This is almost right, but not quite

Over the past three days, I’ve done minimal writing and reading. I don’t think it’s random, or because I’m tired, or because I’m busy. It’s because I’ve been attending conferences and lectures on things like revolutionary pedagogy, systemic racism in education, post-traumatic stress in black youth and what parents, teachers and community members can do about it. These are things that have long been important to me–from the very first day I walked into a city high school and thought: “Kids are supposed to learn here!?”

I’ve dedicated the past five years (and previous smaller chunks of time) to learning how to teach in an urban school district, and learning how to teach recently arrived immigrants and refugees. I’ve read countless books, attended countless seminars, and attempted thousands of things in my classroom, always with the aim: do better, serve better, figure these kids out, their needs, their wants, how to teach them and help them enjoy themselves in my classroom. Too: figure myself out; how am I complicit in this? Which biases do I need to work on, to get rid of? I thought I was a good candidate for urban education because I seek to understand, I’m self aware, patient, tolerant, and pretty endlessly resourceful. I’m drawn to what’s different from me, rather than what is the same; differentness does not make me uncomfortable–probably because I’m also quite good at finding the similarities, and the good, however deeply buried these things might be. And I’d hated school, too, which always made me feel like I could connect with any kid, regardless of race or ethnicity, who wasn’t thrilled to be there. Last–my ego is easily deflated; any whiff of a savior complex would be (and was) squashed immediately–so I would be able to teach from my heart, and not from a fantasy. I knew it would not be easy, but I’ve never liked easy things. And over the past five years, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve failed a lot. I’ve succeeded some.

But there is a problem, globally small but personally large (and therefor selfish): The more deeply I am engrossed in education, in social justice, the more severed I become from my artistic self. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s true. Worse–the part of me that is an artist seems to dominate. Despite loving what I do as a teacher, I’ve become increasingly depressed over the past five years–until the previous fall, when I decided that at the end of this school year, I’d pursue something different, I’d take a break from teaching. As soon as I made that decision, the clouds parted, the endless stream of fog burned up in the sun, and I felt like I could touch things again–like everything suddenly re-became real. It was then that I realized the immensity of this problem: before I can teach art, I must be an artist (and to be specific, for me that means mostly writing!)

Attending these lectures over the past few days has been gut-wrenching. I’m really going to leave all this? Is this a terrible idea? What a waste of knowledge and experience and passion and understanding! Am I throwing my life away? And while my gut still feels quite wrangled with, I secretly know the answer to that last question: no.

I never said I was going to leave forever, but sometimes even just a year or two feels that way, when you love something enough. I don’t even have to look over the past five years–just the past three days will do. I’ve read almost nothing, written almost nothing, and watched way too much TV. The slip back into those old habits was nearly invisible, and quite instantaneous. I sat there, in pain at this conference today, and wrote the following in my notebook:

I feel like my ‘best contributions’ to the world rest upon my identity, abilities, and practice as an artist, which, to me means that I need to better develop and realize this aspect of myself, which has gone largely ignored, suppressed, and exhausted these last six years working as a school teacher.

The good thing is, this means I am no longer required to be a “successful artist”. I don’t need to be published or have any solo shows. All I need is to do is know who I am as an artist, and how to live as that person, all of the time. Once I know who that is, what that person must do to be alive in the world, then I can go back to giving away what I love the most: the time and the opportunity to see one’s self and the world in a new way, through creative expression, to explore the world through the arts, and to express what cannot be said in conversation.

The bad thing is, this means I need to stop teaching. At least, or just, for a little while. I am the kind of person who does things 150% or not at all. I cannot teach and become the artist I know that I am. I cannot give to both what each requires and deserves. But I have a strong feeling that as soon as both parts of my being are equally developed, I’ll be able to switch between the two fairly fluidly. It just so happens that, right now, I’ve gone so long without trusting or accessing my artist desires that they feel impossible to assemble into anything that makes sense. They need that 150% of my attention. Which means I need a job that doesn’t require that from me, for now. I cannot tell you how sad this makes me.

I must remember though, that this is very likely temporary–a year or two, and then, who knows!? Maybe I’ll return to teaching, or maybe my artistic pursuits will lead me toward another way of being in the world and being an agent for positive change; socially, spiritually, environmentally, or emotionally. I believe it is our responsibility as humans to use our gifts for the greater good. If I do not explore and realize my gifts, I’ll not only regret it forever, but I’ll deny the world of my best work–even if that does not include being a professional artist–there is no doubt in my mind that realizing my potential as an artist will also make me a better teacher, and a better human being.

Tonight, at the tale end of my characteristically avoidant behavior, I was watching the series finale of Frasier. I’ll spoil it for you; his father is recently married, his brother has just had a baby, and he’s feeling a bit stuck. He gets a job offer in San Francisco, and decides to take it. He tells his family that he’s sad to be leaving but he has taken the job because he wants what they all have: a new chapter. He then, in all kinds of corny glory, recites a Tennyson poem. I won’t tell you that it made me cry.

Oops! I did. But it reminded me of something I’ve forgotten in these days of panic and sadness about what I’m leaving behind: this is a new chapter, not a new book. I’m not leaving the book behind, I am merely turning the page. And I trust that in the end, it will all come together, both parts of the story… even though they are seemingly separate and opposing forces right now.

And before parting, some wise words from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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