Sunday, October 16, 2011

dark commutes and other october habits

When I was warming up my car before work one morning last week, I peered through the foggy windows into the darkness and felt petulant. It was chilly out and evidently already that time of year where I drive to work in what appears to be nighttime. Pretty soon, I mused, I’ll be driving home in the dark as well, only seeing slices of daylight out my classroom windows for five-day stints. Some coworkers and I complain every winter about feeling like vampires, cloistered inside during the day and only out and about during the shadowy hours. No wonder some people are diagnosed with depressive disorders at this time of year.

But then I turned left off of my street and found myself driving straight toward a full moon, and just like that, the grumpiness was gone. When summer evenings are over, I rarely get to enjoy the moon properly. I slowed down a bit to make the sight last, and I chuckled when I realized that the full moon—and my appreciation of it—just confirmed my burgeoning vampirishness.

The week unfolded hectically, as grades were due for students’ progress reports. That last week would be hectic was one fact I could count on; that this week will be packed with more minor nuisances than usual is another. You see, the grades are posted in my classroom. These aren’t any more official or correct than any other grades that are posted at any other time, except that these print-outs will include the exact letter grade to be mailed home on Wednesday. In other words, the data on these particular print-outs could mean the difference between attending the Homecoming game and suffering under house arrest.

There will be widespread panic at six different times tomorrow. I will wonder each time why many seem so surprised and horrified. Weren’t they aware that they hadn’t done any work? Didn’t the other grade sheets I posted that showed missing assignments indicate to them that something should be done, quickly? Didn’t they know that grades would be sent home? Didn’t they realize that that is why they had Thursday off—in part so that teachers could enter their grades? Are they joking about still getting points for that assignment due six weeks ago? The answer to all of these questions, according to tradition, is no.

Tradition also dictates that at this juncture, many students find where they stashed their academic with-it-ness, dust it off, and begin applying it anew. Several of those, newly reminded of how to play the game of school, will finish the semester with an A. But a fraction of others, perhaps accustomed to disappointment or finding it easier to play victim, will let this largely-irrelevant grade report dictate their success for the rest of the year. Some of those will decide my class is “too hard,” “boring,” or that they don’t like me—anything other than admitting they gave up. Sure, I’ll be able to catch some in time via a litany of encouraging, nagging, and (depending upon the stubbornness I'm up against) well-meaning bullying, but it won’t work on all of them.

The next few weeks will tell who’s who.

Late this morning, I was headed into work. Sundays are a good day to go in, for like a car with bad alignment, my mind misbehavingly veers to thoughts of the week ahead anyway. The building is typically empty on Sundays, so I get the rare opportunity to attack my to-do list without the bane of interruptions. But since working a half-day on Sunday seems like a small tragedy, I typically treat myself to a trip through the drive-thru coffee line.

Which is when another ritual revealed itself in the form of a familiar barista.

“Hello!” she said excitedly, seeming to recognize me from previous Sundays. “Are you headed in to work today?”

Now certain that she knew me, I answered in the affirmative.

“Oh, where do you work?” When I replied with the name of the high school, she looked perplexed, like she does every time. Then, like every time, she asked, “Is there an open house or something?”

I’m not sure why she’s under the impression that we have so many open houses, but it’s the custom that I always grapple with how to answer her question.

I could opt for sarcasm: “Yes, because I would wear a hooded sweatshirt and this messy hair-do for an occasion where we’re welcoming the community.”

I could try for passive aggression: “Well, an open house sounds swell, but it turns out that those papers don’t just grade themselves!”

I could go for the easy, not-going-to-bother-engaging response: “Yes, an open house.”

But I’ve worked in customer service, and I know what it’s like to carry on superficial conversations with people (who pompously assume you remember them) because you have to. So I selected a combination of honesty and brevity: “No open house. I’m a teacher, and there’s just a lot to do.”

As I drove away with my grande, nonfat, no-whip beverage, I wished that today, just one tiresome tradition could finally be broken. Perhaps I’d soon be sifting through my newest stack of essays to gleefully discover that—shock of all shocks—there’s no need to cover comma splices this year! Their writing reveals that they already know how to punctuate the end of a sentence! But some traditions will stubbornly hang on. Maybe if I just hang garlic around my neck…