Tuesday, May 26, 2009


For any of you reading my posts, it probably comes as no surprise that I am depressed. Usually the depression starts with the workweek and ends on Thursday, when the teaching is over. Sometimes it sneaks into the weekend, attempting to ruin my free time. This last weekend was glorious, insofar as the depression was reduced to a small, annoying creature easily vanquished with some fresh air and exercise. At the moment, this depression is monstrous and refuses to go lurk in its corner, where it belongs; better yet, it needs to be outside on a leash. No, let me revise that: I don't need it anywhere near me. There is no need to put it on a leash, which implies that I need it to hang around. I don't. I need it to kill itself, perhaps by throwing itself into a river and drowning, or by jumping off a building.

This semester was unusual, insofar as I did something I never, ever have done in my professional life: I gave up on a class. I stopped caring. There is no justification for that, but that is what happened. The worst offender came in today, looking sheepish. She knows that her incessant talking and refusal to listen to anything I said contributed to the disaster of that class. When our interview was over, she asked, "Is this it?" Yes, this is it. There is no more class. No more fruitless attempts to make you listen. No more constant threats and entreaties. We are done. J., another active participant in the failure of that class, seemed utterly perplexed when I told him exactly how I felt about his behavior. "But," he stammered, "this was my favorite class." Really? Because you were able, day after day, to ignore me and socialize until I was reduced almost to tears? It wasn't, you see, simply J. or the other student. It was a whole gang of them, friends since high school, who decided to cover up their ignorance and insecurity, their frustration and their pain, by banding together and using the class for social purposes. Every day, at least 7 or 8 people were showing blatant disregard for me and the material of the day. To pick only one to throw out seemed illogical; how to ban 8 people from class at once? What happened was I lost myself this semester as a teacher. Not in the other two classes; they thrived. In this one, I came face to face with my own weaknesses and my inability to control the classroom.

From there it was a downward spiral. While some students joked about the "Dangerous Minds" environment, I would simply stand there, watching the majority of the class talk about irrelevant things, ignoring me, absolutely unconcerned that I was about to scream in frustration, walk out, quit. No one cared what was happening to me, or perhaps no one noticed. Only one student did, near the beginning of the semester. P. walked up to me after class one day, extremely concerned, and said that "she had never seen my like this, so stressed out." She was, she confessed, really worried about me. She couldn't even keep the class, since it was so different from the previous class she had taken with me. I don't know what I told her that day. Something about how awful that group of students was, but most assuredly, I didn't take action to stop the class from becoming a joke. I know what the evaluations would have said if I had been required to administer them. "Has no control over the class," "we hardly spoke Spanish," "didn't inspire me," and "I didn't learn anything."

In this job, I am expected to inspire and educate and illuminate four days per week for fifteen weeks. I get a break, and then I have to do it again. Four to five hours per day, I am supposed to make everything "fun" and enlightening. What I learned is that it is possible for someone to utterly, completely, totally, burn out. Not only was I required to make all the students want to learn everything about Spanish language, literature, culture and politics, I was also charged with inspiring the entire faculty to write their Student Learning Outcomes. So, in the morning I wore myself thin as a professor, and in the afternoons, I had to convince an entire faculty to fully engage themselves in the classroom and document it. Not only was I supposed to inspire, I was told that I must somehow "make" all of the other professors on campus become better teachers through SLOs and rubrics. Most don't give a damn about the latest accreditation requirements, and those that do are swallowed up in a sea of passivity on the one hand, and threats from the administration on the other.

At this point, I am not giving the students what they deserve and need, and I am not serving the faculty well, either. I am exhausted spiritually and emotionally, and bankrupt mentally. I feel out of ideas, out of energy, and lost in terms of my career choice. What is so fascinating about all of this is the expression of my anxiety and conflict: I am terrified of death on a daily basis, feeling that at any moment, a heart attack will take me out of this world, or any number of other ailments. Of course, I think it's a good idea to read an entire book on lethal brain tumors, looking for spiritual guidance, but finding sheer, numbing terror instead. So, I look for evidence of life after death as a kind of hope that things will get better in the next go-around. What I don't fully grasp yet is that it isn't MORE life I need, but a better way of living. What does it mean to get more life, another life, if you never really solved the issues in this one? I don't enjoy a huge chunk of my so-called life, a fact that hurts more than I can bear sometimes. I give myself away to people; I sacrifice my time, my energy, and my soul so that others are happy with me. I try to please everyone, to "make" people happy; in this way, I think that I will find my purpose. I suppose I didn't learn the lesson when my ex walked out of our marriage: I couldn't make him happy, no matter what I did. The more I tried to please him, the less he liked me. The less he liked me, the less he loved me. From there, of course, it was all downhill. I desperately looked for ways to be the person he wanted; I never managed to find the magical combination of traits, behaviors and appearances that would have ignited his commitment.

It's the same scenario with my students. I try to be everything, everyone, to all of them. It never works. Someone will always blame me for his lack of motivation, for his crappy grades, for his inability to speak Spanish. I will end the semester with the insidious notion that I failed all of them, even when I know better. In order to cope with my own loss of boundaries, with the fact that anyone can now ignore me with impunity, I invent a myriad of illnesses: there are headaches, stomach problems, breathing issues, imminent heart attacks, lurking cancers, strokes, you name it. Some of these maladies have real, physical manifestations; others are imaginary, but are no less powerful for it. Whether real or imagined, I know that something terrible is about to happen, at any moment. I obsess about my parents' age and health, about my sister's marriage and new son, about my husband, my friends, my pastimes, everything. I try to be a good mom, but lately I see very little of my step kid. I can't believe that she no longer needs to see me. Then my heart hurts. I can't even write about it.

With death stalking me from every corner, it's very hard to concentrate or feel any happiness. Everything I read leads me to believe that death is simply a transition to more life, and lately that has me even more upset and worried than the idea that all of this stupidity and self-imposed misery will end. What if it NEVER ends? What if I have to continue in this state of general unhappiness forever? That seems too terrible, too unthinkable. I realize that the only solution is to CHANGE EVERYTHING.

For years, I believed that I was on the verge of a huge spiritual transformation, that I would find a moment of illumination that would clear away the confusion, the stress, the anxiety of everyday living. Well, I had those moments, but then quickly refused to believe what they were telling me. I've had several epiphanies that could have, should have, changed absolutely everything. Instead, I ignored all of those collective moments and decided that I needed more proof. I would get more proof and then repeat the cycle of ignoring it yet again. I'm afraid to believe what I know to be true, because it's too good, it's too powerful, it's too amazing--and I don't want to be a fool when it turns out to be fantasy or wishful thinking. Reality, for me, is supposed to be depressing and miserable, a study in suffering and sadness. Where did that belief come from? I won't blame my parents, but in them I see a resignation and a panic over time passing, leading them to death, and then to nothingness. I suppose if that's my only model for how to live--in continual, low-level depression over the awfulness of time, decay, and annihilation--it would be very difficult to celebrate the everyday. I've felt terror and despair over time and death since I was a teenager; even when I had my whole life ahead of me, all I could feel was life slipping away and abandoning me.

Now that almost half my life is over, it already feels like I'm on my deathbed. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I've spent my whole life in fear of disaster, disease and death. I was a sick kid who spent a great deal of time in a hospital, watching adults fall apart around her because she was going to die. I should have died a many times over with all the surgeries and illnesses, but I never did. Maybe I feel like I was supposed to die, that I wasn't really taught how I was supposed to survive. Perhaps that is why I love ghosts so much, because I've always felt like one. I never claimed my life, because I wasn't really expected to live. Well, the problem is, I am still here, 44 years later, 39 years after my parents were told that I might not make it. I don't know what to do with that; disease and catastrophe are so familiar, that I expect them. When they don't happen, I just wait for their arrival. What if I live until 96 and die in my sleep? I will have spent the next 52 years waiting for something that never arrived.

Wanting to please everyone else but myself is a kind of living death. It's a way of denying who I am, and ignoring what I need. I live for other people, and other people generally don't want me to, or appreciate the sacrifice. In fact, those who care about me try to warn me that my self-sacrifice is simply miserable to watch. It serves no one, and only creates a huge emptiness in my life that I fill with ghost books. If I'm not a successful person in the here and now, how will I be a successful ghost? What the hell IS a successful ghost? Why do I care that there is or is not life after death? I am reasonably sure that there is; but that does nothing to solve the problem of my life. I wish I had some kind of answer for all this pondering, some reasonable philosophy that would guide me to peace. The truth is, I don't believe in anything. I have half-beliefs, partial understandings, a little faith. Living in this half-life is sheer unhappiness. It's not sustainable. At some point, we have to choose: we take the evidence we have, we arrive at a conclusion, and we decide to live our lives accordingly. In other words, we decide to have faith that what we cannot conclusively prove is not a reason to abandon our intuition and our deep sense of the way things truly are.

My evidence, which I don't ask anyone to share, is this: there is something like God, although I don't pretend to know exactly what or who God is. This God recycles. We retain our consciousness through several lives. The form we take is much less important that the evolution of our consciousness over time. We are supposed to learn what it means to be happy and how to reconcile the existence of true misery and suffering. We are, I think, supposed to evolve through service to others--tried and true, perhaps too obvious, but the truth is often disarmingly simple. We are not supposed to waste our lives with worry and dread; when we do, all we are doing is masking our lack of faith.

It is the lack of faith that leads one to spend thousands of dollars on books intended to prove something that one will not believe, anyway. Only faith in one's evidence matters; the rest is just fear of existence. One doesn't fear death, really; death is a transition, a doorway; am I terrified of being born again? No; I don't even think about those traumatic possibilities. The fear is only about learning to live. Some people learn early, others late, some never; I figure, there's no time like the present.

Ghost hunters, paradoxically, only hunt ghosts because they don't believe in them. The day that a ghost confronts on of us in some absolute and unequivocal way, we'll pack away our EMF meters, our digital audio and our cameras. Faith would lead us in an entirely different direction; but where?

My stepdaughter's name in Farsi means 'faith'. How interesting that her very name represents all that I seek. For now, I am a faith hunter. One day, I hope to give up that hunt; I think the reward for that will be joy. I just have to believe that I deserve to feel that.


Luke said...

I will start at the end, and then dance through the rest.

You write that "[g]host hunters, paradoxically, only hunt ghosts because they don't believe in them." I don't think that's accurate. Lots of ghost hunter folks claim they have witnessed supernatural events. Also: I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm not about to get a Ray Parker Jr. theme song. Ghost hunters at least believe in the possibility of ghosts, or they would not hunt for them.

"Death [is] stalking me from every corner." Maybe. If it is, so is life. Stand on your porch and try to count all the living things in your field of vision. Even here, at my computer in my office, with only one mostly-shuttered window to the outside, I can see huge swaths of life. IT IS STALKING ME AND I LIKE IT. Maybe "stalking" is the wrong word- stalking implies attack, menace, ill will. Death isn't trying to sneak up and attack- it doesn't need to. It'll show up when it's time, and no worrying will stop it. Don't deny death, but don't live waiting for it. It will kindly stop for you.

As for giving up on the class: you know as well as I do that the instructor sets the tone of the classroom. You make the rules. If the class isn't following the rules, kick 'em out! Ask one to leave. If the noise continues, pick another one and do it again. You won't get to eight before the class quiets down- you probably won't get to two. Put a line in the syllabus about pop quizzes, and throw them when the class isn't paying attention. Yes, positive reinforcement is better than negative, but inconsistent reinforcement is the least effective method of all. If students aren't listening, CALL THEM ON IT. Make participation a major portion of the grade. Students will follow the lead of the instructor.

This probably sounds flippant, but believe me: I know classroom management isn't easy. I also know you are capable of it- you've certainly got more experience at it than me.

Summer is here. You're probably teaching summer school, but you've still got some break time. Use it. Leave the house. Go for walks- exercise sent your demon away. Write about something other than death. Read about something other than ghosts. Let life stalk you for a while.

ty said...

Well said old chap. "Stalk life" Dr. Thorne, there is no need to stalk anything else as death comes of its own accord.

Anonymous said...

you will not find faith in a classroom: get out there, see the world, DO SOMETHING. your life is not half over, its half full. look , your parents were told that you might not make it when you were five, my parents were told that when i was seven, if want proof look at the horseshoe on my head, this permanent scar. your life is what you make of it, and it is still your life. you were given another chance. you're squandering it. answers are not living in books, you are cutting yourself of from reality if you trust books.
hav you seen the shawshank redemption?? remember the line "get busy living or get busy dying." i think you can live, you have the potential, if you're faking that joy in class then, thats too bad, but if its real than i think you are capable of it of real felicity.

on a seperate note, your choice of stories for us to do in class is communicating your true views of the world and what is truly bothering you. do u remember the first story about how that woman was slowly dying because of the leech? and this story, el huesped where the huesped is darker aspects of the man's personality that is stalking the wife and hurting the children??
board up your beast in the room and let it die. it cannot feed if you lock the door and leave.
please see the world, in particular india....you will find faith. people there struggle daily, some even die for their faith, some kill for it. but, if jesus could go there, to nepal to the buddhists in bihar, to the hindus in uttar pradesh, to my own people, the sikhs in punjab. if he can find enlightenment and peace there, so can you. yes, i realize that the roman catholic church would call me a liar for saying jesus went to india. but, what do they know, they rape little boys.

good luck, please dont give up on the life you still have, and men dont always have a huesped that they will bring home.

Kitty said...

Luke, Ty, Danny,

First of all, thank you for reading! It means a lot to know that you took the time to slog through something so long and filled with existential angst. Ironically, I felt so much better after I wrote that, that I can say that I don't really feel this way as of now. I love my students and my classes 90% of the time. As for "stalking life," that's a very beautiful image, and I thank you for it, Luke. I am not as depressed or hopeless as I portrayed myself here, just very frustrated sometimes with the "way things are". In terms of school, now that Pierce has cancelled the second summer session, I am both unhappy and hopeful that I will find something amazing to do. I'm actually thinking of offering my students a free conversation class, that will be held at Borders on Canoga and Victory. I want to work outside the box here, and serve others without resentment and anger. Really, I needed to handle things better this last semsester with one of my classes, but the wonderful thing about teaching is that you ALWAYS get a second chance, you can always start over. So thank you all again, and I promise that I will stalk more life and quit the useless introspection in favor of a more active engagement with the world.

Scrumpi-D said...

"Life's not about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain." my son sent this to my sister... i think you are dancing Dr. Thorne, I love that you are dancing!

Anna Bruzzese said...

It's amazing to me how eloquently you express many of the things I also feel but can't quite find words for. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for being you. Let's have lunch soon!