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Encoding Kairos | 2011 | Talented Youth

01.24.11 12:56 p.m.

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil big enough to draw on the ceiling.  

-G.K. Chesterton


Controlled Myopia

So, which one am I?

My anxiety - which rarely leave me totally despite my attempt to suffocate it under logic - rises and falls based on what profession I assume I am: teacher or writer. This angst robs me of my sleep, not as I am nodding off but when I wake me hours before my alarm and it refuse to release my brain from its clutches, as though I can resolve my universe from my bed in the hours before dawn. Teaching, which was supposed to be the stable fallback while I wrote stories and novels that likely went nowhere, has ostensibly gone out of its way to only allow me into the shallowest pockets of late (I've taught at colleges and a prestigious boarding school, but am currently largely relegated to substitute teaching). I've been told in meetings at other teaching jobs that I am the wrong race for employment/advancement or that my employment was only allowed because I happened to have XY chromosomes, however little my sex has to do with my abilities in the classroom. The world of writing has never asked and never cared what color my ancestors were or what I have between my legs.

There is the constant promise of potential, of what could come now. I've spent too much of my psychic energy perseverating over the fact that I do not have a proper job at present, but (though it does comprise most of my waking hours five days a week) my day job is hardly my life. As point of fact, aside from the odd beautiful interaction with a surprising student, my brightest points at work are prep periods spent typing at a feverish pace.

Some days at work, it feels as though I am trying to save my students' lives, knowing they may attack me for the audacity. I realize I am only a substitute to them, not a fellow human being, and that most of these kids wouldn't care if I were an expert. All that matters to them is that I am an authority figure with minimal power and little knowledge of their names. Being shut off from the fullness of experience, neglecting the burdens of humanity so they can make flatulent sounds against their hands or bang against the tables in bad rhythm, comes with the territory of being an inner-city teenager. Reality has failed them, society has failed them, so they will do their level best to make sure that they fail every expectation placed upon them no matter how surely it drags them to the abyss. They treat their personal lives as premises for episodes of The Jerry Springer Show, they mutilate the English language until one needs a translator to point them toward the assignment, and I truly feel for them. They make my life a pain some days, they kick my educational passion square in the crotch, but they need teachers like me.

I also know that, in another school, one where it was not a battle against the willfully drowning, there wouldn't be a day where I doubted myself, even at this entry level. However, other schools in the area pay between $20 and $30 less a day and that is not a pay cut I can survive for more self-confidence. I cannot deny that trying to keep their heads above water, seeing a student who could have sunk to the bottom doggy-paddling on his own, has a sense of immediacy that life-guarding for Olympic swimmers does not. On good days, when I connect and feel like I am allowed to foster a young mind, I am exultant. On my bad days - when a student physically assaults me for getting between him, his reputation, and his iPod - things feel rather less glorious.

I recently transitioned from an after-school teaching position that was relatively stable (a two week, unresolved and program-canceling gas leaks aside) but lower paying to a home instruction teaching position for the district from which I graduated, meeting in a coffeehouse with students who cannot legally or physically attend the school. The new job is contingent on the students opting to show up, but it is an additional day a week and the equivalent of 50% more an hour. For days after making this decision, I felt apprehension. I cried because I would miss my class, with whom I was making headway. But I need to survive myself before I can save lives. As my friends and family assure me when I convey my concern, there was no other choice to make.

I will never be my day job. I don't have to be a teacher. I have worked in an office setting, staring at words for eight hours to find a mistake in spacing, and functioned. It was dull, but I could do it because being a proofreader never seemed like who I was and I got a steady paycheck using an innate skill. Teaching doesn't wish to allow me that freedom, it wants to be the defining factor in my life even as it spurns me time and again. I love teaching and I am excellent at it, especially with students who care even the slightest or have somehow kept alive the most naked spark of intellectual curiosity, but I don't ever think I will ever be a teacher before I am a writer.

Being an uppercase Writer, legitimately being able to say I will have a book coming out from a respected publishing house, startles me still because it is the fruition of much work, begun well before I tapped out the first words of that novel for a contest for the local paper (I was not selected). Knowing that I have a five-year contract, that Double Dragon Publishing encourages further novels in my series, makes me sometimes feel as though I have stolen away an aspect of someone else's life (and will fight them to the death if they try to reclaim it now).

As a writer, I am expected to be near starvation and so need not fret. My larder is full and I am unlikely to be evicted. Starvation comes with the territory, even if I happen to write fantasy novels and not, as is the cliché, heartbreaking works of staggering genius. (Melanie put it quite well: I write what should be tripe - daemons, magic, aliens, vampires - but I write it exceptionally well.) As such, I am doing much better than most people who try their hands at being novelists, as I have someone who will be sending me royalty checks (which had better be huge thanks to everyone reading this buying a copy of We Shadows) and will have my books sold at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

As long as I keep my focus in the present and acknowledge my unlikely strengths, I feel not panic but odd delight. Sleeping through the night (and not aggravating my worry with further sleep deprivation) is all a matter on controlled myopia, choosing my focus and not making catastrophes of fuzzy shapes on the horizon. I need to write the story before me, teasing out those threads I can touch, and not try to scribble across the miles and months, accomplishing little more than frustration and illegibility.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: High Fidelity
reading: American Gods
listening: Morrisey

Encoding Kairos | 2011 | Talented Youth

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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