Thanksgiving Thoughts -- On Turkeys, Teachers, Soldiers and Conscience
Below is the preface to some verses I wrote, last Saturday, that might be of particular interest to teachers. I added this preface for those working in the schools here. Hopefully, they are off today for Thanksgiving, this being the last Thursday in November.
President Barack Obama, by the way, stood with his daughters yesterday, to publicly declare that he was using his executive powers to pardon, not just the usual one lucky Thanksgiving turkey, but two of them.
The word "pardon", though now accepted for this annual presidential event, seems very wrong. Surely, it is we, not the turkeys we routinely slaughter or have slaughtered for us without compunction, who need to be pardoned -- or perhaps not pardoned.
But who are we to quibble, who are set to gobble the poor gobblers? I'll be cooking salmon today, rather than turkey, and so will be needing my own pardon -- from the Big Fish in the sky.
In the early to late 2000's, when I was away on leave for several years for my parents, but subbing day-to-day whenever I could return to New York, I used to be called, quite often, to a local school that actually had a teacher's lounge -- a rare thing here in New York City.
Sitting in that lounge in my off-periods, I used to observe the teachers and at times chat with them. In those days, they were somewhat less hard-pressed than they are nowadays, although still of course continually busy. In that setting, I made the acquaintance of an amiable senior teacher, who made some remarks that I still remember. Let me call him Bob.
Bob told me about a past colleague of his, who had joined the profession, as quite a few did at the time, to avoid or lower the chances of having to go to Vietnam. This must have been in the 1960's or early 1970's. As also could happen, this young man was given some difficult classes, with rowdy students who made life very difficult for him. In addition, he faced the usual indifference or worse from the administrators and even colleagues.
One day, this young teacher came in rather late for work. When Bob asked him what had happened, this is what he said:
"I was sitting in my car for half an hour, wondering whether I should just go and sign up for the war, whether that might be less of a hell than this."
That young man probably made the right decision, however difficult, at the time, by coming in to face the daily, but hopefully not deadly, fire at the school job. After all, soldiers were coming back from 'Nam in body bags every day. And those who survived were at times damaged for life, physically or mentally -- or both. That can happen to teachers too, but less commonly than to soldiers during a war.
Of course, the foreign wars of more recent times, though lower in bodily casualties for our troops, seem to be wreaking just as much mental havoc among them, judging from the suicide rates. Most soldiers, like teachers, don't like to talk too much about their experiences, perhaps for similar reasons.
There was something else that Bob said, which might explain quite a bit about what we see around us. Once again, it applies to both soldiers and teachers.
"Oh, you've got to hang up your conscience with your coat, when you come into the building."
This was in response to a question I had, even then, about how we could go about our jobs in good conscience, given all that was set up wrong or was going wrong, even then, for the students -- and also for their teachers.
That remark of Bob's seemed cynical to me at the time, and still does. I never could do as he prescribed, which might explain a lot of my woes over the years. But perhaps what he summed up so picturesquely is how one survives in the schools, as a soldier might do in a war zone.
I learned, the hard way, to keep my mouth shut (most of the time), but I never could do the same for my heart. I don't think that this situation -- of a closed mouth, but an open heart -- is that uncommon among teachers, although sometimes I wonder.
Following conscience, one tries to do what seems right, but this can be a very hard path to take, both as regards the workload that ensues, and from the attitudes of one's "supervisors", many of one's colleagues and, as can happen more frequently than not, from quite a few of one's students. One can work and work and give and give, expecting little in return, except to be left alone to do one's job. But even this is rarely granted, and the psyche can only take so much punishment before it becomes discouraged or rebels.
Of course, there are always those, if one takes care to notice, in all of these three categories -- "overseers", coworkers and pupils -- that do no harm, do their jobs and might even be appreciative and supportive. But human nature is such that we notice, much more, those who behave in highly negative ways, often through no fault of our own.
So one has to continually tell oneself to disregard those folk, or at least not let their attitudes, words and actions unduly affect us -- and focus instead on the others.
One can act, to some very limited degree, as a therapist to one's troubled students -- but one can hardly do this for those who are colleagues and "supervisors" and act like mean-spirited bullies.
So this continual re-adjustment of perspective, to notice the good around us rather than the bad, is easier said than done. This is our work environment, where we are also expected to be productive -- and we have students who need to learn a subject and pass tests that might seem impossible, not only for them, but for those of us who want to be able to help all of them who are willing, not just the better-prepared ones.
The physical and mental noise around us, including in our classrooms, often drowns out the weak and faltering signal, however much we may labor to keep it extant. Part of that signal is the transmission of culture from one generation to the next -- including values -- the latter more by example than by speech. The other part, from our (teachers') point of view, involves the reception, on our part, of whatever our students, including the quieter ones, are trying to, or need to, communicate to us, often silently.
This is a conversation that needs some peace and quiet in order to proceed. We can neither speak in a meaningful way, nor listen and notice as we should, without this physical and mental tranquility.
I should note that not even speech and its comprehension can be taken for granted with many of our students, recently arrived from distant lands.
Some of us are fortunate to have found -- or made, with a bit of luck and quite a bit of effort -- a niche in which we can function. Others are not so lucky. I suppose it might be the same for those who go to war.
Be that as it may, as pressures mount in the schools, those of conscience or those faced with impossible working conditions might find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that young man sitting in his car.
Of course, the job pays much better than it did in those days, and there's no draft. We have drones now. But all the old problems and pressures in the schools are just as great as they were then, with naught having been done about them over the years -- and many new ones have been added, that tax even more our strength and our conscience.
So here are some verses, from last Saturday. I am sending them out today, on Thanksgiving Day, when one should perhaps also take a moment to think of the birds and the beasts, including us humans -- and our history on this and other continents.