Wrinkles

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I have this just-out-of-bed ritual that I follow every morning.  After successfully finding the floor with my feet, I begin making my way through my dark bedroom toward an unlit bathroom.  My eyes have adjusted by the time I reach the threshold that separates the place where I sleep from the place where I clean myself.  My hand knows exactly where the light switch is located without me needing to engage my eyes in the process of finding it.

My fingers touch the switch and I think, let there be light and then it comes, bright and jarring.  After narrowing my eyes, I step toward the wall-mounted mirror, located above the large countertop and sinks, and look at myself for a few seconds, turning my face to the right and left as I do so.  I also step toward the mirror and away from it to see myself from a variety of vantage points.

I try not to make any judgments about the face that looks back at me.  I mostly take note and catalog my observations.  I also try hard not to feel emotional about the version of Troy Headrick I happen to see on any given day.  I wish to remain detached, as cool as a cucumber or as cold as scientist.

It doesn’t take an observational genius to understand that the Troy I see now is quite a bit different than the Troy I saw twenty, ten, or even five years ago.  This is neither surprising nor disturbing.  This is simply the way things are going with my face, the direction my looks are headed now that I am firmly ensconced in middle-age.  I do not fear these changes or feel angry about them.

There is more grey hair, a bit more sag, especially above and below the eyes, and a general appearance of fatigue that expresses itself in a number of ways.  These are all signs of deterioration and demise.  Some mornings, when I’m feeling especially truthful and detached, I’ll whisper, “Troy, you know where you’re headed, don’t you?  Your face is providing you with a road map.”

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This past weekend, for the first time in quite a long time, my wife and I visited with my cousin, her husband—a man who rarely speaks, but when he does open his mouth, something worth hearing is certain to come out—and their precocious but reserved ten-year-old son.   We arranged to meet them in a Mexican food restaurant in the town where they live.

When I meet members of my extended family—I wish it happened more frequently than it does—I have this habit of blurting out that I’m older than I used to be (as if this fact wasn’t already perfectly clear).  This past weekend, as could be expected, within five minutes of us sitting down together, I said something to the effect that I’ve aged a lot recently, and I immediately felt as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders.  It was the sort of liberating feeling one might experience when sharing a weighty secret that one had long kept to himself.

My cousin, an educated woman who works in healthcare, seemed older too.  The 800-pound gorilla at our lunch table was the fact that we hadn’t seen each other for a while and now we were all taking stock, making mental notes, about all the ways each one of us had changed since our last get together.

After we’d ordered our drinks and were waiting for our meals to arrive, I launched into a mini-speech on how well my father seems to be aging.  I based this on the fact that he refuses to slow down and never complains about any of his health challenges.  Nor does he ever act as if he wants others to feel sorry for him.  I went on to say that he has apparently made peace with the idea of his own demise and noted how he was able to talk, without looking even a touch morbid, about his own death.  I put forward the hypothesis that the greatest challenge we face—this is especially true of Americans who have this unspoken belief that they are going to live forever and look beautiful in the process—is to become comfortable with our unrelenting decline.

Americans are a funny people.  They are capable of uprooting themselves and moving on to new and different jobs and new and different places, but they have a lot more difficulty dealing with changes in their bodies and appearances.  Many seem to view the ageing process as an affront, and they fight it, every step of the way, tooth and nail.

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I don’t mind physical changes near as much as I mind changes in my emotional well-being.  I hate to see a waning in my overall sense of excitement about life.  When I was a child, I woke up feeling as if each day was going to be a kind of epic adventure.  I delighted in small discoveries, like the finding of an insect crawling across a stretch of concrete.  The blueness of the sky was utterly astonishing and could fill me with giddiness.  Tying a kite to a string and then sending it five hundred feet into the air was like the coolest thing I’d ever done, the coolest thing anyone could ever possibly do.  The nights were magical.  I was delighted by chasing fireflies at dusk and then falling down into the grass and looking up into the growing darkness.

Where has that sense of magic and wonderment gone?  I can do these same things today, but the experience isn’t nearly as intense and awe-inspiring as it once was.  Perhaps I’ve seen the blue sky too many times already and am too familiar with the scene and the color?  Have I become jaded or tired or something else?

I have recently vowed that this is the thing I need to work on most in myself.  I need to find a way to recapture that delight.  But, how, precisely, does one go about doing so?

That’s the million-dollar question.  This year, I hope to find the answer to it.  If I do, I’ll be sure to blog about it here.

 

If the Price Is Right!

Woe is me!  It’s Monday, but not just any Monday.  It’s the first one after the end of last week’s Spring Break.

Now that I’m a middle-aged fart, I’m no longer disentangled enough to have the sort of foot-loose-and-fancy-free spring holidays I once had.  Way back, when I had real freedom, I would (with a long-haired friend or two) load up into some fast car, ice down a case or two of adult beverages, drive to the beach, pitch a tent, and then go walleyed nuts.

Now that I’m a home owner and such, I spent a lot of last week mowing the grass and using one of those buzzy Weed Eater thingies.  I did manage, two mornings in a row (Tuesday and Wednesday, I believe), to watch The Price Is Right on CBS.  Here in Texas, they put the long-running game show on at 10 a.m. sharp.  Right after that, on the very same station, there’s a soap opera that goes by the title The Boastful and the Bashful (or something like that).

Drew Carey is the emcee now.  Pardon me while I write that he’s a poor substitute for Bob Barker, Mr. Have Your Pets Spayed and Neutered.  (Of all the great needs in this world, I always wondered why he’d chosen to focus on the fairly minor problem of what comes from animal fornication, but that’s beside the point.)

It was my first time to have seen The Price Is Right in like forever.

Watching it again got me curious so I went online and Googled “The Price Is Right 1972” and found the following video.  It happens to show the very first episode of what they were calling The New Price Is Right.

Here are some of my thoughts after watching the vid:

  • The 70s seem nearly like ancient history (even though I remember them quite clearly).
  • That was some truly trippy background music (especially the xylophone stuff).
  • The show certainly looked amateurish (to say the least) and I’m surprised the TV powers that be didn’t discontinue it after such a start.
  • Boo-Boo (the first contestant) perhaps wasn’t a ditsy blond in real life, but she certainly played one on TV.
  • I’m amazed that a person could buy a real live automobile for such a price.

By the way, those who didn’t finish reading this blog all the way to its conclusion will receive a lovely parting gift, courtesy of American Tourister.

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 8)

I may have become a teacher by sheer accident, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to vigorously stand up for my profession or for my colleagues in the trenches.  By the way, many of these colleagues do incredibly important work under tremendous duress.

In “Teacher Autonomy Declined over Past Decline, New Data Shows,” Tim Walker writes that “classroom autonomy is a major factor in determining level of job satisfaction [among teachers]” because “it speaks to whether educators are treated as professionals.”  In other words, taking away teachers’ freedom of self-determination sends a very powerful message to those who are on the losing end of the stick.  It says we no longer trust you to make important decisions about how you do your work.  We think you are incapable of acting responsibly on your own or thinking for yourself.  We are worried that you’re going to do and say the wrong things.  So, to keep this from happening, we will provide you with a script and ask you to do nothing more than read from it.  Memorize your lines, and for heaven’s sake, don’t improvise.

Is it any wonder that so many teachers are feeling so demoralized?

Listen.  Teachers are not stupid people.  They have been educated in fine universities and deserve the sort of respect given to those with similar credentials who work in other fields.  This whole push to turn educators into functionaries (or automatons or script readers or whatever term you want to use) tells them everything they need to know about how their bosses view them.  If their “superiors” really thought they were entirely capable, then scripts and such wouldn’t be needed.  After all, a script is a kind of crutch that is given only to those who are deemed incapable of walking on their own.  Am I right?

This loss of autonomy isn’t just happening at public schools.  In fact, it happened at my last two university gigs—at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and at The American University in Cairo, in Cairo, Egypt—places where I was hired to teach credit-bearing writing, research, critical reading and thinking courses to first and second-year students.  Though both cases were bad, the most grievous took place in Egypt.

When I was first hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, instructors were allowed to design they own courses as long as they helped students meet a broad set of learning objectives.  These educational goals included helping pupils become better thinkers as a result of developing their critical reading, writing, and research skills.  Everything was fine during my first two or three years in the department.  About the fourth year I was there, though, something began to change.  Someone (or some group)—decision-making was kept pretty opaque so none of us had any real idea who was pulling the strings—decided there was too much variety in the kinds of classes being offered.  (No evidence was provided to demonstrate that this variety was having any sort of detrimental effect on students or their abilities to function within the university.)  Anyway, eventually this decision led the department to create a very prescriptive course template that was handed out to all.  Teachers could still apply to design classes provided that their proposals met a very set narrow set of parameters, many of which made no sense to most of the faculty, especially to those with many years of teaching and course development experience.

I decided to play along and turned in a proposal only to have it rejected.  This came as a shock to me since I had been a successful course designer for more than twenty-five years.  Over these decades my creations had been looked at my many dozens of sets of eyes and had passed all sorts of scrutiny.  Additionally, many of my classes had been deemed so well put together and successful that they had been offered as models to other instructors, even to those in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, the very place that was now telling me my newest proposal was a failure.

So, for the first time in my professional life I was not allowed to create a course and ended up teaching from a syllabus that was simply handed to me.  Needless to say, I never really believed in the class—I’m a veteran who has trouble teaching unless I feel that I have “ownership” of the thing being taught.  I’m sure this lack of passion manifested itself in many visible ways, which meant students could feel, from day one, that my heart wasn’t fully involved in the project.

Two semesters later, I handed in a letter of resignation and shortly thereafter said goodbye to the school after seven years.  I was certainly not alone in my decision to leave.  As a matter of fact, the department lost twenty-five percent of its instructors the term I departed.  This, by the way, was an unprecedented loss and should have sent a strong message to those in charge.

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 7)

I think I’m having a midlife crisis. Some men, when they find themselves in a similar situation, go out and buy themselves a toupee or a snazzy sports car, but that’s not my way. My way is to sit down and write about my life as a teacher. I guess you could say that this blog has become therapy.

It’s funny (and a little scary too) how big of a role the workplace plays in turning us into the human beings we eventually become. My work certainly has played a key role in causing this crisis I’m facing.

This morning, when I was getting ready to step into the shower at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to work, I started thinking about my retirement. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day when I can finally walk away from the classroom. That thought led to a memory of a conversation I recently had with a fellow who teaches at my current place of employment. He is seventy and still coming in, every day, to put in his six hours up in front of students. When I asked him about retirement, he said, “I tried that, for a while, but got bored, so I decided to start working again.”

FYI: Words you will never hear coming out of Troy Headrick’s mouth: “I got bored with retirement so I went back to work again.”

Yes, I’m sure I’m having a midlife crisis. I know this because I have little patience for silliness at work. I also have little tolerance for people who want to preach to me about how I should be doing my job. These “experts” are often about the age my children would be, if I had children. Lately, it’s been students who’ve been offering this “advice.” Would I use “anger” to describe my current mindset? Not really. I’m more like exasperated.

Lots of teachers end up getting beaten down by what our education system has become. Actually, come to think of it, it’s “schooling” that’s the problem, not education. There are important differences between the former and the latter. The former is what drives so many teachers crazy. Education is pure and wonderful. It sets us free. Schooling enslaves us. It turns us into bureaucratic idiots who have crises. The distinctions between these two is further clarified in this very interesting letter, written by Gerald J. Conti, a long-time teacher who finally decided to throw in the towel, primarily because schooling today is “data driven” and emphasizes teacher “conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core.” Conti also points out that “creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled.”

One of the things that has bothered me over the years is this: Back when I was a serious learner, when I was in college and grad school, I could honestly say that I was engaged in something noble and enriching. But not long after I became a teacher, especially at the college and university levels, I got caught up in a system that was far too often dispiriting and demeaning. Like Conti, I had to begin focusing on petty things, which turned me into a petty person. Too much of my time was spent on learning how to navigate the territory of the academic department I was working for without getting into trouble. As a result, I got good at acting like a robot and playing workplace politics but almost forgot how to read and think. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to do reading and thinking with my students.

Right here, I’d like to insert an important qualifier. My current place of employment, the institute I’ve been working at for nearly half a year, has hired me to “train,” not “teach,” even though I work in a classroom. This difference in terminology suggests something important. There is not even a hint of pretentiousness at my new gig. What I do is very mechanical and straightforward, and thus the expectations are crystal clear. This allows administrators to be a lot more honest with me, and I, in return, can be honest with myself and my students. And, as the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy.

The university taught me how to think critically and to cherish such thinking. Then I went to work and listened to a zillion school administrators speak emotively about the importance of instilling critical thinking in students. (By the way, those who practice critical thinking are, de facto, required to question everything and to accept practices, ideas, and beliefs only after they have survived a very withering scrutiny.) This double standard—critical thinking is a good thing to ask others to do and to apply to everything except us and our institution—puts teachers in a bind. They are torn between the way they have taught themselves to live and think and how their bosses tell them to live and think. My last sentence raises an important point: Being a critical thinker is about how one lives in the world and interacts with reality. It is a mode of being. Critical thinking is not something I turn on and off like a light switch. I live it all the time.

I can see that I’m doing a little critical thinking right now and wonder if I should be praised or chastised for doing so?

That’s a very good question, one I’ll have to ponder awhile. As I do so, I can feel my crisis deepening…