Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rehearsals for retirement

I'm having a rough time. It's not a closely guarded secret. I'm sure you can tell just by glancing at my face. Unhappiness is leaking out of me. Here's my last five years, professionally: Unemployed. Underemployed. Back in school. Unemployed. Underemployed. Attempting to return to school again. Here's my last five years, family version: Aunt dead. Grandmother dead. Great-uncle dead. Other great-aunt and uncle in nursing home. Other grandmother dead. Grandfather dead. Other distant relatives and family friend dead. Can't get over my parents' divorce. Angry about it all the time. Thinking about family makes me want to start fires with my mind. Philip Larkin knew the score:
"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself."

I think I'll get that poem tattooed on my face. It couldn't make me any less employable. I'm box office poison.

Here's the story of my last two months, but I have to begin by going back three years. I went back to school then to be a high school English teacher. I wanted summers and holidays off to write and play music and stay up late and drink lots of beer and read and watch movies and go to rock shows and travel. I wanted a job with autonomy and impact and variety and necessity. I didn't know that both the state and federal government had turned public education into a giant, slobbering, idiotic clusterfuck of standardized tests, standardized test preparation, lockstep lesson plans, nochildleftbehindisms, and increasingly bureaucratic requirements. I'd heard people bemoan the extent of standardized preparation, but I thought they were exaggerating. They weren't. I didn't know that a sophomore English teacher at a particular school would be teaching the same book and the same activities on the same day as every other sophomore English teacher in that school, for example. Additionally, a well meaning but insidious Oprahfication was invading from within. Close reading, intensive writing, and group discussion is being tossed aside in favor of silly shit like poster making, dioramas, drawing, making a Facebook page for a character, etc., because some kids don't like to read and write and their "multiple literacies" need to be respected and encouraged. People look at me like I'm a Neanderthal Archie Bunker Sean Hannity when I express my concerns about the latter style of teaching, but I'm seeing kids in most of the schools I work in that can't even read at a sixth grade level. Between the "run schools like a business"/testing/test preparation/accountability bullshit from conservatives and the group hug/everyone is equal/no child should fail/if reading is hard, we should stop teaching so much of it/hippie nonsense bullshit from the dumb faction of liberals, kids are getting screwed. This screwjob is making them dumber, and dumber kids are more immature, and immature kids act like disrespectful cretins. In the early 1990s, which is not a long time ago, I went to high school. We took one standardized test at the end of the year. We read, we wrote, we practiced grammar, we talked, we discussed, we debated. We read. We wrote. My classmates and I can read and write well enough to function in everyday society. My English teachers had the freedom to pick their own books, write their own lesson plans, and create their own assignments. They could collaborate and share with other teachers if they wished, but they weren't forced to teach the same exact package as every other teacher in their discipline. Those days seem to be gone forever. This is not what I signed up for, and I don't want to do it. I no longer have any interest in pursuing this career, which is okay because there aren't any fucking jobs in the place I live anyway. That place is called everywhere on earth right now, 2010, but it's also called Austin, Texas, if you want to get specific.
Since last January, I have been substitute teaching at nearly every high school in the city. I don't why it took me so long to realize that this is an impossible way to live. The psychic damage of having to win over a fresh supply of teenage strangers every single day is possibly killing me. Some of these students are kind, sweet, funny, curious, likable, interesting, thoughtful, and intelligent. The others are hostile, cruel, indifferent, stupid, hateful, dull, angry, entitled, rude, violent, confrontational, lazy, and dishonest. Every day, I hear and see lies, demands, threats, mockery, racism, homophobia, staggering ignorance, apathy. I have to babysit a room full of emotional cripples with a pile of irrelevant busywork. I have to be an authority figure in a system that doesn't work, but I'm also a peon because I'm the daily hired help. I don't make the lessons. I don't see the kids every day. I'm a stranger. I can't build day-to-day relationships. I have no real way to impose order and discipline other than calling the office to remove a disruptive student. I have a lot of interesting conversations with kids. I hear a lot of funny things. I have a good rapport with the kids who aren't jerks, and I've been able to win over some tough classes and defuse some tense situations. But each day is always my first day, and too often I'm treated like a subhuman, like I'm something on the bottom of their shoe, like I work for them. I can't believe some of the things I see. Where do these kids think they are? I've seen a girl thrust her pelvis up and down while she was sprawled across the back of her desk, loudly describing the oral sex she'd received from her boyfriend the night before. When I told her she needed to return to her seat and change the subject of her monologue for something more appropriate, she looked at me like I was asking the most unreasonable question she'd ever heard. "Why?" she said, her lip curling up into a sneer. "It ain't your fucking business." I've seen a boy get a phone call from his mother in the middle of class and tell her in detail about the beating he was going to give to another kid at the school. He then laughed and shouted across the room to his friend that his mother told him to "whoop that little pussy ass bitch." I heard another student tell the class his mother died the previous day, but he wasn't sad because she was "a bitch who left his dad" and he hoped to one day "piss on her grave." One more? A student calmly and happily told the class about how he and his mother stole money and drugs from her ex-boyfriend while he was lying on the ground unconscious after an unsuccessful attempt at committing suicide by drinking Clorox. The schools where I make most of my money are a non-stop parade of misery, a 3D billboard advertising the dehumanizing effects of poverty and marginalization. Most of these kids will stare at their desks for the entire 90 minutes instead of doing any of their work. They leave without permission, they swear and yell and talk about their sex lives and their drug use and who they're going to fight.
I lost my temper last Friday morning while teaching a particularly awful group of kids. They refused to acknowledge my presence. They didn't look at me or stop talking when I gave directions, they were shooting dice and betting on it with real wads of cash, they were coming and going like they were at a strip mall, they were mocking me and calling me names. I called them assholes, told them they would be working at McDonald's if they were lucky, and that other kids their age knew how to act like human beings. That finally shut them up for a few minutes. I had no chance of making that room work after that, though. I lost my temper. When you visibly lose your temper in front of them, they have the upper hand forever. After their shocked silence ended, they realized they'd beaten me and went back to shooting dice. One kid yelled "Fuck this shit," and walked out. I hear you, kid. There are two schools I love, schools where I almost always have a good experience, where even the challenging days are just reacting to normal teenage bullshit. But most of my jobs are just babysitting, busy work, and misery and degradation.
The moment after I called a roomful of kids "assholes," I didn't feel embarrassed or shaky or excited or worried or any other emotion you'd expect. I just felt devoid of anything. This is my life now. I don't feel like I have any control over it, and I don't even feel like I'm participating in it. Here it is. It's this thing, this abstract thing, and I'm just standing over here to the side watching it. A few weeks ago, I started feeling aches in my joints, my back. I'd get home, do some work on grad school applications, sit in a chair or on the couch, and fall asleep. I'd wake up and it would be 5 a.m. I just kept falling asleep in odd places for odd pockets of time. I seem to be past that now. I don't know where this reunion with sadness is heading. It's a weird one. The other ones made more sense. I'm thinking about seeing a therapist for the first time. I'm not really comfortable with the idea, but I'm trying to give my wife a break by not keeping a running director's commentary of The Troubles of Me on continuous loop. I'm in a weird state of acceptance about the way I feel, like it might be permanent so I'll just step aside and let it do its thing while I sleepwalk alongside it. Maybe I'm fetishizing my own misery, keeping it going. If I could just live in that sweet spot between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon. I can keep the past and the future away on those days. I meant to tie this in with rock and roll and The Sopranos. I guess I'll have to write another post tomorrow. Maybe as sloppy and all over the place as this one. I'm afraid to go to bed. It's that job-hating thing. When I have a job I hate, which has been the case for most of my job-having life, I get stuck in this impossible situation at night. I stay up too late because I know that if I go to bed and fall asleep, I'll soon wake up and have to go to do something I don't want to do. If I just stay up a little longer, I can keep it away a little longer. But it's just stupid and crazy because I don't get enough sleep and I still have to go do that thing that's killing my soul, only this time I'm doing that thing with no energy and I'm tired and it's even worse because I'm so goddamn sleepy. Then I look at the clock and it's later and later and I turn into a deer in the headlights and I freeze and the car hits me anyway or it swerves and runs off the road and hits a tree, and the car bursts into flames, and it's not even a car, it's a mini-van, and there's a whole family in there, a mother and father and two little boys and two little girls and a couple of puppies and three kittens and a few hamsters and a bunny and an orphan hitchhiker they picked up on the road whose dream was to one day see California and the van explodes and the mother and father and kids and orphan and puppies and kitties hamsters and the bunny burn to a crisp in the mini-van inferno and all because I didn't go to bed at midnight like a sensible goddamn human being. I'm going to bed. To be continued.


Anonymous said...

Please tell me that this is your writing sample to Iowa. (If not, it should be.) -- AM

Anonymous said...

Dr. Mystery,

I work for an HMO -- I did not think anything could be more soul-crushing, but . . . my jaw has detached from my face. This is awful. I went through a like destruction of my life a few years previous, but those kids, that system -- not even a fool could hold on to any hope. I am sorry.

-Long-time reader and one-time mixed-CD winner Cloudhurler-

Anonymous said...

Internet Rando again --

Okay, I'm in love with you. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of love where I want to see you naked and do the buck nasty with you, because like you I really go for the ladies. But, I love you. You've painted some black-as-ass darkness but you don't realize that you just contributed something beautiful to my world, a world that you probably will never experience, but you have a palette that is heartbreakingly beautiful and true and all the cliches I could throw at you are true. You make another person who suffers in this world (namely me -- we all do) happier even though you are (and potentially because you are) angry and miserable. I don't want you to be angry and miserable. I don't know you at all and I've read maybe 2,000 words you've written but I know for a fact (and you know how hard it is to know SHIT about anything when you're depressed) you definitely don't deserve to be angry and miserable. You can create happiness, wonder, and even beauty from despair, and that's a magic act of which few are capable. Take some goddamn pride in yourself, man. You're worthy of it.

--Internet Rando