” Bet you know how many days you got left?”
“Not long now.”
“I think we’re in single digits as of today.”
“We’re gonna make it. I can see the end from here.”
All of these phrases and more are the familiar banter of teachers these days, the passing snippets of conversation as we pass each other in the hallway, the opening salvos of conversation as we wake up on morning hall duty or bid each other adieu as we cross the threshold and cross another day off the calendar. The end of another school year closes, and we–teachers and students–anxiously await the day when classes end, exam week comes with shorter days, the last few workdays with closeout at PTSA lunch, and finally good-byes as we make our separate ways into our summers.
It is something of a rite of passage. And if Vegas let you bet on these types of things, you could start a pool for when you first hear someone pinpoint the exact time left in a school year. Aside from the joking after the first day of “179 more to go,” I would put the smart money on right before Spring Break. Someone will usually say, “Only two weeks left before spring break, and then it’s–what?–six weeks until the end of the year?” The conversation then delves into the exchange of summer plans, infinitely more rosy than the stark present of another day in class, another day of getting up at 5:00 and being awake and brilliant by 7:15, another day of ignoring the beautiful spring weather outside as the class moves towards its posted daily objective.
Hence, the main use of such platitudes: on days when we’d rather be sleeping in or waking up in a tent by a river or hanging out by the pool with a frosty adult beverage in one hand, imagining those future days–now right around the corner–can make the slog of the present a bit more bearable, can help us rally our will when we would really rather be elsewhere. I wonder if this is a malady endemic to classroom teachers, as few professions have such clear timeposts in their calendar years, as if farmers get to mid-September and countdown the days until harvest.
In musing over this, I’ve made an unconscious decision to eschew this type of thinking this year as a thought experiment. At times, I may have sounded like a pretentious asshole to my colleagues when they ask me how many days and I claim I have no idea, or I tell them “Don’t wish away the present.” It’s really easy for me. Five of my six classes are really bright AP and IB kids who have already taken their tests, and are now engaged in a relaxed discussion of The Great Gatsby or an experimental political philosophy game that I’ve been tweaking over the last few years. They are easy to show up for and easy to engage. If I were wrangling a cat rodeo of a standard 9th graders, trying to corral their spring hormones into caring about just one more state test, I might see this differently.
But I started playing with this idea a few years ago when I found The Wisdom of Insecurity by the 20th Century British Philosopher Alan Watts. In one of those serendipitous moments of a book fitting a need, I picked it up shortly after my father died in the summer of 2010, the summer before I was to begin teaching philosophy for the first time. In the book, Watts poses that much of our anxiety and pain of consciousness derives from our suffering of reliving the past or our worry about what will happen in the future. In short, our understanding of time as a linear progression can be the cause of much of our unhappiness.
Reminiscent of Jesus’ “Consider the Lilies” sermon, this idea is often boiled down to “Live in the moment,” which sounds like so much cliche’ pop-psychology drivel. But I thought of all the times when it was Tuesday and I was already wishing it was Friday, and because it wasn’t Friday, it made Tuesday suck much more than it really needed to. It made March suck because it wasn’t June. I saw my students more as something to endure (and they probably see me the same way) rather than an opportunity to interact and grow.
Ironically, Watts later poses, when that future we are hoping for comes, we are never really present in it, for we have trained ourselves to always look to the future. So even when June arrives and I don’t have school, the joy of the summer months can be mitigated it I’m already dreading August.
The truth is, teaching is a game where we are always constructing time with an eye to the future. We plan out weeks ahead of time and align our lessons for a proposed future outcome. It is a unique benefit of our evolved consciousness that we can do this, Watts claims. But as with all advancements, there is a price. And I note this at the beginning of every summer when it takes my brain a couple of weeks to readjust to a more natural passage of time, one that doesn’t have me waking up before the sun, hurrying to work, and budgeting my sleep to knock out a few more essays before I get to bed.
And so this year, I’m trying not to worry about how many days are left in school. The end will come on its own time, and I’m powerless to speed its arrival. Ironically, wishing and believing I can only seems to slow things down. Instead, I’m telling myself not to wish away my time and to enjoy each day as it comes. Today was basketball, two brilliant and unique discussions on Fitzgerald, a fun argument about politics, and sharing this gem over and over and over with people. Now it’s time for Godzilla with some friends.
At the end of this year, I will have taught fifteen years in the classroom, a fact that sounds weird every time I say it. In North Carolina, that is half way to retirement. But I refuse to console myself with the idea that I’m “half way there.” If that’s the way I’m going to pass my days, I might as well hang it up and put in an application at the local bowling alley. But not worrying about how many days are left in the week, how many weeks are left in the year, and for that matter, how many years are left in my life, has been a rejuvenating shift in perception.