by Robert P. Barsanti
I have books. Hundreds of books.
In early September, I return to the classroom and look at all of those things that I haven’t changed, as well as all of those things that I have. The chalk board got covered with a dry erase board which is now covered by screen for my computer projector. Many of the posters are the same. Some are under glass (“Tracy’s World”) but some, like the Ghastlycrumb Tinies and the “Flensing of a Corrupt Judge” remain as they have been for over twenty years, just with more holes in the corners. The room is, of course, lined with books.
In the early years of my career, all those books had a purpose. I went trolling through the used book stores of Cambridge and Boston in search of old textbooks that I could strip for parts. Ray Bradbury (over)wrote an essay about Spring Sneakers, and I swiped it, photocopied it, and then used it in class. Multiply that process by about thirty-five years, and you have the collection of books I have right now.
Now that we have settled fully into the new millennium, all of those books are putrefying on shelves and in boxes. The anthologies are of their time: the modern eye would see such collections as too old, too male, too white for the modern student. And they would be right. I look at all of these spines, consider the time and expense in collecting them, the use and amusement in sharing them, and their silence in our new digital moment. I no longer teach what I once did, and not in the same manner. I can bring these old works into the twenty-first century and drop copies onto a server, but they work about as well as I can drive a Model T on Milestone Road. It can be done, but not well.
Teaching, like many professions, has a time-honored masochist scale. The most honored and revered among us in the faculty lounge get the graded (and red-penned) essays back in two days and spend our afternoons and evenings grading the homework. You had to grind. We taught three or four different courses, to a hundred or more kids, whose parents would stop us in the produce section for a word. So I searched for the new readings, photocopied, created the assignments, graded them, and then put the originals into a file cabinet. That file cabinet has long since sunk beneath waves of time, and all of those hours and papers along with it. I even bought a chair for the living room so that I could watch TV and grade papers at the same time.
No one should do this.
The old union organizers, who brought us the weekend and Labor Day, preached the virtue of balance. “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.” What you will, in the early grinding years of my career, meant more work: more copying, more grading, more preparing. Now, at the end of my career, I lament the loss of balance. I never got my “Best Martyr” gold star. “What you will” could have meant many things besides fixing an overused and out-of-date photocopy machine.
Several Christmases ago, I watched a work crew pull a full ten hours on the house across the street. The hammer guns were going, the two-by-fours were moving, and everybody hustled. On Christmas Day.
At first, I respected the grind. Here they were, focussed and active, on a day nobody expected them to be working. The best compliment you can give an islander was “you should see how hard they work.” Nantucketers have long been hustlers, grinders, and masochists: the old joke goes “What do you call a Nantucketer with three jobs? Lazy.”
Now, I question who sent them out there on Christmas Day, and I wonder why they went. Did a contractor have a time table and an agenda, with an electrician and a plumber due by New Year’s and a lawyer on the phone? Did the crew have several other houses they were working on? Did they need the money? Is this truly what they will? Grinding wears you down, no matter how focused and strong you are. Every grindstone eventually wears smooth.
In the new millennium, the young are asking questions. They want to know why they should be diagramming sentences, why they have to read Lord of the Flies, and why “what you will” became “what the boss will.” They have dropped “the idea of going above and beyond.” To them, work is no longer the vocation that will encompass all your hopes and dreams. Instead, it is the day job that allows the true work to flourish. God did not call you to a vocation at Rockland Savings or Stop and Shop. He called you to play the banjo.
I am a teacher. For most of my career, I hadn’t thought that sentence would be quite as limiting as it sounds right now. What else am I? What else could I have been?
Nantucket demands hustle. The more houses you can take care of, the more money you make. The more jobs you can work, the more useful you are. You bartend at lunch, wait at dinner, and pick up a late night shift if there is one available. They told me “The more you work, the more likely you can afford to live out here.”
I once thought of Nantucket as a vocation. You had to sacrifice your time, your family, and your basement to stay out here. If you answered that windy call, you got to pull scallops out of the harbor, you got to watch the storms build, hit, and pass over, you got to watch the moors change color under a bright blue sky.
But if you did, you could stand on the dock in September and watch the boat leave. But maybe I got that wrong.