In my first back-to-school anxiety dream, we have two days left in the year and the seniors must complete a research paper so that I can use the data for my evaluation. I sign out the computers by using a stick to scratch their names onto the side of the machines. This isn’t very efficient, I’m thinking, but, in my panic, no other option presents itself. We only have two days! No time to worry about school property!
So goes the longest Sunday night of a teacher’s existence: August.
The thing is: I like my job. Love it, really. (The part of it, at least, that happens with my students. The state and federal mandates, the superintendent’s vision, the new superintendent’s vision, the principal’s goals, the new principal’s goals, the principal’s revised goals — those I can do without.) But on the cusp of completing my second decade in the classroom, I still sleep poorly every Sunday night and the entire month of August.
One year, I sat at my desk in Burlington after Day One, which used to be (blissfully) a half day where we met briefly with each of our five classes and then sent them home to cover books while we prepared our classrooms and lined up at the mimeograph. So great was my dread, that I walked down the hallway to my friend Kathy’s room seeking solace.
“What’s the matter?” she said. She sat at her desk, peering up at me over her reading glasses, her hand marking her spot on the newspaper article she had been reading, as calm as if this was the final day in June.
“Do you ever think you just can’t do it?” I asked. “That there’s just too much material to get through even though you’ve done it before?”
The two of us taught British Literature which covered roughly nine hundred years.
“No,” she said. “Never.” The she returned to her reading.
Kathy was not, is not, cold. In fact, during the ten years that I taught in Burlington, she was my confidante and mentor. But she was experienced at teaching (and, possibly, at denying a few of the things that cause any human beings some discomfort).
Once upon a time, I had a job where nothing was required of me, where I sought to fill my days with some activity that made me look as if I was busy because there really was no work to be done. It was my first real job. I got to take the T to work and go shopping in Downtown Crossing during my lunch break. I had to buy nice shoes to tuck underneath my empty desk for eight hours a day before I slipped out of them and into my sneakers for the walk back to North Station.
“How was your day?” my roommates would ask, and I would have no response.
Sunday nights, however, were still torture. How could I go back there and pretend to be busy? For how many more hours could I stare at my blank cubicle walls, a folder of old memos opened before me in case anyone peeked over the partiction at me? What if, god forbid, we had something to celebrate and got summoned to a mandatory Sunshine Party? I started calling into work sick on Mondays, a pattern that became recognizable to my not very observant boss (who also did nothing, but who didn’t seem to fret about it). When he asked me to explain myself, what could I say: I can’t bear it here? I can’t stomach how little purpose so many hours of my day have? I had a business card!! Someone had to teach me how to put calls on hold on a phone that never rang! So I told him I really was sick and, when he asked me to bring him a doctor’s note as proof, I somehow produced one. It should have read: Diagnosis — Acute Lack of Purpose.
But those days of idleness exist now only in the museum of myself.
As I have said, this September marks year twenty in the classroom for me and it is a busy place. My August nightmares never come true and those first day (or so) jitters don’t haunt me any longer. Perhaps some of my younger, more overwhelmed colleagues view me the way I viewed Kathy that day, with fear that I was alone in the universe, with envy.
But these days, I understand why Kathy could stare down those first hours of the school year, could squelch the panic that threatened to suck up the final joys of summer: she wasn’t thinking about teaching the way I was — with seating charts and lesson plans and revised tests. Instead, she was thinking about teaching the way English should be taught. She was looking forward to discussing great literature with great kids.
Because, despite my night terrors, that is — and I am very grateful for it — the job that fills my very busy days.