“BUT THERE’S NOTHING GOOD ABOUT BEING FAT,” Chris ululated, tears amassing behind his eyes.
My 1st period was in the middle of a poetry activity when the outburst occurred. The lesson plan for the day was relatively simple. After watching a slam poet honor her mother’s refusal to downplay her Spanish accent, students were to brainstorm people, places, or things that they wanted to raise up. Who needed to talk back?
I gave a decent example using my ADHD, telling the class different ways that my hyperactivity and emotional sensitivity helped me as a teacher. Just like the mentor text poem, I told students that the point was to elevate and praise. If they couldn’t think of anyone, I recommended they choose themselves.
My spirit sensed the problem before my mouth finished the instructions. It’s really hard to figure out how some things can be positive, especially for adolescents who want nothing more than to conceal their differences. So when Chris yelled out, I immediately understood what I had just done.
There were only two options that I could see. I could redirect him to a completely different topic, or I could try to help him write through it. I kneeled down beside him, took a breath, and wrote “Yea, I’m big. So what?” at the top of his blank piece of paper. Start with this. See what comes next, I told him.
It was a huge risk because by supplying that first line I was essentially acknowledging that Chris was bigger than many of his classmates. I needed him to trust me enough to grab hold of my hand and let me guide him through the assignment. Thankfully he ran with it.
Other students weren’t so lucky. Some cried. Some had class-derailing breakdowns. Some just seemed sad. I had made a rookie mistake with disastrous consequences. I would have seen it coming had I spent more time thinking through the lesson before implementing it.
By the end of the day I was exhausted. I had intended to rework the core of the lesson before giving it to the second half of my students (my school operates on A/B block schedules), but a meeting ran late and I didn’t have time. I tried to do it after school, but the boys basketball team was having its last home game and I wanted to support the kids in something other than their language learning. I wanted to do it when I got home from picking my toddler up from preschool, but by the time I drove home changed the diaper took out the trash washed the dishes put the laundry in and cobbled together dinner, that was it. I wanted to do it after my kid went to bed, but by then I had nothing left to give.
That night I fell in and out of a fretful sleep until it was time to get out of bed and get back on my laptop to continue working. I could either try to fix the previous day’s lesson or get started on the next one. There was only time for one. I opened up a blank Google Slide, batted back the exhaustion clawing at my eyes, and began tomorrow’s lesson.
After all, a first draft lesson was better than nothing.
First draft teaching has defined my school year. It is a direct result of an exhaustion that lives deep in the marrow. Not every misstep leads to students crying. Mistakes like the one I recounted above coexist with piles of unmarked student writing, IEP narratives thrown together at the last minute, and instructional units that feel more like a random grab-bag of activities than a well scaffolded and sequenced whole.
I haven’t felt this pedagogically unsound since my first couple years of teaching. I need more time and I need more energy. Unfortunately I can’t just manifest these things into existence. I know I’m not the only teacher feeling this way because my social media timelines are filled with teachers saying the same things: this is not sustainable. We are long past broken.
The situation isn’t completely lost, however. It never is. As Rumi famously wrote, “the wound is the place where the light comes in.”
But what if there are no wounds for the light to seep through? Instead of stopping to take the time to perform a proper autopsy, we just keep layering on gauze. We’re left with an imbricate patchwork of broken systems and broken people, a frankenstein of disparate parts lurching forward towards some mythical moment when everything will be okay.
Regardless, I’m too exhausted right now for solutions. That’s not what this post is about. It’s about trying to use language to carve out a space to be unwell, even if only for a few hours. So I stab away at this dead skin-encrusted keyboard with the hopes that documenting this moment might facilitate some sort of alchemical transmutation, a process to render my banal exhaustion into something more generative and useful.
Because there is nothing to gain from exhaustion. It is anti-mindfulness. It is neither past nor present nor future. Sustained exhaustion locks me into a deracinated now, a mode of existence disconnected from history and context and progress. This makes it hard to see that what’s happening now with teachers and schools and students is an intensification, not something entirely new. It is an atomizing force that buries our obligations to each other, our selves, and the earth.
For instance: How can I find the time for school board meetings or work committees if I can’t even find ten minutes to look over a lesson before giving it? How can I serve my community if I can’t even serve myself?
As it stands now, I have no choice but to remain a first draft father, husband, son, and teacher for the foreseeable future. Again, there is always hope. I just can’t find it right now.