One can rent a Simple Box, buy Old Fashioned Rice Crispy squares. Flameless candles and heatless fireplaces for ambiance, pre-ripped jeans, distressed furniture for the I-have-lived look. One can be “hosted” at a restaurant, pay for a mentor, hire a companion (or buy a responsive robot), have counseling covered by insurance. Why bother being real, putting one’s hands to work and service, putting oneself out there at all to build a community of neighbors, friends, layers of acquaintances based on various exchanges? No need even to find a youth to help with yard work–there are apps that will match you up with the local chain, complete with 1-800 number, 50% markup, and worker wages that will never add up to college tuition.
I feel the pull of that commercialized, professionalized touch-free world–I like anonymity, clear cut expectations, don’t mind being a customer account number with no obligations beyond timely payment, and if things aren’t to my liking I cut off services; nobody’s feeling get hurt when the customer is always right. I’ve beyond that generation that did community building as a matter of course, before it had a tag. I want it, but don’t lift a hand much, especially in the winter. i want it to just happen, preferably in not too messy or uncomfortable a way, or with much of a need to make sacrifices.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if things fell apart for someone in my network–would there be enough of a protocol of caring personally for one’s neighbor? I’m ashamed to say that beyond a few basics I don’t really know what my neighbor’s current needs, challenges, fears are. Nor do I share my own with very many–not family, not friends, not church, even when I was more regularly involved. At times when I lose my way someone comes along to draw me back to the land of the living, but what if they didn’t? I wouldn’t even have the will to look through the phone book for a therapist, or make an appointment with the only therapist I remember–the one who got visibly excited when she thought most of our family was exhibiting the same symptoms as she, and maybe needed the same medication! A bit of library research ruled that out, but it was one more thing that fed my distrust of professional therapists.
Maybe it’s a personality thing. Some need to talk it out, and if they don’t want to burden a friend, might be wise to hire someone. I think I’m more like the character in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, who gets healing, and the strength to face her crisis, by withdrawing for a time. In the novel it’s seen as natural and called a fallow state. She just sits, sleeps, moves around a little, and doesn’t talk to or appear to hear anyone, as if she were in a waking coma, or a cocoon, waiting for no one knows what moment to come out. People help her with basic needs, let her be without avoiding her, but she is choosing by default to withdraw. Something is going on inside, a kind of reordering of memories, layers of personality, a healing and restoration that takes all her energy just then.
So I take my little breaks, not just the times out for rest, reading, writing, exercise, and time with friends, but sometimes just to zone out. I do this without the aid of mind-altering drugs or any particular meditation technique. It’s like taking a nap, but shorter, above the waters of real sleep, but refreshing. And I always, after fifteen to thirty minutes, wake suddenly with a drive to accomplish something. In fact if I don’t wait for that and try to drag myself back into my duties before the right time, I end up crashing worse. As long as I don’t let negative judgments of myself for needing that retreat, I can actually get to a kind of balance again.
Right now I get away in the pool for a few hours a week, in my empty classroom for a few hours on Saturdays, and for five minutes between staff lunch and students coming into class. All the other teachers seem to be fine hanging out until the bell, but I need that five minutes, and the quiet hour or two after school, or I don’t think I’d make it through the week.
Still, it’s been a better week than of late, I know how to plan better, have a better relationship with my co-teacher, feel more confident, relaxed and seasoned. My last period class has been transformed completely by the departure of four students, all of whom took so much of my time and energy the others lost out and I was often frazzled. I got four new students in that class whose struggles, some of which I know, some not, aren’t the kind that create disorder and distraction for others, and require from me less disciplinary management and more relational connection and intuitive communication. I can be myself, and we are all enjoying that more. There is already a growing sense of trust and community, rather than the tension and awkwardness I was told sometimes happens in these quarter transitions. Still a week to go for open enrollment, so maybe things will get more challenging.
Getting back to building community, in a sense the opening has happened for me to be proactive there through this job. I have this wonderful privilege of encouraging and challenging young people who needed this school, who convinced the folks in the main office that they wanted to be here and would be thankful for the opportunity to get off the waiting list, that trying to navigate the big high school corridors was taking them down. There they are, open, trying, needing support, but full of such interesting thoughts and carrying around talents, insights, knowledge, hopes, questions, wounds.
Today was awards day, where each staff member gets to recognize three students, and the new students got to hear, briefly, about students who had turned it around, never given up, showed exemplary kindness to others, striven for excellence. A good way to start the quarter, though some might naturally sink into feeling inadequate, as if they’d never be award-worthy.
One student, who never would have accomplished much if it weren’t for the patience and very direct support of the special ed teacher, was surprised to receive a Perseverance award. He had been constantly oppositional, complaining and resisting, using his smart phone, wearing his big earphones, off in unrelated conversations whenever he could be. All his teachers knew that in his case, “perseverance” was a loose translation of “condescending to allow teachers to endure his prickly presence and walk on eggshells to creatively get around his defenses enough to help him get his work done so he could see a decent grade on his transcript and feel proud of himself enough to keep trying.” But he was touched–sort of partially melted, as I saw when I congratulated him later. Like he was starting to believe that other people, adults, even people in authority, might actually be on his side, and that he could accomplish something in academics. It’s hard to keep up the caring with a person like that, but I started to find the way through teasing him. Whenever I’d tell him to put away his phone, or change seats for being off task, he’d get his back up, look fierce and ask why I was picking on him. I would point out that I’d also spoken to so-and-so, and get drawn into a debate. Then once I had the sense to reply, “Because I like picking on you–it’s fun,” he actually smiled, and didn’t sass me, and from there the progress started.
Found out the teacher I am replacing while she is on leave has moved on, taken a job in another state, so next year this position should be open, at the same or possible greater hours, and then growing from there as the staff move into a new building. With natural lighting, creator spaces, a real science lab, a greenhouse, and seating on the roof!