Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 5, 2009

Life During Wartime (At School & In My Head)

 

“Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Gonna be different this time?”

Life During Wartime, Talking Heads

 

     In the same way that some people are haunted/blessed by remembered conversations, events or passages of well-known books, I find I’m haunted by well-written song lyrics. In a way, it’s not unlike a conversation, for me. For in listening and re-listening to songs that have some depth and energy to them, I have learned to catch their nuances, or else gotten a fresh understanding of the words, in the context of my changed life situation since the last time I listened to the song.

 

Maybe I’m wiser, or maybe just older, in listening or thinking about a twenty-five-year-old song. But the great gift of experience– if one can manage not to become jaded — is that one begins to see that life renews itself all the time. So as ideas and feelings come back around, those people with the courage to feel them afresh can get something entirely new out of the “same old thing”.

 

That’s the experience I’ve had with the above-referenced, very depressing, Talking Heads song lately. It keeps popping into my head. Because I’m feeling embattled, mostly because I’m not really “into” my work teaching writing and humanities at a corporate-model career college.

 

Even with the small blessings — like the awe and gratitude shown by one student when I brought the class to see the wondrous 1897-built Chicago Cultural Center, or a genuine conversation after class with a 30-year-old Army vet about life priorities– I can’t seem to sustain any enjoyment or motivation for the classes. I’m going through the motions, as they say… with varying degrees of integrity, preparedness and responsibility, which I then feel guilty about, thus adding to the burden, the paralysis, the bad feelings that prey upon my motivation.

 

It’s a cycle I’ve been through too often in my life (though most acutely it shows up when I teach, when I have the added pressure of “responsibility for others’ learning”). The wisest of teachers have mostly told me to ease up on myself, that some students are unreachable no matter what, and that even my efforts in “mediocre mode” are mostly still well ahead of what many teachers are willing to offer. And I believe them. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

 

My fear of failure is immense, and there is shame waiting for me in every dark corner of my life. (Not just the classroom, but we’re not going into those other dark corners today.) For example: even in knowing rationally that I don’t have to take responsibility for anyone else’s failures, I’m still not “feeling it”.

If a kid doesn’t come to class, I feel it’s because I suck as a teacher. If their essay reads like a word salad–  not even showing the facility for language that I already had at age ten (or earlier, if my six-year-old son’s reading ability is any indicator of my own at that age) — then it’s my fault. Or if it isn’t, then I have my own despairing “Why bother?” attitude to deal with… as in “How can I teach in nine weeks what this person failed to learn in the previous 20, 30 or even 50 years?”

 

I struggle for organization and a decent work ethic as much as my students do, maybe more. The question of the day, then, is this: do I keep struggling? Or do I seek a more typical 9 to 5 job where all I gotta do is what the boss tells me to do?


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