Teaching Me

The bright sun doesn’t catch me in bed these days and, in fact, hasn’t for some years. I’m up by 5:30 in the morning and out the door by 6:30. That part of the routine hasn’t changed.

But a new life has begun for us all in this new place, a house we rent from friends of ours, and though it has been a rough launch, the new routine is taking shape and we’re falling slowly into it, learning to become happy again.

Sue’s illness, diagnosed now as pancreatitis and most likely brought on by medication she was taking (but isn’t anymore), is a deep chasm behind us. Its shadow threatens on occasion when she doesn’t feel well and the ghosts of uncertainty and fear stalk the nights, as they do for so many people.

I’m in a very different place than I was even last year or two years ago with the end of this school year. I can remember several years ago not wanting the year to end. I enjoyed it too much and reveled in it daily. Now, I’ve taken too many sips at the cup I’ve been proffering for too long, and I can’t wait until the last day of school.

The WWI poet’s unit I developed and was so proud of, which featured this Webquest that I built, has become an albatross. As the teenagers for whom I developed it see it as little more than an obstacle to be overcome, I’m lost in a morass of feelings about it.

There is the one student who found an incredible story of a lonely and lost young man, who fell in love and then went to war. The tainted tryst in which Edward Thomas was involved with his beloved Eleanor also included Robert Frost and it appears that he may have actually written The Road Not Taken about Thomas. I awakened when my student found this and decided to write about it–it was the one bright spot in the whole thing.

There have been others now, too. A film by two of the quietest and most demure students I know has shown me that what I taught wasn’t lost on them at all. They used sparse images, flashback sequences and a brilliant narration using recordings from Apocalypse Now to augment their story of a man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, basing the entire narrative on Siegfried Sassoon’s Repression of War Experience.

But without realizing it at first, I’ve slipped into a bit of the trauma. For five weeks, I’ve immersed myself, marinated myself, into the dark crevices of horror, chaos and catastrophe that were WWI. I’ve allowed myself to have the nightmares and I’ve awakened with fright at gun sounds, pops and snaps, loud noises–that only existed in my dreams.

The terrible obligation of telling this story has become a weight too great to bear. Instead of having insecure teacher dreams in August or September, I’m having them now–fretted with the unbearable task of making these kids understand Wilfred Owen’s “warning:” Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.

But now, after looking at student projects, reading papers and seeing first-hand the uneven keel of the students who are fascinated, the ones repelled and mostly, the ones who could not give a damn, I’m just left feeling like I accomplished very little. I feel like the year got away from me, like I lost the grip of the literature and I can see in their eyes the yawning indifference to yet another middle-aged man, trying to be cool to keep their interest in something that is completely and utterly lost on them.

I seem to have fallen off the beam–lost the balance somewhere between acceptance that all of us took high school very unseriously once upon a time-and the opposite extreme of thinking that this high school career they have is the only thing that matters in their young lives. I can’t find the sweet spot, the place that says, “I know you’re probably bored. Let me try to give you something to think about…”

My working theory is that in my joyous ramp up of using technology that has decorated my classroom incrementally over the last few years, I forgot that what I got into teaching for in the first place was to share good literature, good writing and maybe provide an avenue for the kids in my charge to learn how to say something about that. That’s it.

But then the overwhelming suffocation of these last years comes smothering down like a thick blanket. I can’t fix the entitlement feelings and the overbearing parents. I can’t fix the drug use, the willful ignorance and the cruelty. I’m not even a tool in that shed–it’s beyond me and moving faster everyday, speeding toward some gravitational center where all of the selfish egos of this new age will explode in an omnidirectional fireball of self-righteous indignation.

The only cure I know of is radical change–the kind of change that calls into question all of my past habits. As careers go, teaching is brilliant–if you make it that way. But I’ve been caught in the spiral of doing the same thing I did three years ago, hoping it works and finding that some alteration, some change-either in me, or in the students, has left those pedagogical tools in the dust.

And right now, the task is daunting and exhausting and I’m very tired.

Onward.