blood.

People killed people, and our media and our conversations immediately folded them into the narratives of presidential politics and culture war. Instead of “why did this happen?”, we so often frame the question as “whose fault is this?” (The cops’ for being racist, the victims’ for being uncooperative, the protesters’ for inciting violence…)

Look, the world doesn’t need another white dude to hurl a cri de coeur out into the world wide ether. It needs people—it needs us—to engage with one another and with institutions to make change happen.

It needs “how can I help?” to mean more than “how can I help without inconveniencing myself?” I think that’s what it has often meant for me: my answers amounted to “keep being a good person.” That helps! It is better to be a good person than a selfish person, better to practice empathy in our daily lives and try to understand our neighbors. I’ve written about this each of the past two summers. In 2015 it was Paris and Syria and Chicago and Chennai. In 2014 it was Ferguson and Ukraine and Gaza. For too many people, nothing has changed since then.

If we really want things to be better for our fellow humans, we need not just to be good people, but to be better people. We have to work. Listening can be work, but I think a lot of us have listened enough. We need to keep listening, always, but we have to understand that change worth having is change worth making sacrifices for. That can be money for bail funds or time for protests or toner for letters to your representatives or the work to actually run for office yourself. It needs to be voting, too, and trying to understand the local politics that the big media instruments aren’t shouting about.

It means resisting distraction, even when that seems to be the primary mission of the machines through which we route our lives.

Back on the Horse

This morning, I managed to start the day with yoga. I’ve used a basic sun salute sequence as my athletic warm-up for years. That does not, unfortunately, mean that my body fell automatically into the right rhythm this morning. I tweaked my knee running warm-up laps at frisbee practice a few months ago, which threw me out of that attempt to get back into shape. This morning, my back didn’t want to loosen up. Tendinitis poked my knee. It was all a little harder than when I did the same things yesterday.

I’m probably more out of practice writing blog posts. I started drafting a few different posts over the spring semester, but the only one that I finished is more personal than I want to put up right now. I’ve been writing, but mostly recreationally. Sitting at the keyboard this morning, I feel a little creaky.

It’s also a little like the moment you get a message or social media request from somebody you haven’t spoken to in years. How do you catch up? “A lot of stuff has happened in the last fifteen years. Fifteen years ago, I was… Fourteeen years ago…” You can’t do that. You hit the high points. Right now, I’m glad my blog isn’t really a diary because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to catch you up on the last six months of my life.

I can catch you up on the posts I wanted to write. I have about a hundred words of my Song of the Year post for 2015. I have a post that, a little presciently, begins “Writing is putting one word after another. Being a writer is putting words on the page after a long day of work or a short night of sleep.” By that standard, I have not really been much of a writer for the past few months.

But I’m back! I’m working the kinks out, re-reading drafts of Ghosts of the Old City, catching up with all the UI changes on WordPress, usw. I’m reading novels I’m not teaching. My plan is to write three or four posts a week, but only to post two. This hypothetical “buffer” will do bufferish things when school prep starts back up in August.

Big plans this summer, too: getting Ghosts out to beta readers. I’ll be tidying up the collection of my #postac posts and compiling them (with commentary) into an ebook. There are so many things I want to read, so many novels I want to nick from.

Yoga this morning was a little harder than it was yesterday. This post is more disjointed than I’d like, a little rough, a little strained. It’s not smooth or clever. But it’s here. Before you can ride (like the wind!), you have to get back on the horse.

More to come!

Boulez, Looking Back, Looking Forward

I woke up yesterday morning to early posts of Pierre Boulez obituaries. He was nearly 91, a venerable master of his craft and a giant of 20th-century music. Boulez was brilliant—I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. Still, I’ve never cared much for his music. For a time, pieces like Le marteau sans maître represented everything I disliked about being a graduate student in composition. (I appreciate the music better these days, but it’s not something I go out of my way to hear.) I dismissed Boulez as a polemicist, both in the music he wrote and what he wrote about music (in part because as a composition student you don’t hear much about it beyond the infamous “Schoenberg is dead”).

That began to change when it became clear Boulez’s work as music director of the New York Philharmonic would need to feature prominently in my dissertation. He was the counterbalance to “Downtown” composers going “Uptown”—his Prospective Encounters series did something of the opposite. The geographical and musical tension—and the power dynamics that lay beneath it—were the foundation for my research. Without Boulez, my dissertation might have been just another ramble through the youth of minimalism.

It’s been odd to read and hear Boulez stories in the last few days. He eventually made peace with parts of the establishment that he had spent his youth railing against. Especially as a conductor, his reputation blossomed after 1977, the year he left New York (and my dissertation). The remembrances I’ve seen today are colored by his years at IRCAM and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Journalists and friends alike have written about his warmth, his humor, his willingness to take time to talk about his craft.

That’s a mighty contrast to the image of Boulez painted on his arrival in New York. Then, he was the chilly demagogue arriving suddenly from France (only months after saying he would not take the New York Philharmonic job if it was offered), a man who inspired angry letters to the Times, some of them from American composers he’d directly or indirectly insulted. The New York Times published a long piece in 1973 titled “The Iceberg Conducteth.” Philharmonic players spoke anonymously to reporters about how Boulez couldn’t “perform.” (He had the misfortune to succeed the often lax, grandiose Leonard Bernstein at the Phil.) When he departed for IRCAM in 1977, critics tended to damn with faint praise, with Harold Schonberg’s complaint typical: “Going to his concerts was like taking a pill. It was good for you, but not an event you looked forward to with great anticipation.”

On the same occasion, the Village Voice’s Leighton Kerner wrote: “They blew it. The New York Philharmonic blew it. The audiences blew it. The critics blew it. The musicians’ union blew it. And Pierre Boulez blew it.” The title of that piece, though, was “Boulez, the Philharmonic, and What Might Have Been.” Kerner recognized what I eventually came to understand over the course of my research: that Boulez had tried to make a real change in what the Philharmonic meant, what new music meant to New York audiences (and American audiences more generally). I remember being shocked, a year or so into the project, finding myself defending Boulez (whose music I’ve never liked) over Bernstein (who wrote some of my favorite works) in casual conversation. I was defending him not in terms of composition or conducting, but in terms of what he had done to make new music matter to people. Bernstein’s goals always seemed more general to me, more content to leverage existing institutions and practices in the same way that systems had always been worked.

Pierre Boulez tried to change that…and did. The programming changes he made in New York didn’t really survive his departure, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. (It also says nothing about his subsequent work at IRCAM and elsewhere.) I can’t agree with all of his ideas about music, but I admire the conviction with which he pursued putting them into practice.

This all happened the week I bring in the hard copy of my dissertation to wave at my English IV classes. We’re doing research projects and some of my seniors are freaking out because five to eight pages is the most they’ve ever been asked to write. When I show them 392 pages of body text, a nine-page bibliography, and another 20-ish pages of appendices and front material, they look at me like I’m showing them a picture of myself on the moon or riding a narwhal or BASE-jumping off an erupting volcano. It just doesn’t compute. (Incidentally, they did not have nearly the same freak out about my NaNo victory.) With the dissertation at my desk, I was able to reread work that seems surprisingly distant just three years after I finished it.

Skimming through it and reading what I had written about Boulez, I realized something: I want students to share the experience I had with him. It’s not that I want them to go look at 40-year-old newspaper articles or read obituaries about a Frenchman whose music they’re unlikely ever to hear. I want them to have that experience of learning something that changes their thinking. Those old newspapers and concert programs and interviews changed the way I thought about Boulez. Writing a dissertation changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Research matters.

That, I think, is an opinion I can happily share with the late maestro.

What Can I Do? Redux

Fifteen months ago, I wrote a post titled “What Can I Do?” about Ferguson, Syria, the Ukraine, depression, and trying to make a difference in the world. In the time since that post, the U.S. has experienced nearly 400 mass shootings. Last week, activists (humans!) protesting police brutality in my old Minneapolis neighborhood were shot by white supremacists. Chicago’s police superintendent just resigned over a cover-up of a shooting that has led to murder charges. The U.K. just voted to bomb Syria. France has increased bombing in Syria in the wake of a terrorist murder spree in Paris. U.S. presidential candidates talk glibly about shutting down mosques. There’s a climate conference happening in Paris that, like its predecessors, seems doomed to handwringing and little meaningful action.

Excuse the profanity, but: things fucking suck right now.

That doesn’t mean everything sucks, nor do things suck for everybody. There are a lot of us who are insulated from the direct effects of catastrophe. I’m in an exurban district this year. My students worry about the local cops giving them traffic tickets, not shooting them. I like my job. My personal problems have become, mostly, typical American middle class ones. Hell, I’ve even gotten work under enough control to be blogging again.

This insulation from the direct effect of crisis makes it all too easy for outrage fatigue to set in—especially when social media is filled with people shouting about the (often imaginary) things they’re angry about, or about the things they want you to be angry about. It’s easy to turn media—social and otherwise—off for a while and think instead about what you want for diner, or when you’re going to get the car in for an oil change, or how to get your kids to do their homework. That’s a perfectly human response.

It does not make the problems go away. Really, this is privilege in a nutshell: the ability to choose when to care about crises, to decide whether or not you want to be affected by them.

My old neighbors don’t get that choice.

Syrian civilians don’t get that choice.

Victims of the flooding in Chennai don’t get that choice.

By all means, turn off social media. I had to for a few weeks. But turn if off knowing that changing the channel doesn’t change the problem.

I wrote, back in August of 2014, about choosing hope, that hope is the opposite of despair and depression. What I ask you to do, what I tell myself to do, is this: choose hope. Choose hope every time. Don’t choose to hope that somebody else solves the problem. When you make choices in how to spend your time, in how to treat the people around you, choose hope.

Speak, in the hope that your words will be heard, knowing that words left unsaid never will be.

Act, in the hope that you can make a difference, even though you can’t see the future.

The Nineties were awash in the slogan “think globally, act locally.” As the internet has flattened the media landscape and our sense of the world, it’s worth remembering that. We don’t have a magic wand. We can, as a global community, share our despair, share our concerns, share even our hope. When we act, though, we have to do it locally. That can mean lobbying your elected representatives. That can mean volunteering. It can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors—you know, the ones with the weird flags on their porch.

We will never be able to bomb an idea. As satisfying as fantasies of wiping out the extremism of Daesh or of making police officers into perfect instruments of peace-keeping may be, they’re still fantasies. We can get our world a little closer to those fantasies with the dozens of decisions we make every day, those times when we choose fear or apathy or hope. I ask you, from my tiny internet pulpit, to choose hope.

How can you do that? Look around. See where the people in your community are hurting, and do what you can to help. Neil Gaiman said, of writing, you put one word after another. It is that easy, and that hard. Choosing hope is the same: it is that easy, and it is that hard.

Red Shift Blues

I spent July reminding myself that it’s a lull in everything school related. It’s the one month that administrators and district staff get (partially) off. Jobs don’t get posted. Interviews don’t happen. The summer stretches crazily, which is not a good thing when you’re angling to be employed well before summer ends.

August started, and suddenly jobs were up to apply for. I’d had no traction earlier in the summer—some good interviews in early June, some terrible ones in late June, and nothing in July. Then, in the space of a week, I had three interviews and invitations to two more.  Before I could get to the last two interviews, I had an offer to accept.

Naturally, there were paperwork snafus—a mis-clicked button meant my recommendation didn’t get filed right away. I spent two days in anxious back and forth with the school and the district’s HR department. Wednesday morning I got a call about doing paperwork Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday afternoon my principal called asking if I could be at work the next morning. Just like that, summer was over.

Life kept speeding up—I spent most of the pre-student inservice days trying to sort out my existence with the district, especially my electronic existence. My electronic existence was at least as important as my physical existence, as I needed it to access everything from the building to the gradebook to the e-mails telling me which things I should have already done. Many of the complications stemmed from that “D.J.” part of my name. Let it suffice to say that I am not especially sanguine about changing my name when I got married.

I had an extra prep added the Thursday before those students arrived in my classroom. I had students before I had gradebook access. I didn’t have an ID badge. Still, the show went on. I introduced myself seven times in one day. I rehearsed three syllabi (two of which were effectively shredded by the end of the first month). I assigned things and graded things and listened to the groans when my seniors realized they still have to work even though there isn’t a high stakes test at the end of the year. I planned and improvised.

My kids started school the same week. Through late August and September, everything sped up. The acceleration went in every direction at once, a life-encompassing red shift. Weekday obligations pushed activities and basic househould maintenance into the weekends. Nights were the only thing not getting longer (though they were still getting faster).

…and now the first 400 words of this post have been sitting on my drafting board for two months. I’m going to throw them up on the blog because, at this point, why not. There are more substantive posts coming, on writing sequels, on NaNo 2015, on the despair of looking backward to despair… Walking Ledges is awake now. Welcome back.

Twelve and Two and Two

A dozen years of marriage, two years in Texas, and—in another week or so—two years of Walking Ledges. You’ll never believe what happens next!

Actually, if you’ve been following along for any length of time, you probably will: posts on writing and teaching sprinkled with increasingly occasional #postac commentary. Come November I’ll be attempting NaNo again, and probably writing about that. I aim to keep work from devouring the blog the way it did last year. (A shorter commute will help with that, I hope.) At some point there will be something about the availability of Ghosts of the Old City.

In this blog’s first year, I wrote 77 posts. Many of them were about my breakup with academia, about the ways that I dealt with the emotional fallout of quitting and the loneliness of relocating. The second year of the blog has featured half as many posts—my first year of teaching devoured my writing energy, even when it wasn’t devouring my time. Those posts, though, have been…positive. It’s not as if every day has been a happy one. February was rough, and I had some particularly down weeks in the summer when I was spitballing scenarios in which I didn’t get a teaching job for the coming year. Overall, though, life has been good.

Good or bad, life is continuous. The important moments seldom pay attention to the calendar. The less discrete the steps are in a process, the more arbitrary the divisions between them. An 89 is just as far from 87 as it is from 91, but we assign a different letter to the 91 because we have to draw the line somewhere. Anniversaries—of moves, of institutions, of weddings and first dates and birth—are arbitrary markers in a continuous process.

I’m not sure whether that makes them more or less important. On the one hand, my blog is little different at 105 weeks from what it was at 102. On the other, it is much different from what it was at 50 weeks. I still write. I am (somewhat) better adjusted to Texas than I was when we moved. I still think my spouse is one of the best people on the planet. Dividing the time into chunks doesn’t change things.

That anniversaries are arbitrary does not mean they are meaningless. (Language is also arbitrary!) They give us an excuse to reflect. Even artificial divisions are thresholds. Sure, we build the doorways ourselves based on such flimsy things as rotational and revolutionary intervals. When we stand in a doorway, we’re between things—it’s a liminal moment. (I got kind of obsessed with liminal moments after analyzing characters in doorways in Hawthorne.) We can see where we came from and where we’re going, even if we know that the tomorrow will not be so different from yesterday.

So. Twelve and two and two. We count the years, we look forward and we look back. To those of you who are here—whether since the beginning or since yesterday or reading this a week after I type it, thank you. I’m glad you’re here.

Research Questions

In this penultimate unit of eighth grade language arts, we are studying research. “Research” for these kids usually consists of pulling out a smartphone and asking Google (or Siri) a question. YouTube was in almost all of their lists of “five places to get information.” When I showed them a video about the Library of Congress main reading room, many were skeptical about there being that much that isn’t available online.

This has been a fun unit for me to teach, in part because I’ve taught variations on “how to write a research paper” more than just about any other topic. The key, I think, is getting students out of the idea that research is just looking stuff up. Research is really one way of answering a question. It often involves looking stuff up, but it’s the question that’s important. I let the students choose their topics, but guided them pretty closely in the development of those questions. They are sick of me asking what their research question is…and probably also sick of the dirty looks I give them when they can’t remember it.

Of course I was going to bring my dissertation in for them to look at. It’s a big stonking book and I wrote the whole thing. I researched it all. I found almost everything in the bibliography myself. If nothing else, it would give me something to hit back with when the students inevitably complained about the number of sources they needed to find.

It helped that the kids were interested in New York and the library with the lions and in their teacher more generally. They got to hear about novelties like “newspapers” and “microfilm.” I got to explain that some of the things I looked at had to be brought up from basements. In boxes. (In their defense, if you’ve had Google in your pocket for most of your living memory, the notion of getting paper files from boxes somewhere sounds a little bizarre.) The students were mostly suitably impressed, and I held their attention for one more day—a victory when the standardized test is over and you’re obligated to hold their attention for another six weeks.

Because I didn’t want to be switching back and forth between the document camera and my laptop, I went and looked at the page for my dissertation at the University of Minnesota digital conservancy.

It’s been downloaded nearly 200 times since January 2014.

I sincerely doubt many of those folks have read the whole thing. It was still a surprising discovery. I was perversely satisfied to know that somewhere out there, desperate undergraduates might be plagiarizing my work. It was the sort of quasi-immorality, I thought, that I probably deserved. I managed to squeeze in a lot of things that would come up in searches: a bunch of prominent 20th century American composers, the New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez, Pierre Bourdieu… Plenty of places for an enterprising young person capable of using Ctl-F to grab a paragraph or two.

That was going to be the whole story—how I like to teach people about research, because research is about answering questions, and I want more people to be more curious. I want more people to feel equipped to look for their own answers. I want more people to actually be equipped to sort out reasonable answers from poorly-argued or unsubstantiated ones. And how I thought it was funny and a little flattering that somebody might plagiarize my dissertation for an undergraduate research paper.

Then I got a serious message about my dissertation…on Facebook. (Which just goes to show that my students’ constant claim that “Facebook is for old people” isn’t so off base.) A former professor of a former colleague had been reading it, and thinking about it.

That’s a different kettle of fish. That’s what the dissertation was meant to do. It was meant to be part of scholarly discourse, to contribute to human knowledge (in a minuscule way). At a moment where I am putting myself on a job market very different to the one in higher ed, one where I am trying to figure out ways to talk about how well my students did on their standardized tests without sounding like I care too much about the standardized tests…that message hit me. That’s what I left behind. The reasons that I did still hold true, even as a few more of my former colleagues get fingertips in doors with longer-term and even a few tenure-track appointments.

It’s a reminder that I was good at what I did. I wish that it could remind me of that without simultaneously poking at old scars. I’m sure that in a day or two I’ll be over it. I know (thank the FSM) that this is being bumped in mid-stride, not anything that’s going to really change my direction. It’s just enough to throw me off balance for a moment.

Still. Academia, man. It gets its hooks into you but good…

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.

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.

Teaching Dreams

I’m not sure I ever dreamed about teaching college courses. Intermittently, the dreams of my gradjunct years featured classrooms, but they were never about teaching. That is part of the reason I find the string of teaching dreams I’ve experienced since July strange. Few of them have been the typical ‘unprepared’ scenario (e.g., I just started teaching at this school and nobody can tell me where my classroom is or give me the attendance list). Mostly, they have been very concrete, quasi-realistic dreams about the work of being a teacher.

Last night, for example, I dreamed that I was teaching an intervention/remedial English class. I dreamed that I was angry at the police for the way they treated my students. I dreamed that I screwed up my introduction to the class by saying some dream-honest things about how messed up the system is when I should have started the speech with the encouraging parts that I delivered next. Those encouraging parts, incidentally, were precisely they ones that I have sketched out in the eventuality that I have a class of my own. The only odd thing about the dream was that in the subsequent teacher’s lounge episode, I could not stop eating cake even though I was full. Make of that what you will.

I’m not sure what I am supposed to make of these dreams. They’re not prophetic (I hope—the thing with the cake was uncomfortable). I don’t really feel like I’ve been thinking about teaching all that much. Indeed, I’m trying to take advantage of this time between finishing my certification and going back to work by finishing the draft of my novel. (Getting close!) I did not dream of technical writing jobs when I was applying for them, nor, further back, of tenure track jobs when I was applying for those. In part because I’ve been bereft of optimism lately, I want to read these teaching dreams as confirmation, whether cosmic or subconscious.

I want that confirmation because teaching feels right to me. It’s the part of my old plans that I’ve hung on to. I love writing. Writing feels right, but I’m not in a place to make it my full-time job. Teaching is different, because teaching is service. When I teach, I’m not doing it for myself. The job is bigger than the paycheck. I understand the idea of a life of service differently now than I did when I embraced it as a 17-year-old at a United World College. Not everybody gets the chance to make their work a meaningful part of their community. I have that chance now, which is pretty awesome.

The part of my introductory speech that made it into my dream? “You are all writers. You are all readers.” That’s a dream, not of kids all becoming novelists or or poets or literary critics, but of young people becoming adults who can express their ideas clearly, who can pull the ideas from a text and understand what the author is and isn’t saying. The kids have great ideas and insights. I get to help them understand how to make the most of them. That’s cool enough that I don’t mind my would-be work invading my dreams, even if I’m turned off by chocolate cake for a while.