I knew Ms. X hadn’t been feeling well, and I knew she’d had a Serious Health Scare a few years ago as well as some lingering issues with Another Thing. So I was surprised to see her working busily on “grades and stuff” Wednesday afternoon; Ms. X often waits till the last possible minute for things like that, and the last possible minute would have been sometime on Thursday. It turns out Ms. X had a Scary Appointment on Thursday; since she wouldn’t be at school, Wednesday afternoon actually was the last possible minute. And we had a chance to talk about perspectives and options.
“I love teaching,” Ms. X said, “and it’s been an important part of my work life, but it isn’t my whole life. If I have to stop, I can do This Thing and This Other Thing, and I’ll have more time for my family and for This Big Project.” Ms. X may not be feeling physically well, but emotionally and spiritually, she’s in an excellent place. I told her about my old friend Ms. Q, a former colleague I hear about occasionally, who’s convinced she would just die if she stopped “coming to school,” as she puts it. “That School has been her whole life,” a mutual friend said a few months ago … and the mutual friend was concerned about the inevitable day when Ms. Q’s health is too bad for “coming to school” anymore. Another friend, facing an unexpected and mysterious potential crisis, sees only one option and is fearful that even that won’t be available. And yet another friend, now happily retired, told me she was embarrassed to be praised for a long series of outstanding accomplishments.
But what do these incidents have in common? In each case, the person has been struggling with perspectives, options, or both. It seems Ms. X had reached a good resolution even before she got the Official Word … even though I don’t yet know what that Official Word was, and neither did Ms. X when I saw her Wednesday afternoon. Friends, especially those who are enjoying retirement and finding new sources of joy in a new season of life, worry about Ms. Q because her perspective seems so narrow and limited. “I just know I’d die if I stopped coming to school,” she tells them whenever she sees them, as they encourage her to think of all the other things she might do with her time. “There’s only one option, and what can I do if it goes away?”
There’s something about factory-model thinking that encourages a narrowing of perspectives, a refusal to see options beyond the same-old same-old. “I can’t take That Particular Class,” Z said to a friend, because it requires teacher approval and Z just knows That One Ms. X won’t sign off. “Those bad, lazy kids won’t copy notes from my PowerPoint,” Ms. X and Mr. Y will be moaning pretty soon, “but there’s nothing else to do. There’s too much to cover and not enough time, and it’s the only possible way.”
But when you stop and think about it, there’s always something else to do. “There may not be any good options,” I told a friend last year, “but there are obviously some bad ones. What are they?” It took a while, but over the course of several days, we explored and generated a lot of bad options, and eventually some better ones appeared.
“These kids are really wonderful,” said Ms. E, who was substituting for Ms. X on Thursday. Yes, the very same kids that Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y dismiss as “bad, lazy, and horrible” or “won’t do anything.” Everything about Ms. E said “retired teacher who still loves working with young people” … and that’s why Ms. E’s perspective was so different. “They’re horrible, just horrible,” Ms. Z had said of a very similar group late last year … but everything about Ms. Z said “retired teacher who really needed to retire when she did, if not before.” I have a feeling Ms. Z saw substitute-teaching as the only option even though she hated it; Ms. E clearly enjoys it and probably sees it as one option among many, one to embrace for a season.
“I’m going to keep working,” says my neighbor O, “as long as I enjoy it … or until I finish paying for the convertible I’ve always wanted.” O is a retired-and-unretired teacher who moved back to These Parts after many years in Other Places, and when she moved back, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do at first. But then her current job appeared, and she loves it (and the convertible, too) … and despite some real tragedies over the past few years, O has a healthy, joyful perspective and always seems to find good options even in the darkest times. And so does D … D, my former student from Way Back When, who “just happened” to be at the Local Coffee Shop yesterday and “just happened” to notice me. We had a great conversation about perspectives and options at what’s turning into a very transitional time for D and her family … and I have a strong feeling that good things will come from that conversation.
When your perspective is narrow and your options seem few, it really helps to have a joyful community around you. When you’re trying to enlarge your perspective, and when the options seem overwhelming, joyful community is also helpful and important. On this busy day, when so many friends have so many needs and concerns, I hope we’ll all take a moment and think about the big or small things we can do with, not for each other.
And if you have three minutes, you might enjoy this video that someone “just happened” to share with me. I thought it was an excellent, if imperfect way to end the week.