From the teaching desk
It’s difficult and tiring being around depressed people so often. That's part of my job, teaching at-risk students, and I feel more for them than myself, but it wears on me. I am tired and out of balance. Depression feels contagious. Today I’ve worked with five kids in four hours who have been so out of the light they’ve brought darkness to my world.
"To a passage so poorly lit
There's moths flying away from it"
—Neko Case, "Prison Girls"
This part of the job is tough to explain. The common thinking is I need to buck up and get over it, but depression isn't something we swat away with happy thoughts and a smile. Depression feels to me like mercury, a poison that enters the system, never leaves, and accumulates.
Last period a student slated to take a state exam soon gave up preparing for it. "They aren't even going to let me take it," she said. "My family is moving and my old school isn't going to let me take it there but the new school won't let me take it there either." She swore and I felt her sinking into the darkness. I said, "Schools don't move fast. You’ll be allowed to take it. That's good because you have the opportunity and it's bad because now you have the responsibility to take it." She swore again. I said, "you've shown you know how to do this. I’ve seen that. Take one deep breath, close your eyes, imagine something calm, and when you open your eyes, hold onto enough of that calm to get started." I tried to show her how, gently, understanding she was sinking. She swore again, not at me maybe at fate. I patted her shoulder. "You are capable of more than you believe."
All that was fine even if though it didn’t work. Maybe there will be some cumulative effect, like mercury, but not poisonous. In that moment though, it was as if she were sinking into the floor, distorting its shape, making a dark hole into which I too was sliding. She was the fifth student pulling on me out of the light. Three quarters of an hour later, I'm hanging on, trying to pull myself up, but I'm pretty tired.
This isn't the toughest part of the job but it worms into my system. It's tough to be around people who are so depressed and try to be of use to them without losing my balance and giving up.
In teaching, there’s not much I can do about this other than take care of myself and get help when I need it. I see my therapist every other week or so. I leave school stuff at school. I find solace in writing and reading. Today, reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, I found something he calls “The Vampire Test.” He tells of how Picasso “was notorious for sucking all the energy out of the people he met” sending them home “nervous and exhausted” while he used all the energy he had just sucked out of them to fuel his painting.
Sculptor Constantin Brancusi, “hailed from the Carpathian Mountains, and he knew a vampire when he saw one” so he refused to have anything to do with Picasso.
I like the story and the message that we should banish vampires from our lives. I would add only that there is a difference between a vampire and someone who needs blood. Deciding between vampires and those in need is an important part of my job. And even when it turns out that someone is simply in need of transfusion, I first have to make sure that I’m healthy enough to help them. For the time being, I’m going to work on climbing up out of this hole and into the light. Once I’m back on the surface, back in balance, back in the light, then I might be able to help again.
Until then, I’m going to keep writing.