That middle-age perspective
By Cindy Reitzi
I recently had a birthday. Now that I’m “middle-aged” – the territory somewhere between “old fogy” and “fossil” – birthdays sometimes make me ponder some of the philosophical definitions of maturity. Put in perspective, in another historical era I’d now be considered elderly. So really, I’m grateful I’m only middle-aged nowadays.
The chief gift of middle age in teaching and life is perspective. Perspective takes several forms: having “big picture” capacity for snapshot, intuitive analysis of situations; a mental stillness where thinking precedes reaction; and finally, just letting things go. It’s a complicated state of simultaneous engagement in the moment and thinking detachment. It’s momentary wisdom in action. It’s having a third eye: ability to stand outside yourself and watch versus a mere visceral, neurological response.
I’ve found that situations in my other job often put this teaching perspective in high relief. For example, the things that shock or offend non-teachers just seem to roll off my back. Which makes me wonder: Have I just gotten used to unacceptable behavior and language from high school students (the kind of behavior that, outside of a protective school environment, would get my charges fired from jobs or decked in bars out in the “real world”)? Or, do I have “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time” without going crazy (as F. Scott Fitzgerald alluded)?
Maybe I just have a thicker hide than when I started teaching.
I also work as a parking lot cashier. For special events (concerts, plays and the like), city lots charge customers $3 ahead of time to be paid in cash only. Customers sometimes overlook the large yellow sandwich sign which reads, “$3.00 Pay on Entry. Cash Only” and hope to pay with a credit card. We then have to resolve the situation by letting them turn around or back out to exit. One patron wanted to pay with a check. She asked twice; I said no twice. Sensing her growing frustration, I was just ready to explain how she could exit, when my co-worker, Don, impatiently and more definitely repeated, “No checks. Cash only.”
The patron spat back, “[Expletive]! You can’t talk to me like that. I’m a young adult. I deserve respect!”
“Young” she was; but “adult”? Debatable.
This is where my teacher perspective kicked in since this was familiar territory. I smirked to myself, wondering how well the cussing campaign was working to garner respect and admiration from others.
I found the situation ironic and humorous. My co-worker did not. To be fair, I wasn’t the person being sworn at. Don was offended and nursed his hurt the rest of the evening. I encouraged him to let it go because she clearly wasn’t worth the emotional effort, but sometimes that’s easier said than done.
In an effort to cheer him, I persisted, “Aw, c’mon, Don. If I got upset every time a kid swore at me, I wouldn’t be in teaching.”
“Well, I’d never GO into teaching. I’d be knocking heads,” Don said.
I realized that I’d reached a sort of balance point in substitute teaching: students swearing at me had become more of an occupational annoyance than the devastating incident it was when I was a young teacher. I had achieved stillness and detachment; I was mighty; I was super sub; I was above it all.
But … just when I was feeling smug, superior, and above the fray with my mature perspective, I was humbled. All it took was a vitriolic volley of verbal buckshot, blasted out of nowhere, when I made a reasonable request of a student in the library.
All it took was the class from hell: scores of the tragically immature students who wander the small classroom without focus and who harass each other with the standard barrage of “stupid”/ “ugly” comments; or who slap-box each other in some hormonal mock-fight playground version of pro-wrestling. In short, the class where you have to boot half of them out so learning takes place and where you wonder what mysterious programming fashioned this particularly rancid brew of acid and alkaline.
Yes, teaching has a way of biting you in the backside just when you’re feeling a little too cocky and need reminding that there are no surefire assurances or formulas in teaching, and that complacency is dangerous.
Maybe, just maybe, this is how I got all that perspective in the first place.
May 10, 2006