Saturday, March 26, 2005

U-N-I-T-Y

As long as I’ve been in education, I’ve had an ambivalent feeling about unions. On the one hand, I am a strong believer in united labor. I believe nearly every worker in the nation–maybe not Congressmen–should be unionized. United labor provides necessary protections from unjust dismissal for workers, fairer salaries in the absence of a government-mandated living wage, a safety net with benefits that the government won’t mandate–especially health insurance–and a much needed check on the assault by corporate greed.

On the other hand, I’ve been a member of the Vermont National Education Association for four of my five years at my current job, and I have a bitter taste in my mouth. (I was also a member of an American Federation of Teachers chapter at a job for one year at a previous position.) As soon as I joined the NEA in 2001, I ran for the vacant office of local vice president. I also joined the negotiations committee and filled the vacant position of building representative. Two years later, I was in charge of everything except grievances in my building and was representing members in dicey situations. I had attended meetings of the sick bank committee, which distributes extra leave time to employees in need with the consent of the superintendent. I had been interrogated by the school district’s attorney. I had done too much and burned out fast.

Clearly, someone has to be willing to do the technocratic work involved in protecting people from large-scale employers, particularly in an area that is as emotional and volatile as the work of unrelated adults with a community’s children. For united labor to be effective, the emotional pull that causes teachers to go beyond the rule of their contracts out of a vocational need to serve children cannot, in any case, be permitted to erode the boundaries between a teacher’s personal time and professional life. Somehow, parties must determine how many hours, how much money, how many days and evenings are reasonable for teachers to commit to their work in light of both pay rates and the natural need for emotional and intellectual rejuvenation. It makes sense that in the tug-of-war of negotiations, the NEA would advocate for more onservative impositions of work on a teacher’s personal life.

Beyond burn out, though, I have also become deeply discouraged by what I have come to feel is a degrading, cynical approach on the part of the NEA to the work which is, for me, a vocation and a daily profession of faith.

Next time, I will go through the ways I have become burned out by working with the NEA.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Next to Godliness

Today is my half-birthday. I’m thirty-and-a-half. I didn’t used to know that such things had a name, or that anyone marked them, until I met my ex-wife, who would at least mention them when they came up. Half way past thirty toward thirty-one. A big deal?

I used to wonder why Jesus waited until he was thirty to go public. When we (the editor and I) were kids, we used to be altar boys at an Italian Catholic church. One of the priests who was stationed there in retirement was Father Guido, no lie. He used to give the same sermon every week, and I always knew we were doing okay, that the end was in sight, when he said something like, “So Jesus lived for thirty-three years, thirty years of private life and three years of public life.” Father Guido would roll on. I always figured it was because the Catholic Church was mystified with the number three, that of course Jesus would break down his life in that way.

Maybe. But now that I’m 30.5 years old, I have a sense of what it means for life to begin at thirty. Someone I shared this Jesus’-age hypothesis with dismissed it, reminding me that even non-martyrs didn’t live that much beyond thirty, if that, back in the 0 A.D.'s. Okay, so what released him at thirty?

I know for me, it was the combination of having a little experience under my belt and enough knowledge to begin actually making a decision or two. Without realizing how blind I was, I floated into situations – yes, relationships, primarily – that I would later come to regret. When I got married at 22, perhaps I didn’t realize exactly how long “forever” would be. I figured – I actually dreamed this during sleep and waking hours – that life for me would end at 25. Figuratively, it did; I was divorced, got my first adult job, and had my first public boyfriend that year. I also first experienced losing a job, moving three or four times, and getting a better job.

But then I spent my late twenties figuring that something would just “happen” to let me know it was time to do stuff, that there would be some clue that it was time to do something. I never realized anything about what I had then: youth, stamina, cuteness, fresh energy. What hit me clean between the eyes at the end of my twenties was that anything I did was going to be my choice. That any move I make is going to have to come, ultimately, from me, and that I’m going to have to do it under my own power.

During my twenties, I often didn’t make moves I could avoid, because I realized just how infrequently my decisions were good ones. I kept the same job even when it was hard and boring; I’m glad about that. I didn’t start a master’s program; I’m ready to now. I fell in love; oops. I moved in with the love object; big oops. I underestimated my own potential; good golly.

When I teach, I’m constantly reminding myself that things my students do are developmentally appropriate. When I spent time recently at my little cousin’s tenth birthday party, I had a terrific time. In retrospect, I also remembered why I didn’t end up an elementary school teacher. The energy of the kids was wonderful, but I couldn’t imagine containing it in a classroom. Everything they did was developmentally appropriate, exactly right for that age, so it would have been foolish for me, with my lax approach to discipline, to put myself in the position of having to make naturally feisty kids sit still all day.

The same goes for me: maybe I just needed to get a little older to realize some things. For example, I’ve realized that it’s much more valuable to have great friends and family if I get up and travel to see them and if I make a little more effort to keep in touch with them. I’m also less afraid to speak up about important things, but I’ve realized that most things I used to speak about weren’t important. I’m starting to get a sense of my own personality, the fact that it’s a pretty good one, and that I don’t need to shy away from possible rejection by others.

At thirty, Jesus started to live his destiny. For me, it involves living in my first decent, home-like apartment, changing the litter box regularly, having some solid friends, dishes and glassware, decent furniture, and having bought a new car. Jesus might be appalled by some of this, but then again, living conditions were more spare in his time.

For me, though, I can relate to the idea of life taking remarkable turns and becoming newly deep and meaningful three decades in. My ideals and political views are much more coherent than they were even two years ago. I’m more immediately aware of how I’m true to my beliefs and in what ways I need to learn more. Some say that we get more conservative with age, and that may yet happen to me, but I become more liberal and less pro-authority with each year that passes. I’m less scared to act and much more aware of the experimental aspects of life. I’m more forgiving in some ways.

While I don’t believe I have a destiny, I do believe I have a path that I’m exploring and creating, and I’m willing to take that path. Jesus probably could not have done what he accomplished in life if he had tried even a year earlier. Me either. Some things take time to learn. This I finally understand.