I was at Panera last Friday. On campus at The Pennsylvania State University. Sipping black, acidic coffee. Working. Trying to work.
I had a meeting in the afternoon. Two meetings, actually. And more meetings after that. So I took Solomon to the bus stop, drove to campus, bought coffee, took out my laptop, and stared at a screen. I had about three hours before my meetings. So many tasks that I should’ve made a task list. Didn’t know where to start. So I made a task list. Then I stared at it. Felt a little overwhelmed. Checked my email. Checked my task list.
I’m drinking too much coffee these days. Trying to conjure some energy. To tackle task lists. Does coffee help? Maybe. Makes me anxious. That’s for sure.
I opened some files. Articles. Revisions. Powerpoints for class. My promotion and tenure documents. My calendar. My email. One thing after another thing. I looked up from my screen. I was surrounded by college students. The table next to me was getting rowdy. At 8:35 in the morning.
“I got so wasted last night,” I heard a girl in sweatpants say to a boy in sweatpants.
“I’m gonna fail this test,” the boy in sweatpants said to the girl in sweatpants.
I put in my headphones. Music for Airports by Brian Eno. Tried to ignore the sweatpants. It was difficult. Her nose started bleeding. And it wouldn’t stop. She thought she was dying. But then her nose stopped bleeding. She wasn’t dying after all. Glory, Hallelujah.
You’d think my house would be a quieter place to work. To write. To make my way through a task list. Oh, kind reader, would that were the case. No, I’m afraid Solomon and Samson don’t allow for any peace and quiet in our house. Music for Airports by Brian Eno? More like Pantera. RIP, Dimebag. RIP, the death metal of my youth. Welcome, the task lists of adulthood. That would be a cool name for an album. The task lists of adulthood.
My phone rang just as I settled into working on a revision of a manuscript. A manuscript I can’t figure out how to work on. The area code was 651. That’s Roseville, Minnesota, friends. Home of the Roseville Raiders. Not to be confused with the Oakland Raiders. Or the Los Vegas Raiders. No, this is the mascot of Roseville Area High School. The place where I taught English and Drama for eight, formative years.
I figured it was snowing in Minnesota again. It often snows in Minnesota. I’ve technically been on a leave of absence for the last five years, so I still get automated messages about school closings. I let it ring once. Then twice. Then I decided to answer. Because I wasn’t doing anything productive, anyway.
I waited for the robot to start talking. But it didn’t. Just silence.
“Hello?” I asked tentatively.
“Hello?” A human voice asked tentatively.
It was a tentative conversation.
“Is this Sam Tanner?”
It was Human Resources. Roseville Area School District.
“Did you receive the letter we mailed you on January 28th?”
I hadn’t. I told her as much. She kept talking.
“We need to know if you plan on coming back to Roseville Area School District next year.”
I paused. Of course I didn’t plan on returning to Roseville. To my previous life as a high school teacher.
The leave of absence had been my safety net. Made it okay to leave home, take a pay cut, and try out being a professor. I have mouths to feed. And my years of service as a high school teacher made it possible for me to hold onto my job. For five years. But five years were up. Time moves quickly.
And there I was sitting with enough stress and anxiety to swallow a mountain. Going up for tenure. Thinking about my career. My future. Agonizing over manuscripts. Balancing a schedule. Being a dad. Being a husband. Being an improviser. Being a creative writer. What am I, Lord? What should I be doing with my short time on this planet? In this body? How should I handle the countless emails and asks that keep piling up? The work? Some of it meaningful, lots of it menial. Inside was screaming, howling, and gnashing my teeth.
Something like this went through my head when the woman on the phone asked me if I were going back to Roseville. Going back to being a teacher. Going home. I didn’t scream or howl or gnash my teeth. Solomon or Samson might have done that. God Bless them. I said the only sensible thing that a faithful man might think to say.
I’m getting better at understanding me.
There’s the possibility for all sorts of narcissism in the previous sentence. In all my first-person writing. Navel gazing. Yuck. But I have to say, I’ve had plenty of awful interactions with people who don’t seem to understand themselves. People who lash out at others. People who judge lest they be judged. I’d rather error on the side of figuring me out.
I know what happens to me when I get overwhelmed. When I drink too much coffee. When I’m signed up to do too many things. I get irritated. Agitated. And it becomes harder for me to do all the things I’m doing well. Or healthily.
I’ve got a history spreading myself thin. Getting caught up in the game of all the things I’m doing. And then I lash out at people. Get annoyed about things I usually wouldn’t get annoyed about. Don’t act kind.
I need time alone to process being alive. To catch my breathe. Sometimes that’s playing video games. Sometimes it’s reading. Sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s this blog. Is it selfish? I probably need to give myself permission to be selfish once in awhile. That’s so much harder than it used to be. I’ve got two boys. A wife. Friends. Colleagues. Collaborators. People I love and care about. I want to honor them. But, and this is a lesson I’ve learned any number of ways, I’m no good to people when I’m screaming, howling, or gnashing my teeth inside. No, I’m a real jerk.
Last week I wrote that being a high school teacher left me little time to pay attention to, and I quote, “my my own needs as a living and breathing (for the moment) human being.” At this exact moment in my life, I feel the same way about being a college professor.
Look, folks, adulthood is hard.
I taught Hamlet for years. In a former life. A life that is over now.
I love the moment in Act 3, scene 4 when Hamlet forces her mother to gaze at her navel. No defense mechanisms. No wit. She’s finally honest. Hamlet is no therapist. But he might be a teacher when he finally confronts his mother. Certainly, there’s something pedagogical in his speech that leads Gertrude to say this:
GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, speak no more: / Thou turnest mine eyes into my very soul
This quote always make me think of what Richard Wright writes at the end of his memoir Black Boy, another book I taught in a former life. Wright resolves, at the end of his book, to look squarely at his own life.
I think it’s probably one of the most important things a person can do. Turn their eyes into their very soul. Look squarely at their life. Know themselves. There’s all sorts of ways people avoid knowing themselves. A sense of humor. A couple beers. Demonizing others. So many ways to hide from what we are. So many ways to make it about somebody else. To avert our eyes.
These blogs help me look at myself. Writing does, too. When it’s real. And I try to be real in my writing. Which makes revising academic articles a chore. And writing fiction difficult. It’s hard for me to get lost in playing the game of genre. I know I can do it, but I try to avoid being fake. Whatever that means.
All of this is to say this. I’m officially not a high school teacher anymore. And that makes me sad. And I’m officially spread too thin. And I know I’ll survive. And I’ll probably be fine next week. Probably by the time a post this blog. But this moment feels like an overwhelming moment. Ma Nishtana.