The Worst of It.
The end of the year is always an emotional disaster. Even without knowing it to be so; it’s like teachers are capable of keeping it together to endure the cold months and the daily disappointments but when the end is in sight everything crumbles. It’s a completely unconscious degeneration. One moment you’re washing your hands, looking in the bathroom mirror and remarking on how you’re doing pretty well—you slept okay; you haven’t had your “meltdown” yet this year. The next thing you know, you’re late to the testing room, rifling through student paperwork and gasping with sobs because you don’t really understand what you’re supposed to do in administering this state exam, nobody has trained you, and you’re with children whose needs you don’t know.
We can only be so resilient. The stress levels are incredible, and invariably manifest in the domestic sphere. The fights I have gotten into with partners because of my razor-thin emotional bandwidth are innumerable. Simple miscommunications cascade into torrents of resentment, emotional intelligence is so low that I’m incapable of fielding a routine conversational misunderstanding. This year, I became jealous for no reason for about a week. I would cry every time my boyfriend would glancingly mention a previous relationship. I attempted self-care—I went out with friends, ate junk food, got my grading done so that I could actually enjoy myself on the weekend—but it hardly mollifies the workday cartoonish absurdity: adults with advanced degrees are reduced to babysitters, teachers are displaced from their classrooms for weeks, we lose planning periods to cover others’ classes, we plan slapdash field trips just get kids off of campus to create space for testing, adults who generally respect each other get into passive-aggressive ideological clashes over things that could be resolved easily. And through all this, student testing anxiety swirls around you, caping you in its invisible miasma until you’re swallowed unexpectedly. Everyone’s nerves are frayed such that a beloved parent, passing by me in the hallway, marveled at how “relaxed” I looked (perhaps due to my unbrushed hair and saggy dress), but she was patently aware that no teacher, at this time of year, generally is such.
It was almost like a cruel antithetical prophecy, because that night I went home and had one of the worst nights of them all.
You look for little signs of comfort and validation. At some point, during exam review, I read this Robert Frost poem with my students:
The Most of It
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush — and that was all.
It’s often that, as an adult with all of your life experience, you teach teenagers something that could be more easily understood once they’re older. It’s a stranger thing entirely to teach something that sounds like it should resonate more with teenagers, yet you look down at the page and realize that you are the boy shouting into the wilderness, and you’ve never stopped being such, and maybe some of that aspect informs all of the good work you do with them, or maybe it’s the very flaw that makes it so hard for someone to live with you, or love you enduringly.
Summer is no great consolation, frankly. Summer is the extended pause during which we get to purge ourselves of the toxicity fermented through weeks of unmitigated stress and discomfort. I don’t know anyone who spends the first few weeks of summer actually “refreshed,” but rather “expunging.” Usually, in our region, it’s the final weeks of rain anyway. After this, there might be some indulgence and travel, and then in the last couple of weeks, we are merely alone with ourselves, wondering what our purpose may be now that we are not working. And it’s a restless, nagging ache.
I turned a corner this week in part because the first final exam I administered was for my Film Criticism independent study. I promised them French melodrama, because I knew they wouldn’t watch it otherwise. I’m not sure I can describe the feeling of satisfaction it creates to sit in a dark room, first thing on a Monday morning, watching a beautiful movie with a few students who trust your taste and listen to your every word. There we were, watching Danielle Darrieux circle the dancefloor with Vittorio De Sica cheek to cheek, in tracking shot after tracking shot. Perhaps I knew that I was doing something for them that would have un-hyperbolically changed my life as a student had someone done it for me, and some teachers came close, but never quite close enough.
In the film, The Earrings of Madame de…, her husband, played by a glowering Charles Boyer who I believe is quite a different actor in French than he is in English, though with some of the same affectations, has this famous line. When Darrieux (playing his unnamed wife) is withering on a chaise, desperate for her lover to the point of grave social embarrassment, Boyer tries to commandingly console her with this pointed analysis: “Our conjugal bliss is a reflection of ourselves. It’s only superficially superficial.” I think this line is one of the moments where the audience comes to appreciate how layered his character can be, which is significant, considering he’s essentially a cuckolded husband, and a public figure at that, being undermined by someone with whom he works with closely and formally; it would be easy for him to fall into a ragey, jealous archetype, yet he never really does.
It would be easy also, considering my recent marital past, to associate this swiftly delivered paradox with something about that very thing, but I actually don’t. The movie itself makes me remember my marriage, because I had fallen so in love with it around the time that my then-husband and I were living in Europe, where it was customary to romanticize art and reality as a combined entity. Rather I think this assessment of “conjugal bliss” extends for me into the professional world. Essentially, my behavior and satisfaction in my job is a reflection of myself, and belies something greater and deeper and scarier than I acknowledge on the surface. I have only, in the past year, come to understand how similar my behaviors at home and at work are, insofar as acting from a point of fear, creating a precarious reality that both loves and bends the expectations I have for myself, spinning out in anxious uncertainty, putting so much emphasis on some facet of my life that isn’t stable and centered within myself. I have maybe never truly centered anything first within myself. I have always insisted on counter-love, and nothing ever comes from what I cry.