I've essentially taken a break from blogging in September because I've been traveling, hanging with friends, reading and commenting on essays. I haven't had much time to sit and think and write for myself. This weekend, in fact, was the first weekend since the end of August that I haven't had plans. I spent it trying to get caught up on my life. Each semester, I think I know how hectic my life is going to be. But in reality, it always feels like I'm on a train that I can't stop and there's no choice but to hang on and make the best of it.
As a kid, I loved school. I loved getting ready for school, picking out pens and notebooks, choosing a first day outfit. I was good at school; I knew what was expected of me and did my best to live up to those expectations. And for the most part, school was good to me. I had my difficulties, of course. I was too smart for my own good. I wanted to shout the answers because I knew them. I was a terrible listener. I couldn't sit still. I was easily bored. Thankfully, I had instructors who recognized my behavior and designed additional tasks or assignments for me and helped me flourish despite my know-it all attitude.
During 5th grade, our math teacher went on maternity leave. I'm not sure if it was a new teaching style from her replacement or if math was just getting more difficult, but I feel like after 5th grade I could not get math, at all, like a switch flipped off. In high school, in particular, I had a difficult time with Geometry. I was studying, doing the homework, but things weren't clicking. I'm not good at spatial relationships; it's tough for me to see shapes and angles, to understand them in relation to one another. It's just not my thing. My math teacher who was a straightforward, no nonsense kind of teacher, stopped me one day after class. I'd not done well on a test, and I was clearly upset. She gave me the name of a student in a different section who tutored math outside of class and suggested I call him. She also sat with me and went over the test I'd done so terribly on, trying to explain the steps I'd missed. All of this was during a significantly hard time for me in my life outside of math. Her interest, the fact that it mattered that I do well in her class, made me feel a little better. I was aware, in a conscious way, that I had people rooting for me. I did get tutoring and managed a B- in the course, but it was a hard-won victory. It wasn't until college, when I took Analytical Math that I really felt like I understood any math at all. I could finally apply something that made sense to me to a realm where things typically did not. It was an eye-opening experience, one that has influenced my teaching and learning, even now.
This is something I try to remember when my students struggle with someone that I know so completely that it's part of my being. I have a talent for words, for analysis, for reading and understanding. I've built on that talent throughout my schooling, and I've worked hard, but I also know that it's difficult to explain why things click a certain way for me, why I can read something (typically, I'm not talking super theoretical stuff, here) once and easily absorb it.
My school experiences weren't all amazing, and I had instructors who negatively impacted my learning, but when I look back, I am deeply grateful for the amazing teachers who encouraged me, or provided additional support. I try to be that kind of teacher, the one who wants my students to succeed. I don't take joy in failing students or making them suffer through readings, though many of them might disagree with that last part. I don't break them down, or make them feel small. I ask them to bring the things they DO understand into my class, the same way analysis helped me with math. I hope they see ways to make connections between the work we do and their lives outside of class. I want them to evolve their thinking, to leave my classroom saying, "I never thought of it that way." I know I can be idealistic about the process of teaching just as much as I can be cynical and discouraged by it. Ultimately, I remain hopeful that I'm challenging students in a good way, that they're taking something away from the work I ask them to do.
It's so easy to get bogged down in the work of the work we do. Right now, I have feedback on drafts to give, analyses to grade, memos to read and organize, pdfs to make and post, articles to read for class tomorrow, midterms to write, and emails to which to respond. I have office hours and faculty meetings to attend. Sometimes I worry that I lose sight of why I do this in the first place. And then I'll meet with a student who, as she rushes out the door, says "thank you for caring," or I'll go into class feeling moody and annoyed with the world and discussion goes particularly well or things fall into place in a way they normally don't in other parts of my life and I'm cheered up. I love the work I do. It fulfills and fuels me. It also frustrates and confounds me. My grandmother once told me that the things you love most are the same things that shatter you easily. There's a lesson here in vulnerability, somewhere.
I joke that I loved school so much, I decided to never leave and there's probably some truth to that. I enjoy learning about subjects where I have no expertise. I'm interested in knowing as much as I can about the world. I've placed myself in spaces where knowledge is privileged, where I have access to resources to feed my passions. And even though I'm now in front of the class, and am responsible for providing the information students need, I'm still hungry to learn, to share what I know, to connect. When I teach, everything clicks into focus for me; my small piece of the universe becomes clear. And I work to make those pieces accessible and clear for my students.
I wish I were better at carving out time for all the things that need my attention. Maybe, it's a weakness of mine that my life often feels like a pendulum swing. But I also think that we, as a culture, and my students' comments reflect this, often act as though "if we can just get through this one week, this one project, this one year," then things will get easier, settle down, be better. I know that in my own life, that's rarely true. Something else comes along and worries me, or requires my attention, deadlines pile up, someone needs me. Yes, sometimes deadlines, parts of the semester, are particularly hellish, times I feel like I can't catch a breath or make a real dinner. (Thank goodness for bag salad and microwaveable meals). I've long believed that trying to focus on balance is a terrible idea. You always end up feeling guilty because balance is unattainable; something always has to give. I like to concentrate instead on being mindful, aware, appreciate the moments as I live them. I know that I live in between extremes, most of the time. Sometimes I wish I could relax more, that I could live more focused, more slowly, and sometimes I still get grouchy about the pace at which I operate. However, I know myself. I have tried to give up feeling like I have to live a particular way, or by someone else's standards. I choose to see my life as full, and rich with experiences.Besides, sitting still never really appealed to me, at least not for long. I am a nomad, a wanderer, a seeker. I'm not lost; I'm not looking for the next best thing. I just live and breathe in spaces in between. And I think all I really have to do is hold on, revel in the company of those around me and enjoy the ride.