So here I am, working as a teacher in a small school with its share of troubles... but plenty of things going for it, too. Our building is new and well-maintained, and our student mix includes both rich and poor; the sons and daughters of professionals and the sons and daughters of blue collar families and farm families, as well as unemployed and foster families. I've got plenty of colleagues I like and admire, classroom to call my own, and after five years, I have a collection of lesson plans and strategies that work better all the time.
In other words, I've become a reasonably skillful and useful teacher in one of those schools that doesn't make headlines when politicians are dining out on the topic of education reform. If you are an American reading these words, chances are good that you attended a school a lot like mine, and had teachers a lot like me.
There are days I feel incredibly good about what I do. Sometimes, I feel pretty good about being a teacher. Maybe it's when I've got the kids excited about acting out a scene from Shakespeare, or seen one of them really get it about how a writer can use even a "boring" descriptive passage to make something important in his message come alive for a reader--or, best of all, when a student who swore up and down at the beginning of the year that he hated reading comes thronging my door at break to rave about the latest book they borrowed from my classroom (and did I know there is a sequel, and can I get it for him, please?) Those times are sweet.
Doing it well--that's sweet.
Some days, I feel myself walking down the halls with certainty even in my feet. It's the sensuous pleasure of competence itself, hard won in a job that is so much harder than it looks.
I relish it: I relish knowing just how to pitch my voice to get the student in the back row to understand I know he's not paying attention. I relish knowing that I've got it going on when I'm reading a poem or a story aloud to a class. Maybe more than anything else, I relish knowing that I have achieved a kind of mastery of tone and pacing and humor and mutual respect that makes a group of teenagers want to follow me (mostly) when it's time for me to lead.
I like leading. I like being good at it. Just being skillful is a tremendous reward.
And of course there are also all those other satisfactions: you know, the stuff about helping people. That's there, too. Just being an adult who sees kids and respects them in world where there's a shortage of that in so many kids' lives--it's therapeutic in ways that being a psychotherapist never was.
So that's nice, too.
(You knew there was a "but" coming, right? Had to be, or why bother to write this essay at all?)
Without even going into the various frustrations and stupidities that are part and parcel of teaching in any public school, there are times when I wonder how much longer I can possibly keep this up.
They tell me it gets easier, the longer you teach.
And this is true: I can testify to that. The twelve hour days of my first year of teaching are almost never longer than ten in this, my fifth year of teaching. And things go right far more often than they go wrong these days.
And yet, satisfying as this job can be, important as I know this job is, at times I feel as though it were sucking my soul out my ears and eyeballs day after day after day. Even on the best of days, teaching feels a bit like having your wind knocked out of you, again and again and again.
Did I say this job is hard? This job eats you alive, and sends your drained and weary corpse home to shamble through whatever remains of a life you might have had at the end of the day.
This job leaves you prostrated, limp and lifeless, for anything beyond its requirements.
And then you get up in the dark, rise, and go forth to do it again the next day. And the next. And if I think about how many years there are until I retire, I will go mad, so I try not to do that.
Retirement. Quakers are told to take a time of retirement every day, in which to wait upon the Spirit.
Some days I manage to sit for about three minutes in my car in the morning, once I have arrived at my school. The parking lot faces east, and I sip my coffee in the mornings and watch the rising sun through the scrim of trees across the road.
Then I go into my school, and teach.
There are the summers, thank the gods.
Every now and then, some monkey tries to push the idea of year-round school or an extended school day. I don't really have the energy to get upset about that: should these proposals ever carry the day, I will simply be gone, out of the profession as surely as if I were required to climb Everest in order to retain my position. I have not got more to give within me. It can't be done.
For it is in the summers that I stoke the engines--spiritual as well as physical--to make it through another year.
In the summers, I rise around seven, take all the time I want to sip my coffee in the sun, and then write for two or three or even four hours straight. In the afternoons, I see friends, walk my dogs, explore the woods or go to the lake with a book and a folding chair. I read, laugh, travel, pray, and exercise.
I try not to miss meeting for worship during the school year, but often, I cannot help it. In the summers, I miss worship only if I am visiting relatives--and, if there is a meeting near them, I go to it.
I can circle with Pagans under the full moon in the summer; I can light candles to Her light beside the calm waters of a lake. I go to New England Yearly Meeting in the summer. I worship outdoors in the summer, hike with friends, look up at the bottoms of maple leaves, and think. I try to center myself down as deeply and as fully as I possibly can, because, like the cool of a summer swim, once I have emerged from my time of retirement, I know that it will vanish quickly, leaving me hot and sticky and laboring once again.
So here's the question: is this any way to live?
Maybe this isn't the time to ask that question.
This has been a tough year, for whatever reason. I've been teaching a new (to me) course; I love it, but a new course takes more lesson planning. Weather delays and cancellations threw the pacing of certain units off, which is always a challenge. And I got sick in December, and I haven't yet recovered my stamina in April.
I'm tired. I feel like Bilbo Baggins: "like butter that has been scraped over too much bread." I ask myself, is this Chronic Fatigue, or am I merely chronically fatigued?
It makes little difference. I work. I work because I work.
Perhaps it's just that working for a living is hard. Or perhaps it is that teaching for a living is hard.
I seem to remember having a life outside the work day. I seem to remember taking walks, talking with friends, having time for household work and bills and shopping for groceries.
I used to bake bread sometimes. I used to brew beer. I used to walk my dogs even when it was not summer; I used to walk to work.
Am I just getting older? Is my job what I should be doing after all, or is it keeping me from doing what I should?
I currently serve on Mt. Toby's Ministry and Worship committee. And I struggle with feeling that I don't serve there very well.
I was thrilled, terrified, humbled, and eager all in turns when I was told my name had risen for Ministry and Worship. I want to offer and to nurture good ministry at my meeting. I want to believe I have something to bring to the table when we meet. Mind you, at times I have felt like a tiny child trying to keep up with the big kids. But I have also tried to set my fears and my inadequacies aside, and to do the job, the best I can. My term will be up in August, and I'll rotate off the committee.
I'm going to miss it. I'm also feeling relieved. I'm not convinced I've done a good job.
How many times have I missed committee meetings from pure fatigue? How many times have I even attended meeting for business, which is under our care? And in this past year, I have even missed many meetings for worship. I miss them in order to grade papers. Papers that, perhaps I could have graded after school or on Saturday, if only I'd been more disciplined.
Or is it, if only I'd been less tired?
Am I ordering my life badly? Am I wasting too much time and energy on trivialities? Could I be more efficient?
Or am dying of over-efficiency already, driving myself as I would never drive an animal?
Am I a failure in my service to my meeting? Or am I not only dancing as fast as I can, but actually doing a pretty fair job trying to serve in two weighty roles, as a public school teacher and as an engaged Friend?
I don't know.
I don't know, I don't know, I don't know... And the tireder I get, the less I feel as if I'll ever know!
John Woolman simplified his business life in order to be better able to pursue his ministry.
Friends' testimonies on simplicity are not really about wearing fair-trade garments hand-woven by Bolivian peasants. They are not even really about "living simply that others may simply live". They are about cutting out the inessentials, the distractions, so that we can hear the voice of God when She is speaking to us.
So that question again: is this how I'm supposed to live?
Maybe. Just because it's hard doesn't mean you're doing it wrong.
After all, I'm pretty sure that God did not gather a great people together to have them form committees! And I am clear that my decision to leave counseling and explore teaching was most certainly a leading if ever anything in my life has been worthy of that name.
Rightly or wrongly, I do feel that I have a ministry of some sort among Friends. And I want to go on engaging in serious work among Friends as a way of exploring it. I want to stand close to other Friends at work, because I know that that's a good way to stand close to God.
I long for that deepening all the time.
But I am so tired of feeling that I am only half doing what I have been asked to do!
So I'm asking myself--what's next?
How long can I continue as I have been, teaching and tiring? Am I hearing the faint beginnings of another leading--or am I merely feeling faint? Am I perhaps right where Spirit wants me to be, difficult though it sometimes seems? Or am I falling short, or taking on too much, outrunning my leadings and tiring myself needlessly, so I have no strength for larger things to follow?
Am I questioning my life from right motives of simplicity, or am I simply weary?
I ask. But I don't yet know.