Monday, June 8, 2015

Panic and Progress/Little School Stories One



Last week was such a fruitful one—my poetry class’s book release party produced such a special and heartening collection of poems, I got to go on the local radio station and read from my own poetry book, I even got to visit a friend at her family’s lake house and float around in a paddle boat looking at water lilies and goslings while catching up.

But underneath all the wonderfulness was an inexplicable (okay, actually very explicable) panic. Twice at the bookstore I was working in benign but enclosed spaces and felt the hot dizziness sneak up on me. The music felt too loud and my vision went swimmy. “Sorry I’m a little bit out of it, I panicked in the T-shirt closet” is not the least embarrassing thing I’ve ever said.

I’ve been having bad dreams about school, of the principal observing me and calling me out for mistakes, of having a double class plus a baby to take care of, of having to translate Urdu on the spot. I dreamed of a flying, broken house coming at me with a beautiful black and white drawing (the kind you see on paste-up street art) of Ganesh on the side. All of this means something and nothing. Though life is doing an amazing job of moving me forward on its own, I felt trapped and stuck, blocked in a way I always think I should be able to solve.

I’ve had this sad mentionitis about school, like the “This one time, at band camp?” girl except with failure and trauma. This makes me feel like the conversational angel of doom. The other day at work I kept oversharing, talking to anyone who made the mistake of standing still near me about angry parents and lockdowns. I know it all has to come out, but I honestly don’t want to give those places any more than I already have.

Still, let’s talk about the lockdowns. They came every month or so at the first school, every few weeks at the second. The announcement would come on and we’d be told to lock all of our doors and stay in place until further notice. I never had a door that locked from the inside. I was never actually trained for lockdown procedures, so I’d turn out the light, sit down, and do my best. Sometimes we sat in a row on the floor in the back and played Whisper Down the Lane; sometimes we stayed at desks and just put our heads down. Though we were supposed to be silent, I think, to wait for further instructions, (“So we can stay alive,” I’d tell them.) sometimes it helped to sing the peace song:

“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace,
when I breathe out, I breathe out love.”

(Unitarian hymns are so easily adapted for  the classroom.)

Sometimes the lockdowns were because of gun violence in the surrounding blocks, sometimes just for a kid who was momentarily unaccounted for. You never found out the reason until rumors circulated later in the day, after the threat was over.

In the moment, it never occurred to me to be scared, just to get that deep, eerie calm that grownups sometimes need to have. I took solace in the fact that these were the only times I felt truly justified in just letting them sit and draw. Only now does in occur to me that lockdowns were scary. Those kids, for as much trouble they gave me, were among the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever known. The light shined out of them so purely, so defiantly, so much more miraculously than I can possibly put into words. Despite their harsh circumstances, or because of them, the force of their aliveness was so dazzling that if they had been the proverbial rose-in-concrete, they would have vined the city and the world to its senses.

The horror of being charged with keeping the kids I loved safe in a situation that never would be was one of the many part of my job that was both futile and vital, both deadly and absolutely banal.

As a mark of progress, this is the first easy time I’ve had writing about school—I’ve written maybe ten drafts of blog posts that collapse under the weight of their own sadness, so maybe little stories, a few paragraphs at a time, could be the key.

I think part of the reason this has been a fearful week is that bookstore time is almost over—in many ways, it feels like it already IS over. I’m doing two days a week until camp starts as a way to focus on a couple of projects and get my act together. The part of me that grasps at routine misses the ritual of it, the lunch breaks in the sunny break room or by the fountain, the weight and comfort of organizing my beloved textbooks, my workplace cliché of a coffee cup—Charlie Brown exclaiming “Good grief!”

Good grief indeed. These past few months, though tricky, have been a charmed time. Things have fallen into place through faith rather than effort, or just the effort of singing through the commute or sweeping the terrace for poetry class. I’m sad to let the spring class go even though the summer one starts tomorrow. A big fear in my soup of fears is that I’ll let down the writers who’ve already given me so much.

Reading aloud from my own book of poems brought up so many emotions, too. I’ve got such deep shame for the unrequited loves that defined my life for so long, making it both agonizing and prolific. There was grief over a lost marriage that once seemed so certain. And there was also this: Huh. This is a good book. How did I come up with all this stuff? Will I ever be that productive again?

Returning to art and poetry as the organizing factors of life definitely pulled me out of depression and back to something like my real self, but it also brings with it an enormous amount of vulnerability, one that I can only tackle a little bit at a time. Whereas I have 100% faith in my ability to bring forth good poems from others, my faith in my own work feels Bambi-footed.

Being on stage, both literally and metaphorically, has gotten tangled up in my mind with the everyday humiliations and failures of teaching. The fear of being scrutinized, jeered at, stupid, even hated when I go out on a limb a little is harder to fight than ever before.


I’m frustrated that panic is still holding me back. I see so much possibility in front of me, so many friends and opportunities and gifts. It’s getting harder to take the alone days I still need, that I’ll probably always need. I love the weeks that go by where I feel back to my old self and absolutely hate that I am still so broken. But it is getting easier.

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