I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.
I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.
The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.
Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.
Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.
As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.
Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.
The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.
After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.
I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.
As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.
“Here,” she said, holding out her hand, “quick, before they start to melt.” I pinched a handful of the small opalescent orbs from my girlfriend’s outstretched hand and flicked them into my mouth. Within seconds the Dexedrine disintegrated underneath my tongue, providing my nervous system with its first taste of amphetamine. For the next four hours we sat rooted to the bench in the middle of one of the parks in my neighborhood. We had freshly lit new cigarettes in our mouths before the ones we were smoking had a chance to burn out. The amphetamines she boosted from her older brother gave every cigarette a candy-like sheen. We smoked and talked and smoked all afternoon until the rush-hour commuters began to clog the highway bordering the park.
I didn’t touch my dinner that night. Not only can stimulants repress your appetite, they can make the tiniest scrap of food hit your stomach with the weight of a Thanksgiving meal. I fidgeted, tapped my feet, and dismissed myself as quickly as possible. That night I couldn’t sleep; the aftershock of the chemicals wouldn’t wear off for another 12 hours. I spent the next day in a neurotransmitter hangover, lurching from class to class as my swollen synapses struggled to function without its regular ration of dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine.
I was immediately hooked. Amphetamines made everything exhilarating. It didn’t matter if I had to complete math problems, vacuum the rug, or play the guitar; a few doses of Ritalin allowed me to take part in and enjoy the grist of life in a profoundly enjoyable manner. At least, it did for the first few hours. The brain-on-fire high was always followed with a painful period of self-enclosure. I wouldn’t want to move or participate in anything. Even talking hurt. It also was instrumental in reviving my academic career. My SAT scores shot up 400 points and, for the first time, I was able to meet deadlines. I needed it, but I was unable to control myself around it.
When my girlfriend broke things off with me a few days later, I knew I had to find more. My own brother, then about to graduate, had been taking Ritalin for many years. Never before would I have considered sneaking into his room and taking anything, much less medication. Yet that afternoon I rummaged through his things with feral intensity. I burned through my brother’s monthly allotment in days. I just assumed it was an endless resource he could refill at a moment’s notice, not realizing that I had just screwed him for the rest of the month. I began to steal Ritalin from my best friends, digging through their backpacks whenever they went to the bathroom.
Within a week or two of finding my brother’s medication, my parents called a family meeting. I kept my eyes glued to the empty pill bottle sitting on the dining room table, nodding along as my mother explained about insurance, controlled substances, and how the former restricted access to the latter. It was decided that I should talk to a psychiatrist. My mom had been thinking about having me checked out for ADHD for years. She was concerned because I would test into the ‘advanced’ classes only to drop out of them when my classwork failed to measure up. Teachers told her that I was ready for the harder material, I just made too many simple mistakes.
After I was in the system I was hooked. My grades went up and my academic self-efficacy grew. But I couldn’t out-think my growing addiction to them. I would gulp down a month’s supply in days, requiring me to make up stories to my psychiatrist about how I wanted to try out different types of medication. Ritalin didn’t last long enough. Adderall lasted too long. Each new prescription I scored bought me another week’s worth of uppers. By the time I cycled through enough medications, the month had passed and I was able to go back to Ritalin. It took only a few days before I’d memorized the correct sequence of directional commands to navigate the complex phone tree at my local pharmacy. Welcome to the CVS Pharmacy. Press Zero for the pharmacy. Press 4 to check to see if your refill is ready. Please enter your social security number and press pound. Please enter your medical ID number and press pound. Please enter the prescription ID number and press pound. Your prescription is now ready.
This lasted until college when my mom had to drive to my dorm (I went to a local school) once a week in order to drop off the week’s supply. We would meet in the parking lot and exchange plastic bottles. It was the only way I could manage. But by my senior year I was back. I would implore girlfriends to hide my pill bottles only to wait for them to fall asleep before I tip-toed around their apartments. I learned where to find things (bottom of purses, sock drawers in closets) and how to hunt for something at a moment’s notice (an impromptu phone call, someone at the door).The abuse continued until I was taping eyeballs closed at night, placing the tape horizontally, of course, and gulping gin in order to fall asleep.
Over time I somehow developed the ability to manage my addiction to stimulants. There was no single rock bottom, just a slow ascent out of the heart-rending static of methylphenidate addiction. When I quit drinking I knew I had to cut down on the Ritalin. As I matured and entered into the work force, the rhythms of adult life required me to maintain a consistent and dependable sleep schedule. While I still relish the rush of the day’s first dose, I’m able to keep my addiction in control. My daily allotment (30mg) would have been an appetizer ten years ago. Luckily my body never developed much of a tolerance.
Even though my Ritalin use is under control, I am still addicted. They are crucial to my success. I have no idea what life without Ritalin feels like. I’m just too scared. While I’m sure my brain would eventually adjust after a rocky period of chemical imbalance, I’m not willing to risk it. I don’t see a need to. I have no guilt about using medication to improve the quality of my life, and I function at acceptable levels of adult capitalist productivity.
Stimulants have become a necessary component to managing my life with severe ADHD. When they wear off it’s almost impossible to concentrate. Everything I access through my senses seems important and worthy of examination. Every object, aberration, corporeal figure, audio cue, etc., screams at me, beating down my senses with the incessant demand to be noticed and accounted for. My working memory is non-existent. I move through life in an impenetrable fog, able to experience only what’s directly in front of me. And I can’t stop talking. The words just spill out. I used to have a hand-written sign taped above the television that read ‘STOP TALKING’ as a reminder to try and spare my wife from my endless commentary.
I originally wanted this piece to move into what it’s like teaching with ADHD, but I’ll leave that for another post. I wanted to explore a part of my life that has helped me survive while providing me with so many opportunities to fall.
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.
The panic was inescapable. I paced back and forth inside a deserted classroom, sweat trickling down my sideburns. In five minutes I was due in the cafeteria to present myself for my first ever back to school night. I could hear the excited burbling of my coworkers’ voices outside in the hallway. Everyone had gathered for our final meeting before heading downstairs. I knew I was supposed to be there. I could hear the head of school asking, “Where’s Anderson?”
When the pressure became too much I popped my head out of the door and caught the attention of Ms. Cannon, my school’s Chief Academic Officer. My face must have communicated my situation, because without a word she rushed into the room. I proceeded to have my first breakdown of the year. I couldn’t do it, I told her. The work was too much. Between the lesson plans, hallway and cafeteria duty, and 6 AM – 6 PM hours, I was breaking. Between gasps of air and heaving sobs, I told Ms. Cannon that this was the first time in my life when I couldn’t work my way out of a hole. I’d been used to just buckling down and burrowing through whatever obstacle sat in my way. I didn’t know what to do.
Without uttering a word she took a seat and listened. As soon as I finished she asked what I needed. I wasn’t sure, I said. Okay, she replied, let me help you plan the next two weeks’ worth of lessons. Will that be enough time to get yourself above water? I nodded. Great! she exclaimed with a smile. Within minutes my eyes were dry (enough) and I was delivering a brief presentation about myself to a standing-room only crowd of eager parents. I never did manage to get ahead of my work, but that didn’t matter. From that night on Ms. Cannon would provide me with guidance invaluable to my development as a professional.
Ms. Cannon was always willing to listen to me talk. As part of my school’s professional development plan, Ms. Cannon met with individual teachers every week to discuss lesson plans and data results. She would listen to my fears, assuage my doubts, and ensure that I had the resources I needed to continue on my path. I also spent hours sitting in on Ms. Cannon’s classes, typing up extensive notes on everything she did. Whether she was handing out papers, leading a discussion, or encouraging students who were having a rough day, Ms. Cannon exemplified the teacher I wanted to be. Witty. Passionate. Respectful. And in complete control of her content and teaching pedagogy.
At this point in my career, I’ve been fortunate to find individuals who don’t mind answering my questions or pointing me in the right direction when I’m stumped. I wrote about some of them earlier in the year. But unlike the educators I wrote about in that post, Ms. Cannon and I no longer have contact. After I left the school our communication ended. Our time together changed me in powerful ways. She helped me become myself.
Scholars such as Gert Biesta and Hannah Arendt have spoken of education as a process of becoming. The concept tasks teachers with creating spaces and activities that push students to articulate who they are. Education as becoming cannot be static. Nor can it result from a sole focus on content memorization. We must take risks and confront that which challenges us. Only by responding to what is challenging can we articulate ourselves into existence. Ms. Cannon pushed me to articulate who I was. The school in which we worked was filled with amazing teachers, and as a new teacher I wanted nothing more than to replicate the success of my colleagues. Every few months I would take on someone else’s mannerisms, vocalizations, and body language. I thought that if I could only act like someone else I would be able to feel successful. Ms. Cannon helped me recognize myself and develop a teacher identity free of mimicry. Never underestimate the power of being told that you’re good enough.
A recent status update on Facebook inspired me to write this post about my time working with Ms. Cannon. I took the above screenshot of two voicemails she left on my phone a number of years ago. Like other Millennials, I find voicemail about as useful and appealing as landline telephones. But I’ll probably hold onto Ms. Cannon’s two voicemails for a long time. I haven’t listened to them in years; I don’t really need to. The time that these voicemails come from no longer exists, but they still resonate with power. Expressing gratitude to someone you no longer keep in contact with is an interesting endeavor. The intended audience and purpose of this post are somewhat murky. It feels important to continually ground myself in gratitude and acknowledge everyone who has helped me along the way.
I’m reminded of the quote (often erroneously attributed to Maya Angelou), “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I no longer remember much of what Ms. Cannon told me. I cannot, however, forget the feelings of confidence and positivity she inspired within me.
My classes are studying memoirs; I thought I’d share what I have so far. What follows is the 2nd draft of a memoir about putting my old dog to sleep.
Feeding Popcorn to a Ghost
Without a word, my mom and I knew it was time to put our beloved family pet to sleep. After almost fourteen years, Sally was no longer living a fulfilling life as a dog or as a companion. Her eyes, once black as coal, were no longer useful. Gray clouds of cataract bloomed inside her eyes, blocking out the world around her and making it difficult for her to navigate the house. Although she still knew us by scent, her confused movements and nervous disposition let us know that we needed to call the vet.
So after making the appointment for 10 AM the next morning, my mom and I made sure that Sally spent her final hours doing what she loved most: watching movies with us and eating popcorn. I sat on the couch and my mom sat in her favorite chair. Sally curled up at her feet, a giant ball of steel-grey fluff gently expanding and contracting. No words were exchanged that night, only the childlike cooing of my mother as she fed kernels of popcorn to Sally. The two had perfected this nightly ritual over years of practice. My mom extended her hand down as Sally raised her head up. With a silent slurp the kernel disappeared. Once the deed was done, hand returned to bowl and snout returned to floor. My mother and her dog emitted a sigh equal parts sadness and satisfaction. This continued until the movie was over and the popcorn was all gone. The lights stayed off as everyone retreated to their beds for the final night.
The next morning was all performance. My mom and I went through the usual motions of daily human life: eating, laundry, and errands. No one made a sound, as if could prevent what was about to happen by simply refusing to acknowledge it. The house sat and watched our movements, respecting our silence. At a quarter to ten we led Sally out the front door and down the makeshift ramp we had made for her once her hips started to deteriorate. All of a sudden she collapsed, her legs buckling beneath her as she crumpled forward into the grass. My mom and I rushed to her to help, but it was difficult. Sally was confused and disoriented. She twisted and pawed at the air, letting out fearful whimpers of exhaustion every time we tried to pick her up. At this point neither my mother nor I dared look at one another.
The vet was merciful and quiet. They let me and mom stay in the room as they lifted Sally up onto a stainless steel table and injected a clear liquid into her thigh. My mom and I, faces bright and soggy from ceaseless tears, held Sally as her breathing slowed. We held on tightly until her body no longer rose and fell. Within seconds it was over.
My mom and I didn’t say anything until we got home. Normally when we arrived home, the jingling of our keys at the door was enough to alert Sally. We would open the door to our faithful, furry companion, excited to see us no matter how much she aged. Now we opened the door to silence. We were no longer trailed by the jingling of her collar as she dutifully followed us throughout the house. Now we walked through the house alone, inspecting each room as if expecting to see her napping on the floor, bathed in afternoon light from a nearby window. “I guess we can put these away,” my mom said picking up one of Sally’s favorite socks. Her voice sounded like tissue paper. We held each other and cried.
The loss of Sally brought me and my mom together in an unexpected way. The experience felt almost like a secret, a hard nugget of pain and truth that would bind us together in the way that only shared loss can. We haven’t spoken about that morning ever since it happened, and that’s alright. I like to imagine Sally followed us around the house for a little while after the vet put her to sleep. She wanted to make sure she we were ok. And to get any last pieces of popcorn before she disappeared.
The hallways and classrooms of Preparation Academy were no stranger to crying adults. New teachers quickly found the best places to collapse and cry quietly in peace. On any given day you could find an adult perched in the corner of the faculty room, hiding behind the doorway to the rarely used 3rd floor stairwell, or just sitting silently in their car outside in the parking lot. Tears were mandatory. I remember my first breakdown. I lost it moments before back to school night started, exploding into tears from the enormity of the job. There was simply too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. The stakes were too high and the threshold for failure was nonexistent. I just assumed 75 hour work weeks were the norm for new teachers. I was a proud member of the AM/PM club, a core group of Preparation Academy teachers who arrived before the building’s automatic locks opened at 6 AM and left after 8 when the doors relocked. I didn’t understand how everything I did was driven by perfectionism’s twin engines of unattainable goals and self-criticism.
It wasn’t until my second year at Preparation Academy when I finally came face to face with what I now recognize is the most important component of my inner life. I had just collapsed inside my room after transitioning my class to their next period down the hall. With a spasm my body unclenched, releasing a morning’s worth of frustration. Twin rivers of saline quickly gave way to full-on waves of tears and mucous. On this particular day Ms. Rogers, the chief academic officer, happened to spot me hightailing it back to my room came to check on me.
After explaining to her my frustrations and inability to connect with a few particular students, Ms. Rogers looked me in the eye and asked me why I came back to the school. Why did I return to Preparation Academy if the place caused me so much hurt? I hadn’t really ever thought about it before, so the question caught me off guard. I stared at her and blurted out the first thing that came to mind, a common ADHD practice. I told her that I saw teaching as a mirror, a reflection of everything I hated about myself. Working at Preparation Academy forced me to confront my deficiencies on an almost minute-by-minute basis, I told her. There was an awkward pause as we both stared at each other, unsure how to proceed.
The school was a glorious fit for a perfectionist. Specific rules and procedures governed everything from how students asked to sharpen their pencil (holding the broken pencil in the air, not to be confused putting your index finger in the air, the sign for needing a pencil) to how they washed their hands after using the restroom (one pump of soap, twenty seconds of washing, three flicks of the hands to remove excess water, then a single paper towel to finish the job). My inner compulsion for perfection through discipline was overjoyed by a behavioral philosophy predicated upon enforcing rigid codes of conduct on children.
This philosophy also drove Preparation Academy’s academic program. Children were viewed as flawed receptacles to be filled and fixed by teachers. Every single teacher, regardless of subject, gave weekly tests to diagnose gaps in understanding. We took entire professional development days to create data action plans and find new ways to remediate children. Everyone is broken and everything needs to be fixed. I never felt worse. When we were observed, we received an email with detailed feedback from either the head of school or Ms. Rogers. Since the feedback email was immediate, as soon as I saw my evaluator leave the room I told the kids to work silently on their skill packets so I could unhook the projector and read my feedback. It started out with a written summary of the lesson before splitting into three columns: a plus sign (strengths), a question mark (questions about your teacher choices during the lesson) and a delta sign (things you could change immediately to improve). The improvements, like everything else at the school, were surface-level commands that allowed for no conversation. At some point during my first year I spliced all of the negative feedback I received and pasted it onto a Word document. I then taped the awful page(s) on my clipboard so I could read them over and over. I still have some of those sheets somewhere buried deep in an obsessive collection of APA memorabilia.
But I’ve also never felt any better. Like the fish who asks “What’s water?” I’ve come to realize my perfectionism is omnipresent. Even though my school situation has changed, my inner life hasn’t. Although my current school looks completely different on paper, I’ve continued to struggle with the same daily gauntlet of self-recrimination and shame. Perfectionism is always with me. It’s woven itself into the very fabric of my existence. As I’ve stated before, teaching and perfectionism can be a brutal combination. I come home most days feeling utterly defeated. My eyes glaze over in submission to my brain’s relentless laundry list of failings.
My goal this year is to avoid loathing myself by the time I arrive home after work. I want to find and nurture a sense of inner equanimity. I’m trying to be gentle and to hold myself with the same compassion and empathy I strive to feel towards my students. This is not easy. I’ve had over thirty years to perfect the art of self-criticism. Those neural pathways are deep and entrenched. So I’ve started meditating again. I’ve flirted with mindfulness for a solid decade. I’ve taken classes, attended retreats, and read the literature. I meditate 3-4 days out of the week, and I never sit for longer than twelve minutes. So far I haven’t noticed any change, although I’m not exactly sure what changes I’m expecting.
Meditation is one of the main ways I’m trying to alter my trajectory away from perfectionism’s black hole. Another way is to simply catch myself when I’m doing it. I’ll tell myself to “stopstopstopstopstop” whenever I realize I’ve berating myself. The problem is that I’m always putting myself down. Whether I’m comparing myself to other, better teachers in the building or replaying failed parts of a lesson, it is non-stop. In those rare moments when I am able to turn the negativity down, my brain feels eerily empty. Errant thoughts wander through my neural neighborhoods searching for some action. But this is the exception, never the norm.
Now, four weeks into the year, I can say with resigned acceptance that nothing has really changed. Failure continues to coat me in its slick film, and no matter how hard I scrub it’s always on me. But I’ll continue to try. I’ll still seek out those rare moments of bliss when I’m able to silence my perfectionism and experience the joys of a life driven by joy instead of shame.
 Only later would I realize just how awful this was for my marriage. I would arrive home every night exhausted and defeated, limp into the bedroom, and collapse on the bed. In order to keep up with the weekly quizzes Preparation Academy required, I would carry my work with me everywhere during the weekend. Scenic car trips to apple orchards or hiking trails were simply time to grade quizzes and write on student papers.
 At Preparation Academy teachers transitioned students between classes. Students had to walk in silent single-file lines “on the edge of the blue.” This meant roughly twelve inches from the wall. The space in the flooring was conveniently marked by a single strip of blue tiling.
 On a side note, this example proves the teacher-training bromide true: your first few years of teaching end up being more about you then they are your students.
I’m nervous. Like, pants-wettingly nervous about getting back into the classroom. Returning to school after a lengthy break throws my carefully crafted routine and sense of order into disarray. Who are my students? What lessons do I start off with? This fear has nothing to do with dread or avoidance; I love my job. There are few things I would rather do than read and write with students. My anxiety is a nefarious beast unconcerned with my actual feelings about my occupation. It’s a parasite intent on draining the joy from every vibrating cell in my body. By writing this piece I hope to create some distance between me and the anxiety that accompanies the days before children first arrive at school. Ideally other readers will pipe up and share their own back to school anxiety stories. If nothing else, I’m exorcising the demons.
Navigating a Field of Static
Part of my anxiety comes from my Herculean-strength ADHD. I love my personality, and my spastic nature is a big part of it. Being severely attentionally challenged can, however, have some drawbacks. First and foremost is the giant middle finger ADHD routinely flips to my executive functioning. Imagine trying to make your way through a confusing maze lit only by the rapid pulse of a giant strobe light. Your environment becomes an unanchored field of white noise. Grasping onto things is difficult without a perceptual home-base, a compass rose to keep you oriented and grounded. The only way I can make it through something successfully is by forming a strict routine. Routines are like trails of breadcrumbs that help me navigate the kaleidoscopic perception that is a hallmark of ADHD. The beginning of the school year has no trails of bread crumbs to follow. I don’t yet know what works and what to avoid. This lack of knowing creates a considerable amount of anxiety.
ADHD also makes it difficult for me to visualize things. Generating a mental image of how a lesson will go, for instance, is essentially impossible. It’s like trying to grasp onto a writhing electric eel when your hands are coated in industrial strength lubricant. While standing outside in the middle of a rainstorm. At night. My school year anxiety feeds off of my inability to know. How will the kids be? How will my lessons go? What should I say on the first day? Will my teammates and students enjoy working with me? I sit and worry, desperately trying to hold on to concrete thoughts as images evanescent vanish into the aether.
Impossible by Design
Perfectionism also plays a role in my pre-school nerves. I am a die-hard perfectionist. Whenever I hear people proclaim that they’re perfectionists, it’s often because they like doing an excellent job on things. For example, perfectionist teachers favor neat lines, symmetrical graphic organizers, and gestalt-pleasing color schemes. Nothing wrong there. A perfectionist simply wants, as Radiohead put it, “everything in its right place.”
This isn’t how my perfectionism works. I’m what paid professionals call a ‘maladaptive perfectionist.’ Being an M.P. means striving for unattainable goals and then feeling abysmal when you can’t reach them. It’s like Xeno’s paradox of the tortoise and Achilles. No matter how hard I push myself, reaching the goals set by my maladaptive perfectionism is impossible. It’s a cynical, enervating, and seriously unfun process. Every day becomes a marathon of trying to outrun an ever-growing horde of angry mistakes. According to the internet, teachers make around seven decisions per minute. If only one of those decisions ends up being a mistake, the maladaptive perfectionist feels bad about themselves at least once a minute. With five 45-minute classes a day, that’s a lot of needless suffering.
Worrying does not equal problem solving, as any intro level anxiety/OCD workbook will tell you. I want to do right by the children so badly it aches. I’m afraid of messing up and making mistakes, but I know that embracing failure is an essential part of living a fulfilling and productive life. That knowledge doesn’t hold up well against the imagined flood of mistakes brought by a new school year.
A Teacher Identity in Constant Flux
The final explanation for my elephantine first-day jitters is an ongoing ontological crisis of faith. Propelled by an out-of-whack desire to improve, I try to inhale professional literature at a stupefying rate. I feel that I’m always on the verge of something. If I could just read one more book or post I’ll be able to better serve my students, I tell myself. But it’s never enough. Not only is it not enough, it’s not even that helpful. My brain can only keep track of so many theories and paradigms at once before throwing its hands up in revolt.
I remember an interview with musician Kirk Hammett about the dichotomy of practice vs. performance. The Metallica guitarist explained he approached his practice sessions with alacrity. He dutifully went through his scales, rehearsed disparate styles, and jammed with new players. But when it came time to make music live and in the moment, he preferred just to let it rip. He allowed the music to funnel through his fingertips without worrying about playing in a specific mode or genre. Learn everything you can, but throw everything out the window when it’s time to perform. This is how I want to approach the new school year. I’ve done my reading and studied the masters. Now it’s time to get out there and set it off.
Everything always turns out fine, of course. Better than fine I would say. I love my job and I love working with the amazing students and teachers at my school. I have a supportive administration that gives me the freedom to be a professional and run my class in accordance to my beliefs. Perhaps this is what I need to focus on as the first day draws near. I’ll celebrate past successes and look forward to future victories knowing that ground underneath me won’t give way. No matter what my ADHD and perfectionism say, I have to know that everything will turn out just fine. It always does. So for every teacher that’s already started, enjoy this moment! I’ll be watching from the side waiting for my turn to let it rip.
Thanks for reading!