Sunday, June 20, 2021

It's a Living

I used to love it.

When I first started teaching, my hand shook as I wrote on the chalkboard. I used to write out everything I was going to say in class beforehand, and then I practiced saying it in front of the mirror. 

I was still in my twenties back then. I taught my first class when I was a student in the master's program. I paid my graduate school tuition by working as a teaching assistant in the M.A. program through the Ph.D.; I taught almost every semester in exchange for a tuition waiver and a small monthly stipend. The stipend was not enough to live on, which is why I took on extra jobs by teaching part-time at other colleges and also by resisting the urge to bitch-slap rude customers who threw tantrums about expired coupons at my retail jobs (I wish those rude customers a lifetime of being stuck in long lines behind customers who acted exactly like they did).

"You'll never make it as a teacher," my mother told me. "You don't have the personality for it. All your students will dislike you." She pressured me to pursue a career in the lucrative field that the majority of my relatives worked in. She was furious when I defied her and majored in English instead of the major she tried to force me into. It was the first real decision I ever made, and to this day, she loves to emphasize how much my sibling earns in that lucrative field. When I answered her inquiry about how much I earn as a teacher, she said, "That's it? That's not enough. I told you so. You chose this career, and look how you ended up."

I wanted to prove her wrong, which is one of the reasons I worked so hard in graduate school. My former therapist told me that the children of abusive parents often become overachievers with Type A personalities. They want their parents' approval, which is constantly withheld from them because their parents make them feel bad about themselves instead. "She'll never approve of what you do," my therapist said. "Then she would have to admit that she was wrong about you." 

I didn't want the career my parents wanted for me. I remember seeing a professor at my college who always had an extra bounce in his step when he walked to class. He was cheerful when he taught because he truly enjoyed his job. He wasn't like so many other workers I'd observed at the internships I did before I committed to graduate school, the ones who dreaded Mondays and were only in a good mood on Fridays.

When I first started teaching, I thought it would be like an inspirational teacher movie, where the students are disrespectful at first, but eventually they warm up to the teacher because of the latter's inspirational teaching methods. In the movie Dead Poets Society, the students jump up on their desks and recite poetry as their teacher walks out of the classroom for the last time. In the movie Stand and Deliver, the students go from struggling in school to receiving high scores on their AP calculus test, including one student who didn't even know what calculus was before taking the teacher's class. 

I thought that I could be like the English teachers who inspired me, the ones who encouraged my love of reading and writing and introduced me to new authors. I actually only ever took one class on college teaching before I started teaching because college teachers do not have the same intensive training for teaching as high school and grade school teachers do. The focus is supposed to be on their research, not their teaching, which is why there are many college professors who are brilliant scholars but terrible teachers. 

I wanted to be the exception. I wanted to be like the college professors I'd had who were both good scholars AND good teachers. And for a long time, I was truly passionate about teaching. Many of my students wrote in their evaluations, "She's really enthusiastic. She seems really happy when she's teaching." And I was. I always felt a rush when I stood at the front of the classroom or even when I walked into class each day. I refused to give up on my graduate studies, despite all the problems I had with my dissertation and my advisor, partly because I didn't want to give up teaching, the job that I loved. 

But over the years, I started to love it less and less. It didn't happen overnight. It was gradual, the accumulation of many things that kept happening over the years.

There was the student who refused to sit down during their appointment and literally loomed over me and screamed in my face for several minutes because they earned a B. 

There was the student who berated me for telling another student not to nap in my class. "You're hurting his self-esteem," the student said. 

There was the student who argued about every single grade she received in my class, and she insisted, "You're wrong! I should have gotten an A." When I finally told her that I wasn't going to debate her grades with her anymore and that she couldn't talk to me like that, she literally threw a tantrum in my office, stomping her feet, and screaming and crying in front of my colleagues I shared an office with and their students. I managed to calm the student down, but inside I was seething. She was allowed to explode, but as the teacher I never could because I had to be the mature adult. 

There was the student who stopped showing up to class for more than two months, ignored my emails, and then when they received an F, sent me one of the nastiest emails I'd ever received, full of insults and obscenities.

There were the students who sat in the back every day, didn't look up from their cell phones during the entire class session, would simply say, "I don't know. I didn't do the reading," when I asked them a question, and then go back to turning themselves into cats on Snapchat or whatever the hell they did on those phones. These were the same students who often skipped class and showed up late, turned in their work late or not at all, and then blamed ME when they didn't get the good grades they thought they deserved. "If I get a bad grade, it's YOUR fault because you're a bad teacher," more than one of them told me to my face.

I didn't tolerate that crap, though. I told the students to put their phones away and docked them class participation points if they kept taking their phones out. I sternly and firmly told the students who accused me of being a bad teacher that their mistakes and poor work ethic caused them to earn low grades, and that I would not tolerate such blatant disrespect from them ever again. Every semester, I grew tougher and less tolerant of b.s. because there was always at least one or two disrespectful students like that. 

"All it takes is one nasty student," one of my colleagues told me. "The rest of the class can be good, hard-working students, but that one nasty student is often enough to poison your memory of the class."

I didn't even entirely blame the students for their bad behavior. I blamed the parents who raised them, the ones who used to slam into each other in mosh pits at concerts thirty years ago and became helicopter or snowplow parents who sent me angry emails, insulting or guilting me when I dared to penalize their precious children for breaking my rules. One mother sent me an email that stated, "It's not my son's fault that he kept showing up late. It's my fault because I didn't wake him up in time." The class was at noon. The student was nineteen. 

I blamed some of the other teachers and administrators who enabled them, like one of my former bosses, who would not let me defend myself to the student who sent me that nasty email. Instead, my boss told me to apologize to the student for upsetting them, but at least I didn't have to change the student's grade. 

Not all the students were like this, thank God. Some students came into my office with detailed notes or outlines of the papers they were working on because they were willing to work hard and wanted to learn. Other students excitedly told me about how they started reading other books by the authors I'd introduced them to in my literature classes, and they said that they didn't even like to read before they took my class. Several students shyly confided in me during my office hours about their hopes for the future, such as the student who wanted to become a filmmaker and showed me her YouTube channel but was being pressured by her mother to become an accountant. The students like them motivated me to keep teaching.

But in recent years, I find myself dreading Mondays. Burnout is common among teachers. I read somewhere that a significant percentage of teachers don't even last five years. Many teachers suffer from mental health problems, and the low pay obviously doesn't make up for it. 

I've been teaching for more than a dozen years. I didn't quit. But there have been times where I've wanted to. It's gotten to the point where sometimes I just want to throw down the chalk and scream, "JUST FIGURE IT OUT!" when students ask me the same questions again and again because they weren't listening the first time I told them.

One of my students told me at the end of this past semester that I was her favorite teacher and that she liked that I was different from the other teachers. What she said made my day, and it helped soften the blow inflicted by another student, who wrote in his evaluation, "We all make fun of her in the group chat." I couldn't help feeling awful about that because I'd worked so hard to make the online classes good for the students during the pandemic, and that student's vicious insult made me feel like I'd done everything wrong. My colleagues assured me that most likely only a few of the students made fun of me, and that that particular student was probably retaliating because he was getting a low grade in my class. 

I don't regret not pursuing the career my parents wanted for me. But sometimes, I can't help thinking what my life would have been like if I had chosen something other than teaching. Over the years, I lost my passion for teaching.

I went from being an enthusiastic, naive young teacher in my twenties who wanted to inspire students to love writing and literature to a burned out, disillusioned teacher in my forties who just wants to inspire students to put down their freaking cell phones during class. I no longer love my job. I haven't loved it in years. But I haven't quit, partly because I don't know what else to do, and partly because I especially need the health insurance now that I have a life-threatening disease for which there is no cure. Also, I obviously still need to get paid, so that I'll have money for the necessities, like food, rent, and Taylor Swift albums. 

The comedian Drew Carey once said, "Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say that? There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar."

In the 90s movie Office Space, the main character, played by Ron Livingston, also hates his job. His love interest, played by Jennifer Aniston, tells him at the end of the movie that a lot of people don't like their jobs, but that it was okay, as long as they found other ways to be happy.

I think she was right. I believed that I could only have a good life if I truly loved my job. But now I know that it's okay if I don't because there is more to life than work (and as a workaholic, it took me a long time to realize that). As long as I don't take out my frustrations with the job on my students, and as long as I continue to do a good job, I can keep teaching, at least for now. And I do have other things in my life that make me happy, like good books, writing, and the hope that some day, those entitled students who disrespected me will one day have children who will be exactly like they were at that age because then they'll get a taste of their own medicine. I know that's petty of me, but blame it on the hundreds of students who were like that and who overshadowed the students who weren't. But what gives me satisfaction is that despite those students' horrible treatment of me, I didn't let it stop me. I kept teaching, and I actually became a better teacher as a result. And that's something, even if my students aren't jumping up on their desks to recite poetry for me.

What about you? Have you ever felt burned out at your job? 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Setting Fire to the Dating Board

Before the Model and Small Town Guy, there was the Grad Student, who I shared an office with back when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school. We shared our office with a territorial control freak who banned us from the office whenever he had appointments with other students but refused to leave when either of us had appointments. I wish the control freak nothing but the worst, including a lifetime of loud neighbors, entitled students, and colleagues who ask "just one more question" at the end of every faculty meeting.

Unlike most of the guys I've had crushes on, the Grad Student actually liked me back. We became friends after I confided in him about my struggles with my dissertation, and we hung out several times. He told me that he liked that I sometimes bought Starbucks gift cards for homeless people so they wouldn't get kicked out of cafes. He said that his ideal woman had my best qualities.

But on the night that I was in the emergency room because I got diagnosed with a neurological disorder, I tried to call him. I was scared and I wanted to talk to someone who wasn't a nurse, a doctor, or an orderly. But he said he couldn't talk. He was at a bar with his friends. 

He didn't call me to check on me until several days later. He said that I called him at a bad time. I said that I was going through a bad time and I only wanted to talk to him for a couple minutes. I didn't expect him to drop everything for me every time I needed him, but I also didn't think he would blow me off when I was in the emergency room because he was getting drunk with his friends. I'll always be there for you, he had told me before all of this happened. 

We both successfully defended our dissertations and earned our PhDs at the same time. He left for a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college in another state, whereas I was offered a visiting faculty position at a college in Small Town. He didn't even say goodbye. 

The pandemic gave me a good excuse not to date anyone last year. But now, things are opening back up again. I thought about doing online dating again, probably on Bumble, but I'm reluctant to do so, for several reasons:

1. I'm afraid that the Model will be on Bumble again, like he was two years ago when I reconnected with him. I don't think I have the willpower yet to say no to him, and I do not want to go down that road again. Even if I got to be with him again, he'd still go running back to his girlfriend like he did last time, and I'd end up worse off than I was before. 

2. There are way too many guys on both Bumble and Tinder who are using fake pictures. One guy used Channing Tatum's pictures but claimed that his name was "Adam" and that he worked in marketing. I don't understand why there are so many "catfish" out there. Do they think that once they meet the women in person, they will be automatically forgiven because of their "great" personalities? Or do they have no intention of meeting in person because all they are hoping to get out of this are pictures of women's boobs? 

3. Now that I'm 40, I'm considered "undateable" by many guys my age, who are pursuing women my students' age (late teens and early twenties). When I was on and okcupid, guys specified their age range for dates as 18-28, even when the guys were in their late thirties. I teach young women who are in the age range that these guys want, and they think that anyone over the age of 25 is old. 

4. Most of the 30-something or 40-something guys around here who are willing to date women my age are divorced with kids, and some of them are still married but claim that they're "separated" (Sure, pal. I'd believe that if you hadn't accidentally or perhaps just stupidly included your wedding picture in your dating profile). I dated a single dad that I met on Tinder; he said he had a preteen daughter and that he hoped to find someone who would be a good "mother figure" to her, before telling me that he thought she would like me a lot. (I remember thinking, Whoa, slow down! I don't even know your last name yet!)

5. I've literally tried almost everything to meet someone. I joined a youth group at my church when I was in my twenties, where I had a crush on a great guy who fell for someone else in the group. I went to a speed-dating party. I joined not one but seven online dating sites, some of them more than once. I dated more guys than I care to count, and I failed to make a real connection with all of them. I became friends with Small Town Guy and fell for him, and then I watched him fall in love with someone else. I met several guys through a Meetup group here in College Town that met at a bar every week to play board games, but they were more focused on playing board games than socializing. 

I know that there are good men out there. One of my colleagues married late in life, to a man who works at the college where we teach. One day, she texted him and remarked that she forgot to bring her favorite dessert in her lunch. Without being asked, her husband went to one of the dining halls on campus, bought the dessert, and dropped it off at her desk as a surprise while she was teaching. Small gestures like that gave me faith that not all men are like the ones I dated. 

But I didn't think that making a real connection with someone would be this hard, especially since it came so easily to so many other people. I know someone who literally took a walk and met her future husband (she went hiking and met her husband in a park, where he worked as a park ranger). 

I always thought that by the time I was 40, I would have met someone special by now. "You'll meet Mr. Right someday, when you least expect it," people always said. But I never did. 

After the Model broke my heart, I briefly went to therapy, though with a different therapist since my former one still lives in Chicago. I couldn't afford to continue, but the therapist said something that struck a chord with me: "I think that your difficulty letting him go has something to do with the way your mother treated you."

I was surprised because I'd barely mentioned my mother during the therapy sessions. But then afterwards, I remembered the time I came home from my first school dance in tears because no one asked me to dance. The next day, my mother got mad at me for something, and she said, "No wonder no one wants to dance with you." 

When I was a kid, I was different from the other kids because I wasn't good at cheerleading or sports. I was always reading, and I kept to myself. In grade school, the other kids made fun of me. They knocked me to the ground and threw balls at me extra hard at recess (we weren't playing dodgeball). They called me names and laughed when I cried. "It's because you have a bad personality," my mother and father said. "There's something wrong with you." They later said the same thing when they talked about the fact that I was the only one of their friends' grown children who was still unmarried. 

For a long time, I believed that my parents were right. I thought that the fact that I stayed home on prom night (and on the nights of most school dances) and didn't go on my first real date until I was in my twenties meant that I was unattractive. I'd look in the mirror and think, No wonder no one wants to dance with you. 

So, I became a workaholic instead. I focused on earning three degrees, including a bachelor's, a master's, and a PhD. I became a good teacher and taught dozens of classes in writing and literature. I kept my nose to the grindstone for so long that one day I looked up and I was thirty-six, and my youth was long behind me. I didn't get to enjoy being young, I thought. And there was the Model, with his irresistible grin, holding his hand out to me. He was the kind of guy I'd always been attracted to but who never even noticed me, and yet he did. It was flattering, especially after all those years of loneliness and rejection. I knew he was wrong for me, but then again, the guy who on paper was perfect for me (Small Town Guy) didn't want me. So, I went against my instincts and said yes to the Model, and well, if you've been reading my blog for a while, you know how that turned out. When he broke my heart, my mother's cruel words echoed in my head all over again.

The first time I read the definition for an "introvert", I felt a sense of relief. It made me think that maybe there wasn't something wrong with me because there were other people out there who were like me, people who disliked parties and preferred to be on their own most of the time. 

Fans of the TV show Sex and the City often compare themselves to the four main cast members: Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte. But I think that I'm actually more like Mr. Big. When Carrie asked him what he wanted, he replied, "Exactly what we have. You have your own place. I have mine. We're together when we want to be, and we're apart when we want to be." 

That, to me, sounds ideal. I prefer to live alone, where I don't have to quarrel with anyone over whose turn it is to do the dishes or clean the bathroom. I prefer to have full control over my finances rather than share an account with someone, so that my partner won't say something like, "You spent how much on Taylor Swift concert tickets?" 

I also don't want to devote every weekend to whomever I'm dating. I don't want to spend every night with him. I don't want to spend hours on the phone with him every day. 

When I was applying for teaching positions at various colleges, I liked that I could apply wherever I wanted without having to worry about how it would affect someone else. I liked that if I got a job offer, I had the freedom to just pack up my things and go, rather than turn it down because my partner didn't want to move. 

I also like that if I want to travel somewhere on vacation, I don't have to go visit in-laws or go somewhere that I have no interest in. I have the freedom to go where I want to go.

After I got diagnosed with a life-threatening disease for which there is no cure, it made me realize that I want to spend the time I have left focusing on what makes me happy. Dating did not make me happy. I did it because I didn't want to be alone and I thought that my "happy ending" included true love, as is shown in so many movies, TV shows, and books. But I've started to think that my destiny is not tied to anyone else and that maybe there is a reason I kept striking out. Maybe on some level, I didn't want to be in a relationship with anyone, but I was in denial about that because it went against the "happy ending" so many people wanted. Maybe true love is not in the cards for me. That makes me feel sad because although I do prefer being alone a lot of the time, I don't want to be alone all the time for the rest of my life. But at the same time, maybe it means that there's something else meant for me, something that could make me happy. 

On the one hand, I don't want to remain celibate and live like a nun for the rest of my life. This is surprising to many guys my age, who are looking for relationships and someone to settle down with, whereas I just want to have fun (does that make me like Samantha? I don't think I want to have that much fun.) But on the other hand, I don't think I want to do online dating again anytime soon. I'm pretty burned out on dating altogether. I don't want to spend more hours poring over guys' dating profiles. I don't want to make boring small talk on first dates. I don't want to get my heart broken again.

Maybe I could still find someone special by chance, like other people over the age of 40 have done. But I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, I want to focus on the other things in my life that are important to me: getting published as a scholar and as a creative nonfiction writer, achieving more success in my career, maintaining my health, paying off my debts, and traveling around the world. I could still have a full, happy life, even if it's a life where I am alone. 

What about you? Do you believe in soul mates or the idea of a romantic destiny? What does your "happy ending" look like?