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The urge to write meets the blue day

“The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life. It is a habit of antiphony: of call and response.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, “My Life’s Sentences,” NYT 3.18.12

Perhaps it is presumptuous to agree with the eloquent words of Jhumpa Lahiri. But for me, it’s true—this desire to put lived experience into words, and to arrange those words in not only a grammatical but also a structurally sensible kind of way—this is the primary machination in my mind.

But this—the actual acting out of the urge—seldom happens. And that sentence, albeit in the active voice, assumes the sly irresponsibility of the passive, rendering me—the subject—a passive participant, and even—if you, my reader, allow me to cross into melodrama—a victim of the sour brevity of time, of the same twenty-four hour day that everyone else on the planet is allotted. I have little time to write. There are many constraints on my time. My scattered and confused, often illogical, and eclectic emotions exert sovereignty over “my” time: I do what my mind determines most urgent at the moment.

A note on time: The phenomenon of owning time, I believe, is relatively new; not until societies elevated the individual above the collective could people fathom that their time was their own. Regardless of whether you or I consider ourselves the sole possessors of the most intangible of intangibles—time—we do have some choice when it comes to how we “spend” it. The metaphor of time as commodity—another blight on our society, one which already lacks a collective spirit and values the individual above all else.

I am not one to follow the task-sorting habits as espoused by the writers of The Highly Effective Fill in the Blank books. Those books reduce experiences to tasks, considering each item on a “to do” list something to be accomplished and promptly crossed off. Their philosophy dictates that followers assign tasks to one of four boxes according to its urgency and importance. But I digress. I’m on a tangent, holding my right arm over my hand in a tangent-like line to indicate I’ve lost track of where I’m supposed to me. The tangent metaphor, although relying on mathematical concepts which I cannot grasp, is an effective one. My AP Calculus teacher in high school would hoist her hand over her head when my class, comprising rowdy boys, would try to get her off track; she’d direct us back to math with this clever mathematical metaphor.

But my excuses for not acting on the urge that Lahiri expresses—other than the reason that I know my writing will not reach such heights as hers—lie somewhere in the mangled web of too much to do and too much anxiety to do it. Like everyone else, I am too busy. Like some, I grow anxious. Like few, I doubt. Like very few, I am very limited in what I can write, at least publicly. Who am I?

A highly-introverted public school teacher of literature, reading, and writing; a frequent caller to parents whose children are underperforming; a friendly face; a conflicted authority figure; a mentor; a reader; an internal processor and hopeful writer, wary of too much stimulation and limited by the emotional and physical demands of my day job, my responsibilities to my students and my school, and my need for rest, silence, friendship, love, and black tea.

Let me illustrate this conundrum with a blue day. At my school, we have block scheduling, meaning that I see my classes every other day, on a red day or on a blue day, with the exception of my first period class, which I see every day for a short period of time. My red day schedule is manageable: first period, followed by third period, followed by a department meeting, followed by planning time and supporting kids after school. When a red day ends, I have that day-after-Christmas feeling: the fun is over, until next time.

For blue days, I set three alarms. The alarm on my night stand is my “oh good grief it is morning again” clock; it rouses me from deep slumber and only requires a decent fling of an arm to silence. I also set the alarm on my smart but dysfunctional phone for a little bit later, though this alarm does work most of the time. I set a third alarm on another device for the latest possible time at which I can rise, get ready for school, and arrive at school in time to procure hot water for my tea, make copies, set up my room, talk to students, write the agenda for first period on the white board, set up the projector, and breathe for a few minutes.

On most mornings, all of these things happen. I find clothes and shoes to wear, I make breakfast and pack a lunch, and I leave my apartment a few minutes after 7AM. I navigate the parking garage; its spaces are too narrow, and its turning areas far too small, to be considered safe. Add hapless tourists and harried, SUV-driving commuters into the mix, and this garage becomes a veritable disaster area. For the first few months living here, my blood pressure would rise as the elevator descended to P3. Now, on the way down, my mind races through all the things I need to do before the first bell rings, at which point I stand in the hallway outside my room so that I can urge students to get to class on time.

I teach my first period, an “on-level” English class with ELL students, alongside my co-teacher. There is little more I can share without breaching their privacy. I imagine I can share the fact that I often repeat instructions many times and that I find myself emotionally drained after only fifty minutes.

In a typical week, I work as many or more hours than my lawyer fiancé works. Perhaps this is because this is my first year teaching in a public high school, though it is the fifth year in which I have held a teaching role. There is always more to grade, more planning to do, more differentiating to plan, more parents and grandparents and guardians to call. The work consumes me. From the advice of veteran teachers, I have determined that any teacher’s first year is going to fall somewhere, on the spectrum of pleasure, between the horrible and the hellish. Quite the prospect.

I have second period “off.” I attend meetings, make more copies, prepare for periods four and six, and eat lunch. I clean up my classroom. I hope that my fourth period class will remember their assigned seats, a mental task which has proven surprisingly and increasingly difficult as the year has progressed. If I have time left over, I wonder whether someone in my sixth period will stick a pencil into the celling today.

I puzzle over the prospect and execution of differentiation, an education buzzword that means providing different types or methods of instruction for different students. It’s more like a Platonic ideal, the capital D on Differentiation testifying to both its importance and the impossibility of achieving it perfectly in our real and fallen world.

Fourth period begins at 11:30. My hall has “A” lunch, which means that my students eat lunch in the first of four lunch rotations and then come to class for 105 minutes. There is much angst, there is often confusion, and they inevitably induce tangents. Thankfully, they have not figured out how to stick pencils into the ceiling. Then “TA,” short for “Team Advisory,” arrives, and I try to remain sane with a classroom full of children I don’t teach and occasional visits from those I do. Sixth period is the last period of the day, a fact which I consider the cause of the overwhelming energy of the room. There is often a crisis, though I can’t elaborate on the who, the what, the why, or the how. There is sometimes panic. On most days, there is laughter.

The bell rings at 3:15, denoting the end of structure and rules and authority for some, and marking, for others, the beginning of a slew of extracurricular activities. I pick up trash off the floor, offer assistance to students, and try to grade a few things. I kill some ants. I straighten papers and move desks back to their rightful places. I close the windows. When the final bell rings at 4:15, I write bus passes and say farewell. I erase the dry erase board, hoping that what I just spent my day doing doesn’t vanish quite so easily. Is this a reverse metaphor? I am too tired to tell. I pack my things, collecting students’ essays, their revised essays, their exit slips, and their late work, and I turn off the lights.

Now that it’s spring, it’s light outside when I leave the building. I drive home as the sun falls, listening to the news, processing what has befallen the world today. I navigate the city traffic as my mind prioritizes the evening’s work. The urge—to transform experience into words—remains; though tattered, it persists.

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  • Chuck Murphy March 21, 2012, 12:20 pm

    Fascinating! I’m left with the image of a day’s worth of work and instruction captured, but undecipherable, on the whiteboard eraser.

  • Paul Barnwell April 14, 2012, 11:16 am

    Thoughtful post. I’m also a public high school school teacher who enjoys the intellectual and exciting challenge of writing, and I can empathize with the ongoing accumulation of work and the fact that it never ends.
    I think I made a conscious choice roughly five years ago–I’m in the eighth year teaching–that there were too many other interests and hobbies that made me who I am to let the school day and ensuing work consume me. The phenomenon of busyness is one made more challenging in the digital age, with it’s constant distractions, e-mails, facebook posts, and the like. I’m motivated to restart writing, and launched a blog called Mindful Stew. Trying to find a good balance between effective teaching, prudent digital media use, and other hobbies. Check it out! mindfulstew.wordpress.com.