to my dearest class of 2020

I’ve had these words penned since your last day of classes, and I’ve been waiting until the day of your graduation to share them with you. Alas, since then, there have been so many words of wisdom bestowed to you, and what I have to say is nothing in comparison to some of the assurances and hope that leaders and celebrities have given you. I want to encourage you take it all in; hear it all; soak it up. The world is wild in brand new and terrifying ways, and you’re gonna need all the wisdom you can gather. And you’re not doing it alone; we’re with you, alongside you, rooting for you. (And figuring it out with you, too, to be quite frank. What day is it? What do real pants feel like? Will I have to wear them again? What if I don’t want to? How do you work a projector?)

Today you were supposed to hear your name called as you walked across the stage, decked in that grape-soda purple (or that fiery red from CV or black or whatever other colors there are at Elizabeth and Valor and Regis and Rock Canyon and… I don’t mean to leave y’all out, but my heart is purple, you know that). Your biggest worry was probably the weather—would there be rain, snow, or sunshine this year? No where in those options did we give the universe a choice for “global pandemic.” I repeat: NO. WHERE.

That music, your friends and peers, waving at your teachers beaming at you. Scanning the crowd for family and loved ones. Maybe you’d perform at the ceremony or give a speech. And when it came time to turn the tassel, you knew who you were going to rush to first, who you’d thank, who you’d hug! Hugs—real ones, like six-feet-less-than-six-feet-apart hugs. Photos. Cliché grad-cap-shaped confetti. Purple and black streamers. THE WORKS.

Or maybe none of that was even a thought; maybe you were just grateful to see your name on the list of graduates, to celebrate a moment you’ve been striving toward for four years. Maybe your celebration would have been small or nonexistent, but damn, you were happy to be walking across that stage anyway. At least you had that, you thought. Despite the stress and mess of the last four years, you thought, at least there was this.

And let’s be real: right now, some of you have more pressing worries than a postponed graduation ceremony. A loved one is sick, your dad is a physician, your mom is a nurse, you’ve been working full-time while trying to pass your classes, you’re taking care of your siblings or your parents. Maybe money is tight, or your parents’ business had to close, and–well, you’re worn out. And darn it, you worked hard for this, and now you can’t walk across the stage while a crowd of people SEES you, HEARS your name, and can say alongside you, “Yes, you did it! Despite it all, you did it!” Forget the party and the gifts–you just wanted this one moment.

I’m here to say alongside you: “Yes, I see you! Yes, you did it! Despite it all, you did it!”

So many of you have made the best of this because you are resilient and resolute and determined. You have a joy and a brilliance that I won’t soon forget. Selfishly, I wish we could be celebrating together because your joy and energy is contagious. (Y’all, I’m so annoyed. I had hoped to hug you, to hear your stupid jokes one more time. Sign your yearbooks. I wish I’d known the one last times were one last times.)

I have known some of you for years. Like, since your awkward middle school days—that many years. You have made me into the teacher, lifelong learner, mother, and human I am today. I have cherished watching you grow and learn. I had the privilege to teach some of you, to see you perform at assemblies, to watch you play, to see you sing or dance or act, to see you lead, to hear your names announced for awards. You destroyed room 215 during AA and ate lunch in my room, You made swords out of my Expo markers, hid my supplies on high shelves where I can’t reach them, stood on my desks and stuck your head into the ceiling tiles to see what was up there, and made weird Spotify playlists on my computer when I was out of the room. I discovered random inappropriate images on my chalkboard wall and white board too many times to count. Somehow, you hit your heads on walls because why not, and bounced my yoga ball off of one another. We laughed at the stupidest jokes. You asked for relationship advice, shared with me your heartbreaks and your joys, your failures and your successes. Some of you even have a growth chart on my wall, tracking your growth from your freshman year. I shared with some of you my father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, and you said, “No! I’m so sorry, Mrs. Faletra,” and you meant it.

There’s more. Indulge me while I tell you and the world what you’ve done for me.

As sophomores—my second year of teaching—you pushed me to my limits and pissed me off and made me grumpy and ignored my instructions and asked dumb questions. But you also challenged and encouraged me and made me laugh, which is the greatest gift. You did stupid things, and I told you they were stupid and hoped you’d one day figure it out. I trust you have, or I hope that you will. (You know better than I which of those two statements applies to you. I am still and always will be rooting for you.) You taught me how to start each day anew, and you showed me how to toe the line between mercy and accountability and that maybe it’s okay to err on the side of mercy from time to time.

As juniors during my first year of teaching AP Lang, somewhat in over my head, you smiled and laughed with (and at) me. I was pregnant and nauseated all hours of the day and probably definitely a little super-extra-weird and scattered, but you were funny and gracious, obnoxious and brash, authentic and eager—and some of the most brilliant, kind, and profound people I know. I’ll never forget the conversation we had after the STEM shooting tragedy; the room was quiet and heavy, and you trusted me and one another enough to be vulnerable and honest about the world, about its violence and your fear and our grief. It is a defining moment for me as an educator, a mother, and a human being. And it’s one of the things I reflect on when I hear people bash your generation; man, they don’t even know the magic, might, and moxie that you have within you. You humbled me and made me proud all at once.

I had a small number of you as seniors this year. But you confirmed what I already knew: there is a hope, an effervescent energy, intention, and momentum in so many of you that invigorates the stale dimness around us. The world is not ready. NOT READY AT ALL for the scholars and thinkers and artists and politicians and writers and athletes and teachers and doctors and nurses and more who are about to shake it to its core. And heaven almighty, do we need you. You give me hope. (And sometimes you terrify me. Y’all are weird and nihilistic and absurd.)

Be good people who do good things. Make mistakes; learn from them. Do more good; make more mistakes; learn; repeat. Because, y’all: to be human is to try, and trying is heartbreaking, backbreaking, uncomfortable work. Face all of paradox and mess head on—the nonsense and the knowledge, the fear and the certainty, the mediocrity and the wonder, the lies and the truth, the danger and the comfort, the struggle—and even the grief and the joy, which often go hand-in-hand. You’re not going to feel ready for it. None of us do.

But as our friends Elsa and Anna say, just “do the next right thing!” And then the next. And the next.

And when it all feels too much: rest, breathe, and reset. When you screw up, say you’re sorry, mean it, make it right, and try again. Then you’ll do it all over again. If there’s one thing I hope you’ve learned, it’s how to make mistakes, to say you’re sorry, and to get up the next day to try again, self-aware and sincere. I made many, many mistakes in room 215; I can only hope I was mindful enough to admit them, apologize, and try again.

Class of 2020, I love you. You have been a light and a joy for me in some dark and solemn moments. It was never your job; I never expected it. But whether you knew it or not, you encouraged and buoyed me when I needed it most.

I will always remember you fondly. Keep on being bright and luminous, authentic and funny, ridiculous and absurd, and willing and real.

Thank you. I don’t know what else to say.

Except that I miss you already.

When February hits.

Today, I said these words to one of my classes:

I cannot care about your education more than you do. Not anymore. I cannot carry your education–all 25 of you in this class–on my back while you bear none of the load. It is exhausting. You have to care just a little bit. You have to start carrying some of the care, too, some of the work. I’m glad I scheduled work for you to do independently because I’m not sure I want to stand up here in front of you anymore today.

Melodramatic, perhaps, but here we are. I said it, quietly and calmly, in my squeaky, nasally, congested teacher voice, emphatic hand gestures and all. And I meant it. I truly am quite tired–tired of feeling and caring and carrying so much. Not that I’m going to stop. But the fatigue is undoubtedly there.

I have all these grand ideas about teaching kids. I have these expansive conceptual plans, these statements of inquiry, these activities and some differentiation and intentional scaffolding. The students will learn how to analyze literature, and they will write with impeccable grammar, and when I teach them, they will be inspired to love learning, and–and yet, on the daily, I am met with the reality of my job. 20-30 students. And their stories. And their struggles. And their sufficiencies and inadequacies, confusion, fatigue. And their fears and doubts and apathy and angst. And I’m just me.

I have all these grand ideas about the kind of wife I want to be. The kind of friend. The kind of daughter. The kind of Jesus-follower. The kind of writer. Reader. Homemaker. Artist. And lately I’ve been feeling the heavy weight of just in, “I’m just me.”

Just me. I am just me. I am not any of the things that I wish I could be–the ever present, ever reliable, social and outgoing, giving and generous friend. The present and giving, supportive and selfless wife. The dedicated lover of art and the written word. The writer of words that expresses herself in meaningful, redemptive ways. The Christ-follower that champions truth and justice and mercy and grace and meets needs.

And don’t even get me started on teaching.

(I’m told we all feel like shitty teachers for the first few years; great. I have a long few years ahead of me, I guess.)

I feel so utterly inadequate to meet their needs in the way I feel called to, in the way I need to. How can I  give them the education they will need when I hardly know how to plan my lessons or curriculum? Do I have the brain power and knowledge it takes to teach them well, the social energy to get to know them, the emotional capacity to love them? When they move on to senior year or junior year, what the hell will they have learned from me? Do I have what it takes to be the teacher I want and need to be?

Yes? I mean, I surely hope so. I care, so maybe that’s enough for year one.

But they get to me from time to time–the students, I mean. I don’t let them see it, but I’ve been hurt by them before. And I get angry with them. Their incessant phone use irks me to no end, and the the way they flippantly ignore their work, the way they interrupt me or ignore me baffles me. Beyond that, I fall short in so many ways, and I can’t help but wonder if I’m failing them; I don’t grade their work expediently because I spend most of my time planning what I’m going to teach them that I don’t have the time I need to grade what they turn in to me. I don’t communicate as clearly as I would like. I’m inconsistent in enforcing classroom norms and policies. I’m not strict enough with behavior, but maybe I grade too hard. I’m too much this, too little that. To be honest, I’m not sure this paragraph will ever end; I think I could write a novel cataloging my type and severity all of the insufficiencies that plague my perfectionist mind.

Eh, it is what it is, and truth be told, I know this disillusionment and depression will pass, but it sucks when it’s here. I’m stuck here for a bit, and I just have to ride the wave. I knew teaching would do this to me; it’s one of the reasons I hesitated entering the profession for as long as I did. Can my mental health handle this? Am I mentally strong enough, despite the anxiety, despite the depression, to push through the inevitable triggering of emotions and still be a good teacher and more importantly, a healthy person? A friend? A present wife? And in the future, a loving and mindful mother?

I caught the respiratory bug that’s going around, so I was out on Monday. It was the head-cold, sure, but it was also the crippling depression and heavy anxiety that left me falling in and out of crying spells–the blinding, meandering kind that never really truly resolve but just sort of… Halt. It was like I was wringing myself out. A long, painful process that was cathartic and clarifying and much needed.

“It’s February,” I’m told. “The students look miserable, but it’s not because of you,” I’m told. “Don’t take it personally.”

Harumph. “Oh, I’ll try not to,” I say, knowing full well how that will probably go. (Cue eye roll here.) Sometimes I think my depression and anxiety make the “not taking things personally” stuff a bit harder for me–not to mention my personality (perfectionist, people-pleaser, peace-keeper, high-achiever, obsessive, sensitive…)

I told Nick once after a particularly depressive and anxious day of teaching, “I feel like this career makes more sense for someone without depression and anxiety. Teaching would be just a bit easier if I wasn’t weighed down by my own mental shit.”

Nick laughed. “Pretty sure everything in your life would be a bit easier for you if you weren’t weighed down by your own mental shit.”

I found it oddly comforting, really. In a way, it was an acknowledgement of the day-in and day-out battles I fight against myself and my own mind–of no true fault of my own. And it was also a challenge for me to accept, like he was saying, “Yeah, but what good are ‘easier’ things? They don’t make you stronger, and you’re gonna be tough as nails after this!”

Tough as nails, maybe, but not indestructible. But truth is, I’m never going to the completely unflappable, impenetratable, indomitable woman that is unaffected or unperturbed by the pressures around her, no matter how much I try to posture as such or how much I want to be. I’m simply not. And part of me is really bugged by that. My job is going to inevitably affect me in big ways.

But maybe there is a strength in being affected and allowing yourself to heal from that affection. And maybe, when February hits, you let it do its worst, but you come back swinging whenever you can.

(But really, though, when is spring break?)

these days.

These days, there are swag days, days when I could not care any less about the shenanigans students pull. Days when their eye rolls, sass, and whining, their muttered comments, and their eagle-eye ability to notice all my mistakes don’t mean a damned thing, days when their attempts to ruffle my feathers merely make me chuckle. Days of swag when I’m able to trust that what I do in the classroom is important and effective, that what I do makes a difference, that what they think of or say about my teaching means little to me as long as they’re learning. Days when I march through my door with a stack of goals and notes and lessons and activities and a go-get-’em, yes-we-can swagger, and I don’t listen to the wailing and the whining. Days when I am not thrown off by apathy or anger or angst. Days when I don’t for one second take it personally when they roll their eyes as if I can’t see them. Days when I laugh when they say, “This is so boring!” and simply retort, “Sucks, bruh!”

And these days, there are other days (read: today). Sheepish days. Uncertain days. Murky and muddled days. Walking-through-mud days. Falling-on-my-face days. Anxious, timid, tumultuous, affected days where it takes every ounce of my mental energy to dispel the fears that I am not enough. That they roll their eyes because they don’t trust my expertise. That they scoff and whine because they don’t respect me. That they misbehave because they hate me. That they think I’m a joke, that my class is a joke, that I make no sense, that they don’t get who I am or what I’m about. That they see right through me and somehow have decided I nor my class are not worth their time or effort. Days when their jokes about my “boring class” cut me to the quick, and it takes all that’s left within me to dam up the emotional waters. I’m trying, I want to say. I’m doing my damndest to teach you, to help you, to engage and enthrall and educate you. Please just meet me half way. But I can’t beg. I won’t.

I am a perfectionist. I am sensitive. I am intuitive. Standing in front of a room of 30 kids can feel like drowning in swirling sea full of creatures and shadows that careen to and fro, demanding I take notice of them, appreciate them, see them, acknowledge them, understand them. I can’t help but try to process and make sense of them–the emotions, the attitudes, the affects, the scoffs, the eye rolls, the placid and tired expressions. Where are these kids? How are they? Am I doing something to make this worse for them? What can I do to make it better? Where am I in all of this?

You can safely guess that I have more other days than swag days. I have more days consumed with being “the best teacher they’ve ever had” than I care to admit (because it makes me seem selfish, self-centered, and proud). And today I am painfully aware of all the things I’m not doing as well as I would like to be, all the things that have fallen off the wagon along the way–the students that I am not reaching, the students that are not understanding, the accommodations I’m not implementing, the emails I’m not sending, the grading I’m not doing… the list goes on. I am painfully aware of the handful of kids in 8th period who don’t listen to a word I say. I am trying not to be hurt by the mutters of, “This is bullshit,” when I hand out information about their final. I am trying not to take it personally when a student rolls in late for the tenth time in a row and just scoffs when I ask him to sit down without disrupting the other students. I am trying not to interpret every little thing I see and hear as a sign that I’m doing something wrong to allow these things to happen.

Sometimes kids are just kids. Sometimes kids being kids is not my fault.

So I gently whisper to myself between sips of red wine and nibbles of dark chocolate (what am I, a perfume commercial?): It’s year one. The first year I’ve had a classroom full of 25-30 different minds and backgrounds and emotions and fears and joys and scholastic experiences.

The first year I’ve been responsible for their learning, their reading, their writing, their growth.

The first year that I–and I alone–have had to worry about the kid who was sick all last week getting caught up while also teaching the kids who have been here so they’re not bored while also handing back work while also getting ready for the fire drill while also redirecting 5 students’ behaviors while also answering a question while also trying to stay on topic while also trying to be personable and calm and composed and poised and funny and accessible and dependable and clear and accurate and eloquent while also trying to remember what my lesson entails while also trying to not be affected by the emotions and the tensions and the stresses and the expressions in the room that might very well have nothing to do with me or might have everything to do with me while also pushing aside my own thoughts and emotions while also paying attention to what I’m saying and doing.

The first year that all their successes and all their failures might be thrown right back in my face–for better or for worse.

The first year that every work day is personal as much as it is professional.

But. It’s also the first year that is hard in the only way that year one of teaching can be hard, and exciting in the only way year one can be exciting. It’s the first year that I get up every morning and follow the breadcrumbs of my calling and purpose to Room 215. The first year that I’ve felt my depression and anxiety as I always do but haven’t been crushed by it. The first year I’ve not had to call in sick because of depression or a panic attack. The first year I’ve received a paycheck that left me with enough extra to put some into savings.

The first year someone’s left a note on my desk that says, “Mrs. F. is my favorite teacher.”

The first year I’ve decorated my own classroom for the holidays.

The first year I’ve been able to say, “I’m a high school English teacher.”

And while I am not the best teacher they’ve ever had, nor am I as good as I want to be, nor am I the best I can be (yet), I must look back and realize that this time last year, this was just a pipe dream. This was a distant finish line at the end of a very long race.

And here I am now. Sitting at my desk in my own classroom surrounded by Christmas lights and a white board with a daily agenda and a stack of grading in front of me and a student who apparently snuck out of his 5th period class to “go to the restroom” but actually just wanted to come say hi to me. (Don’t worry–I very promptly sent him back to class.)

Here I am, (somewhat) in charge of my own classroom, and the place hasn’t burned down yet.

Progress is progress, right? If ever so (seemingly) slow.

journal entry | sleep.

I haven’t been sleeping.

Oh, this happens from time to time, but my familiarity with it doesn’t make me any less frustrated when it shows up. I’m sure it’s stress, I’m sure it’s anxiety, I’m sure it’s depression, I’m sure it’s the pain in my muscles and joints, I’m sure it doesn’t really matter what it is because I just miss sleeping.

Nevertheless, here is where I am, and here is where I’ll stay until the loop closes itself up and I’m back to the part of the cycle where I sleep a bit better, where I’m in a bit less pain. Or maybe this loop will never close up again. I don’t know. I’m always wondering if this will be the time when the loop never closes back up, the time when it is no longer a cycle of pain and flared unhealth but a consistency of it. I don’t know. I just don’t. There’s so much I don’t know.

And the questions I have don’t have answers. Perhaps I need to get used to it. But: I want so much more than a month or so of feeling good. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. But maybe it is. Maybe I’m presumptuous. Maybe I’m missing the point entirely.

I am. Maybe I should ask what that point is and actually listen for the answer. I ask all these questions about my future, my health, my life, my body, my mind. Me. Me, myself, and I.

Or maybe the point is that there is none. Sometimes things just are or are not, just exist or do not exist, happen or do not happen, heal or do not heal.

It’s logical, but sad and wrong, how easy it is to become selfish when you don’t feel well. It’s so easy to close in on yourself, to lock up. To say no to going out, to say no to community and friendship even. It is easy to say no to letting people in, to letting them see you and know you. And it’s hard to stop smiling and laughing and maybe let them see you cry, and it’s exhausting to step outside of yourself, to forget about the pain you feel so intimately and truly and persistently and to wear someone else’s pain.

I’m reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and in it, she says,

“When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.”

Bad things have happened to people I love. Of course! And I have felt for them. With them, even. I know how hard it is to love someone who is in constant pain. I know how difficult it is to see them walk like there’s broken glass underfoot, like there are brambles woven into their skeleton, like their muscles are made of rusted iron, like their mind is made of different stuff.

I’m also afraid sometimes, late at night when I’m trying to sleep or perhaps early in the morning when I wonder if the day will be better or worse than yesterday, that I know how difficult it is to experience those things firsthand. So I often I wonder if, when I see them if I am seeing my future. I wonder, is this how my loved ones will feel when they see me? I wonder, is this how my feet will move, my mind will churn, my hands will swell, my body will burn? And I wonder, is this how my children will look at me and wonder?

Perhaps the point is, since I know how hard it is to love someone in pain–or rather, or and, how hard it is to see a loved one in pain–

I am afraid to be the one in pain that is hard to love, the one whose pain pains others. I’m afraid to be sick and to be loved in all the ways that might be shown because I know. Because out of all the things I do not know, there is one measly sad truth that I do know: I know what it’s like on both ends, and it is work.

Maybe I’ve swallowed the empathy I feel toward them and made it about me again. Maybe I’m not really wearing their pain to share in their suffering but to process my own personal baggage. Probably the latter. It happens involuntarily. I don’t try to make their suffering about me, I swear. But it’s easier to imagine myself wearing their pain than it is to process what I see when they wear it. Let’s see, does this joint pain justify my sleeplessness? And this depression–does it match my inability to get out of bed in the morning or have consistent, intentional conversation with the people I care about? What of this fatigue? Does it work with the general malaise I already have? How would I wear this out to the store? To church? With my future children?

Me, myself, and I. Is that empathy? Or is it projection? Or even worse, is it a hijacking of their hurt? A filibuster to reframe and revert their experience?

Leslie Jamison also writes,

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”

Maybe trying their pain is not empathy. Maybe wondering about my future with their pain is not empathy; maybe it’s burglary. But this burglary of experience feels sensical to me as I live with earlier versions of it. If I am well on my way to sharing the experiences anyway, why not try them on for size first, see how things feel, acclimate myself to the textures and structures? It’s logical.

Logical–but that doesn’t necessarily mean good or right or kind or loving.

It’s logical, but sad, how easy it is to become selfish when you don’t feel well.

I spend much of my time self-preserving. It makes sense that I would preserve emotional stasis.

Logical, but sad, and not always good or right or kind of loving.

Mom tells me that I turn into Spock when my emotions threaten to overtake me. Yes. I do. It’s only logical. It only makes sense to resist that which exhausts or empties us.

But not always good or right or kind or loving. I’m still learning what it looks like to take care of myself and also take care of others. To fill my cup but also let it spill over. To surrender to the intense need to retreat from time to time but eventually remember to put myself back out there. To need a good friend while also being a good friend.

To go to sleep at night but be willing to wake up in the middle of the night, pack my bags, and leave my worst self for my better. And then maybe go back to sleep.

But the problem is, I haven’t been sleeping in the first place.

journal entry | there is no calm before the storm.

Last night, in what must have been a preemptive effort, I made a list, as I often do when I can’t slow my mind down.

“I feel so restless,” I told Nick as I opened up the Notes app on my phone, furiously adding tasks to my to-do list. He didn’t reply; I’m not sure what I expect him to say–but he rubbed my back and kissed my forehead, which is more of a cure than anything else I’ve tried.

What really happens is that, as I make these lists, I tell myself that I will feel better if I can be productive enough. That the more I achieve and accomplish, the more okay I will be.

(Which is a lie, of course. It’s a non sequitur.)

The anxiety is gnawing at my insides today. It’s in that respect that last night’s list was preemptive because I know by now that a night of restlessness is generally followed by a day of pit-in-the-stomach anxiety for me; it was my best effort to make an inevitable morning less damning. It’s like what happens before a hurricane hits–you throw some sandbags on top of one another, you fortify and support this and that, you stock up on food and necessities. But then you must wait and see what kind of storm will hit.

My lists are my sandbags, my boarded up windows, my stockpile of non-perishables. They don’t prevent the storm from hitting–hell, they might not even prevent the wind and water from creeping in–but at least I’m somewhat ready when it does.

I woke up with the familiar feeling of fear and unease that was so faintly foretold, but I did my best to go about my day anyway.

Let the dog out. Shower. Brush my teeth. Drink tea. Turn on music. Try to eat some breakfast. I even crossed off some of the tasks on my to-do list before suddenly collapsing on the couch, heavy and frustrated, eyes blinking back tears. Here it comes.

That’s when all I can do is lean into it and wait for it to pass.

I can feel it all hitting me–the jagged fear, the blinding uncertainty, the queasy churning of my stomach, the intermittency of tears and sadness–and I am overcome with a need to prove myself to myself, to interrupt these feelings of inadequacy and anxiety with evidence that I am measurably capable of accomplishing something. Anything.

It’s all a lie, really. Crossing things off my to-do list feels good, sure. I feel accomplished, productive; the perfectionist in me is quelled for a time. But all I’ve done is bury the fear with some sort of temporary anxiety-analgesic. The storm will still hit; I will still have to feel it.

There are times when I am full of fear and singed with self-doubt, and there is not much method to the madness other than that. So I make methods of my own.

Step 1: I turn up the music a bit louder, and I let the beat of drums or the thump of the bass, the tightness of harmonies and the strumming and plucking of strings recalibrate my insides.

Step 2: I check off some of the tasks on my to-do list, establishing some sort of rhythm and structure of my own for my body and mind to follow.

Step 3: I also stop and sit, searching for any sort of quiet or simplicity to affix myself to, to observe, to appreciate.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 as needed.

It’s not a cure; I’m learning nothing is. But it’s something, and something is better than nothing.


journal entry | Today’s meaning is–

“We force life to mean because we are alive and not dead.”
Eric Maisel, The Van Gogh Blues

Life is game of meaning-making.

It’s a game in which the rules change, day to day, moment to moment.

Some days, like today, I win by immersing myself in work that is immediate and purposeful, in thoughts that are healthy. I go grocery shopping; the meaning there is easy to make: we need food. I update my resume; the meaning there is: I need a job in the fall.

Some days are game-changers, and I lose on those days.

The psychotherapist Irvin Yalom speaks to the game-changing moments: “How does a being who needs meaning find meaning in a universe that has no meaning?”

Translation: how can I find motivation (meaning) to get up in the morning when there is no external motivation (meaning) to get up in the morning, and how can I self-create motivation (meaning) when I am uncertain that I have the raw materials to do so? When I am almost certain that the world is made up of matter that does not matter, how can I assert that I am any different?

Some days, we are empty. Depression is a slow leak, a hissingly sinister removal of energy and joy and contentment, confidence, serenity, and self. The laws of physics, of science, of the empirical world tell us the truth: our finite humanity cannot make something out of nothing. The laws of faith, of theology, of God, and Creation, Jesus, and the gospel tell us the truth, too: the infinite divinity of the One, Alpha & Omega did, in fact, make something out of nothing–a rather grand something out of an original and desolate nothing–and His fingerprints linger.

So. Do we surrender to the void that depression offers, the nothing it has made out of our something? Or do we choose to believe the universe is churning and burning with meaningfulness? Do we resolve to notice the fingerprints of God, these speckled, freckled, pied points of meaning?

We do our feeble best to choose the latter. We do our feeble best.

Monday, March 7th, 6:53 am: Today’s meaning is being coaxed from hiding with the promise of a warm cup of coffee that I will sip slowly, siphoning for meaning in every atom of taste because I simply cannot be late to work again. Today’s meaning is: good employees show up to work on time, and I am a good employee, so I must show up to work on time. Today’s meaning is the transitive property and a cup of coffee.

Tuesday, March 8th, 4:45 pm: Today’s meaning is a paradox. I am at once thankful and burdened by the work day.

Thankful, because for 8 to 9 hours, meaning envelops me; I need not exhaust myself trying to make it. Each hour, 23 or 24 or 25 bundles of energetic, humanoid little fingerprints of Divine Meaning surround me; they say my name, and I answer, and there is cosmic–and all other kinds of–balance. What do you need? is my voice’s answer, but my soul whispers, Thank you for meaning; thank you for making meaning. I teach them. Subject, verb, object–semantically, grammatically complete. Today’s meaning is semantic, grammatical. 

Burdened, because I feel lost and numb at home. I know that as soon as sleep comes, restlessness will follow, and then the morning, and then work, and then again, the fatigue and numbness that feels much like a void. Climbing the same mountain day after day feels less like a worthy feat and more like the curse of Cartaphilus.

Wednesday, March 9th, 7:13: Today’s meaning is loneliness. Today’s meaning is by my self. Today’s meaning is, then, self-care. Today’s meaning is acknowledging the darkness of it all so I have no excuse but to turn on the light.

Today’s meaning is a warm bath, a decent work-out, and the intentional choice to feel.

Thursday, March 10th, 6:05 pm: Today, meaning peered down at me, two inquisitive eyes of the bird in my backyard that was strikingly blue, a sapphire atop a grey sky, deadened brown grass, leafless trees–a colorless afternoon. I gasped. It flew away. I cried.

Today’s meaning trumpeted in a phone call from my mother and father. It announced itself in my own thought: How did she know to call? It came oozing out of the words my mom said when I picked up: You’ve been on my mind. What is going on? It seeped out of me like a feverish sweat as I told them, Hope seems foolish, and so do the words, “It will get better.”

Today’s meaning was nourished by angry tears, invigorated by a splash of cold water, and framed by the reminder, I am lonely, but I am not alone.

Friday, March 11th, 1:02 pm: Today’s meaning is to prove to myself that I can do it–it being the next minute, then the next, and the next, and the next. Today’s meaning is mind-trick over matter, a placebo of meaning to tide me over until some true, cataclysmic, prescribed meaning comes. The pharmacy is fresh out.

Saturday, March 12th, 9:34 pm: Today’s meaning is presence and pressing on, the pressing of formless thoughts to the synapses to the fingers to the keys to the formed words. It is presence and engagement in the consciousness of the human mind, the will to create and make. It is the opting for life in all its simplicity and mediocrity and ho-humness, in the aisles of grocery shelves, the satisfaction of a car wash, the eating of a meal, and the utter miracle of the inheritance of our aliveness being the burden and beauty of our consciousness.

It is life and being alive.

“. . . presence is a dance, not a meditation; an engagement, not an emptying. Being present . . . is being intentionally present for the sake of reasons you deem meaningful.”
-Eric Maisel, The Van Gogh Blues


If I’ve Taught

Teaching middle school students is exhausting in every imaginable and inconceivable, unpredictable way. Rewarding, never boring. But exhausting. You use every trick in the book on Monday, and your classroom is mischief-managed as a Mary Poppins Sunday School, and on Tuesday, you use all the same tricks, and Minion One squirts Minion Two in with a water bottle, spilling water all over the floor while you’re teaching them about theme, tone, and mood, and then he’s the one to throw a terrible-two-year-old style hissy fit when you and your mentor teacher say they can’t keep the bottles at their desks anymore.

“This is so stupid!” Well, we’re in agreement there, dear.

And you’ll try to remember Love and Logic and all that “pre-frontal cortex isn’t developed yet” crap, but you still catch yourself (too late) saying harshly and rather loudly, “It is not my problem that you yahoos can’t handle the basic privilege of a stinking water bottle, so don’t put this on me! It’s your issue, not mine!”

Some time later you remember to unclench your teeth.

They didn’t do so hot on their last grammar test. Maybe it’s them; maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s lack of learning, lack of teaching–or it’s apathy.

“I can teach you how to diagram a sentence, but what good does it do if you don’t care about your own learning?” I say.

Maybe at the end of the day, I can’t make a buncha hormonal and disoriented seventh and eighth grade kids care about nominative pronoun case or whether the -ing word is a gerund or a adjectival participle. I try my darnedest anyway.

They need to learn. I tell them that. I need to teach. I tell them that. But what do I hope they learn? And what do I hope I teach, between the laundry list of state standards here and demands of showing growth and data there? Past perfect progressive tense? Sure. How to articulate theme by hashtagging the literary work first and then turning it into a sentence? You bet.

But. There’s always a but. (Side note, don’t say stuff like that to middle schoolers or they’ll never come back. Also, avoid the number 69, the phrase, “Just do it,” and NEVER mention the whip, the nae-nae, or the quan. Netflix and chill is off-limits as well.)

If I’ve taught students anything these past 5 weeks of student teaching, I hope it’s that (1) they damned sure better have high expectations and standards for themselves and others and (2) they damned sure better extend both grace and consequences to themselves and others when the standards aren’t met. All is striving; all is grace. Life is striving; life is grace.

It’s a delicate balance, but a worthy one. And when you’re a hot mess and can’t quite put yourself together, you get up and do what you gotta do anyway, and you choose hope and honesty and humility even if despair and deceit and pride are the easier pills to swallow. And you say sorry when it’s needed, pick your battles carefully, and you treat people with respect even if they drive you bonkers, and don’t you ever call someone stupid, but if you slip up and say damn it, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you.

One student thanked me for never assuming the worst in her and her classmates. I said thank you to her for doing the same for me. I think all they want is to be heard, to be respected, and to have great things expected of them. They rise to that occasion more often than not. Other times, you want to smoosh their adorable, enigmatic faces, and I’m not gonna lie, I’m smugly satisfied when I hear, “Guys, angry Mrs. F. is so scary.” I’m stuck somewhere between being the kind of teacher that lets students breathe and be while they learn while also being the teacher that demands respect. I honestly am not sure how to be both. I’m not even sure I know how to be just one or the other.

So I ask, “How come you zip your lips for her, but when I ask you for the zillionth time to shush, you keep on yammering on and on?”

Usually, they say something like, “Well, so-and-so scares me!”

Hrmph. I want to be scary. But I also don’t want to be scary.

This teaching thing is tough and existential and weird.

For all the times I’ve told them, “I am weary of your continuous choice to behave this way,” and, “In what realm is this behavior acceptable?” and, “None of us can be at our best when we are working against one another like this,” and, “I am struggling; is this hard for anyone else?” and “I want you to know I go home every day wondering how I can be better for you tomorrow,” I hope what they hear is, “I am for you, not against you,” and, “You are capable of more,” and “Whatever I expect of you, I expect tenfold of myself, and when we both fail one another, we both come right back the next day and try it again, and that’s what really counts,” and, “We’re only human, but we should try to be more anyway.”

Teaching is such a beautiful, chaotic kaleidoscope of a calling, and there are snares, bindings, and traps that catch us and trip us, making us forget why we chose this path. I have wondered if I have made a terrible mistake. I have called my mom, crying, “There is no way in hell that I am cut out for this because I am too weak, sick, scared, incapable, uncertain, depressed, anxious, fatigued–” you name it. I have been slapped in the face with the reminder as to why I dropped the education program in my undergrad: my body was exhausted and sick.

Truth be told, I have both inadvertently and intentionally (at times) let students see me as I fall, which means, too, that they watched me get back up and nurse my wounds and keep on marching. Because the spirit is stronger than the body when you’re on the path He has paved (or rather, left unpaved) for you.

(Is this why Robert Frost is in our poetry curriculum? Am I to learn alongside my students that the road less traveled makes all the difference in the economy of the soul?)

As one student said, “You can’t truly know good without evil. You can’t know what light is like without knowing what dark is like first.” Yes, honey! I am so glad you have that wisdom at such a young age–and I hope your knowledge of the light is more extensive than that of the dark.

I hope they know they are capable of both the terrible and terrific, that their propensity for the widest range of emotions and thoughts and fears is a beautiful and powerful thing, that they are worthwhile, obnoxious as hell, and they’ve exhausted and emptied me in all the best and worst ways because their souls and lives are imbibed with so much purpose, and I bear the burden and privilege that I am allowed to intersect with their journey along the way with great severity, consideration, and joy.