Office Hours

A true story from early in my teaching career. Sometimes, students need things from us that we simply do not have to give.

Names have been changed (except mine).

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“May I speak with you Mrs. Anna?”

“Yes of course, Adnan. That’s why I have office hours. Come in.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Anna. I have some questions about the assignment.”

He stood out from the start. Most of his English-as-a-second-language classmates had come to the university high school on student visas, bent on getting a Canadian diploma to expedite admission to Canadian universities. They hailed mainly from well-heeled families from Malaysia and Hong Kong. Adnan was a thirty-five year old political refugee of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

We spent the hour poring over his paper, talking about thesis statements and the finer points of English grammar. The tutoring session made me feel very teacherly. At twenty-five, I was acutely aware of being younger than many of my students. I deliberately dressed to look older and wore my recently acquired “Mrs.” as a badge of maturity.

“Thank you for your help Mrs. Anna. May I come another time?”

“Of course.  See on my schedule where it says ‘Office Hour’ – those are the times that I will be here to answer your questions.” I headed off to my next class, leaving him squinting earnestly at the timetable taped to my office door, carefully noting my office times in the front of his student handbook.

He started coming regularly. At first I didn’t think much of it. Most of my students were reluctant to ask for help, so there wasn’t exactly a lineup at my office door. And he seemed so keen.

One late October day I called in sick. Propped up in bed with my book and my cold meds, I left the ringing phone to my husband. I could hear his side of the conversation in the next room, but couldn’t make enough sense of it to guess who was at the other end.

“Who the heck is Adnan? And why is he calling to ask why you aren’t at school?”

“Seriously? He’s a student.”

“You give your home phone number out to your students?

“No! I have no idea how he got this number. I’ll ask at the office tomorrow.”

The receptionist looked like she might throw up. All I said was, “Do you have any idea how Adnan might have acquired my personal phone number? Because he called my home yesterday to ask why I wasn’t at school.” The blood drained from her face and she looked down at her desk.

“I’m so sorry Anna. I know I shouldn’t have given him your number, but there was no one else around and he was so threatening I didn’t know what he would do if I refused. He was in the Afghan military, you know. He’s trained in hand-to-hand combat!  I was just so scared.”

Adnan showed up on cue for my next office hour, expressing concern for my state of health. I struggled to convey the inappropriateness of his behaviour. He clearly didn’t understand the nature of the boundaries he had crossed, so I finally just said point-blank that he must not call me at home. Ever. He seemed to be willing to respect a direct command.

My cold lingered, and a few days later I stayed home again. At suppertime, my husband arrived home from his on-campus job and appeared in the bedroom doorway with an expression of wry amusement. “I met Adnan.”

“You what?”

“He figured out I worked on campus and tracked me down at my office. You told him not to phone you at home, but apparently he took that literally and found another way to check up on you.”

“Oh crap. I’ll try talking to him again. This is ridiculous.”

“He does seem kind of… intense.”

I was inclined to agree. The next day I was back at my desk, plodding through a mountain of marking, when he appeared at my door bearing two large Styrofoam cups of cafeteria coffee.  “Hello Mrs. Anna. I thought since you have a cold you would enjoy a hot drink.”

“Uh. Thanks, Adnan, but you really don’t need to buy me coffee. What I mean is, you really shouldn’t buy me coffee. And why did you seek out my husband yesterday? I told you that it wasn’t appropriate for you to be trying to contact me outside of school. And you really shouldn’t be bothering my husband when he’s working! Ever.”

He smiled sheepishly. The coffees sat untouched between us on the corner of my desk. “I am sorry that I have upset you Mrs. Anna. When you are not here it is difficult for me. You are always very helpful.”

“That’s another thing Adnan. I want to talk to you about the amount of time you are spending in my office. You know that I am always willing to answer your questions about the course, but you need to start trying to work more independently. My office hours are for all of my students, and it isn’t fair for one student to monopolize my time.”

“But Mrs. Anna, your other students are not here. Clearly they do not want to talk to you, but I do.” He looked pleased with this ironclad logic.

Sigh. “Adnan, perhaps they are never here because you are always here. Besides, I also need to use some of this time to mark assignments… for all my students.”

The arrival of December mid-term exams meant less time in the classroom and more open-ended office time. I was working my way through grading a set of papers one afternoon when he appeared unannounced with, improbably, a Christmas gift. “Uh… Adnan, we’ve talked before about you not buying things for me.” But he insisted. And so I opened the tiny box to reveal an exquisite pair of silver and mother-of-pearl earrings.

Uh oh.

“Adnan, these are lovely, but it’s a very, um … personal gift.” He looked puzzled. I grasped unsuccessfully for the right words to make him understand my hesitation. He insisted on leaving the earrings with me, wished me a happy holiday, and left me there wondering what on earth I was going to do next.

I still had second term to get through. There was no other class he could be transferred to, and it seemed impossible to make him understand my discomfort with his constant attention.

January came and went and Adnan continued to be my best office hour customer. While his English skills were clearly improving as a result, his grasp of personal boundaries was not. But I could never quite put my finger on what the exactly the relationship meant to him.

Finally, with spring in the air and final exams looming, I mustered the courage to ask. “Adnan I need your help to understand something. You are spending so much time in my office, but I really don’t think you need so much help to do your work. What is it that you really want from me?”

Panic flickered across his face, and then he blurted, “I want you to be my mother.”

“What? Adnan, I am ten years younger than you. What on earth do you mean by that?”

He put his head in his hands and started to shake. Then, composing himself, he whispered hoarsely, “I am a refugee. I can never go home. I will never see my parents again. In my country, parents are very important. There are certain decisions that parents must make. If I want to marry, I must go to my parents and ask them who should I marry. If I want to take a job, I must go to my parents and ask them what is the right job for me. If I want to buy a home, my parents must advise me. I want you to be my mother because my own mother and father can never again do these things for me.”

“Oh, Adnan. This is Canada. Here, when we become adults, we make those decisions for ourselves. You are asking for something I cannot give you.”

“Then, what will I do?” His lip quivered.

“You will need to learn to make your own life decisions. You can’t expect to find someone who will do that for you.”

I watched him visibly shrink. This man who could take down an opponent with his bare hands looked up at me with the fear-filled eyes of a small child who had just been told he was now alone in the world.

He continued to drop in during office hours, even when there were no more assignments to discuss. When my last exam was marked and all my grades submitted, I sat down across from him in the cafeteria and told him firmly that, since I was no longer his teacher, he must not try to contact me any more. Ever.

I saw him on the bus once. He never made eye contact.

 

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Imposter syndrome

I wrote in an earlier post that I don’t often remember my dreams. When I do remember them, it’s generally because they are particularly memorable. Or, in the case of my most frequently recurring dream, particularly familiar.

During the 20ish years when I taught school, the back-to-school dream was an annual fixture. It generally happened in late August, just as I was starting to gear up my prep for the new school year. The dream took on different variations from year to year, but there were always predictable elements.

Typically the dream begins with me arriving at a new and unfamiliar school. I don’t know my way around, I’m late, and I can’t find my classroom. When I do eventually make my way to my assigned room, the students are already there and in a state of near riot. By the time I have restored order, I have also discovered that I have been assigned to teach a subject for which I singularly unqualified and thoroughly unprepared. Physics, typically, or some form of highly advanced mathematics.  Either that or it is a language course in a language about which I know absolutely nothing. Greek, perhaps. Or Mandarin Chinese.

Regardless of the specifics, the common element is that I am always inadequately prepared to take command of my class.

It’s a long time since my teaching activities have corresponded with the traditional school year, but I still engage in activities that can trigger the back-to-school dream. I’m coming to the end of a week of teaching an intensive summer course at my neighbourhood university  and, sure enough, the dream resurfaced last week as I was gearing up to start this course.

In this recent incarnation of my back-to-school dream I am team-teaching with a former English professor of mine—a fellow who I remember as being very intelligent, but verbosely full of himself. Although we are supposed to be jointly teaching this class, it appears that we have actually been assigned to teach two different courses simultaneously to the same unfortunate group of students. This time I arrive in good time, ahead of most of the students, and seat myself at one end of a large seminar table. I think to myself that he can sit at the other end, so we will be positioned as equals. When he arrives, however, the room rearranges itself in a manner that only happen in dreams and Harry Potter stories, and I find myself seated with the students in what has morphed into the upper tiers of a vast lecture theatre. My colleague finally arrives. Or rather, he makes an entrance. Dressed like Elvis at the height of the satin and sequins, he launches into a bizarre blend of lecture and concert that goes on forever. One of the students seated near me whispers a question to me about my course outline. Before I can respond, the other professor interrupts his performance just long enough to chastise us for not paying attention. I become acutely aware that we are nearing the end of the scheduled lesson time, and I have still not had an opportunity to even introduce myself. Suddenly, a door bursts open and in rolls a long buffet table decked out in vast quantities of expensive cheese.

That’s where the dream ends, with me feeling flabbergasted and frustrated.

None of this has anything remotely to do with my actual experience in a real-world classroom. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching the course I am engaged with this week. It fascinates me, therefore, that the anxiety and feelings of impostership that are clearly at the root of such dreams are so deep-seated that they still send up shoots at a point in my teaching career when, at a conscious level, I am really quite confident about what I am doing.

What I find especially interesting about the latest incarnation of the dream is the “Elvis” figure hogging the stage and preventing me from doing my thing. Teaching is, in many ways a form of performance. In the dream, I know I am prepared to teach my course, but I am prevented from “stepping on stage.”

No matter how confident and competent I am as a teacher, it seems there will always be that small voice whispering in my ear, “What if I bomb this time? What if they hate me? What if I can’t command their attention?”

And seriously, how come no one ever arrives spontaneously in my classroom with a cheese buffet?

Miss Miller draws a tree

Another of my earliest posts– inspired by one of my many walks along the riverbank.

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I looked at a tree today and was reminded of my fourth grade teacher. Miss Miller was pretty memorable on a number of counts, not the least of which was her purple pantsuit.  The year I was in grade four was the year that the school board relaxed the staff dress code, and for the first time female teachers were allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and dresses. But they had to be pant SUITs. And Miss Miller, clearly happy to embrace this brave new skirt-less world, frequently sported  the purplest of purple pant suits you could possibly imagine.

Miss Miller seemed ancient to me, but looking back now I think she must have been in her 40’s. She was a little exotic because she was most adamantly Miss Miller—whereas all my other teachers to date had been Mrs. so and so. (This was before anybody I knew was called Ms!) She was tall and lanky, and she taught very difficult fourth-grade things like long division. To tell the truth I was a bit scared of her at the start.

But what I remember most about Miss Miller was the day she taught us how to draw a tree.

I knew this lesson was especially important to her, because she cancelled Math to do it.

A small forest of lollipop trees
A small forest of lollipop trees

“All right class, today I’m going to teach you how to draw a tree that actually looks like a tree. I’ve been seeing a lot of you drawing trees that look like lollipops sticking up out of the ground.” And she drew some examples on the chalkboard.

“Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tree that looks like a straight stick with a perfectly round ball perched on the top? I thought not.” She vigorously erased the offending drawing.  “ When you draw a tree you need to think about how it grows…”

And then she proceeded to draw a real tree, all the while talking through how she was doing it—how the trunk forked out into large branches which in turn diverged into smaller branches, and so on. How you would never have a large branch growing out of a smaller branch. How the tree branched out to reach the light.

“Every part of the tree has to be connected back to the trunk—you can’t have branches just sticking out at random. And if you could see under the ground, you would find that the roots of the tree branch out in just the same way.” At which point she drew an elaborate root structure for her chalkboard tree.

It was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to be able to draw a tree like that. She handed out art paper and instructed us to draw a tree. I laboured over that assignment with greater sense of purpose than I ever had for long division. I drew a passable tree, and I have conjured Miss Miller every time I have ever had occasion to draw a tree since.

My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree
My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree

But what I realized only recently is that the best part of Miss Miller’s lesson was that she taught me how to SEE a tree. She taught me to pay attention to how things grow. She taught me that things in nature are shaped the way they are for a reason. She taught me that creating art was a way of learning about the world.

The long division was useful too, but I think the lessons I learned from drawing that tree had a deeper impact.

Seeing the whole picture

Albert* was one of the old-timers who sat at the back of the room, moseying their way through high school on the extended plan. To be honest, I suspect that the unspoken consensus among my teacher colleagues was that Albert’s chances of graduating were pretty slim.

In a small Manitoba town in the mid 1980’s Albert’s outward appearance was guaranteed to evoke judgement.  He wore threadbare t-shirts with rock band logos, torn never-washed jeans, and long greasy black hair, perpetually falling in front of his eyes and draped across a complexion ravaged by adolescence and poor nutrition. I never knew whether he lived in town or commuted from the Reserve up the highway. I suspect that there was some degree of undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Effect in Albert’s story. The teachers who attempted to teach him Math and English despaired over his erratic attendance. But I was the Art teacher, and Albert, I discovered, was an artist.

Albert’s attendance in art, while far from perfect, was somewhat more regular than his attendance in his academic courses. He sat in the back corner of the art room, head down, eyes hidden by his heavy black hair, deeply entranced by whatever project I had conjured up for the week.  Whatever the assignment, Albert produced something beyond my expectations.

In a big city school Albert might have had the option to rack up all manner of high school credits in a comprehensive arts program. But all I had to offer him was one credit per year of his high school career. And at the rate he was going he was going to run out of art options before he ran out of years.

The more I got to know Albert, the more I ached over the disconnect between his artistic talent and the way that everything else about school conspired to beat him down. I wished there was something more I could do provide him with some validation.

One day I had a brainwave. Remembering that there was a process to create a special project for credit, I proposed to Albert the idea of creating a mural. To my delight, he agreed.

And then the bureaucracy began. First the principal hemmed and hawed. He was not a man given to making decisions if he could possibly help it. I suspected that, had Albert been a more conventionally studious student, the answer might have come quicker. Eventually consent was given, on the condition that I consult with the School Division office regarding the acceptable kind of paint to use on the school walls. After another lengthy runaround, I was informed by a bemused Director of Facilities that ordinary latex paint would be just fine. For a location, we agreed on a boring segment of hallway that joined the two wings of the school.

All that was left was the matter of the mural composition. Fearing that I was going to have to go to battle to defend Albert’s artistic freedom, I asked him to draft a prototype on paper before starting. I waited nervously to see what Albert would come back with, scarcely able to imagine what he would propose. Given that his overall school experience had been less than uplifting, I envisioned something dark and angrily abstract.

Albert sought me out late one afternoon. “I’ve got my picture for the wall.” He unrolled a sheet of poster paper, and revealed, to my astonishment, an exquisite sketch of a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs in front of a backdrop of lush green forest. I said all the right approving things, but all I could think was “where did that come from?!”

Albert toiled for weeks, painstakingly recreating his work as a mural that spanned roughly 8 feet of hallway. The result was stunning. The other teachers didn’t say much, but once in a while I would catch them looking with veiled astonishment and grudging respect at Albert’s creation. Whatever else they might have thought about Albert, we all saw a part of him we had never imagined was there whenever we passed through that hallway.

I only spent two years at that school, leaving for a position in the city before Albert graduated. I don’t know if he ever did. I have always wondered what became of him. I hope that he found something worthwhile to take him far away from that town. I went back myself a few years ago, and had occasion to walk through the halls of the school.

Albert’s mural had been painted over.

It broke my heart.

When I knew I wanted to write this story, I combed through my albums in search of the one photo I remember taking of the mural. I couldn’t find it.

And it broke my heart all over again.

paint-wall-lg_A2

 

*name has been changed.

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Daily Prompt: Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.

Recognized, but not that way

The Daily Prompt asks, “As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? How close or far are you from that vision?”

Famous. I wanted to be famous. I blame the acting classes, and the modicum of success I experienced in the grade nine musical theatre production. Oh and I’m sure all those piano lessons were a contributing factor. To be honest, I wasn’t very specific about what I wanted to be famous at. So long as I was famous.

At some point in my early 20s I do recall pausing to reflect on how I would know when I had achieved fame, and I came up with an elegantly simple measure. For me, being famous meant that people I didn’t know personally would recognize me  and know who I was.

So thirty years later how am I doing?

To begin with, having spent so much of my career teaching in one form or another, I have amassed three decades worth of former students. One thing about being a teacher is that there is generally one of me with a whole roomful of students, multiplied by class after class, year after year. And, to be brutally honest, unless you were really exceptional (either for good or ill), the odds of me remembering your name fifteen or twenty years later are a little iffy. But you remember me, because I was the one performing at the front of the room. So when you rush up to me in the mall to say hi, I must admit that I experience that moment as if someone I don’t know has recognized me. It’s flattering, but a little disconcerting, especially when I really don’t remember any details of our time together.

Secondly, because of a series of management roles I have held, both in the independent high school where I taught, and more recently in the public service, my name has, for years, appeared publicly. I have, for at least two-thirds of my working life, been the person who is named as being officially in charge of something. Consequently, over the years there have been particular contexts in which I could introduce myself and anticipate a response of “Oh, I know who you are!”

Andy Warhol said everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, and I have managed to pull off a few fifteen minute stints of fame for my writing. Not Margaret Atwood  or Ernest Hemingway fame. Just the kind of modest fame that lets you go to bed grinning with self-satisfaction, but leaves you still needing to haul yourself off to the day job in the morning. I’ve read my work on the radio and been published in academic journals. I’ve written study guides for a local theatre and actually been paid to do it. And twice now, in the eight months I’ve been blogging here, the lovely editors at WordPress have seen fit to Freshly Press my work. I’m still riding the wave of the most recent Fresh Press, and I have to confess that it brings out in me that same impulse that long ago made me dream of fame. It’s thrilling to watch my stats spike, to count the likes (thank you!) and tally the new follows (Welcome!) Comments mean a great deal, especially the ones where the commenter has added their own thoughts,  and the biggest reward of all is when someone re-posts what I have written.

Because the truth is, I’m no longer looking for my old vision of fame. I no longer care if, when I meet you on the street, you recognize my face or know my name. What matters to me at this stage of my life is that something I did made a difference to you. When you re-post my blog, you are telling me that you thought I said something worth reading– that it mattered to you in some way, and therefore might matter to the people who read your blog.  And that matters a great deal to me.

 

 

 

To my students: Why I won’t be handing out copies of the slides

Someone’s going to ask, so we might as well clear this up right at the outset. No, I won’t be handing out copies of the PowerPoint slides.

I recognize that, in the minds of many of you, that statement is tantamount to academic abuse. That it is evidence of some dreadful mean streak or profound character flaw on my part. That clearly I must have missed Lesson One of Teaching 101.

You are welcome to think whatever you want.

In fact, that’s exactly my point.

Part of my teaching philosophy is that I need to always be able to provide you with a reason for what we are doing in my class and how we are doing it. (You don’t have to like the reason, nor do you have to agree with it. But I have to have one, and I will always give it to you when asked.) So let me explain the rationale for this act of pedagogical treason.

First, if I am using PowerPoint effectively – something I don’t profess to be perfect at, but I do try – then my slides will largely be designed to provide speaking prompts and visual interest. If there is significant, detailed content that I think you really need to have in writing, I will give you a handout or provide you with a link.

Secondly, there is some evidence that writing notes the old fashioned way, by hand on a piece of paper, actually helps you learn. Of course if there is some genuine reason why taking your own notes will disadvantage your learning, I will happily accommodate you. But the vast majority of you will not be harmed by being expected to flex your note-taking muscles.

Besides, if all you are doing is trying to transfer what I am saying onto the page, you aren’t, in my view, taking the kind of notes that are going to be of much value to you when you walk out of my class.

Remember when I said “you are welcome to think what you want”?

That’s what you should be writing notes about. What you think. If this class was just about the information coming out of my mouth, I could type that up and send you a file and it wouldn’t matter whether you showed up or not. But since you did show up (and I’m glad you did!) it’s my job to make sure you get the most out of this course while you’re here. And that won’t happen if I do all the work.

You are here to engage with the content of the course, not just to record it for posterity. If I were to read your notes, I would hope to find that they contained a lot more than what I said. I would hope to see questions. Comments. Musings and ponderings. Angry little rants. Diagrams and arrows and words with circles around them and symbols that mean something to you alone— that mean things like “look up this author” and “possible essay topic!”

I’m far more interested in seeing margin notes that say “yuck” and “wow!” and “why???” than I am in seeing my own words parroted in neatly bulleted lists. I want your notes to say as much about what you were feeling about what you were learning as they say about the curriculum.

So no, I won’t be handing out a copy of the PowerPoint slides. And I won’t be emailing them to you after the class either. You are welcome to complain about this gross injustice on the course evaluation. Be sure to provide a detailed explanation of how your learning suffered due to my failure in this regard.

At least you will be writing about what you think.

Evaluating evaluation

We are always evaluating.

“I enjoyed the movie, but the ending was kind of stupid.”

“This salad is really tasty! Can I get your dressing recipe?”

“You should read this book. I couldn’t put it down.”

Book and movie reviews are evaluations.  So are restaurant reviews. So, in fact, are all those annoying Facebook comments exhorting you to support this cause or check out that article.

The problem is that we often don’t make it clear what criteria we are using as the basis for our evaluation.

For example, the other day I was reflecting on the fact that both my children have reached their late teens/young adulthood without having had the opportunity to visit any of Disney’s iconic theme parks. For that fleeting moment I found myself evaluating my success as a parent against a marketing-driven upper-middle-class standard of Experiences Your Children Ought To Have. My daughter swiftly brought me back to me senses by pointing out that, according to her criteria I was doing just fine:

“Well, let’s see Mom– I don’t enjoy rides, I hate waiting in line, and I prefer to avoid crowds–so really I’m OK with that.”

I was reminded of her insightful bit of reframing today when I read through the evaluations for a workshop I recently instructed.  Out of 24 participants, 23 seem to have thought the workshop was interesting, engaging, relevant, important, etc. The other one thought it sucked.

You can please some of the people some of the time.

The thing that makes it so difficult to interpret these evaluations is that even though they all answered the same questions, they clearly aren’t all approaching those questions from the same set of criteria for what constitutes a good workshop. Sometimes when I read feedback comments I have to wonder if we were even all in the same place at the same time. Someone thought the workshop was too “lecture heavy,” while someone thought there was too much group “brainstorming.” Someone thought the workshop should be a mandatory part of the program, while someone thought it was a colossal waste of time.

The are probably all correct. If I could sit down and have a conversation with each of them, I would likely be able to determine why they responded the way they did. Everyone approaches experience with different expectations — different criteria against which they measure just about everything around them.

Truthfully, sometimes it’s just not the workshop for you — not because there’s anything wrong with either you or the workshop, but because it’s not the right fit. I hate horror movies, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t enjoy them. I am, on the other hand, a big fan of dystopian science fiction, which I recognize is not everyone’s cup of tea. The problem comes when we try to evaluate the horror film using the criteria that make for good dystopian science fiction, or vice versa.

I will dust off the evaluation report next time I prepare to offer this workshop. I may tweak a few things as a result. But given that the overwhelming impression was positive, I won’t sweat the details. What I might do is add in a few more explanations of why we are doing what we are doing as we do it– not because I think I need to justify my instructional design decisions, but so that my students and I can come closer to being on the same page when it comes to how to evaluate the workshop. If I’ve made it crystal clear that I’m only offering hot fudge sundaes, you can’t complain that you didn’t get a banana split.

Well you can, but it won’t change the menu.

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Gym class not-so-heros

Some days the daily prompt is easy to answer. Today’s question is: Which subject in school did you find impossible to master? Did math give you hives? Did English make you scream? Do tell!

I was that kid. The one who liked school. The one who put up her hand to answer all the questions. The one who obsessed about handing in her homework on time. The one who got teased by the other kids for always having good marks. The one who adored her teachers. Even the sort of scary ones.

But then there was gym.

Since I started school in the mid-1960s, both teacher education and the Physical Education curriculum have evolved a much more appropriate stance towards accommodating the needs of the differently abled. But when I entered school with a full-on case of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, “accommodation,” when it happened at all, typically meant one of the following:

  1.  Sit on the bench and watch. The best that can be said for this option was that it was crushingly boring. It could have been redeemed by modifying it to “sit on the bench and read a book” but I can’t recall that being an option. Presumably by watching I was going absorb some gym-related knowledge vicariously? More likely it just never occurred to my teachers that there might have been more worthwhile ways to spend my time.
  2. Do some benign alternate activity on the sidelines. I spent a great deal of junior high gym class listlessly lobbing a badminton birdie back and forth with my best friend who conveniently had asthma and needed to sit out even more activities than I did. You might be forgiven for expecting that this experience resulted in me becoming a badminton ace, but you would be very wrong. Since, in the mind of the teacher, I was never going to be an athlete, this activity really was just about killing time. Consequently I was never deemed worthy of any coaching or instruction that might have resulted in actual skill development.
  3. Try to participate as much as you can. This was the worst, by far. Because as soon I left my exile of the bench or sidelines, I stepped into the arena where, like it or not, I was up for comparison with everyone else in the class. And compare they did. I was the classic “last kid picked” for every team. And for some reason in that era it never dawned on the teachers that there was anything problematic with ALWAYS letting the most athletic kids (generally boys) select the teams. I was always the slowest runner, when I was enough in remission to run at all. I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life. To this day I still “throw like a girl.”

Even during the good times when I was fully in remission, which was the case by the time I reached my early teens, gym was unremittingly awful, because in all those years on the bench I had missed out on a lot of basic skill-building. This wouldn’t have been an issue for some activities, but most gym teachers at the time did not seem to possess imaginations capable of stretching beyond the  tried and true triumvirate of volleyball, basketball, and baseball.

I was never wired for team sports, but for most of my gym career they were my only options. Even as an adult, I shy away from any athletic activity where my lack of skill and prowess might impact on another player. In my 40s I enjoyed going to a “master class” in swimming where we mainly did laps. One day the teacher decided to switch things up and teach us a bit of water polo for 5-10 minutes at the end of each workout. I dreaded those minutes so much I stopped going.

Grade 10 meant switching to the high school. It meant, at that time, the last year of mandatory physical education. It also meant the first time that gym would be a graded course, as opposed to something in which I would get a pass just for showing up.

Fortunately, grade 10 also introduced me to a new breed of gym teacher. She was young. She was easygoing. She was a she. And her philosophy was that since this was our last year of gym class we should be exposed to physical activities that we could do when we were no longer in the high school world with its obsession with volleyball and basketball. So we went swimming — which was always the one physical activity at which I was both competent and confident. We went horseback riding–which scared the beejeezus out of me, but had me on a level playing field with all but a handful of my classmates. We went bowling (OK) and cross country skiing (yes!) We did lots of things I sucked at, a few things with which I could sort of cope, and two or three things I actually liked. But nothing we did lasted more than a couple of weeks, and the main thing was you had to try everything. When I brought home my mid-semester report card, my parents and I were elated. I had pulled off a C+.

My gym teacher also happened to be my home-room teacher, so when my parents arrived for the parent-teacher interview, the teacher had seen my report card with not only my gym mark, but also the A’s I had received for all my other courses. When my parents introduced themselves, they could see that the teacher was very nervous. She began talking about my progress in gym class in the most defensive of tones, which confused my parents greatly until they realized that she assumed they were coming to berate her for “only” giving me a C+, when clearly I was a far better student than that. “Oh no,” my mom exclaimed when she finally put two and two together. “We’re absolutely delighted with Anna’s grade in gym. She has had the best experience in your class of any gym class she has ever taken!”

Gymnasiums can still make me break out in a cold sweat. I don’t see myself ever joining an athletic team. Fortunately I got enough “team” training in band and theatre to consider myself a fairly well-rounded adult. In spite of the inadequacies of my physical education, I have found ways of being physically fit and active that work for me. I still love to swim, and you know, dear reader, how much I love to walk.

In fact, it’s time to go for a walk right about now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good, the bad and the… pensionable?

The Daily prompt for today wants to know: How do you feel about your job? Do you spring out of bed, looking forward to work? Or, is your job a soul-destroying monotony of pure drudgery, or somewhere in between?

Really, does anyone actually “spring out of bed?” Ok maybe I can think of one or two possibilities — like my car-pool partner of many years back who started the day in overdrive and was still in high gear for the ride home. But I don’t know anyone who isn’t at best a teensy bit ambivalent about their job.

I have a good job. It pays well and has great benefits. I have a nice office in a good location. I work with interesting people. I get to do things that matter. I get to exercise my creativity. I get to do things I enjoy, like writing and teaching. I have a boss who appreciates what I do and lets me know it.

My job sucks. I have to waste time jumping through bureaucratic hoops and doing mind-numbing administrative tasks. I have to sit through long, tedious meetings. I lost my parking spot. Some days I go home completely fed up with other people’s problems.

It’s the same job.

Do you have a “dream job?” I did. In fact I got my dream job. At least four times. With a couple of exceptions early in my career, most of my working life has been spent at jobs I really wanted. Every one of those jobs has been fantastic. And, at some point, every one of those jobs drove me crazy. Sometimes all in the same day.

That’s life, folks.  Nothing is perfect. When the point comes in any job when the balance begins to tip ever so subtly away from the fantastic and towards the crazy-making, then I know it’s time for a new adventure.

In the meantime, I don’t expect employment Nirvana. I know there will be good days and less-than-stellar days in any job. In fact, some days there with be good minutes and downright dreadful minutes. Most days, the good minutes come out ahead. Even if I don’t “spring out of bed” to get there.

 

Strive to thrive

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “Do you thrive under pressure or crumble at the thought of it? Does your best stuff surface as the deadline approaches or do you need to iterate, day after day to achieve something you’re proud of? Tell us how you work best…. show us PRESSURE.”

Do I thrive under pressure? Frankly, I’m never sure how to respond to this question. Do I handle myself well under pressure? Absolutely. I have a reputation for being able to do good work quickly. I’m good at improvising solutions. In a crisis, I’m the one who copes.

The truth is, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I have high expectations. I’m apt to hand things in ahead of the deadline– sometimes just because I worked quickly and got the task done early, and sometimes because I set my own deadline, earlier than the real one, so that I could be absolutely sure I would be done on time.

I was in grade four when I first appreciated the tyranny of my own high standards. I had a big social studies project due: something along the lines of “Everything There Is to Know About Australia That Can Be Derived from Back Issues of National Geographic.” (This was, after all, pre-internet.) I had done a fair bit of work, but I had also done a fair bit of procrastinating. The project was due on Monday morning. Sunday night rolled around and I wasn’t done. I went to bed with my stomach in knots. I had never failed to hand in an assignment on time unless I was sick. I didn’t know what the teacher would say, but I could imagine no  consequence more horrifying than Miss Miller’s disapproval.

Morning came, and I got up and got dressed for school with the demeanor of one preparing for execution. By breakfast, I had worked myself into such a state of anxiety that I was feeling physically ill.

My mom was astute enough to see through the root cause of my ailment. She gently suggested that if I wasn’t feeling well I should probably stay home for the morning, and we would see if I felt better after lunch. I asked her if it would be OK if I worked on my project. She just smiled, nodded sagely, and said that would probably be OK — if I felt up to it.

By lunchtime the project was finished and, miraculously, so was my mysterious stomach ailment. I went off to school for the afternoon, vowing to myself that I would never again put myself in the situation where I was late with an assignment.

There, have, of course, been times since then when I have had to ask for extra time to complete a task. I learned that I could ask for extra time without making myself ill over it. But I still don’t like it if I can’t meet a deadline, no matter how legitimate the reason. The truth is, I think I’ve learned to cope well under pressure by taking control of the pressure — by exerting the lion’s share of the pressure on myself.

Do I thrive under pressure? I’m not sure thrive is the right word. I get a lot done under pressure. I do good work under pressure.  But thrive?

A better path
A better path

When I was on leave recovering from my hip replacement, I had a glimpse of what life would be like without the kind of pressure that has become my norm. I was in better physical shape than usual — in spite of just having had surgery– because I was exercising more  than usual every day. I was more creative — and more creatively productive– than I have been in a long time because I had time to focus, and because the daily walks fuelled my imagination. In short, I experienced something far closer to what I would call thriving than I have ever encountered under even the most exhilarating pressure.

At least now I know what I’m really striving for.