Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Inside the Depressed Mind

Please bear with me as these memories coalesce, sometimes haltingly, sometimes with rapidity.

When I was in college, I had a few friends who suffered what I suspected were breakdowns. One of these friends took some time off from school. He later returned looking kind of shell shocked. In fact, with the distance of a decade, I wonder whether he might have experienced a shock of another kind.

One summer, we worked together. I remember I thought he might be gay and a potential romantic interest. Nothing came of it. He was serious, earnest, and kind. I could share my imagination with him. After his time away, he was a different guy. His speech was more halting, he seemed more distant, and he had a disconcerting wildness in his eyes from time to time. We still keep in touch occasionally.

Another student, a young woman, took some time off, as well. For a while, she lived near campus. I remember visiting the house where she was renting. It was an enormous old Victorian in the process of being converted into a satellite location of a prosperous local inn. That Friday of my visit, we explored the many cold rooms with their built in fixtures and large windows. We went into the attic until my friend became spooked. I went exploring in the cellar. I wanted to know every inch of that house. That same house later became the home of my dreams. I imagined young sons and daughters of mine inhabiting the rooms and living a storybook childhood. I transposed the house onto the rocky cliffs of Maine; I was enchanted.

That same night, we made supper in the ancient kitchen. My friend was familiar with whole foods and co-op shopping long before I was, and I was enthralled with the earthy, organic authenticity of it all. Making food was a deep pleasure for me.

I remember an early morning trip to a neighboring campus where my friend picked up a used standard transmission Honda hatchback station wagon. I went along because I could–just barely–drive the stick shift for her.

This friend of mine was always shy. She was kind and she often had difficulty putting her frustrations into words. She was ancestrally Jewish and came from New York. If I’d been straight, I would say I had a crush on her; from my position, I simply enjoyed her as a fascinating friend.

Time passed, and we fell out of contact. A mutual friend informed me that she had joined a cult near New York City, that her parents were distraught, and that contacting her had become impossible.

During all this time (consisting of my sophomore and junior years), I spent each day laboring under a burden so enormous that, a friend pointed out when I spoke of it recently, it’s amazing that I was able to complete any of my work for classes. Part of the burden came, I’m sure, from struggling with being gay. I thought being gay would be the end of my world, and I fought it with all the emotional and psychological energy I could muster. My power in these realms, I discovered, is enormous. My college advisor once suggested to me that my emotional mind was so powerful that, if I could harness it for positive thinking, I would have amazing capabilities.

I was also always a sensitive kid, and a bit dark. My mother can recount stories of my youthful sensitivity. My favorite is a bit more superficial and more humorous. I remember going to a “sticks and pucks” pre-hockey league for very young boys. After a trial skate or two, my parents asked me whether I would like to continue with the lessons. No way, I replied, and complained of how barbaric the whole thing was, in second grade words, of course.

I remember a summer vacation by the shore in Rockport, Massachusetts. As we walked along the wharf in the early evening, my mother laughed. She was having such fun! I thought, she’s such a good-time gal – I don’t know where I got that phrase – and I don’t know what I’d do if she died. I was always performing obsessive rituals in the hope that they would ward off an untimely death for my mother.

By sixth grade, I was almost completely isolated. I used to spend recess lonely, walking the farthest reaches of the playground while every other boy in my grade played football with the male sixth grade teacher. I remember struggling to comprehend my feelings. I didn’t know what to make of them.

That loneliness would be echoed when I headed to college, and initially, it sent me reeling. At first, I did what I always did: I buckled down and hid in my homework. My grades were good.

By the second semester, I had to drop a class and my grades sunk. The saddest day of my freshman year was Super Bowl Sunday 1993. I was ready to give out. I bawled to my parents on the phone. I was unable to wrestle away the loneliness. For the rest of the semester, I would spend Sunday afternoons by my computer, missing my parents. I wanted to live in a house with a family, not as an independent, solitary pseudo-grown-up in a dorm.

My sophomore year, I became gradually more obsessed with fighting my own homosexuality. Having a girlfriend and my first sexual experiences was interesting, but I couldn’t sustain the attraction. That summer, I returned to the camp where I had worked the previous year, but I became lost in my own sad thoughts much of the time. My doubts impaired my ability to work easily with the kids and my lack of confidence showed.

By my junior fall, I needed to start every morning in the shower talking myself into functionality. Finally, I admitted being gay and that it was possibly tolerable. I managed to connect with a friend of mine and have my first gay experiences. He made two brief trips to my parents’ house, even; I enjoyed walking on the line of acceptability. I wanted to tell my parents. He left for a study abroad. We had plans to rendez-vous that never worked out. I descended into an emotional hell. I had my first flush time of a fairly open gay life on campus. I spent spring semester celibate but active. Things between me and my first boyfriend became awkward through the mail; I became paranoid and suspicious and he finally wrote me off. I convulsed emotionally and suffered from paranoia.

I started a relationship with the woman whom I would marry and divorce. I lived off campus with her during my senior year. Each morning, again, I would awake in terror in agony. I would go to her room, and she would talk me into the ability to face the day. She would spend evening after evening talking with me, carefully reasoning me out of my paranoia and hysteria – first about my ex-boyfriend, then about an unending myriad of anxieties. She was patient and kind; my love with her was sincere.

During this time, I began to confront more and more what I referred to as “the aches”. Today, untraceable body aches are listed as a sign of depression. In 1995, they weren’t on the literature I looked at. I was sure I had a horrible disease. Cancer? AIDS? Something else debilitating?

Even today, I have to talk myself out of such anxieties–lately it’s been Parkinson’s. The aches went on into my post-graduate year in Boston and into my life in Vermont. When I was distracted and socially involved or working on a serious intellectual challenge, I forgot the aches. In my quiet moments, they were nearly paralyzing and were terrorizing harbingers of illness and death. I could barely move; somehow, I kept going.

During a required physical exam in the fall of 1998, I finally cracked and told the doctor about my hypochondria. He probed further and I gushed forth with what I deemed a shameful recounting of my obsessiveness, anxiety, and mystery aches. He prescribed medication – I remember starting it on December first – and the aches gradually went away. It was miraculous; I could function again.

During the spring and summer of 2003, an ex-partner encouraged me to quit my medication. I tried it, and the old, familiar terrors, paralysis, untraceable pains, and unremitting fear returned. As my ex-wife had done, he walked me through my mornings, got me out the door, and was my crutch in the evening. When it was clear that a relationship with him was hazardous to me for other reasons, I broke up with him, and finally succeeded in ending things on the third try. But then I was alone. I became a nervous wreck. My body shook all the time. I was seized with terror whenever I was alone. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk to friends, family, or co-workers without edging on hysteria.

My family and some of my friends were loving and kind. My parents were tremendously frightened, as I was relying on them in my worst moments of panic. There was no significant other to buffer the onslaught of my despair and emotions. Many people didn’t understand, and I lost some friends. Finally, I started a new medication. I began a slow, slow crawl out of despair. Most mornings, I would wake up an anxious wreck. Conversation with my housemate was an invaluable life raft, helping me get emotionally upright in the mornings. She helped me laugh at myself just when I needed to. Nonetheless, any disruption to my routine could start a panic attack, and I had special prescription medication for those occasions, as well.

There were days when I taught classes barely able to speak without stumbling over my words. But I kept on going with the support of my principal and our lead guidance counselor.

Today, I feel small shadows of that anxiety many days, but I am managing to stay well connected with people who give me a sense of belonging and value. I work on my individual, interior life with the help of a long-term therapist–and the journey is intellectually exciting as well as emotionally necessary. I do not dread time alone. Sometimes, I respect my own mind, body, and personality. Sometimes, my medication makes me shaky; if I drink caffeine, I can nearly start stuttering! Often, I astound myself at how well I manage despite the internal vibrations of my mind and pulse that seem to threaten to take over and shake me to the ground.

I don’t know how I manage to persevere. Maybe it is that incredibly powerful emotional mind my advisor spoke of. But I remember thinking many times that the difference between my two friends’ inability to hold on and my own ability to continue seemed so fragile and undefined. I was glad I was on the functional side of the line; I was humbled and sometimes scared by the subtle differences of mind that allowed me to continue in society where others cannot. I do not believe this makes me superior, though; only slightly better adapted to modern life. Modern culture –with its pace, pressure, intolerance, violence and waste –make survival as a different, sensitive person difficult and, at times, intensely painful.

I am currently experiencing a strong upswing in my life, but I am always acutely aware of the presence of depression and anxiety in my life. I look forward and move on, but with a profound sense of my fragility.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

There's a Feeling Inside I Can't Explain

Dear John,

It’s taken me six months to start coming to terms with what happened this fall. At first, I was just too shocked to know what to say. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I couldn’t believe you would give up on things the way you did. That you would be the waffler they all said you were.

With Howard gone, I agreed to be with you. I believed folks when they said you would fill that space in my heart, that you would try harder to give me what I need. I figured you would ignore those others, that even though you were more like them, that you could be with someone like me. But you must understand, I loved Howard more than any of the guys in the gang. I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I liked his spunk and his honesty. He agreed to a civil union, so long as the ceremony was in private. I didn’t like everything he insisted on, but I could live with it. And he was so intelligent–not unlike you–and spoke with such conviction, against the war especially. I admired that about him.

But with him gone and with no where else to turn, I felt my choice was between you and independence. And I thought, for the good of everyone involved, that you could give me what I needed. But I never loved you. And I knew you well before Howard, though hardly as well. We go back twenty years; Howard and I were involved for less than half that. When I knew you best, a decade ago, I thought you shared my goals and would stick to your principles. But people were right: you never could quite make up your mind. You would fight in a war and then oppose it. You would speak in favor of a cause but then turn your back on your friends–like all the women we know who need control over their own bodies–when the pressure was on.

You know, the problem with you is that you have no courage. Given what you went through in Vietnam, most of us figured you had the gumption to stand by your principles and identify yourself with whatever people and causes you wanted. But you’ve lost something. Or maybe you never had it. These days, you’re always so busy looking over your shoulder, wondering what other people are thinking. Always, “That’s too weird,” and “Now, now, let’s be polite.” And look where your damn politeness got you.

As things went along, you made me feel like a freak. Am I welcome in your church or not? Do you want to be seen in public with me or not? I paid my share of the bills, just like I did with Howard, but sometimes I think that’s all you wanted: my unconditional support. Well, it’s a two way street, John, and you failed to treat me as a real person and to deliver on your promise to make things better. We talked of commitment, and then the court in your home town said it would be legal for guys like us to marry, and you told me you weren’t interested, that we should stick with getting a civil union in Vermont. That took no guts.

The end came last fall, when you said you’d uproot the bushes so they wouldn’t come up next year. And then, when I thought the job was nearly done, you were gone–and you hadn’t accomplished anything. Now I’ve heard that you’re hanging out with those safe, boring losers you always preferred, but that you might come knocking on my door in the future, hoping for another relationship. Are you nuts? You are so out of my realm of possibilities at this point that I hope you have the good sense to let it go. You’re not what I’m looking for, and I’m sorry I ever thought you were. I’m not jealous, either. I’m mad. I’m angry for trusting you, disappointed by your weak will, and feeling foolish that I sacrificed my independence for you. It wasn’t worth it. You’re not worth it.

Back when I was with Ralph, people used to laugh, say he was goofy and weird, that he wasn’t the kind of guy you commit to. But he never betrayed me or lied to me. At least I knew who he was, and he let me be me. Now that I’m hanging out with folks more like me and avoiding your parties, there are times of hopelessness and confusion, but they’re well worth it. I know who I am and what I believe. And I’ve come to realize it’s better to be faithful to myself and my principles than to sell myself out to someone who will betray my deepest values and not be able to follow through for me in my darkest hour.

You’ve left things a mess, John, but this won’t last forever. I know I deserve better. We all do.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

A More Perfect Union

In my last article, I looked at the good and important work that teachers’ unions sometimes do and considered my past contributions to my local teachers’ association. In this article, I examine their aspects that I find discouraging and counterproductive to the best interests of students and of many teachers.

My first problem with the NEA is that they use my money, nearly $500 of it each year, to defend incompetent and foolish teachers who do stupid things that are bad for the students I care about and teach. I cannot go into any manner of specifics. However, I have seen a number of my co-workers fight disciplinary action and even dismissal after clearly breaking the boundaries of professional conduct in the classroom and with students. In other cases, they were merely incompetent in their positions and sometimes abusive toward students. In every case, the teachers were represented – even in cases where they were clearly and egregiously guilty of shameful conduct.

Though I was not privy to the grievance or case information in these circumstances, it is generally understood that the NEA helps bad teachers get “bought out” of their contracts for the remainder of the school year during which they are relieved of their duties. They purportedly continue to receive their full salary and benefits–while the school district pays for a replacement–without working another day. To my mind, this abuses the system, particularly by wasting precious resources on buy-out pay and legal hours. These resources could pay for classroom supplies, field trips, or even pay raises for those of us who are doing our jobs. In those ways, protecting egregiously incompetent teachers hurts kids. My students lose out, and I don’t like my money used to the detriment of my students’ education. Why am I paying to defend incompetence?

Second, the NEA, at least in Vermont, is heavily interested in representing senior staff over newer teachers and mediocrity over any form of meritocracy. New teachers are often paid less than half the salary of the most senior teachers for the same work. To make double what another person makes for presumably identical duties is outlandish and intolerable. This bothers me for two chief reasons. In these cases, all teachers pay the same dues and need the same representation in negotiations. However, some teachers are given more and better advocacy. Also, the presumption of qualification for better pay is based on two factors: seniority and level of education.

In each case, quality is of no consideration. Twenty-five years of sticking to the time clock and school calendar, distributing worksheets and showing movies, is equated with a quarter century working before and after school, evenings, and summers, carefully planning curriculum, assessing student work, and building positive connections with students. As for education, a Masters in history from Harvard or in education from Brown or Columbia is equated with an amalgamation of credit hours in education from a variety of diploma mills that work specifically to help teachers advance in the pay scale. I should know: that’s how I’ve earned my raises so far! How could the system do it differently? There are many possibilities, none of which can be tested in unionized districts thanks to the tenacity of the NEA in basing raises on things that mean little in practice. And since these factors mean little, as they are not evaluated for quality, why not pay teachers fairly equally with, say, the top teachers making no more than 25% what the newest teachers make? Such a plan would bring all teachers to a centralized figure and raise beginning teacher pay out of the gutter; but the NEA won’t have it. Why am I paying for these priorities?

My third argument has to do with creativity. In instance after instance, the NEA has shown itself opposed to change. The school day is strictly defined to exclude times that might better suit our students’ learning or conferencing with parents. The school year preserves a chunk of the calendar year during which our students’ abilities wane, especially among poorer students without access to challenging summer activities. A slightly shorter school day, spread over more of the school year and with vacations more sporadically distributed, would serve kids better. But the NEA says no. Administrators try to implement flexible scheduling. A grievance is filed. Teachers with minimal assignments have their responsibilities beefed up. A grievance is filed. A team of teachers works extra hours for special programs. A grievance is filed. A volunteer tries to work in the school (as famously happened in my district years ago). A grievance is filed. A principal observes a class without warning and writes a negative report. A grievance is filed. An administrator fails to have a teacher sign an observation report within a number of days. It is invalidated.

In my time as a teacher, I have yet to see a union take up the drive for innovative methods and better learning for students. The NEA is worse than the AFT in this regard, as the NEA pays lip-service to innovation and professionalism, while the AFT is more at home simply as a protector of workers. Second to bad administrators, unions can be the most conservative, retrenchant elements in a school. In my experience, the people who run to the unions and the grievance process are the most cynical, the most negative, the ones who are doing the least work, and the ones who want special exceptions for themselves over others. Why am I paying for their antics?

Sometimes, teachers’ associations take up progressive causes. They have given me good guidance on occasion. They even support some of the same political candidates I do, though many of their choices are Democrats far too vested in the status quo and the mainstream to advance truly fine public education. In too many instances, though–and perhaps because of my belief in the potential for creative organized labor–I find myself deeply disappointed in the work of teachers’ unions. So, what can be done?

Teachers’ unions could do proactive work that includes weeding through staff regularly to see who needs individual development–especially among new and burned-out teachers–in the areas of content, instruction, and understanding of student behavior. Unions could be the vanguard in pushing schools to adopt more integrated, more relevant, more flexible structures. Unions could take the lead in encouraging alternatives to the predominant factory model of education. Unions could encourage the ethic of working beyond the strictures of the master contractual agreement, instead seeing the document as a base minimum of performance rather than as a cap on the responsibilities for members. Unions could rely on tenure chiefly as a protector of intellectual freedom rather than as institutional formaldehyde.

Unions could place themselves at the beck and call of the most innovative, diligent teachers, rather than devoting the majority of resources to the whiny, the uncreative, and the incompetent. Unions could measure their success in negotiations not by the salaries of the highest paid teachers in the highest paid districts, but by the lowest paid teachers in every district. Unions could acknowledge the current pay differential by basing dues on a percentage of one’s salary, perhaps one percent. Unions could encourage careful, in-depth research into how teachers are paid, collaborating with school boards to identify new, more valid variables besides longevity and education upon which to base pay increases. Unions could encourage fairness in compensation between comfortable rich districts and struggling poor districts. Unions could believe enough in their members’ talents to welcome charter schools and to explore forms of public school choice.

They don’t, though, not as a rule. So while I’m not making any concrete decisions about my future relationship to the NEA, I remain deeply disappointed by the priorities of teachers’ unions today.