I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Cincinnati, wearing my Bob Marley shirt that says, “Every little thing’s gonna be all right” and hoping for the best, hoping that this weekend is the beginning of a healing process for me. I like to think of myself as a free spirit, but lately I’ve been feeling trapped in a cage like the cats at the zoo, the ones I want to free, but that I know wouldn’t leave their repetitive motions they’re accustomed to. If they did leave, they’d probably make their first stop the Corby drive-thru and eat me. I feel like Sylvia Plath’s overly used and frantically clichéd sentiment from her book: I am in the bell jar.
My job, which I thought was my vocation, brings me no solace, no fulfillment. Most days I would say my students are the joy of the job. The problem is increased expectations for no increased pay and no increased respect. Every week it seems as if we’re asked to do something new, something which seems to be trivial or meaningless. Every week it seems as if a freedom we once had as educators is stripped away, usually unceremoniously through an email or another impersonal means of communication.
Education is not merely filling up a brain and calling it knowledgeable. Education is experiencing joy and learning and critical thinking together with other learners, trying our best to find truths and grace and beauty in the world around us. That sort of teaching (ask Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to name a few well-respected educators) is not measurable by standardized test. To the great standardized tests, I say, “Fuck you!” while rising up in the cafeteria to stab them with my plastic fork.
I have decided that I need to find a job that uses my body and a different part of my brain for awhile. I’m struggling again to keep up with teaching and writing my dissertation. I’m still not entirely sure I can finish this dissertation, but I will be so disappointed with myself if I let this moment, this opportunity (blessing) slip through my fingers. And, I’ve already seen some pretty sweet post-doc fellowships and opportunities for when I finish. Maybe this is my two-fold problem with teaching: I don’t think all good learning (or most good learning) comes in a classroom, and I love to learn. I need my body, my mind, and my soul to function and learn as one unit. My self hungers for cohesion instead of fragmentation. I feel broken. I feel lost. I feel overwhelmed.
This brings me to this weekend. I took two days off of school to come to a conference and to catch up on my grading. But what I have gotten is the reaffirmation that I need a change. I need to move from education to something else. I needed healing form the abuse that educators receive. I am apparently too tenderhearted to persevere through it, or perhaps as one of my seminary professors said to me, “You will never make it in an institution. You’re too cynical. Too idealistic. Too hopeful that people will do the right thing. That’s not bad, but it makes hard to turn a blind eye to institutional injustice.” Thanks, Tim Dwyer, why didn’t I just listen to you in the first place?
I know I seem like a baby, because there are so many greater injustices than anything I experience, but I find I can’t even care about those or think about those, because I am so busy just being (stuck) in my job that puts my roof over my head. I don’t seem like a fighter or an activist, because I am too busy whining about and feeling trapped in my own situation that I can’t even tell you the last time I tried to help someone else. I didn’t even know my own partner was sick because I was self-absorbed. This is not me. I am not this person. I don’t want to be self-absorbed, but right now I feel so fragmented and broken, I can’t see outside my bell jar. The sides of the jar have been painted with an opaque silver paint that only reflects back my own fractured image to me. See? More self-absorption, but at least today I can write about it. I am sure this is, in part, because of the concert I went to last night.
Usually I don’t really like a choir concert. In fact, I made fun of my friend Amy, asking her to show me her jazz hands on the way to the show last night. She’s in a choir called MUSE here in Cincinnati. Let’s just say I was very skeptical about what I might experience at her show. I’ve been to many choir concerts, and most of them have been pretty superficial and more than slightly performative. As I watched MUSE warm up, I began to feel a small spot of my hardened heart become more tender. Mind you I didn’t open up to this warming all the way, nor did I open myself fully to it. I just sort of tried to ignore the fact that what I had prayed and hoped for was happening. I was being blessed. I was being shown peace, hope, grace, beauty, and love, and the concert hadn’t even begun.
By the end of the concert, I was radiating with love. Maybe it was the rousing rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” sung as a spiritual. Maybe it was the Gullah stick pounding and hand clapping bringing freedom to the sanctuary. Maybe it was the guest director giving us permission to claim spirituals as our own. She said to the congregation, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt alone. Abandoned? Misunderstood? Disenfranchised? Spirituals move us because they speak to the human condition, not just the African American condition. We share a history. Spirituals are our story, the human story. Spirituals are for you.” And then I felt the healing really begin. The healing wasn’t magic. It wasn’t instant. It still isn’t complete. In fact, it’ll be a long time coming, but at least I am on my way.
As I drove home today I had a renewed sense of peace. The peace wasn’t perfection. I don’t feel like a changed woman from four days of friend therapy and singing a few spirituals. I still feel like I am at the bottom of a dark, dark hole. But at least today, I could see the bucket swinging from its rope up there at the top of the well shaft. I think I felt like the main character of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and Pendulum” when he gets the idea to let the rats gnaw the straps off of him so he can escape the guillotine, like there is an end in sight, but that it’ll be kind of gross getting there. Frantic, but hopeful; trapped, but nearly free.
I spent about an hour or more with Bec simply sitting on the porch tonight. I felt somewhat at peace and somewhat connected. Given the past two weeks, I am not sure I can ask for more, but I can have hope that things will continue to get better.