The school year is coming to a rocky end. Usually, the students are calculating grade point averages now. Double-checking the university requirements. Strategically studying for the exams that will lift their grades just that little extra to put them over the acceptance line. But the government has been canceling exams, one by one, and moving dates around for the final grades to be set.

The trickiest thing for me is the requirement for us to hold classes – and for the students to attend – for nearly weeks after final grades have been turned in.

It takes “busy work” to a new level. I feel like I’m supposed to be Julie from The Love Boat – not that my students (or colleagues) have a clue who that is/was. My students are 18, 19, and 20. This is insulting to all of us. Bureaucrats plugging in random dates and expecting us to make sense of it. Justify our students’ time. Be entertaining enough to entice them to come to class. Remind them they have to or risk losing their diploma.

I am a good teacher. But a lousy cruise director. I am counting down the days with a fair amount of anxiety.

On social media, I keep reading the term post-pandemic being thrown around by some Americans. There is nothing here to really indicate that. I have a handful of my students in quarantine this week. Another local school has had another small cluster of cases. It’s worse in other parts of the country.

But more people than ever are conforming to the requirements for face masks on trains and buses. I’m wondering if people are hoping they’ll keep themselves safe enough through a summer vacation? Who knows, maybe feeling like the end of this is near makes people more willing to accept the restrictions?

I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. Not to speculate on the Indian variant that’s made its way here and to the UK. What any of this means for the future. We have the situation today. That’s all we can be sure of.

This fall I asked the students to write about what they’ve learned about themselves during this time. How they’d grown and what they did well. Maybe it is an exercise they should do again now that they are in this odd place with no clear view of the future.

As an adult, I like things to be predictable. I need them to be predictable. I like fences and guideposts: I set them up like those little guardrails at the bowling alley that you can set up to keep kids from losing their ball to the gutter and becoming demoralized. Keep trying. You’re getting better.

When I hit the wall this winter, I read about the difference between burn-out and demoralization. I hadn’t thought much before about the downside of a work ethic. Though now it seems obvious: the American Dream on such a tiny scale. A few years ago somehow it came up in class: “The American Dream”. And my students thought that it meant wanting to make a million dollars a game playing basketball for the NBA. I had them watch The Death of a Salesman. I am not sure any of them really understood the concept of legacy or capitalism’s “required” work ethic that Loman doesn’t really possess. Looks a lot like the NBA dream to them, I suppose. Hell, looks like that to me today.

There is a smart professor on YouTube who says that the play isn’t about the American Dream. But I disagree. It’s about Loman’s moral failure to achieve it. The play isn’t a critique of the Dream, it’s a tragedy: which is by definition a critique of a character’s morality.

Clearly, I miss teaching.

I wonder if my rarified understanding of the philosophical depths of The American Dream and demoralization of the working class is a footnote in the OED already. Whether the idea of doing meaningful work for a “respectable” everyday existence is archaic in and of itself. Replaced with the cult of talents and the lottery of fame?

If you do the right things, work hard, you’ll be rewarded is such a naive story. Maybe all those fairy tales really are closer to the truth than the psychological realism of the 1940s. Some ditz who talks to mice and who carelessly loses a precious shoe will always wind up living in a palace.

Is it possible to become demoralized if you don’t value the work you do for its own significance? You can become disappointed, bitch about fate and “fairness”. But demoralized? And if this is so: is my claiming to be demoralized a pat on my own back with the assumption that my work was meaningful?

I think this is why I’ve had an impulse to pull away from teaching. In the sense of pulling back from emotional or psychological investments in the teaching. (Not in the students.) I feel frustrated with all these turns-on-a-dime. Planning and replanning the practical application of the curriculum: online, offline, group work, 2 meters apart. How can I grade what they haven’t been taught? It feels uncomfortably close to sticking gold stars on their foreheads based on some psychic ability to know their potential – had they had a chance to learn. It feels both intensely personal and weirdly calculated. And all kinds of wrong.

How can it not be demoralizing for them?

I’ve always explained to students that my teaching philosophy in the arts is that I can help them explore their talents. But in reality, I am mainly giving them room to learn to use their own creativity in a way that allows them to learn how to jump through society’s hoops. “What’s the point of this?” “I don’t know. It’s a hoop. You’re going to have to jump through a lot of them.”

I don’t lie.

I’ve worked hard to be a good teacher. It wasn’t a career I chose, it was forced on me by the government here. I was qualified. I needed work. And I’ve been grateful. I embraced it – took extra education and really invested myself in 4 years of teaching and counseling education, alongside my doctorate. The administration stresses how important continued education is. To be a good teacher.

But while I was on partial sick leave, I was replaced with a young woman with no teaching certification, and my schedule was designed around hers. And things went fine.

So where is my meaningful work, now that the guardrails are down and the gutters in view?

It seems I keep circling back around to find myself stuck in the same me-sized, existential sinkhole. So I am here. In this now-space and the future is uncertain. Today what is meaningful? I’m going upstairs to paint. That’s going to have to be enough – hoop or no hoop, a gold star or not.

And then I’ll grade some papers.

the sudden quiet
when the air – the fan – is still
distant voices puncturing
the hum – an urban concert
indiscernible and good

[edit: Writing a daily public diary has its drawbacks. Typos, of course. But also other editorial problems. When I titled this post I thought I would mention listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with Katherine May for the On Being Podcast. As it turned out, my train of thought took another direction. “Winter’s Crucible” is Katherine May’s phrase.]

The first run in nearly three weeks. I haven’t taken this much time off the trail since I was forced to by a blood clot a few years ago. I know that exercise is supposed to help us deal with stress, but there comes a point – close to burn-out – where the body can’t handle the extra spike in cortisol. It doesn’t know the difference when that spike is caused by anxiety or by physical effort. Either way, it can be enough to push a body over the edge.

So I’ve been intentionally going soft. Walking carefully through these weeks of winter, wearing cleats and mittens. Thinking the mask is pretty comfortable when the temperature is below freezing. And I think I’ve made the right choice. Last week was too much and I needed the softness. One big cushion of slow, heavy surrender.

Today the trail was full of song. Birds, yes. Even people with their Sunday talk. But also the deep, resounding notes that the ice plays with the lake. I haven’t heard it these past few years of mild winters. It brings to mind mythical water creatures. Moaning monsters, and nøkken. Last time I heard it was on a dark morning years ago. This afternoon the sun is shining. And it seems odd that it dares to be heard in this light. And then again, it doesn’t.

Take bedtime stories
into your dreams and wrestle
the demons and win
or lose – but know everything
is exactly everything