Claire: We Are Not What We Do: Joy vs. Grading

Yesterday, I ran a 5K race, and I did it in 25:34. I was aiming for under 27 and secretly hoping for under 26, so I’m happy about the results.

Did you hear that? I’m HAPPY! Catch it while you can!

my new runners!

My new runners

Today, I took advantage of daylight savings and took a leisurely late afternoon jog around my neighborhood, stretching a little beyond my usual 5K route just because I felt good. The tops of my feet are not hurting as much anymore because I broke down and bought new shoes, these Nikes, and I feel like I’m the brightest part of the country roads as they drip and drab their way toward spring.

My only real challenge right now is managing the bubbling anxiety rising from the stack of ungraded papers sitting on my desk at work. They’ve been there for about a week; they sat there on Friday when we got an unexpected snow day, and they mostly continued to sit there today, which was my “easy” day at work where I only teach one class and have one duty period. I did grade, but I only got through six students worth of work. That’s six out of seventy, but who’s counting?

I am. I am counting.

Grading is the toughest part of the job because it takes me so long; collecting a new stack is like watching a blizzard drop its drifts and deposits on your driveway. Each paper, like each snowflake, is unique and beautiful as it falls, but it will still take hours of labor to shovel your way through the dredges of a snowflake pile-up.

I know all the advice on how to make grading more manageable, and none of it works for me. I’m frustrated and irritated and am frankly past talking about it. Now I just brace myself to be miserable at least six times during the year. I can handle all the other stuff–the short exercises, homework, quizzes, projects and tests, but the papers? UGH.

This all brings me to this New York Times opinion piece, “Is There Life After Work,” by Erin Callan. Callan writes about not being able to find balance between her work and the rest of her life because the boundaries were eroded over time. Her description of spending time on Sunday “organizing…to make Monday morning easier” is very familiar to me. Also familiar is the fact that once this pattern became well entrenched, she “did not know how to value who [she] was versus what [she] did.” As she says, “What I did was who I was.” This is all so familiar to me, in fact, that it was somewhat painful to read this article, and especially painful to know that Newman shared it with me because he recognizes me in it as well.

I know what it means to be too close to your work, to be wrapped up too tightly in what you do (ego) as opposed to who you are. Eckhart Tolle famously warns against this in The Power of Now, but it’s easier to agree with it than it is to avoid it in practice. Tonight, at dinner, when I shared a success story about my freshman class with Newman, he responded with well-meaning comments that I had great students this year, and that next year, it could be different. I was immediately sensitive, immediately ready for battle. We argued, eventually getting to the place where I could explain my sensitivity. It takes a lot for me to acknowledge good things in my working life and to take even an iota of credit for them rather than ascribe them to whimsy or the stars, and I felt like he was puncturing my victory with reminders I certainly didn’t need.

I don’t want to always feel this sensitive. I want to feel secure in my work without feeling so secure that I relax and become a crappy teacher who doesn’t do much other than to walk around thinking she’s fabulous. I worry about the balance a lot, so much that I end up feeling miserable a lot of the time. I don’t really want to be miserable. I don’t want to just try to suck it up for 10 months of the year and 10-20 more years of my life. Callan describes how younger women admire her for “work[ing] hard for 20 years [to] spend the next 20 focused on other things,” something she says she wouldn’t wish on anyone.  She admits that a life with more (real) balance would involve sacrifice– “I don’t think I could have ‘had it all'”–and she writes with hindsight, knowing it would have been better had she scratched out her boundaries more clearly.

This is a lesson I’m struggling to learn: how to do this now so as not to hate parts of my job, or parts of myself by extension, because I don’t know how to separate it from the rest of what I do (and who I am). Newman is religious about leaving work at work. We struggle sometimes at home because I am trying to make the working day easier by getting ahead at night and on the weekends, and it is a reminder to him of what he is trying to put away.

It’s hard to admit it, but I know that my inability to separate work from the rest of my life was a factor in the demise of my marriage. Not the main factor, but one of many. It’s not something I want to carry into this new relationship.

So here I sit with a victory: I did not work on the snow day or the weekend. One result of this? The happiness with which I started this post. On the other side of the victory, however, is the anxiety of the grading and the fear of failing to be a good teacher. I picture the instructor at the AP institute I trained at one summer telling me that if it ever took me three weeks to return a set of papers to students, I might as well throw the whole batch in the trash.

He might be right. However, I think he was also a jerk (nay, worse, an arse) to say it…and then to leave his (mostly young female untenured stressed-out with multi-prep course-loads) audience stewing about it while he went to play bocce for the rest of the day.

I have to get to the place where I can live my life (and enjoy it in all its fullness) and do my job well. What I’m learning, though, is that maybe I just need to do my job well enough. As Newman said, simply and beautifully, “the thing about our job is, there’s always more to do.” He’s right, of course, and so it’s up to me to set the limits and punch out at the end of the day and the end of the week. If I don’t, I will totally resent everyone and everything when I go back on Monday.

The success story I told Newman about over dinner? It was just this: I walked into my class this Monday morning and walked around for a moment, trying to make eye contact with as many students who would return it and to ask how their weekend was. One young woman watched me circle, and when I landed in front of her desk, her eyes lit up as she greeted me with genuine joy: “Hi! It’s been so looonnng since we’ve seen you!” She was right; the snow day had followed a day where I’d been out for a conference, so I hadn’t seen her since the previous Wednesday. The success story, for me, was that this student (one who I probably would not have formed a connection with in past years) was sincerely joyous to be in English, and I was equally glad to see her and her peers again. It had nothing to do with our curriculum, but it did make it a little easier to tackle Shakespeare knowing that we weren’t all hating things as much as we could have been.

Life shouldn’t be as complicated as I tend to make it. The life I have is not full of hardship; it’s not an endless struggle, despite the fact that Kristen R. and I routinely claimed that (ironically, of course) as our mantra all through college. I need to get my sense of humor back and to not take things so damn personally. And I need to punch out more frequently.

˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚KHP Art Below˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚

KHP - I used to step on these when I was little and watch the spore cloud plume into the air.

KHP – I used to step on these when I was little and watch the spore cloud plume into the air.

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5 Responses to Claire: We Are Not What We Do: Joy vs. Grading

  1. Kristen R. says:

    First, I just need to say that your 5k time is worth some major bragging rights. I don’t think I could do that, despite all my running, so well done, Claire! B/c I am slow, I tend to go for the longer races. Distance over speed. But speed is something I plan to work on during this crazy year of running.

    Second, grading was my least favorite part of teaching. As a former English teacher, I can attest that our subject requires lots of writing assignments — and that means we’ve got to read all those papers. It took up so much time! I remember piles of essays on the floor of my old apartment.

    Finally, I think you should (ironically and swoonfully) say three times this week: “My life is an endless struggle,” and think of all the laughs we had saying it in collge — over pizza and beer, or during Mardi Gras, sharing a bucket of crawfish. Makes me miss you and N’awlins now…

  2. wwwmama says:

    Oh my god, what I would give for a bucket of crawfish right now

  3. khpixler says:

    Claire, I am equally impressed with your time at the 5k and I don’t think I could pull that time either. I understand your struggle with work and life, I have never had a balance and each year I think that it will be over soon. I like to think my best work life balance was when I was teaching high school but in truth I just liked the work more. I wonder if big families breed workaholics or could it be our irish blood or it might just be the state of affairs of modern society. KR always seemed to have a good sense to turn it off or she may have just been faking:) Ironically, I leave you tonight to go grade more midterms:)

    • wwwmama says:

      We are in the same boat. I’m going to keep working on turning it off so I can come back to myself more frequently. I beat myself up for not always liking my work, but it would be great if I could stop wasting energy on that kind of thing.

  4. Pingback: Claire: Show, Don’t Tell | Making It Daily

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