It’s not just a couch; it’s a sofa, too
I remember my first year teaching at Fenn—and it was really my first stint as a true worker with responsibilities outside of what I already had in my wheelhouse—and on this day, some twenty something years ago, I could hardly move. Every Columbus Day weekend for as long as I could remember we (gangs of friends and I) would head up to Stinson Lake in New Hampshire where my family had a cottage, and I had my usual agenda of mountain climbing, fishing, or even a last sail on our Sunfish around the amazingly pristine waters on my bucket list for those three days.
But this weekend came to be known as the “weekend of the couch.”
All I seemed to be able to do was sleep. Denise, who was not yet my fiancé, and our pack of friends, seemed to have a ball, but all I could do was wave goodbye or say, “I’ll catch up with you later…” But I never did. I put my head back down and slept, literally, for three days. The mental wear and tear of being a teacher had caught me off guard, for somehow the seemingly mundane lists of things to do never seemed to cease—and I was the shop teacher! I think I would have melted or imploded if I was trying to do what I almost naturally do now. A terse letter then from a parent would have me agonizing over a politely worded response. A student upset with a grade, or a mean friend or teacher, would have me scouring a book of psychology for a solution.
This new job was not as straightforward as singing four hours of songs in a pub, cutting down eight cord of wood, sailing through a storm, setting stones or banging nails in winter cold, finding myself alone and broke in some distant corner of the world—all of which had been a big part of my life until that first fall of teaching—and so I laid myself down to rest as I had never done before, all because being a shop teacher was the toughest job I had ever tried to tackle. That endless stream of enthused boys aged nine to fifteen had done what no other job had ever done: exhausted me simply because they energized some part of me that must have lay dormant for the entirety of my adult life—and at that time I was thirty-five years old for God’s sake!
But now I am fifty-six and have been teaching ever since, more writing and reading than shop—and it is still as hard and exhausting as ever, but in a different way. Even last night—a Friday night—I stayed up until one in the morning reading and commenting on my student’s blog posts and journal entries. I read reams of essays about Walden and Tom Sawyer. I listened to their podcasts and watched their video’s and tried to pen a few words of real praise for every effort they made over the course of the last week, and it reflects a massive amount of effort on their part, but for me, tired as I was, it was not a big effort that drained me; moreover, it was more a celebration of the joy of being a teacher, and I woke up this morning “psyched” to continue what is now a rhythmic cycle more in cadence with the seasons than a Sisyphean effort to push an irregular boulder back up a slaggy, barren mountainside.
It is this way because I work in a place that gives me structure and freedom in equal doses. My bosses never hang behind my shoulder and nitpick my constantly evolving curriculum; my parents don’t scrutinize and dissect my motives, and my co-workers laugh with me, bitch with me, and work just as hard at our collective mission as teachers, as if there is no other way. It is by no means a “dream job,” but my school is a place that allows me to dream as deeply as we hope our students dream. Granted, The Fenn School is a rarified community backed up by an enormous cache of accumulated wealth and uncommon worldly success, but when stripped of these trappings every class is simply a group of kids being asked to do what each of us teachers feel he (it is a boy’s school) need to do, and whatever pressure I feel as a teacher is counterbalanced by an academic freedom that deflates that pressure, and so I wonder if this is an approach that just works for us or if it is a reality that needs to be—or at least could be—emphasized in every school, regardless of wealth, opportunity or standing.
If each classroom becomes a family, then every teacher will respond in ways that transcend the trivial; if every school becomes a community that pulls together through the thick and thin of the vicissitudes of the year and places trust in teachers and students, then maybe (I’d say probably) the first six weeks of school won’t put anyone on the couch.
It’s time now and always to climb that mountain with free and joyous motion.