the twit


    letter to a amherst grad, nervously considering the teacher corps

    my graduation speech to an audience of one. for ameerah.

    it seems that this has been your existential crisis for months now. which is understandable, and in a long tradition of anxious/brilliant amherst grads who look towards the wilderness with unease.

    all i can say is what i've said before: you're going to figure it out. it's less about the right decision (in your case, "knowing what to do"), than in decisions you can live with.

    in regards to the teacher corps, the question is whether you can live with committing yourself for two years to the daily grind of improving the lives of mississippi children, and whether you're willing to commit yourself in full knowledge that (a) you don't know exactly what that daily grind entails, (b) and that all accounts of that daily grind are riddled with exhaustion, suffering, and failure (and rightfully so).

    however, there are many upsides to this commitment, some of which you must come to terms with as being selfish, not the least of which is that it allows you to put off the "i don't know what to do [with my life]" dilemma for two years, during which time you're going to flesh out a lot of those unexamined contours of yourself that someone don't get taken care of in a world of valentine, frost, and jchap--and somehow do get taken care of in a world of incompetent administrators, dehumanized youth, and lesson plans. that was, at least, my experience. and i'm well aware that it's not universal: that many teacher corps folks don't have the experience that i had, and that you can certainly develop and grow as an individual in ways that don't involve teaching people how to graph lines.

    also, let's return to the anxious/brilliant amherst grad dilemma. you probably have other options after leaving amherst (or, if you don't right now, you will): academic, professional, personal, whatever. and this is perhaps the most troubling part of the situation: people have an almost endless capacity to craft narratives to explain themselves and/or their odd journey. which means that, regardless of the decision you make, it is always within your means to re-contextualize the decision, to re-write the context and to re-write the decision. furthermore, given that you're going to be in some sort of self-definition crisis for at least the next 10 years, the context, the decision, and the relationship between the two are all going to stay in flux until somewhere down the line where it seems we all get struck with a kind of amnesia that leaves us with silly things like college being the most formative time in our lives, with otherwise arbitrary decisions being "meant to be," and a strange fascination with raising children (who will themselves become anxious/brilliant grads themselves in shock with the sheer breadth of adult possibility). in short, it doesn't matter which path you take, because even though they both are equally uncertain right now, someday you'll be saying with a sigh that you took the one less traveled, and are better for it.

    so, all of this is to say that this "next step" decision both means a lot, and that it doesn't really matter what you chose. make a decision you can live with, do you damn best to live with that decision, and don't be afraid to change course if things are actually unbearable (but certainly don't change course at first sadness, and for god's sake do not leave a classroom of mississippi children without a teacher). this is also to say that i know that most of what i'm telling you if rightfully meaningless, and has been the last three or for times i said it. which isn't to say it isn't valuable (i hope that it is), but it's a value almost without meaning. because the meaning isn't made yet, which is of course exactly the problem; and i must say that for me it's hardly made just five years removed from my own version of your anxiety. this wilderness has been bizarre, though i'm glad to have my stubbornness chipped away at by way of it: so that i'm starting to get a sense of how young i am, how little i know, and how much i need to listen, and to be patient. along the way, i've been able to teach some math, to help some young people engage in inquiry/dialogue focused on critical citizenship, to support local struggles for reconciliation and renewal, to fall deeply in love with a place (and its many places, often in conflict), and to live alone. i'm glad that i've done these things, both proud and humbled by many of them, and while i'd do it all over again i'm not going to harbor the pretension that these dots were all meant to be connected, and in this order, and at this time.

    this has, of course, become a long letter, and i imagine unexpected in response to your message of seven words. but they are massive words, and they are universal (except the dave part, of course): "I dunno what to do Dave...eek!!!!!!!" so, in responding to them, i seem to have wandered down a rabbit hole of my own struggle with things massive and universal. i hope that's ok; i have my own next-step looming (the search for the big phd in the sky), and my own "I dunno what to do Ameerah...eek!!!" it's different this time, and i'm glad for that, but also sobering to be reminded that i'm so thinly removed from that anxiety of graduating from amherst, and that while i've begun to come to terms with the wilderness and the as-yet-meaninglessness, the accompanying pain is not wholly rescinded, nor the fears resolved. so, i don't know what to tell you. i don't know what to do either; my most productive recourse has been to let go of the knowing and the meaning, at least on the front end. (i'm sure i've abandoned my avoidance of the trite much earlier, but this will certainly kill it:) rather, i'm much more concerned with the "doing" part of that anxiety. i've gotten to a point where i just let the "knowing" and "meaning" piece pass some sort of sufficiency threshold, where i know enough about a particular course of action and enough of its potential meanings fit in well with whatever hodgepodge of values they interact with, and i just start to pick away at the doing part. because, and i've learned this lesson well as a teacher and at the winter institute: most of the stuff we start isn't going to take hold, both in ourselves and in others, and the real returns are so poor on meaningful action that it's not worth my while to wait until everything makes perfect next-step sense to start investing. this is a major divergence from the relatively healthier returns of being an undergrad and investing in meaningful action about undergrad things (most of which get a nicely concrete beginning-middle-end arc at the outset, and culminate in an everyone's-a-winner degree at the end). rather, it's imperative that i keep moving, and in many directions at once, and with a long view towards the big threshold, when meaning starts to collect and leans towards a kind of knowing--that what is happening is a good thing. and, as long as i'm growing and shifting and looking for meaning, it doesn't really matter what i'm doing, so long as i can live with the doing and that i can learn from it.

    you are, of course, in a different position. it's all happening at once, and it's all happening on the front end. you're trying to make a decision that would involve something you've never done, and because of that there's no way of knowing whether it's a good thing (and, regardless, it seems to be a painful thing). and even if it is something you've done a little of before, the scale and context of it all is a massive departure from extracurriculars and summer internships. i know for sure that there's no amount of writing that will ease this anxiety. but, i can tell you that it's up to you to turn it into a productive anxiety, to make a decision you can live with, and to live with it. whether you come teach public school in mississippi or not, you're going to be fine. you're going to good things. i think that if you weren't going to do good things, then you wouldn't be so anxious. and, even after you make your big-next-step decision, you're going to continue be anxious, and you're going to still have to turn it into a productive anxiety. it is the fire in the wilderness that lets us see ("terras irradient," anyone?), but is fire nonetheless. tend to it: don't let it consume you, don't let it die out. it is often all that we have.

    so that's all i've got. 1500 words and all i can tell you is that there isn't a knowing what to do, if there were it isn't worth your time to wait for the knowing and the meaning before the doing, and that the anxiety that you feel is sometimes the only thing that proves you still exist, and through which you can do good things so long as you don't explode or fizzle out (which you probably won't). and, so long as you can hold on to this anxiety about the knowing and the meaning while in the wandering, it doesn't really matter what you're doing, because you're going to do good things. and it's going to be ok. so just let yourself commit to something, finish your damn degree, and welcome to the wilderness.