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“a freely chosen task”

I’m writing the draft of this blog post in the last week of May and am planning to publish it in about three weeks, or in the last week of school for us. I’ve never done a virtual-school-last-day-of-school, so I’m curious to see how we close out the school year virtually, what rituals and activities mark the end of the year for us. Even last year, when my brick-and-mortar school ended the year virtually, the teachers still returned to the classroom to clean up, put away materials, cover bookshelves, etc. It was a weird pseudo-return, to be sure, dodging talkative colleagues who couldn’t measure six feet and hauling materials to the car that it seemed we would never be able to use again (goodbye fidget tools, goodbye yoga balls). A year later, I’m not at that school, my colleagues are back there in-person, and I’m working part-time while out on sick leave with a brain tumor, grateful beyond words to work at a virtual school where I can do paperwork, attend and hold meetings, and otherwise finish my obligations to the year, except, of course, the one that matters the most:

Working with my students.

I knew, when I learned that I had a brain tumor and that I needed immediate, emergency surgery, that I would not return to the classroom this year. It takes so much energy to engage with the kids, and to manage the visual input, the online chat, the raised hands, the comments, the questions….too much. I am blessed to have amazing colleagues and administrators who immediately stepped in to take on my classes, to rebuild a schedule of support for my kids, and who found the funding to make it happen. It has been yet-another gift and blessing in this new journey I am on.

But it also brings to light for me the hardest part of having brain cancer: losing my kids. When I started reading other peoples’ stories of their experiences when they first became diagnosed, many of them talked about how it was an a-ha moment for them, a time to reflect on their choices, an opportunity to realign their work with their values. For me, my work has been that way since I returned from Ecuador in 2000 and started teaching in the US. Living in Ecuador was an experience that left indelible marks on my values and my understanding of my place in the world, my awareness of my privilege. Above all else, living there gave me a crystal-clear sense of obligation to attempt, in any and all ways possible, to repay and to pay forward the infinite number of blessings I had been given.

When I first started teaching in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the gritty, vibrant, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural community where I live, I saw my daily work as both the means by which I earned my living and also as service. This became harder to do when I left Fitchburg to teach in a charter school and then when I went to work in an affluent local district. I still loved spending time with my kids, but it was harder and harder to find the aspect of service in work, when most of the students were affluent and privileged. Returning to a more diverse community at my current job has been a return to my roots, in a sense, and those roots give me a deep sense of meaning.

Earlier this year, a colleague recommended that I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (2006, Beacon Press). Frankl’s description of “logotherapy,” his theory put forward in this book, includes the following explanation:

There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”…Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium , or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., the tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him. (pp. 104-5)

It has been just over a month, almost to the day, since I had brain surgery. Every day has been different, with lots of new challenges and with an endless list of surprises, not so much the fun kind, but more the ones that I can’t anticipate because this is all uncharted territory for me. I have developed some sort of weird dyslexia-like spelling, where p’s and b’s have become interchangeable. I have lost the connection between numbers as symbols and numbers as representative of a real-world value, so I can say or calculate a value, but then I find myself writing down a random digit or two instead. And, while I am physically better each day out from the surgery in mid-April, the number of appointments and consults continues unabated.

But I continue to work as often as I can and as often as I have work to do, writing IEP’s, running IEP meetings with colleagues there for backup, attending transition meetings for my rising 6th grade students, tracking down incomplete work from students, collaborating long-distance with colleagues and parents to support my kids. A lot of people question this, telling me to “rest.” But I know that choice is not right for me, as I hold the words of Frankl and Nietzsche in my mind, knowing that I see my work, my job, as a “freely chosen task” that is “the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled.”

I can only wish the same for everyone who comes to teaching.

Thank you to all of my colleagues and my administrators for making this crazy end-of-year work. Thank you to all of my students and their parents for their patience with all of the changes – I miss you all!

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