Wake Me Up

Fall semester 2013 I was already conscious that I was nearing the end of my life as a teacher. Though I hadn’t “set” a target date or anything like that, I felt it “in my bones.” I say that as if intuition were something special, but in my case it’s only my mind working things out on my behalf without allowing my consciousness to mess things up.

I had two classes in a building apart from campus in classrooms over Starbucks. Both classes were great and I was sure that they were great partly because we all felt a little less like we were at school. Both classes were alive and active and brave. In one of the classes was a student who was very attractive to me — no, no, no don’t get the wrong idea. Not that way.

As I got to know the kid I learned he’d been a junky. I learned the circumstances of that and how he’d pulled himself out of it. As with many addicts he was way more alive than most people. I sometimes think that some addicts begin using booze or drugs as a way to dampen themselves, to tone down their energy or intelligence, something just so they can fit in. Sure, lots of people use drugs or booze to have more fun, but I think others use them as a way to have LESS fun, if that makes any sense. This kid was one of those. So here he was, 33, back in school. He quickly fell in love/lust with a classmate, a hot and smart Russian girl who cheated on exams.

Driving to school one afternoon I heard this song by Avicii and I thought, “Wow that’s about the kid” and hearing it more often I thought, “Wow, that’s about me.” I heard the song often and eventually bought it. I was thinking a lot about addiction and intelligence teaching this kid. As the semester went on, I realized how much he looked like my brother,  another explanation for the instant rapport and fascination. “Look,” I said one day, pointing my laptop screen in his direction.

“Who’s that?”
“My brother.”
“Wow. That’s weird.”
“I know.”
“It’s like looking in a mirror.”
“Yeah.”

I walked to my car that night the song in my head, thinking, “But I am older.”
“You’re still not awake,” answered that random other side of my mind. “If you were you’d see things as they are.”
I began to wonder what I wasn’t seeing and I started to look for it. Finally I did see it. I had to. It wasn’t fun to look at; it was disappointing. It made me sad and frustrated but it set me on the path I had to take.

People have often asked me how is it that I’m sober when my brother was an alcoholic and my mom, too. Why? Well, seeing that would be enough to sober up anyone, but I also don’t think I am sober. I learned a long time ago that work away from home could give me independence financially and personally. It got me out of the house and helped me move my life forward. Teaching always gave me an incredible high — that is until 2010 when a student physically assaulted me over an A-. At that moment, part of me began waking up. Was teaching my calling or was it a drug? What would I have done in these 35 years if I had not been a teacher? My brief stint as a free lance writer taught me that I didn’t want to be a “pen for hire.” The expense of being a painter was one thing that kept me from being a painter. I think. Or maybe deep in my soul I knew (or simply dreaded?) that I was not good enough. One thing about addiction is that it lets the addict off the hook. The direction is clear. Get more stuff. One imperative. An addict can succeed at the one thing the addict cares about — the stuff to which he/she is addicted. In addiction an addict hides from the failure they fear.  I saw that while I might love teaching (I did) I was also afraid of other dreams. The imperative to earn a living is real, and I never stopped writing and painting, regardless how many classes I was teaching. That should have shown me something but I was not awake to it.

“I’ve really enjoyed being in your class, Martha,” he said. Most students called me Professor Kennedy, but coming from him, that sounded weird. He had sensed this and didn’t use it.
Usually when we talked the conversation went off in the same kinds of crazy directions my conversations with my brother had gone. I really liked this kid. I knew he had been in my class to teach me just as much the other way around. “Thanks. I’ve enjoyed knowing you, too.”
“I’m sorry I won’t see you any more and we can’t talk any more.”
Unlike the kid, I’d been through this thousands of times. A teacher is an important figure in a student’s life for a term, or a year, or a few years, very occasionally forever. “Me too., but you know, I don’t make friends with students any more. I used to, when I was younger, sometimes, but I haven’t for a long time.”
“I can understand,” he said. “You’d have a shitload of friends!”
“Yeah. I don’t even connect with most students on Linkedin.”
“You’d have what, like a billion connections?”
We laughed.
“Here’s my real email.” I wrote it on a piece of paper that I was sure he would lose. “We can meet up next semester for a coffee or something.” Beginning to end it was a gesture. He put it behind his drivers license in his wallet. In that moment I made the break. I took the first step out of the world in which I had hidden for 35 years.

I walked through the parking structure that night knowing that I would be teaching only a few months longer. I didn’t want to live in a world any more in which I was a role and a function. I woke up. A little. So here I am in the summer of 2014, cleaning, painting, repairing and packing, hoping to be able to quickly shed the chrysalis.

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8 thoughts on “Wake Me Up

  1. Thank you for this. I also came from an alcoholic family and made the very conscious decision to not do alcohol or drugs, but I finally realized, like you, I was not sober. I used drama-filled relationships (some purely physical), the stress of massive debt, the chaos of work, and food (this one has my last remaining emotional crutch). I love how you realized that student was trying to calm his energy and fit in, rather than party with the alcohol. This was beautiful and congratulations on being you.

    • Wow. I’m sorry you had to be in and go through all that. I have also realized I’ll never be sober because I am also extremely good at deluding myself (survival tactic as “the competent one” in an alcohol focused family). I’m pleased that you understand my point about some people using drugs/booze to be like other people — my brother definitely did. It’s just not easy being green.

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