Friday, October 25, 2013

I Wish I'd Spent More Time at Work

I had a rough morning.

It started with the system update glitch that prevented my phone from waking me at 5 with "All Blues," my preferred wake-up music. (Try it sometime; it's a soothing, swinging way to ease into consciousness.) At 5:43 I opened my eyes, realized what had happened, and sprang into action, throwing together my lunch and a quick pot of coffee, then rushing out the door to pick up a couple of donuts at the QFC. I actually got to school a little early, but it was hard to shake that breathless sense of encroaching tardiness. And my foot was already hurting.

That's right, my wounded little toe wanted nothing so much as to be elevated with an ice pack. Instead, I spent almost the entire day on it, moving about the gym where I teach, leading students in an especially vigorous jazz dance to "Sing, Sing, Sing," and, in one case, futilely chasing kindergartners around the room. Sassy fifth graders, a fourth grade substitute teacher who obliviously started bringing her class in before I'd gotten said fifth graders out, and not one but two classes of hyperactive kinders rounded out my morning. By lunchtime, I was more than ready to call it a day--but it was only half over.

The afternoon more than made up for the morning. The choir was charming and enthusiastic, first graders laughed delightedly at both the dance and the story I told them, and both second and third graders loved every minute of the lesson. But all of it was intense, vigorous, taxing, and it was no easy feat making the 40-minute drive home without a nap.

I told Amy about my day, and she asked me, "Do you actually like this job?"

And with full candor, I replied, "I love it."

There's an old aphorism about work that I used to quote regularly: "No man on his death bed ever looked up into the eyes of his family and friends and said, I wish I'd spent more time at the office." And to the extent that this quote is about an office job, it could definitely have applied to me for most of my years in ministry, as well as the first two years of my education career. I could toss in my first year of band directing at Banks, as well, which was riddled with growing pains, and portions of the second--but that would be stretching it.

The truth of this matter is that I do love teaching music, and I really love doing it at Margaret Scott. Yes, I'm stuck in a gymnasium that is much too loud a space, and which tempts the more active children to chase each other and run havoc on my classroom management. Yes, I lack a full set of the instruments I really need to make this work. Yes, I can only present a half year's curriculum, because in January I move to a different school to do the same curriculum there. And yes, many of the classes are much too large, and populated with children who have extreme behavior issues.

But, but, but:

For many of these children, music is the highlight of their week. So many of them come from disadvantaged home lives, with parents who are drug dealers, sex workers, working poor, homeless. It shows in their behavior, in the way some of them react so violently if I raise my voice at all, in the ways they simply cannot control themselves as they dart around the room, call attention to themselves, distract everyone else in their classes. These children are well known throughout the school--"frequent fliers," we call them--and we're all working to make school the place that makes a difference for them, that keeps them from winding up in the justice system. Twice a week, I give them an experience that makes them smile, laugh, tell me on the way out that it was FUN today. When I hold up a pair of drum sticks, a tambourine, a hand drum, there's a chorus of "Me! Me! Me!"--even though I've made it clear I'll pick the quiet, patient children first to play instruments. They want badly to make music. I make a difference in their lives.

And then there are the "good" ones, the children who try futilely to shush the attention-demanders because they really do want to learn, and they understand that the more disruption there is, the less they'll get from the lesson. I don't know what kind of homes these kids come from, but they are the majority of my students, and they are a pleasure to teach.

Many days, I am treated like a hero by my students. They hug me as they arrive at school, grin when they come in for music class, laugh at my stories, wave excitedly at me like I'm a rock star when I pass through the cafeteria. I get more affirmation from a day here than I had in all the time I was in Banks.

It's hard work, no question. I'm lucky that my hours are so limited. I couldn't maintain this focus much longer than I do.

And as hard as it is, I love it. I do wish I'd spent more time doing it earlier in my life, that I hadn't so quickly given up on it in 1985 to plunge down the dead end rabbit hole of ministry. What I'm doing right now is the truest ministry I've ever had, and my biggest regret is that I've got less than two more decades to do it.

Don't get me wrong, I wish I had more time to spend with my loved ones. That's why I'm leaving my Sunday morning piano gig, and am not taking on anymore private students. There is a balance that must be struck.

But at the end of this day, as tired as I am, as sore as my injured foot is, I'm thrilled to be doing this work, and I want to keep doing it as long as I'm physically able.

Eat your heart out, office drones: I have the best job in the world. You should be so lucky.

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