Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Grind

I have spent the last two weeks trying to catch up on my stacks of ungraded student papers while watching my meager retirement savings slip away. In both cases, time is of the essence: some of the papers go back to the first week of September; at this rate of loss I will be able to retire in forty years when I will be 84. These are bad times. Not the worst of times by a long shot, but bad nonetheless, and there are some disturbing harbingers of the misery to come every day in the news.

After two weeks of solid work, I am not even close to being caught up on those papers, and probably never will catch up.

Because I read for a living, I sometimes have the urge to vegetate. I want to just sit somewhere and stare off into space, or watch people, or simply go to sleep. Fatigue is a huge problem right now. By the time Friday rolls around, I am nearly unconscious with fatigue. Driving is real fun, as you might imagine.

There is no chance to vegetate, no rest for the weary. The papers and the lessons cannot wait. So I push on. Here is my plan:

I have decided to focus on one set of papers each night. Rome was not built in a day, or, insert your own cliché here. That is what I will do: one set per evening; one set per weekend. With the exception of this weekend: I will do two sets because I have essays from the seniors from September, and I have their first drafts of application essays for college. Both must be done by Monday. So this weekend, I will deal with two sets of papers.

I also must write lesson plans for the next two weeks, and review all the readings and assignments for five different classes.

Oh, and I must update the blog.

Saturday, my grandmother-in-law turns 92 and I promised my wife I would barbecue for everyone.

Time to make lists and prioritize. I am constantly making lists and prioritizing.

Given the choice between reading and grading papers, and reading and rereading texts for class, I would rather read the books. I also believe that although there are many ways to cover yourself as a teacher, being unprepared is inexcusable. I always prep for the next day’s lessons first. Then, if time allows, I’ll look at some papers. Being prepared to teach is imperative because nothing fails like dead air in a classroom with twenty minutes of class time left on the clock. Yes, preparation is key.

The other problem I have is that the administration is requiring more and more paperwork that adds nothing to teaching. Just today, I was given a seventeen-page handout to complete when I observe a teacher in my department. The administrator who gave this to me does not teach a class and has the time to write a seventeen-page handout for us to fill in when observing our teachers.

Where does this paperwork lead to better teaching?

To be a good teacher, one needs luck, talent, hard work, and preparation, for teaching is a craft, and one must study and practice the skills to perfect the craft, providing one has talent and ability.

In addition, a teacher must have security and stability in order to do the job well. In these trying times, there is no stability and security anywhere in the world. We are all operating by the skin of our teeth. We are a nation of distracted, worried people, and it shows, from our erratic driving to our pained faces. We are in trouble.

Like the literature teacher I am, I look for solace in books, in the wisdom and towering intellect of writers. God knows, the economists do not have any wisdom to spare these days.

Dante places the greedy on the fourth circle of hell in his Divine Comedy. These sinners must constantly push heavy weights against resistance from other sinners. In illustrations of this scene, the weights take the form of a gigantic wheel or huge bags of money that burden the sinners.

I think for those CEOs and CFOs floating to earth on golden parachutes this is hardly enough punishment. Drawn and quartered—that is my idea of punishment. And to keep pace with Dante, I would have them reassemble themselves each time only to be drawn and quartered again.

In the twenty-one years I have been a teacher, I amassed $35,000 toward retirement. It would have been more, but the archdiocese conveniently lost my paperwork after I left their employ. They have no record of my four years as a teacher at a Catholic school.

In the last month, I lost $7000 of the $35,000. From polling my friends about their 401Ks, I got off easy. I also have another twenty years to work, giving my portfolio time to recover, I hope.

As we heard in the news this week, the people who are retiring in the next year have the greatest problem. I worry about those people, like my colleague, the science department chair, who wants to retire at the end of this school year. I have seen him in the halls, smiling, talking to students. He seems fine, and I haven’t the heart to ask him how his investments are doing.

Then there are the darker stories, like the man who killed himself and his entire family last weekend in Porter Ranch, California, just a few miles from my school. He left letters indicating he was wiped out by the downturn in his investments. He felt the only way his family could avoid shame is if he took them all to the afterlife with him.

All of this leaves me feeling like one of Thoreau’s men of quiet desperation. I count the empty houses on my block every night on my walks with Stone. The signs are everywhere: public auction. As a headline in one of the smaller, less developed nations of the world’s newspaper trumpeted: “This is how the first world nations fail!” Except the crisis only began in the first world nations; now it is global, affecting everyone.

So the stacks of ungraded papers remain, looming over me like a caustic shadow. The quarter ends in a few weeks.

I cannot tell a teacher “You are doing well,” or “You need to work harder at classroom management,” without filling in seventeen pages of fruitless paperwork.

The season of autumn calls. The leaves are beginning to turn, even here in southern California. It is the perfect weather for high school football on a Friday night, for a smoky barbecue, for a good walk, or a good nap.

There are books to be read and life to be lived. But in what feels like the twilight of the empire, we must simply keep plodding on. As our world economy crashes and burns, there is no turning back. Time moves in only one direction.

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