When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought to myself, “I should go check my other Happy New (School) Year blog posts”….imagine my surprise when I couldn’t find any! I was pretty sure that I’ve written posts about coming back around at the start of a new year, but maybe I’ve written those in January. In any event, the start of the 2021–2022 school year holds new significance for me. After all, although I’ve had this brain cancer for probably up to 15 years and just didn’t know it, I certainly didn’t have a diagnosis and wasn’t starting the school year trying to juggle starting my first day ever of chemo on the first day of professional development or starting my first infusion ever on the first day with students. These are realities that are so surreal still and it’s hard to call them realities.
I’m not sure how to imagine this year. Will I be able to work? Will I be able to teach? Who am I if I can’t be with my students? Who am I if I’m not engaged in the process of strengthening my school and my practice? Those twin drives are the reasons I get up every day. If I become too sick, and I can’t participate in those practices, who will I be? How will I sustain my drive or desire to continue?
I think it’s tempting to many people to conflate my job with my work. I get people who tell me that I should be sure to “take time for myself” and other statements like that. There are people who think I should not work through this cancer and treatment. Those who say things like that don’t understand how important it is for me to have these twin reasons to get up every morning. People who talk to me about “the people I know who had cancer regretted how much time they spent at work” are people who don’t understand that for me, my job isn’t just a job. It’s the meaningful work that wakes me up every morning and it’s the relationship with my students that gets me on the camera every day. Without that and without them, I’m not really sure what I would do in the empty hours of being just sick.
There’s also a strong argument for continuing to have a life that is so much more than just this illness. I’ve shared with some people the story of a nurse practitioner told me I had to x-ray my shoulder because she was convinced that the muscle pain I had was metastasized cancer from my brain. There is a quote from a book I’ve been reading that says “once one of your identities is sick, that’s the only one that matters” (Frankel, L. That Is How It Always Is, pg. 242). One of the ways to overcome this identification of “sick as always sick” is to continue to have a job that brings meaning and structure to my life – to get up every day and see my students, to think about how to move them forward and how to support them and how to build the support so that they can start where they are and achieve grade-level work from there. This work and making it happen, making it real, making it possible, incredibly hard though it is to do and incredibly individualized though it is to do, is truly meaningful work.
In another book I’ve been reading, Goodbye For Now, one of the characters talks about how most people think that “nothing [is] more important than hope. Josh could think of a few things, a reason to hope being chief among them, not hoping just as a thought experiment” (Frankel, L. pg. 190). This quote, this idea of having a reason, not just hope for the sake of having hope (which we hear A LOT as cancer patients), echoes the message in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the idea that our lives need meaning in order to be livable and to be lived. I think it is doubly – triply – so as I spend my last hours of summer vacation 2021 trying to balance finishing up last projects with just not doing much.
So, as the (school) year starts fresh for me, I ask you to consider: what brings meaning to your life? What brings meaning to your work as a teacher or an administrator? What has gotten you through years like this one? What has given your life meaning when meaning was hard to come by? What new projects or ideas are you thinking about trying with your students this year? What are you excited about?