It’s Personal

I can’t remember when it became clear to me that writing was something I was good at, something no one had to teach me. I learned things, of course, technique and precision, and I found my voice, my own style, which apparently involves borderline run-on sentences and lots of comma splices, but whatever. My point is that once I quietly acknowledged to myself that this is my gift, and I should not let it wither. So I created this website and for several years it was my writing home, my personal story, my public journal, and when I go back and read things I wrote back then I have to admit that I am a bit impressed. That person who wrote so faithfully here so many years ago was a pretty decent writer. I wrote about myself and work and family, and eventually motherhood, with humor and honesty, and reading that stuff now triggers an emotional response, mostly amusement. Even when I wrote about the asylum that was my classroom at the time, it was amusing. I was not so racked with stress that I could not tap my writer’s brain, and so I didn’t know then, as I know now, that true emotional stress is like a death sentence for my creativity.

When I quit writing in 2009, I was in the bleakest professional situation I had ever been in, worse, even, than my worst days as a classroom teacher, and it ate away at me in ways I am not proud of, ways that encouraged an antidepressant prescription and more sleepless nights than I could count. The irony of my misery still haunts me. I was working at my undergraduate alma mater, a place I love to this day, and with some of the best friends of my life, people I still manage to eat and drink with once a month. It should have been the perfect situation, but at the end of the day I dragged home an emotional weight that threatened to crush me. Never mind the spacious office with the floor to ceiling window overlooking my favorite part of campus, or the freedom to wander out for lunch and take longer than the standard public school 21 minutes, or the opportunity to teach college classes, something I’d always wanted to do. All of that was irrelevant because my boss was…mean. Turns out I need to work for someone who is nice to me. More to the point, I need to work for someone who speaks to me in a civil manner, who trusts me professionally and allows me room to do my job, who makes eye contact and smiles occasionally.

I won’t dwell on what a childish take this is on employment, other than to say I know in my brain that it really should not matter, that adulthood does not bring with it the promise that people in authority positions will be nice to their employees. Fine. But why not? There’s an ongoing thread of conversation in Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” that involves Tom Hanks’s character saying repeatedly, “It’s not personal, it’s business,” and finally, having heard this one too many times, Meg Ryan’s character replies,

What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?….Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.

That is how I feel about my job and the leadership that inevitably accompanies it. It is personal to me. I embarked upon this career because it was personal to me. Obviously. It certainly wasn’t for the money, although maintaining a decent living has become a definite priority, especially in the past 8 years. Parenthood will do that to you. But before the paycheck, before the decent vacation calendar and the summers off, there were the relationships. That is where it always had to start with me. Relationships with students, relationships with my coworkers, even relationships with my superiors. I need the connection. It is what sustains me, and it cannot be fractured anywhere across the board. If one connection is broken the rest inevitably drift into irrelevance, which is why, after a brief two years as an employee of my undergrad institution, I resigned and went back to the public school system. It wasn’t enough that I worked with friends and loved many of my students; the disconnect at the top was too much. I couldn’t take it. It set into motion a funnel cloud of self doubt and disinterest and emotional disconnect that I could not dodge.

And that is where I find myself again, except without the good friends and lovable students.

Don’t get me wrong. I work with some great people. I am friendly with some of them. But they are not…friends. We don’t hang out, not even at work, and that is important to me. I eat lunch alone at my computer every day, and there are entire days when I do not have a conversation that is not related to work. And there are a few students I know well, who flock in at lunch and say hi and check out books and tell me their boyfriend troubles and family dramas, but sadly I mostly cannot remember their names, so brief and infrequent are our interactions. That makes things difficult enough, but for the second time in my life, my boss is…mean. I have worked for lots of people, and my connections to them range from friendly nods to regular jokes and ribbing to an attempt to gain custody of my daughter (THAT is a story for another day). I’ve worked for some incompetents, some big egos, some major personality voids, but I’ve managed to find common ground with all those individuals, and have in turn done my very best work for them. But when someone speaks to me like I am an incidental, a figure with no face or feelings, I experience what can only be described as rapid entropy. I lose my way so quickly in the face of blatant indifference and the absence of compassion. It is more destructive to my personal and professional psyche than idiocy at the helm. And the last time I experienced it I lost myself, and so as you can imagine, I am more than a little anxious these days about once again navigating these waters.

The honest truth is that I really don’t know how to navigate these waters. I have gotten lots of advice. My husband says I should push back and my boss will respect me more (not likely). My former work friend says I should lay low and avoid confrontation (I wish, but somehow it finds me). Another former work friend says to “keep calm and carry on” and wait out the current leadership (does he know something I don’t know?). Jesus tells me to love those who persecute me, to pray for them and show them kindness (ouch, Jesus. Just…ouch). I am limping through my days, a limp that is exacerbated by leaving my 4 month old son at my neighbor’s house every morning and dragging myself through the workday knowing I am missing his sounds and smiles and the thousand new things he will learn to do while I try to maintain my balance. It is a difficult place, this. I don’t want it to defeat me, and yet, I woke up on Sunday already dreading Monday morning. I don’t want it to steal my joy. My kids need that joy. My husband needs it. I need it.

And so does my writing. That is my point here, after all. Once upon a time I found myself in utmost professional despair, and my writer’s voice suffered and nearly died in that despair. I am finding her again, forcing her to pick up the habit and keep rolling with it, but she’s so damn sensitive, and here we are again in this dismal place, with even fewer reasons to be happy at work than there were the last time, and even more reasons to just want to stay home. I need to keep moving forward, or I might stop for good. I need to figure out if I’m supposed to stay put and wait for a change in leadership, or change direction completely. I need a plan.

So…anybody got a plan I can borrow?

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