Middle-School-Teacher-Action-Figure & The Sky Beard Cloud God
This morning, heading out of the house, I caught sight of myself in our hallway mirror — my checkered button up beneath a light grey hoodie, sleeves rolled, beads around my neck (my malas that I sometimes just tell my kids are my “fidget” because it’s easier than explaining my newfound “spiritual path”), bright red, well-made, shoes-but-not-quite-sneakers on my feet, a canvas Mrs. Dalloway bag slung over one shoulder.
I looked, to myself, like a Middle School Teacher Action Figure (gay edition). And I guess that’s exactly what I am right now. I am a Middle School Teacher, so I must become the Middle School Teacher. Like water.
And like the Talking Heads’ song, I find myself often asking myself “how did I get here?” And this evening, as I was lying in my living room hammock (i.e. “my burrito”) beneath the weighted blanket a student’s enthusiastic review convinced me to buy, I realized, “the American economy, dummy.”
Marriage, yes. Duty, yes. Love of work and community and people and all that shit, but mostly how I got to the borderlands was the result of the good ol’ American economy and the many smaller expressions of the American economy’s decrepitude, immorality, inequity, and sometimes small mercies. While perhaps some of my early English, German, Irish, and French ancestors may have American-Dreamed (queue up some Ken Burn’s documentary-type-music in your head) of “The West,” I have found myself in “The West” incidentally, and luckily.
I wanted to be an English Professor at some little liberal arts college east of the Mississippi, and now I am an American Public School Teacher in Tucson, but this isn’t the fall from grace it may appear. This isn’t a Mr.-Holland’s-Opus-ian tragedy, I swear. This is some weird luck, and though weird (i.e. unpredicted by Younger Me) that I am where I am is “luck” nonetheless, and what I used to call “luck” I now sometimes call “grace” or just “God.”
And then there’s the American economy, which is separate from both grace or God.
Chicago was my homeland. I grew up a few miles outside of the city proper, and lived in the city itself for many years before realizing the whole adjunct game was a losing one. No full time position was coming. Didn’t matter how hard I worked (and I worked hard). Adjuncting was not sustainable if I wanted to pay the rent, keep the lights on, and maybe take an occasional sick day for being, you know, sick. I remember once weeping as I got ready for work, and crying all the way down Argyle to my Red Line stop in Little Vietnam because I was so-fucking-sick with a cold or the flu, but I had to go to work because I was an adjunct and a “no-work-day” was a “no-pay-day” and some months I had to choose between the gas and the electric bills. And this level of destitution with seven classes at three different schools, with a little paper-money help from my Boomer parents.
And while Milwaukee was never on my list of “must-live” much less “want-to-live” locations, I jumped at the chance for a full time teaching gig in that city that would afford me a salary, health insurance, and paid time off. Good thing, too, because three months after I arrived in Milwaukee, I came down with breast cancer. At that time (2010ish) the breast cancer was confined to my left breast and a few lymph nodes. Ten years on, November of 2019 (though I didn’t get a dx until January 2020 — via email, and yeah, I’m still “hurt” about that situation/correspondence), it reappeared in my chest and spine. And outside of pills, injections, exercise, a relatively decent diet, rest when I can get it, there ain’t too much else I can do about cancer so these days, when I get too scared, I give it over to my understanding of God. *
*I keep saying “my understanding of God” because I don’t want people who actually know me to think I’ve completely flipped and now believe in Sky-Beard-Cloud God. On the contrary, God, as I understand it, is not something you could draw — unlike Sky-Beard-Cloud God, who can be (and has been) drawn. And please no offense to readers who believe in Sky-Beard-Cloud God. I am not judging. The human animal’s understanding of God is a deeply personal, individual matter.
Adjuncting got me to Tucson. More particularly, the Academy’s* increasing corporate-style reliance on cost cutting cost countless Americans like me an opportunity to really contribute at the college/university level.
*By Academy — capital “A” — I mean American colleges and universities.
I was so broke by the “Adjunct Life” that I was willing to move to Milwaukee, and no hate to Milwaukee because it probably saved my life, too, but as a friend (and fellow former Milwaukee resident) and I concurred over the phone last night, “Milwaukee is where anyone not from Milwaukee goes off to burn off bad Karma.”
I went to Milwaukee for a difficult job, and then I fell in love, and left my difficult job in Milwaukee for Flagstaff where I had no job. And then I found a job in Flagstaff — one I absolutely adored — and stayed around until The Pandemic and cancer made “things” (too tired to be more specific, but if you are a regular reader, you know) impossible for me in Flagstaff. And my spouse and I weren’t exactly prepared, while dealing with the pandemic and my new cancer dx, to move out-of-state, so we moved to Tucson where she is from, where housing is a little less costly, and jobs a bit more plentiful, and just like it did in Flagstaff, the universe gifted me an interesting job at a special school in the borderlands.
The American Economy brought me to Tucson.
This is neither bad nor good (“but thinking makes it so”), and the reason I am harping here on the American Economy (a political machination, a force beyond my individual control or influence), is that it has governed my life, and left so many of us who are queer, female, under-fifty, and educated slightly puzzled. Like “where’s my property? where’s my money? and while we’re on the subject, where the fuck is my healthcare?”
And I don’t want to go on too much about this, because economics as a subject is boring to me, but I just wanted to point out my epiphany — in my “journey” (hate the ubiquitous application of that word) to guess at some of life’s Big Questions — that the wind that carried me from Chicago to Tucson, the wind-beneath-my-wings has always been the tumultuous fluctuations of the corrupt, broken American Economy, and more broadly Capitalism itself which I do intend to study on as I wish to dismantle it. And Capitalism, I feel, in my gut, Capitalism was really the first force to fuck my ancestors over, and we carry that first “fuck over” in our cells, too, whether we’re being fucked over or not. And currently, the only system truly fucking me over (and I suspect you as well, reader) is the American Economy, is Capitalism itself.
The school day ended with one of those tough moments that seem to be uniquely prevalent in all schools this year, as we try in our limited, adult human way, to repair some of the damage The Pandemic wrought unto children and their ways of processing and being in the world with other human beings.
Seeing I had a rough end to the day, one of my principals came by to give me a pep talk. “Lean into those skills, Gruber,” he said, and began reminding me of all the tricks and tools I already have. Like a good coach, which I think administrators must be for teachers this year: good coaches.
And for teachers, we must simply show up on the court and give our very best game. Try new ways. Stop pointing blame. Fix what’s broken. Move forward and onward.
Late this afternoon, in a classroom with tired kids, this Middle School Teacher Action Figure felt very helpless against the unrelenting, sometimes dark, often new forces that are now endemic to her beloved profession.
I wanted to be English Professor Action Figure again.
I wanted to talk about literature and language.
I wanted to write.
I grow tired, as all of us in education right now do, of redirecting behavior, of cleaning up (literal) messes, of enduring the profession’s many “whips and scorns” (I plagiarized that last bit from Bill Shakespeare — and this is totally not an ok way of creating and in-text citation, but I’ve been raising your kids all day so please give me a break on my MLA). It’s only November and I feel I’ve taught three distinct academic years already.
But on the other side of the coin is this picture.
I cropped out the children flanking me to the left and right (because their faces are in full view — we were outside and lax with the masks), but you can see their hands on my shoulders. They are smiling. Bright, beautiful, happy kid smiles. Some of that is because I am making faces, and saying things like “No, I will not buy you McDonald’s because I want you to live” and part of that is because we are all outside together on a truly, spectacularly, extraordinarily beautiful November afternoon in Tucson, Arizona of all places.
And in this moment, I was happy.
I was happy because the weather was gorgeous, and the kids were laughing, and two of them were fighting to be “Gruber’s body guard” as we walked the “mean streets” of downtown Tucson.
“Gruber’s small like a kid,” a kid teased. She was holding a plushie salamander to her chest, and I know the name of the plushie. I refer to the kid’s plushie by its Christian name. Who am I? I am small. I make funny faces for the benefit of young humans, and refer to stuffed animals (that are not mine) by their “first names.” Mostly, I am small.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a little Baldwin (when “we” can “focus”) in 6th & 7th ELA. We’re tying Baldwin into our Jazz/Civil Rights unit and for ELA we’re learning how to become better Close Readers and Close Writers.
Anyway, Baldwin spoke a lot about children and our responsibility, as adults, as Americans, to children. This morning, during a gloriously quiet prep hour, I reread Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” — delivered in 1963, and it’s still just as relevant (if not more so) to education in 2021. I plan to have my students read a tiny bit of the text, look up a bit of vocab, just to get a glimpse into the brilliant mind of an American adult who lived and actually gave a damn about the American generations that would follow his own.
That’s my problem, too. I care too damn much. And caring is good until it becomes a way of attempting to control what I cannot control. When I was in Ventura, sitting on the beach, staring at the sea, I kept thinking of my simple boat analogy, how I can steer my boat, but I can’t steer the sea. When I forget this, I get into a dark headspace. I stumble into worry, frustration, hopelessness. When I arrived on campus this morning, not unlike many other mornings, I was flocked by children greeting me (this is actually a really spectacular way to start a day, and I strongly recommend trying it sometime) and asking “Can I sit with you?” or another common question “Can I be with you?” The latter is Kid Code for “Can I sit in your office while you prep?” And I’m a sucker for young humans. Probably because I remember when I was a young human. I almost always say “Yeah. Yeah, you can be with me.”
the American Economy is the wind beneath my wings.
I don’t believe in Sky-Beard-Cloud-God.
Yeah, you can be with me.