If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s Veterans’ Day today … the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In narrative time in the Tres Columnae Project, young Lucius and Caius are just beginning their military service. I’m thinking of many friends, relatives, former students, and students’ parents who answered the call to serve.
But it’s also the first real break for my colleagues and me since September. There was that one day full of meetings. But while that was a break from routine, it wasn’t the recharging and resting break that everyone needs sometimes. You could feel the exhaustion and anticipation all week.
There was much Wisdom in the decision to have a Special Thing Friday afternoon, to spend the last hour of the day outside for the school’s annual powder-puff football game. In years past, the Big Game (jokingly referred to as “our fall athletic season” at a school with no sports teams of its own) has always been held after school. But as the Last Thing on Friday afternoon, it was a great opportunity for both students and faculty to unwind, to see each other in a different way. I’m sure Ms. X and Mr. Y were annoyed at the students who weren’t watching the game (even though One Ms. X was “watching” from behind a pile of papers to grade) … but maybe not. Even Ms. X and Mr. Y have been saying remarkable things about kindness and consideration and making things relevant this year.
I’m thinking of One Particular Ms. X, who often complains about how unprepared her juniors and seniors are for the rigors of her class. She seems like a kind, considerate person – and that’s what her students say, even when they complain about so hard or so boring or don’t understand or too much work. One day at lunch, she mentioned how surprised her students had been that she points out how people use major concepts in her curriculum area. “Our other teachers of Your Subject never did that, Ms. X,” they’d told her – and she was genuinely surprised. “It’s part of my job,” she told them. “And if you’re not very good at This Concept, you need to know what careers use it regularly!” That was a surprise for her juniors and seniors, too; they’d never thought about the intersection between Particular Concepts and careers where those concepts are used.
Maybe that’s why so many students go to Fairly Good Colleges and struggle, change majors repeatedly, or give up in frustration or despair! Perhaps, unlike That Particular Ms. X, their teachers thought “not my job, too much to cover, got to give those notes and grade that homework for accuracy” (the urgent and immediate) instead of helping students make important connections.
Is that why, a few years ago, Z gave up that Really Large Scholarship at a Very Good University? Z had “always wanted” to be an engineer, but had Z not realized there would be difficult math and real-world application involved? For all the years I taught Z, I saw struggle after struggle with difficult analysis and real-world application … but did I say anything? Or was I too busy covering the curriculum and finishing the textbook, getting ready for the exam and focusing on the details? Did I – did all of Z’s teachers – miss the important in our focus on the urgent and immediate?
That’s easy to do when you need a break but don’t get one.
The constant rhythm of factory-model schools encourages us all to focus on the urgent and immediate. There’s always something else you could be doing: another paper to grade, another question to answer, another form to fill out, another item to check off on the never-ending list. And so many of us teachers became teachers because we’re good at the urgent and immediate. If we aren’t careful, we’ll use breaks to make progress on other lists of urgent and immediate … or we’ll get the rest we need, but come back to school feeling guilty and complaining about how we “got nothing done” and “got really far behind.”
To be fair, sometimes there are things you do need to accomplish. There’s nothing wrong with a list of immediate and urgent things in itself, as long as it’s the servant and you, the list-maker, are the master. I had a list myself for this long weekend, and I accomplished the most important things on it … but unlike former versions of myself, who would have fussed and fretted over incomplete items, I’ve remembered that the list serves the person, not vice versa.
If you look at the Tres Columnae Project site, you’ll find a number of stories (Fabula Longa III, Fabella III, Fabula Longa IV, and Fabula Longa V) added to Lectiō XXXVII, and you’ll find that the stories for XXXVIII and XXXIX and (some of) XL have now been published, too. Some of these had been written for months, while others took shape on Saturday as I sat, coffee and breakfast sandwich in hand, at a nearby coffee shop. A few more stories, not yet published, await final editing, and I’ve started adding the plot arc about little Quintus Flavius Caeso, who grows up in a way that would make his father (and his old teacher) proud in the end. On an ordinary weekend, would I have taken those precious hours to write, or would I have spent them on urgent and immediate tasks? Would I have carved out time for that important conversation – the one I thought would be difficult, but it turned out to be unexpectedly easy? Would I have taken time to rest and recharge, or would I have forged ahead with my to-do list? And how would I have felt as I drafted this post in the early darkness of a November Sunday evening?
Unanswerable questions, of course, but the asking is important. And the asking won’t happen when you’re caught up in the urgent and immediate, when there’s no break at all, or when you don’t use breaks to pause, reflect, and recharge. As we work to build joyful learning communities, it’s important to build in pauses and breaks, to build in celebrations and opportunities to recharge … but that’s hard to remember when the factory-way still rules your thinking.
I wonder what new opportunities await us all, both today and in days to come!