We took our students on a field trip recently, and several of the presenters asked us teachers, “How do you do it?” Most of them taught college, and our kids, while well behaved, are a very different audience. “How do you do it?” they exclaimed. Followed up with, “How do you have the energy?” and “How do you have the patience?”
I had a migraine yesterday, and I came back to work shaky and tired, so when a kid this morning murmurred, “I hate her,” because I wouldn’t let her turn off the air conditioning and roast us all in our own juices, I murmurred to myself, “I hate you more.” Not so she could hear me or anything. Just under my breath, in the style of someone wildly immature or completely insane. I don’t hate her as a general rule. I just hated her in that particular moment. Today, I obviously didn’t have the patience.
I don’t know how to answer these “How do you do it?” questions. Sometimes people ask that of someone with a serious illnesses or disability, and I always think it’s a dumb question. What else are you going to do when you get cancer? Sit down and cry and watch TV for the rest of your days? You do what you have to do. People want to survive. People are tough. Saying “How do you do it?” is also a way to distance someone, to suggest that they are doing something you could never do, and will never have to. Anyone can get sick. You would be sick if you were sick. You would manage. You would have to.
I guess everyone doesn’t have to teach high school, though. It is my own dumb fault that I have such a hard job. I like to do hard things, though. I actually, deep down, crave challenge.
The hardest thing for me at work is not being with the kids or repeating myself or planning appropriate, clear lessons (although that stuff is hard). It’s that I’m an introvert in a pretty extroverted job. When I’m really about to lose it, all I want to scream is, “Stop talking to me! Just leave me alone!” Which is a completely crazy thing to say to a room full of people whom you are supposed to be leading somewhere.
By April, I don’t have the energy, and I don’t have the patience, and I can’t stand anyone else talking to me about anything, even if I like you very much. I show up at work tired, and I leave more tired. The fact that I can teach at all is miraculous to me. It wears me down so much that it forces me to think saner and act saner.
When you’re exhausted, you have to take the day moment by moment, and not zoom ahead. You can’t be doing three things at once, like you usually would. You have to stop and make a joke, or break the tension, to bring energy back into the room, just so you won’t freak out or collapse. You have to compliment people and show unnecessary kindness because these are the only fruits you’ll find in the desert of fourth quarter. Fourth quarter, you are desperate. And desperation is actually much closer to sanity than you’d imagine.