Being a teacher can be incredibly rewarding. I feel fortunate to work in an environment where I can focus on becoming a better teacher and collaborate with other progressive pedagogues (couldn’t resist that). It is easy to get caught up in the prepping and marking and research and committee meetings and all the other aspects of being a practitioner of higher education. Then there’s the stress of the job search and the future and the need to publish and the need to publish some more. What is missing from that list?
I thought I had got my priorities straight when I left the corporate world behind. I used to call myself a workaholic: commuting three hours a day, at the office by 8am and usually leaving after 8pm – when I wasn’t traveling and working out of offices in far-flung cities. Because my job was a non-stop adrenaline rush, and because a lot of people were counting on me to make sure we excelled, I never stopped to think that by committing myself so wholeheartedly to my job I was ignoring another part of my life that I claimed was so much more important to me than any job could be.
It wasn’t until my mother said that she and my father hadn’t seen me in six months that it struck me how disengaged I had become from my parents, who lived only 30 minutes away. And it wasn’t until 9/11, when my brother and sister were in Manhattan and I was in Washington, D.C. that I realized my job – convincing people to watch television, for God’s sake – could not … MUST NOT come in the way of those relationships. I left HBO soon afterward. I reconnected with my parents, my siblings, my beautiful nieces and nephew. For the first time since high school I slacked off. And it was wonderful. And it was painful. I was at the hospital the night my nephew was born, and I was at the hospital with my father in his final illness. But I was there.
With my family’s help and guidance and inspiration I decided to go to grad school and embark on this path. With their support I moved to Canada for six years, but because we had strengthened that bond in the two years I was home I never felt disconnected from them. I moved to Atlanta to become a Brittain Fellow and (although I’m technically farther away from them now than I was in Ontario) we talk and email and video-chat all the time. So usually that physical distance doesn’t seem so overwhelming.
Lately, though, that distance has felt more pronounced. The gratification and excitement I feel about teaching is still there, and I am doing my best to fulfill all my obligations, while trying to find time to write and do research, but I’ve been struggling again with the question of priorities. A lot is expected of us, and I expect a lot of myself. We may talk about the flexibility of an academic life, but I am certain I spend more hours working now than I ever did at HBO. I’m not complaining. I love being engaged and working with incredibly smart people doing really exciting things. But this cannot be the whole of my life. Nor should it be.
Recently my mother said, as we were talking about some pretty intense issues, that “everybody’s got something.” We all think that what we’re going through is impossibly difficult and that those difficulties are unique. But in fact, we ALL have something in our lives that challenges us, forces us to make choices and decisions that may seem overwhelming, makes us realize that life is precious. It is through our connections with other people that we can realize that all of those somethings and the people experiencing them are equally important. It is through these connections, too, that we are reminded of our priorities. It is ok to love what you do but move it down the list a bit.
This year I’ve been hyper-sensitive to the question of employment future. What happens after the contract at Georgia Tech is up? Where will I go? Will I get a job in the academy? How much more can I do to prove myself worthy to a potential employer? Why did that person get that interview/book contract/job and I didn’t? Sometimes it is hard not to feel desperate, to wonder if there IS a future for me in this business of education. I expect many of us have these thoughts and feelings. But everybody has something. Sometimes that something is good, and we should be happy for our friends and colleagues when that good thing happens. Sometimes that something is not so good, and it is imperative that we are there for those friends and colleagues in whatever way we can be.
I like to fix things. I like to make things work. But this is one of those times when I have to accept that there is just no way to do that – not for myself, and not for you. I have no answers for how we’re supposed to deal with those particular somethings, but I do think this: 1) we need to give ourselves the time and energy to deal with what’s going on, and 2) we need to look beyond ourselves and see another person who needs our kindness and support. So I’m going to try and practice what I’m preaching. I’ll be here if you want to talk – whatever your something is. And I’m going to spend as much time as I can focusing on the one aspect of life that truly is important …