My fingers sweat from the effort of forming a basic chord. My right hand holds the plastic pick as if it were made from some alien material. Like I do every year, I spent portions of the summer hunched over my guitar in an attempt to recapture some of my past musical glory. Now that school is back, I have put my guitar back in my closet where it will sleep patiently for the next eleven months. When life calms down, I tell myself, I’ll be able to devote more time to it. This is, of course, not necessarily true. Life is always busy, but carving out regular time is often a matter of discipline and priorities. Doing something other than attending to school simply isn’t a priority. It hasn’t been for at least ten years.
Paul Thomas recently wrote on his blog about his experiences with regret. In the post, Paul explores the rise and fall of his identity as a visual artist. His essay reminded me of one of my own past lives, that of a guitar player. My first memory of the guitar dates back to 6th grade when when a science teacher held a guitar club after school. Although I didn’t join, I would often hang around outside his room to listen to multiple off-kilter renditions of Stairway to Heaven or the Am – G repetition of Nirvana’s About A Girl. Before long, the six-string instrument began showing up in the bedrooms and basements of my friends. It was as if entrance into suburban puberty included a complimentary guitar and Green Day song book. I pleaded with my parents for an electric guitar (acoustic guitars hurt my fingers and just didn’t seem as cool) and was rewarded with a Peavey Predator, a decent intro-level instrument.
For the rest of middle school and high school the instrument and I were inseparable. After coming home from school I would plop down onto the floor of my bedroom, plug into my amp, and practice my favorite songs by Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. This is around the time I started taking Ritalin, so I spent hours rooted to the floor, the typewriter-key movement of my left hand the only sign I was conscious. I took full advantage of the private lessons and guitar summer camps my parents wonderfully provided. My guitar could be heard in high school musicals, various talent shows, and the corners of every local guitar store. While I wasn’t going to be the next Steve Vai (one of the most celebrated and accomplished living guitarists), it was clear that I had some facility with the instrument.
Playing guitar provided me with an identity, a way to construct myself and understand how I fit into the world of adolescence. It helped me orient myself by creating a center of gravity. My relationships, values, ideas about the future, and predilections orbited around being a guitar player. I wanted to escape the feeling of never being good enough by committing myself to one thing completely. If only I could play faster, I told myself, if I could just pick the strings more clearly then I might be able to become something that didn’t hurt. The identity of guitarist supported me and protected me until college, when I decided to minor in classical guitar in order to explore my new-found interests in psychology and sociology.
College was my first introduction to what journalist and author Chris Hedges refers to as a life of the mind. I traded in my metronome for highlighters and attacked my studies with feral abandon (Also, the notion of playing the intro riff to Megadeth’s Holy Wars 500 times in a row loses a bit of its luster when you live with roommates). By the time I graduated college in 2004, I had downgraded my guitar from the focal point of my room to a dusty afterthought sleeping underneath my box-spring mattress. My fingers had forgotten how to navigate the terrain of the instrument. Instead I identified as someone who was serious about learning. College and graduate school had primed my mental machinery, but it wasn’t until I began teaching in 2008 that I found a subject robust enough to be my everything. I calibrated every aspect of my identity to the rhythms of classroom life.
This is how it’s been for the last eight years. Education is all I allow myself to be interested in. In some ways my obsession drive to give myself up completely to something is a coping mechanism, a way to ground myself and contain my neuroses. I choose not to have much of a social life beyond the occasional lunch and dinner dates with my wife’s friends, and I’m not interested in finding hobbies or expanding my horizons. I have come to peace with the knowledge that I do not live life to the fullest.Teaching makes this easy. The unreasonable demands placed on teachers create a situation where there is always something to do.
As with any obsession, my monomania works until it doesn’t. I’ve struggled to unhook my self-esteem from the predictably unpredictable rhythms of school life. In the post mentioned above, Paul describes how he lost parts of himself in his quest for a practical adult life. He describes the tension between who he is vs. who he feels he should be. While I have also denied myself the chance to explore alternative aspects of my identity, I have done so in an attempt to outrun feelings of inadequacy.
He concludes his post by saying,
Regret of the kind that is not from hurting another is our inability, our refusal to recognize our thing—and then to embrace it as our happiness. Our thing includes “the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth,” suffering, but it is not ours to seek ways to avoid human suffering, but like Sisyphus, to commit to it with all our body and heart.
I have tried to use commitment to education as a way to construct an identity buttressed against not feeling good enough. I have allowed myself to be carried away by my obsessive belief that I can find relief from my suffering in just one more professional book or article. My attempts to study away the struggles that make me human have prevented me from living fully as an educator and a human being. To be clear, I do not regret my infatuation with school life. Along with pleasures both cerebral and visceral, education provides me with an identity I’m proud of. A self that feels expansive and limited only by time and my ability to understand. Perhaps this post is a way of telling myself that while I’ve committed to education with body and heart, it’s time to find fulfillment from the joys and the frustrations. By isolating one from the other, or attempting to use one to shield myself from the other, I’m doing my commitment a disservice. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.