A couple of weeks ago I experienced some problems with procrastination and motivation, especially in the area of writing. It happens fairly often and tends to coincide with a random change in routine (like being out of town for a week). For inspiration, I downloaded the book The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, by Steven Pressfield. It’s a short, easy read on fighting Resistance.
I’m terrible about trying to get everything done in my day before sitting down to write. I like to save the best for last. Of course I never get everything done that I want to, and writing usually pays the price. And to be honest, there are many days when I question putting so much time and effort into writing posts that are sometimes very personal and that very few people actually read. Writing takes a lot out of a person, and sometimes I question why I spend so much time doing it.
I remind myself that Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting his entire life either, except to his brother, Theo. Obviously, he wasn’t doing it for the money.
So I turned to a book to help me out of my slump.
As these things often happen, the last part of the book synchronized with a post I had recently written on being who we are, as opposed to who we are meant to be.
We’re not born with unlimited choices.
We can’t be anything we want to be.
We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.
Um, I’m not so sure about that. Mostly, I just don’t believe in a “specific, personal destiny.” I don’t believe there’s that one, true thing everyone was meant to BE, kind of like I don’t believe in that one, true soul mate. He continues:
Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.
If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter.
If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother.
If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realize it and get down to business.
Well, maybe I do agree with that.
I have two children. Both kids came into this world with distinct personalities, interests, and talents. Each have their individual strengths and weaknesses. One is very artistic and creative, the other very logical and mechanical minded. I could not have molded them to be otherwise. They were literally born that way.
Ironically, the creative one became a geologist. Her saving grace: she makes sure there’s enough time in her life for artistic, creative endeavors after work to be happy.
Getting my other child to read anything other than maps, cross-sections, or Tin Tin–and that’s if I could coerce him away from his Legos or video games–was like pulling him from the jaws of a grizzly bear. He now builds wind turbines and couldn’t be happier. And he still doesn’t really like to read.
(Remember, I’m a teacher. Having a child who hated to read was tough.)
In twenty years of teaching, some children’s natural talents were like billboards in the classroom. I’ll never forget third grade Madai and her incredible artistic talent. She made beautiful drawings in class (she was constantly drawing), and was also emotionally mature beyond her years. When I read a picture book aloud to the class about Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio as a child to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics in 1960, I looked up to see tears streaming down Madai’s face. She was absolutely born to be an artist. She felt everything so deeply.
I can honestly say that if she does anything other than something artistic, it will be a terrible shame for herself and the world. She was born to create art.
Other children were fantastic athletes, eloquent speakers, and gifted mathematicians. Most students didn’t display their talents as brightly as a select, dominant few. I was often surprised–and relieved–when the music teacher would tell me one of my academically struggling students was musically gifted. I suspect many quiet students had talents they chose to keep hidden after years of testing and being forced to conform in the classroom.
For me, I’ve always loved to write. From the time of my first lock-and-key five-year diary to journals in high school, to English Lit papers in college to this blog, writing is a natural love. I suspect almost everyone feels the need to express themselves in some manner, and for me writing always met that need.
I never had enough confidence or courage to make it a career, or never made enough time after earning a living to do something with it. I don’t feel like I’ve disappointed myself, or haven’t lived up to my potential, however, because the desire to write is not going to suddenly disappear.
It’s just there, like breathing. It always was and always will be. And as long as I respect the urge to write, and keep writing–even if it’s junk–I’m being true to myself and the person I was “meant to be.”
It might not pay the bills, but it will keep me happy.
Perhaps life is nothing more than figuring out what you were born to do (which to me is the same thing as figuring out who you were meant to be), even if you never make a penny doing it. You may put in the hours at a lackluster job to pay for the groceries and that great vacation you’ve been saving for, but hopefully there’s something else, something meaningful, that makes you feel like a whole person.
Make it your job to make it happen. Life is too short not to.
A few months ago, towards the end of my last days of teaching, I became frustrated. I don’t remember the particulars of why I was so frustrated, but I do recall it had something to do with a work colleague not doing their job. The last month of school is always chaotic and impossibly busy, and everyone’s nerves are frayed and fried to a crisp. When one person doesn’t do their job, and others have to pick up the slack, it’s stressful for everyone. Just do your job became my personal rallying cry that last month of school, and eventually it took on a life of its own.
All of a sudden, all around me, I became aware of how many people weren’t doing their jobs. By job I don’t necessarily mean a paid job. Your job could be anything you’ve said you were going to do, or a responsibility you have, or a task that you’ve inherited, for whatever reason.
For instance, if you’re a parent, your job is to take care of your child. You get them to school on time, make sure they have their homework and lunch money, and you get them to bed at a decent hour each night. If you just do your job, your child will more than likely have a good shot at adulthood.
If you tell someone you’re going to do something, your job is to do it. No questions, no excuses, no backing out. Just do what you promised.
If your job is to answer phones and direct calls, you answer the phone and direct the call. Simple. No arguing required. That’s your job.
My marathon running friends have got this one down. If you’ve trained for a marathon, then your job is to run 26.2 miles. For that one day, no matter what, you’re going to do everything humanly possible to power through those 26.2 miles. Your life focuses down to that one pinpoint of activity, and you get the job done–even if you have to crawl those last 6 miles.
I hadn’t thought about my rallying call all summer until this past week. I discovered some fraudulent activity on my credit card and decided to close the account and request a new card. Things like this tend to stress me out because I know the simple act of calling and getting this straightened out will turn into a big hassle. I was right.
First, there was the recording and endless menu options. After I figured out which option I needed, and which number to push, the line kept hanging up on me. Not once, but four times. Finally, I reached a human voice and managed to get the negligent charge investigated. I was assured that I didn’t need to close the account, that this company would not be able to make any future charges on my card. I hung up, somewhat satisfied.
Next, I decided to check the most recent card activity online, and noticed another company I hadn’t done business with had charged me $0.00 just the day before. Even though they didn’t actually charge me anything, I decided to call them up and find out what was going on. A very nice man told me that this was a common practice, and it usually means that someone was “trying out” my card number to see if it could be used. In other words, my credit card had probably been compromised.
Finally, I decided to call the card in as stolen. Again, I had the same problem and kept getting disconnected. I eventually managed to get through, spoke with a very helpful, pleasant woman, and got the card cancelled. She even asked if I could wait a week for the new card, then offered to overnight it, waive the fee, and I would have it the next day. This woman was awesome!
Only, as you’ve probably guessed, she really wasn’t.
Of course the card didn’t arrive the next day, nor the next, nor the next. Four days later I called the credit card company again, wondering if it had been lost. Another very nice woman told me there was no way I could’ve been issued a new card and had it overnighted (which I know for a fact is not true), but that she would check. Come to find out, a new card was issued, but was sent regular mail and should be arriving in two more days. She apologized “for the inconvenience,” said she would “make a note about the transaction,” and that was that.
Of course, my first thought, as I hung up the phone was, just do your job. What a waste of time and such a stupid hassle. I didn’t need the card overnighted, but the woman offered, free of charge, so I agreed. When it didn’t arrive, as promised, a whole new cycle of annoyance began.
All of this makes me wonder, what would the world be like if everyone just did their job?
I’m pretty sure the planet would rotate smoothly on its axis and little blue flowers would sprout spontaneously across the meadows of the world.
If you tell someone you’re going to do something, just do it. If you have a job, just do it, no matter what that job is.
It really is that simple.
The other day I did something very old fashioned. I stayed away from my computer, the internet, TV, Facebook, and even my phone for an entire day. Instead, I took advantage of sore muscles from the previous day’s long run and read a book.
Oh, okay, I read a book on my Kindle, but other than that small, insignificant detail, I was technology-free.
My Kindle-hating friend swears that I alone am the sole reason for the demise of Borders and the end of books as we know them. I loved Borders back in the day. I loved nothing more than spending an hour or so browsing the aisles, seeing where my interests would lead me, wanting to read everything in the place. If one could get paid to read books, I would be a millionaire. Many solutions to problems large and small have been found between the pages of a book, and the best dates with myself have been in a Borders or Half Price Bookstore on a Friday or Saturday night.
I smugly tell my friend, I’m saving trees.
Spending an entire Sunday doing nothing but reading was lovely. I became so engrossed in my book that I literally didn’t move from the couch for hours. I thought about checking my email and catching up on Facebook, but it didn’t seem important. Michael was playing touch rugby with his friends, it was stiflingly hot outside (again), and I had nothing to stop me. If the dogs can sleep all day, why can’t I read all day?
This got me to thinking: why do we feel guilty when we take a day for ourselves to “just” read a book? Do other people feel this same way? I almost always feel guilty when I take time during the day to read, even on a Sunday. I feel like there’s something else I should be doing, and that reading a book is a frivolous, self-indulgent pleasure that should be put off until everything else gets done first. This is, of course, ironic since I’ve spent the past 20 years trying to teach children, including my own son, the joys of reading. Maybe it’s because of the fact that I do see reading as such a joyous activity that it therefore becomes such a guilty pleasure (and no, I’m not Catholic).
The larger issue is, when did we all get so busy? Being so busy has suddenly turned into our national religion. I’m opting out. My friends who work full-time seem worried that I still haven’t found a job (I’m not even looking) and ask what I do with myself all day (as if whatever it is I do all day is without value since there’s no money attached to it). Sometimes I get annoyed and tell them I don’t do anything, I just sit around all day and eat chocolate, and that shuts them up. Sometimes I get defensive and talk about my blogs, or the running website we’re developing, or the next marathon I’m training for, or the fact that I rarely turn on the TV during the day. The fact is, I stay plenty busy and have nothing to explain.
This summer I had all kinds of plans for simplifying my life and slowing things down. I was going to walk the dogs more, do yoga on a daily basis, cook more, read more, and even start a daily meditation practice. I have made some significant changes, but not nearly as many as I had hoped to make. Our record heat has kept me and the dogs mostly indoors all summer (like vampires, we only venture out for walks or runs before/after the sun is up/down), yoga was making me too sore to run, I still hate to cook, and meditation . . . well, it’s always last on the list. The only thing I do more of is read books, but almost only in the evenings when Michael’s also off work and is watching TV. Again, must be the guilt factor.
So, I don’t work at a paying job but I’m still too busy. Maybe it’s merely a continuation of life as we know it. It’s the only way I’ve ever been and know how to be. Maybe it’s just a part of who I am. One thing I can say, though, is that my everyday pace of life has slowed down dramatically. I may still be too busy, but I’m not going 100 mph to get everything done. Now I have the luxury of slowing down, getting the most important things done each day, and not stressing over what remains to be done on the To Do list. Everything I do now is because I want to do it, it’s directly related to something important to me, as opposed to hours in the classroom mired in senseless paperwork meant to justify someone not in the classroom’s job–which is the most senseless, time-wasting kind of busyness there is.
I know that not everyone can quit their job like I did and lead a less frenetic life, but I’m wondering what price we pay for being so busy. There have always been and always will be rude people, but I can’t help but notice lately how angry everyone seems, from the people on the roads to the politicians in Washington. Could it be that we’re all so incredibly stressed out and busy that we view others as enemies to be angrily shoved out of the way as quickly as possible? Have we all become so impatient that rather than make an effort to look at someone and smile, we instead avoid their eyes altogether? We seem to have lost our ability to find a middle ground, everything’s either my way or the wrong way–and get out of my way, I’m in a hurry!
It’s not a good way to live. If we’re always so busy, when do we ever have time to just sit and think about things, to gather our thoughts and figure out the world and ourselves? Even our days off, when we’re busy running errands and shuttling our kids to soccer games, or on vacation, when we’re busy traveling or sightseeing, seem less relaxing and more driven. Maybe what we need is a little introspection, a little more time spent off our feet and on the couch, with a good book or good music or a good meal–or all of the above. Maybe if we took more time for ourselves, to just be, to enjoy life, all the other days of the week wouldn’t seem so bad.
I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview. I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs. I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par. I told him I have great test scores.
More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike. I sign a new contract every year.
Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist. Neither are a lot of parents.
Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?
For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools. I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie. If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work. If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life? What will happen to our society? Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?
In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School. I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there. Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for. I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for. Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.
I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet. Even with all the cool discounts.
I knew this was going to happen. Here I was, happily skipping along life’s highway, content in my ignorance and denial, when out of the blue it hit me square in the face: someone thinks I’m old. I didn’t feel old before yesterday, but after my first job interview in twenty years I not only know that I am indeed old, apparently I am also washed-up, burned out, and probably not willing to try new, innovative ideas. (Hmmm, I guess someone didn’t read my blog about change a few weeks ago . . .) All this because I have been teaching for nineteen years.
The truth about being old has slowly crept into the face that stares back at me in the mirror. I didn’t think it was so bad. I really don’t mind the way my face has changed through the years. I like the way a woman looks when she’s allowed life to leave its footprints on her face. Seeing the plastic, wide-eyed, taut skin of today’s aging celebrities is disturbing to me. It’s disturbing because I know I’ll never be able to afford to have my own sagging body parts fixed, but also because I don’t want to have them fixed. Creepy.
My first job interview in twenty years was a beating, plain and simple. First there are all the new interview questions: Describe a time when you had plans that were canceled at the last minute. How did you handle that situation? Or, Describe a situation when you had to deal with conflict at work. Or, Tell about a time when you had too many tasks to accomplish in a short time frame. How did you manage to get everything done? Really???? Who comes up with these questions? Are there really job seekers out there who can’t give good answers? How could the interviewer possibly know if their answers were nothing more than pure fabrication?
That was the first part of the interview and it went very well. The second part was unscheduled, but the HR person felt the director would want to see me. He was young, intense, and talked so fast I had to watch his mouth to catch it all (and no, I’m not hard of hearing). He looked over my resume, noting my university, degree, magna cum laude, work history . . . Then he realized I had been teaching for–gasp!–nineteen years!!!
You would think that when you’re interviewing for a teaching position that nineteen years of experience would be a good thing, right? Not with Mr. Charter School. Instead, I got a long speech about how studies show that teachers stop changing after the first three to five years of teaching, that a teacher with my years of experience is probably inflexible, unwilling to be innovative, and is used to closing her door and doing the same thing year after year. He told me he took a chance on a veteran teacher once and got badly burned. He even–I swear I’m not making this up–threw in something about teachers’ unions. Then he told me that his other teachers were all first year teachers.
My bright balloon from the first interview slowly sank towards the floor.
I didn’t take it personally, and actually appreciated his honesty. But it also ticked me off. It stunned me. Mostly, it made me feel disheartened and dejected. I felt like I had become the walking stereotype of the old, burned out veteran public school teacher, the one who has the same old yellowed outdated posters up on her wall year after year, and who changes the date on the same old lesson plans year after year, and even uses the purple ink ditto machine to run off the same old tests–year after year. In my head I heard all the hype, how American public education is the worst in the world, how our children lag behind in math and science, and how it’s all the teachers’ fault. I felt as if he had stepped straight out of “Waiting for Superman” and would have thrown stones if he had any. He asked if I had ever heard of Teach for America. I told him they also teach for us. I was definitely batting on the losing team.
He wanted to see me teach a sample lesson, and I made an appointment, with misgivings. I walked to the parking lot feeling like I could barely lift my feet from the ground. I was exhausted. Wiped out. Emotionally bare. Stripped clean of any illusions. Mostly, I felt old.
Getting those AARP letters in the mail was bad enough. Now this.
The other day I was in the front flowerbed, surveying some of the stalks for signs of life after a colder than usual winter, amazed that tiny leaves are starting to sprout. I had the thought that no matter what, things want to grow. Ever since I quit my job almost a month ago life around me seems to be thriving. Even an indoor plant that has barely clung to life for the past five years has inexplicably decided to shoot up a single large white flower.
I can’t explain it. Maybe I don’t need to. It’s as if once I made the decision to leave my dead-end job years of stifled and stunted energy had to be released and regenerated. Demeter is smiling down on me, and my life is fertile once again–in the garden, at least. Who would’ve thought?
Oh, it gets even stranger. Two weekends in a row now I’ve had dreams of snakes. Small snakes. That bite me. We’ve found three snakes in the garden so far, and the other day I found a snake skin in the new wildflower garden I planted. I went online and found a great blog post about snake medicine and another woman’s experience with snakes showing up in her life, too. Then yesterday, in the middle of boring test prep, a student interrupted and asked if I had heard about “the snake that escaped from the zoo.” I had to stop and blink a few times before I could process what he had just said.
I know, I know. It’s spring, snakes are out there, people dream about them all the time, and some even escape from zoos. Still, it all seems somewhat synchronous. Have I suddenly manifested all of these snakes in my life and my dreams, or am I merely aware of what has always been there? Now that I’ve made this major change in my life, am I simply tapping into a universal symbol, part of Jung’s “collective unconscious” made manifest? I’ve always loved the idea of a collective unconscious, that no matter how different we all are there is a network of understanding that speaks to us all in the language of symbols, images, and archetypes.
I woke up this morning with that same thought again. Things want to grow. No matter how much of an idiot I am in the garden, or in my job, or in my relationships with others, things change and grow and renew despite my own best/worst efforts. I think everyone senses this, even if they aren’t strong enough to make a major change in their own lives. I’ve been surprised by so many friends and colleagues telling me how much they admire me for quitting my job, and most of them seem almost wistful when they tell me this. Perhaps it’s the idea of change that’s so scary to us, even more than the actual reality of that change–kind of like the monster under the bed that kept our arms and legs tucked safely under the covers when we were kids.
Since I’m still teaching until June, my own Personal Big Change hasn’t happened yet. Or has it? Already I’m looking at the world differently, and things are good. Paralleling my new found fertility in the garden, I’m feeling more creative these days. I’m calmer, too. Like the little snake skin I found left behind in the flowerbed the other day, I’m moving on, leaving a lot of stuff behind–and that’s a good thing.
Continuing the topic of joy . . . Three weeks ago I took an incentive pay package and quit my job. It is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. After 19 years of teaching in the same downtown neighborhood, it was time to go. I couldn’t deny the fact that my job wasn’t making me happy any longer, and that it had been years since I had looked forward to going to work every morning. That’s a miserable place to be. Life is too short to settle for the security of a regular paycheck in a job that no longer brings you joy. I kept hoping some new type of job would show itself, that the universe would hear my call and answer it for me, but either I missed the signs or it never happened. Finally, even though it felt like one foot was dangling off the edge of a cliff, I decided to stop letting others call the shots and start doing what was best for me. After a sleepless night and three good cries, I turned in the paperwork and said goodbye to teaching. By lunchtime I wondered why I hadn’t done it years ago.
Though I’m still teaching until June 3 and will get paid through the end of August, it’s the great unknown of afterwards that makes me nervous. I have to say, however, that I’m excited about the possibilities of all the things I could do with the rest of my life. It’s like the way I feel every New Years Day, the expectancy of change and renewal, and the chance to start fresh. In truth, we have that chance every single day that we’re alive, but how many of us take that chance and make those changes in our lives? I never thought I was strong enough to make such a huge change–until I actually did. In the end, it feels like I have the chance to find myself again–and what could be more joyous than that?