Monday, August 8, 2016

Sweet Dreams and School Nightmares

Did you ever have a dream that, when you woke up, you wondered where the heck that came from? I often have dreams that I can’t interpret, and that’s okay with me. My subconscious is working stuff out and filing away experiences and just straight-out doing weird shit while I sleep, and I’m content to let it do its thing. However, at this time of the year, I can pinpoint the exact source of my dreams. No interpretation is necessary. Welcome to the beginning of a new school year.

My first back-to-school dreams started when I transitioned from the small elementary school to the enormous junior high school. You might find these anxiety nightmares familiar as well. These are the dreams where I can’t open my locker and I’m totally late for class. Since I was so shy back then, being brought to the attention of others was a real fear. This lingers in my subconscious dream world, so that when I finally get to class, I can feel the sting of condemning eyes as I slink into the last open seat, which is, of course, in the front row by the teacher’s desk. The door, which I had forgotten to shut, closes itself with a loud bang. My humiliation is complete when I’m called out in front of the class for not bringing my textbook, which is still in that bleeping locker. After all these years, I’m still relieved when I wake up and realize I was dreaming.

In high school, my subconscious added more details to this basic nightmare scenario. Somehow, I have lost my only copy of my class schedule even after we were warned not to do this, so I have no idea where I’m supposed to be or when I’m supposed to be there. And since the high school building is even larger than the junior high was, the my-locker’s-on-the-other-side-of-the-building-and-I-don’t-have-enough-time-to-get-my-textbook nightmare works its way in there, too. It was at this point that I also started having the dreams where I’m taking a test and I don’t know any of the answers, and, quite frankly, I’m not at all sure that I’ve spelled my name correctly at the top.

College dropped another layer of anxiety into my back-to-school dreams. I now cannot find the building my class is held in or I have to take a final in a class I never attended. I have lost my math textbook, and there is no way I can afford to buy another one to replace it. I’m failing a class and will never, ever, be able to find a job if I don’t somehow manage to pass it. I am sorry to report that this education anxiety never actually leaves us – ever – and so we go on having these dreams occasionally even when our diplomas have yellowed and become brittle and frayed along the edges.

It was when I became a teacher, though, that my back-to-school nightmares reached epic proportions. It takes no interpretive skills whatsoever to understand that dream where I’m in a classroom, standing in front of thirty seventh graders who simply will not sit down and be quiet. The thought that my boss might decide to observe me during this free-for-all ratchets up the stress. Knowing that my reputation and perhaps my pay is going to be determined by how well I can communicate with, relate to, and teach these students to pass a standardized test is the final nail in my teacher-dream coffin. I wake up shaking from these dreams despite the fact that I no longer teach public school.

Actually, as a teacher educator, these nightmares serve a purpose for me now. They are powerful, personal reminders of the anxieties faced by the teacher candidates who are in my classes. Not only have these students worked their way through the worries that public school students experience, but they are simultaneously experiencing the normal anxieties of college students as well as the anxiety-ridden jobs of underappreciated public school teachers. I have not forgotten what that feels like, and I suspect that I’m a better teacher because of that.

I bid you sweet dreams, my friends. Welcome back to school.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Personal Space

When you take a class, go to church, or attend a business meeting, do you tend to sit in the same seat every time? As a teacher/student, I’ve noticed that my students and I do exactly that. Wherever we choose to sit in the first class, we gravitate toward sitting in that same seat for the remainder of the semester. When we enter the classroom, church, or conference room to find someone else sitting in our seat, our psyches experience a mini moment of crisis.

I believe that one reason for this phenomenon is that we feel more comfortable when we have a place we can call our own, even if that place is one chair in a class we only attend once a week. That desk, that seat, becomes an extension of our personal space. Within that larger space of the classroom, we psychologically carve out a small spot that we unconsciously think of as “ours.”

I am a Ph. D. student and I pay for my education by working as a graduate assistant. In other words, I teach undergraduates who want to be middle grades teachers and UGA pays me in tuition and pocket money. One of the perks of my job as a graduate assistant last school year was that I was allotted one of three desks in a former broom closet that I shared with two other GAs. I spent many, many hours at that desk and, this may sound silly, but I grew to love my little corner desk in my little office. Since I commute to UGA an hour in each direction, I felt relieved knowing that I had one tiny desk in one tiny room on the huge UGA campus that was always available for me.

Today I had to remove all my items from my tiny little office, pack them up, and take them home (it all fit in one small box.) I’m finding that the loss of this personal space is traumatic in a way I would not have expected. For me, giving up my office is more than the inconvenience of having to carry all of my teaching supplies, books, coat, and computer everywhere I go. It’s more than losing a place to store stuff and having a flat surface and a quiet space in which to work. The fact is, there’s a psychological disconnect, that moment of crisis, involved when we lose a space we called our own.

Starting next week, I will share a small room containing about six workstations with the approximately 25 GAs in my department. There will be a set of cubby shelves, like the ones in yoga studios where you store your shoes, for the temporary storage of stuff while we teach or meet with a student. There will be a small “lounge” for us to use to collaborate or to eat a quick meal. If the workstations are occupied when I arrive at school, I will have to leave my department to find someplace else to work.

I acknowledge that this is not the biggest problem in the world. It is an inconvenience and nothing more. As a matter of fact, we were told in a very nice e-mail that GAs make the world go ‘round and that we are vital to the continued successful operation of the department. We should confidently work with students, with faculty, and with other GAs knowing that we are highly valued.

Maybe as I get used to the new arrangements, it won’t be so bad. I know where the local Starbucks is, and I may make it my new home. I won’t be available to confer with my students, faculty advisors, and other grad students without making prior arrangements, but that is something that all of us will have to deal with. Right now I feel disconnected, disengaged from my job, my studies, and my commitment to finish my Ph. D. at UGA. At this huge institution, I feel like there is no space for me. Too bad I’m not part of the highly-valued football program, eh?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Art or Love?

So what would you do if someone handed you a lump of potter’s clay and told you to be creative. Keep your answers clean, people. I’m being serious here. What would you do?

 Maybe some of you would create lovely coffee mugs, figurines, or bowls. You would work the clay, loving the squishiness of it between your fingers, and you would see possibilities forming in your mind. Your talented hands would shape the clay, make love to it, transform it into a thing of beauty. Your mind would be full of ideas like “What would this lump of clay look like if I smoothed it here, added more clay there, attached a handle, made a checkerboard pattern, or painted it blue?”

You might decide to make a gift for someone you love. Your fingers would leave imprints on the clay to tacitly remind your loved one that you’re there with them, even when you’re miles away. They would be comforted by thoughts of you, remembering your agile hands molding the clay, feeling the love and time you put into the work, making the gift a perfect reflection of how you feel about them.

My talents do not lie in the “making-a-work-of-art-out-of-clay” realm. When handed a lump of clay, I inevitably will make something that my mother would have proudly put on her shelf of “special treasures” had I brought it home from kindergarten. My mother, who is still my biggest cheerleader, would swallow a grin and place my latest effort, brought home from a doctoral seminar, right next to the other one, which, bless her heart, she still has. Anyone looking at them would be hard pressed to identify which piece I made in kindergarten and which piece I made in the doc seminar.

Luckily for my mom, I made my latest clay work into a water bowl for my dog, Wreck. As long as the darn thing holds water, he’ll love it. I painted it blue and yellow, because I know that those are the only two colors dogs can see well. I wrote his name on it, lest anyone else should try to drink out of it and upset him. This water bowl is undoubtedly a work of love, if not a work of art.

It’s humbling to accept that there are some things that I'm just not going to do perfectly. But it’s empowering to realize that I can try my best and that someone, in this case my dog, will know that I love him enough to make this imperfect, lumpy clay gift for him with my own two hands. Maybe it is more about the love and less about the clay art than I thought. I like that.