Work and Leisure
1. Work (or the Lack Thereof)
I was really moved by this article by Peter Greene called “The Hard Part”:
They never tell you in teacher school, and it’s rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate.
The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:
There is never enough.
There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.
(Greene, “The Hard Part”)
Go read it if you are a teacher or a student or have ever been either.
Really, anyone who has struggled with that frantic sense of “never enough” will sympathize.
Greene does a lovely job of describing the “never enough” that many teachers struggle with – but he does so in a way that does not descend into complaining. Instead, he indirectly shares his love for his students and his work. Ora et labora.
But I especially appreciated this:
As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual’s instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.
You know all this, but you can also do the math. 110 papers about the view of death in American Romantic writing times 15 minutes to respond with thoughtful written comments equals — wait! what?! That CAN’T be right!
Yeah. Do that math.
Although this past year of teaching was far easier than the previous ones (and they tell me they do get easier), I frequently woke up having had nightmares about failed lessons and crazy students and not knowing where my next class was and losing the essays and ruining students’ chances at college and NO MANAGEMENT. NONE.
It’s summer vacation, and I just had another bad dream two nights ago. It was the one where the bell had already rung and I couldn’t find my classroom and for some reason I had no idea what I was supposed to teach.
So basically it was really nice to wake up. Summer vacation is a gift.
But, well… it’s kind of boring.
Seriously though. I miss being in the classroom. I miss scanning the desks and faces constantly to make sure all is well. I miss teasing them. I miss being teased. I miss trying to get someone to really wrestle with an idea and not take the easy way out. I miss my student Vincent* waving at me in the hallway every 7th period as he attempts to spend as much little time in the class down the hall, and I miss telling him to get back to class.
And then I thought to myself: what do you want?
Um, a perfect medium of being busy and productive but not stressed out. Ever.
Okay, not very likely to happen.
But there’s something amiss here. Why must I be busy but not too busy? Why must I be busy at all? Why are so many people — so many of my friends and acquaintances — happier being busy? Why do we dread “down-time”? Why are we confused about what to do with unstructured hours?
Why is it hard to rest sometimes?
2. Leisure (or the Lack Thereof)
In Leisure: The Basis of Culture Josef Pieper argues the following:
Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.
Isn’t that true?
I have friends who love making to-do lists. Sometimes this group also includes me. We all know how good it feels to cross something off of those lists.
When someone asks you, “So what did you do this weekend?” don’t you feel a little ashamed if the first response (promptly suppressed) that pops into your head is “well… nothing?”
How many times have I heard: “Well, at least I did something productive today!”
How many times have I said those words myself?
Pieper says we are “trying to justify our existence” by our work. But we will never rest until we are really “one with ourselves.”
Even Greene’s article suggests this lack-of-oneness:
But every day is still educational triage. You will pick and choose your battles, and you will always be at best bothered, at worst haunted, by the things you know you should have done but didn’t. (Greene)
In teaching, specifically, one is constantly striving after perfection when perfection isn’t ever possible. Do you throw up your hands and give in? Do you keep your nose to the grindstone? It’s like that really annoying Zeno’s Paradox I learned in math class about how if you walk halfway across a room, and then walk half that distance, and then half that distance, and on and on… you will always be moving closer to the wall but you will never actually reach it.
Teaching is kind of like that. The better you get, the more you notice the distance left between you and the wall.
Hm. Teaching and work and leisure. Education and work and leisure.
What is leisure, anyway?
Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. […] Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real. (Pieper, 31)
Another paradox, of course, is that you can’t really “work on” being better at leisure. Or perhaps it’s not a paradox but a full contradiction. You cannot “work at” leisure, because if you are working, then you are not at leisure. Leisure, according to Pieper, seems to be more something that happens to you than something you yourself bring about. It is a gift.
One last, very interesting thought:
For, when we consider the foundations of Western European culture (is it, perhaps, too rash to assume that our re-building will in fact be carried out in a “Western” spirit? Indeed, this and no other is the very assumption that is at issue today), one of these foundations is leisure. We can read it in the first chapter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And the very history of the meaning of the word bears a similar message. The Greek word for leisure (σχολή) is the origin of Latin scola, German Schule, English school. The names for the institutions of education and learning mean “leisure.” (Pieper, 3-4)
Yes, that’s right.
The word for leisure is where we get the word for school.