If I were to tell you briefly what I miss most about studenthood, I would tell you that I miss all the measurements. I miss the measurements because back when I had them, they could tell me how I was doing. The grades told me I was doing well, or I was doing alright, or sometimes they told me “Oh no!” The comments I received along with the grades gave me other measuring words: “Excellent analysis” “Adequate reading” “Very poor introduction.” But my favorite was the way that for a student everything, good, adequate, or poor, came to an end: years, semesters, classes, papers, projects. Everything reached a point where it was finished, polished and shiny, ready to become my ancient history. I used to love the moment when they passed out the test and you put your notes under the desk: whether I had studied for fifteen minutes (which was not enough) or three hours (which, frankly, was rare) there was nothing more I could do now. I knew what I knew, and not what I didn’t. I found it easy to be a philosopher when it was up to others to decide the value of my work.
But now it is hard. I have a great deal of freedom in my job, and I am grateful for this, but it means that much of the time I am my own judge, jury, and occasionally executioner. Each day I come in, and for lack of anyone else to constantly measure me, I become the fly on my own wall as I make curriculum decisions, pacing decisions, policy decisions, grading decisions, classroom management decisions. I sit and watch myself, with the good, adequate, and “oh no!” score cards waiting in my hand, as I make second to second decisions about what words and inflection to use with the student I’m speaking to. Oh, I want to do well. I want to do well so badly that I am hard on myself, because how else will I grow? I’m terrified I might end up complacent or even delusional about my own performance. So I come into school each day, saying, “Alright, do better, Alice,” without really knowing what I mean by that. Sometimes I wonder if the standards I ask myself to meet are possible, or even definable. But I never know, because that final test that would tell me never comes.
And if school is bad then summer is worse. It is formless and quiet. By choice I spend a lot of time by myself, left to my own devices. And there’s the rub. Alone, unshowered, on a July Tuesday morning, I sit on my bed, feeling a desperate pressure to accomplish something, without entirely understanding what I mean by that. I know that it is summer, and I am free. Free to do all the things I don’t normally make time for: cook and clean and read and write and walk and talk and put on make up and spend money. The list begins to grow and overwhelm me, the Mr. Knightley I have built out of extra shards of my own conscience says “Badly done!”, and I end up watching Netflix and indulging in a self-loathing which is nothing like rest.
I say all this not to sound dire, but because this is so often the gist of my inner monologue. I want to be told that I’m doing wonderfully, and by a more reliable source than myself, but I also want to be alone, and do things my own way.
So first I must laugh at myself, because that is usually a good way to begin (and beginnings are the best endings).
And second I must repent of more than a little self-aggrandizement. I must repent of the silly belief that even if I cannot be the savior of the world, I can still be the savior of myself. I must remind myself that goodness and growth and learning come not through human effort, but through God’s grace to us.
Last, I must find a new way through. I am not a good measurer of myself, so I must find something else to measure, some other structure to lean on, to tell me the value of the work I am doing. I must hold it up to the cross, I must ask it about joy, I must find if it leads me to worship.
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.