The Stages of One's Life
"THE GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF THE GREAT!"
THE PRODUCTIVE DECADE OF ONE'S THIRTIES
I used to tell myself I was one of those relatively few people who loved their jobs.
For me teaching was more vocation than job, and the boundary between what I did at work for pay and did at home for pleasure was very blurred, if it even existed at all. I spent my free summers as a teacher working on American history curriculum and developing what I hoped would be innovative, exciting, and challenging assignments for my students. I read books for pleasure on Lincoln, Jefferson, and the. Roosevelts – but these helped me at work, of course. When not actively thinking about lesson plans and the larger curriculum, other teaching ideas and strategies marinated in my subconscious for later use upon their ripening. I stayed abreast of new digital technologies and envisioned how I could adapt them to further student learning. Yes, all this was my job, but I did it also because I enjoyed it.
Was it work? Or was it for fun? It was hard to say. As Thomas Merton put it:
“A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live... When we are not living up to our true vocation, thought deadens our life, or substitutes itself for life, or gives in to life so that our life drowns out our thinking and stifles the voice of conscience. When we find our true vocation - thought and life are one.”
To say I worked almost all the time would not be an overstatement. A student once called me at 10:00 p.m. on a weekday evening at work, hoping to leave a message on my answering machine; her intention was to leave a message for me to receive the next morning and was incredulous when I, rather than the machine, answered the phone. “Mr. Geib! What are you doing in your classroom at this time of night?!?”she exclaimed.
My focus on my teaching was intense, and the best analogy I can think of is a classic samurai sword honed to an unstoppably sharp edge. I felt there was no student I could not teach -- and no subject so difficult I couldn’t successfully impart it, if a student gave me half a chance. As a teacher I felt “empowered,” to use that clichéd word. I was young enough to have all the energy in the world and but had been teaching long enough to know what I was doing. But it was the energy I brought to the job that drove my ambition: there was almost no teaching task that I would not have been taken on, no challenge I would have spurned. I was in my thirties, you see.
I earned awards for teaching (resume), pioneered Advanced Placement classes, and became an adjunct professor who helped other teachers teach better. I earned a sterling reputation among students out in the quad during lunch, and with their parents – the only reputation that really mattered as a teacher, in my opinion. Your reputation is everything as a teacher, and your reputation is what you make of it. This I learned on the job.
All the time I told myself I would be happy living like this until the end. According to the story I told myself, I would teach until one day at an advanced age I dropped dead in my classroom in front of my students. Why retire when you enjoy so much what you do? Why not die while you are doing what you enjoy? Another plus side of engaging one’s job so totally is this: the days they flew by at warp speed! If a job you hate creeps by in painful suspense with a glimpse at the clock on the wall every five minutes, the opposite is equally true: each year teaching seemed to pass by more speedily than the preceding one – “the years shall run like rabbits.” So ran the narrative of my life I told myself.
I was as exhausted (emotionally and physically) by the job as always, but I had learned to endure it better. The job had long since crowded out many earlier interests (and even some friendships), and the basis of my life had become: I was a teacher and a good one. (I later wondered at the wisdom of this trade off, but it seemed it has to be this way.) It was around this time that my entires on my personal webpage dwindled almost to nothing, and one might wonder if I had given up on the World Wide Web. Actually, I made more websites and Internet materials than ever but almost all of it was behind a password protected school site. I was more active than I had ever been in my life. It was just that little of it had to do with me or my personal life or beliefs. It was all about teaching and work.
“The good is the enemy of the great,” I would tell myself (explanation). I wanted to excel in teaching, not only do well. I wanted to break boundaries; my ambition was boundless.
But something changed. I have gotten tired.
Not so tired I could not work hard, grant you. But tired in the way that one era of your life naturally comes to an end in its own time, and another starts. I suspect these life eras have natural beginnings and endings, the timing of which can have a life of its own. It is not always within our control, and wise man knows how to ride a wave when it goes well and when to get off when it is otherwise.
If those warnings were not enough, I have had some warning signs from my physical health. My firstborn was born in March and I endured the hectic AP cramming season at work combined with a second job one evening per week as professor with a screaming baby waiting for me at home. For the first time in my life, I had a red tinge to my eyes as I rarely slept. (On occasion I would sleep in my classroom through lunch with the students pounding on the door to let them in; my head was slumped on my desk with drool off the corner of my mouth.) I had some serious trouble with my throat by the end of the year, as well as some other relatively serious and maybe chronic health issues. As of this writing, they are still with me.
I am 40 years old. And I am a bit tired.
In ways large and small amplified over a dozen years, I can see that this rate of life will kill me. It will not kill me in two or five more years, but in ten or twenty it will. A permanent sleep deficit and neglect of health through overwork is the nick that accumulated over decades will run you down. But there is the “calling.” The god of teaching posed to me the following questions: “Will you dedicate your all to your students?” comes the hypothetical question. The answer would have been, “Yes!” “Will you work seventy hours a week to do your job as it should be done?” Yes. “Will you sacrifice everything?” Yes. Family time? Yes. Your health? Yes.
I no longer wish to die teaching in my classroom, passionately waving my arms and raving about Walt Whitman when that big heart attack arrives. My commitment to my students is as strong as ever, and it is accompanied by those numerous accretions of real life that taken together makes one a "veteran instructor." But have I lost that "edge"?
My youth lasted about twenty-five or so years before I went to work in earnest, and I have been working for some fifteen years. I am in that stage of raising a family and being productive. But perhaps I have reached the top of that upward hill, and I begin to discern in the distance a time where I can start the next stage of my life.
9TH GRADE PRESENTATION:
Back in early 2000 there was nothing I was not up for teaching...boundless energy and ambition!