14 December 2010
Early in the film A Room With a View (1985), Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) sits in the parlor of her Florence pensione playing a sonata on the piano, to the delight of Rev. Beebe, an old family friend. “Mother doesn’t like me playing Beethoven,” she explains to him when she finishes it, an inexplicable look on her face. “She says I’m always peevish afterwards.” I love that line; and I’m reminded of it every single time I finish a great movie or a great book because it so aptly captures that sense of dissatisfaction once you’re finished with a piece of art so magnificent and moving. I finished Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog last night, for example, and have felt peevish ever since. But if peevish captures that feeling so neatly, how to describe this feeling us teachers experience at the end of every semester, these end-of-semester blues that hit us every time?
My neighbor, a grammar-school teacher, calls it post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s hard to capture in words, but surely it’s a close relation of depression. I’ve found myself irritable, weepy, paralyzed with ennui, and/or outright pissed off, even during those semesters when I haven’t done an onerous amount of grading or had to wrangle a difficult student. There’s a profound sense of failure no matter how well one’s classes went. During semesters when I knew I had to spend the winter break finishing a piece of writing, I often found it impossible to do anything besides lie on the sofa for a week feeling like a professional failure as well as a lousy teacher. I think perhaps it comes at least in part from the enormous emotional outlay required by these long semesters — giving advice and one’s time generously to students — all of which becomes perverted by the end, as we pour over grade sheets and try to determine whether Johnny deserves a B or can be bumped up to a B+, while Katie failed so miserably on the final that we can’t possibly give her the same gift. We spend so much time thinking about students’ needs and merits that by the end we have nothing left to give ourselves.
I’ve turned in all my grades … and now I dread the inevitable email from students complaining about them. Bereft of Muriel Barbery, I scan the shelves looking for something to replace her as bedtime reading. I disgruntledly rearranged my Netflix queue tonight and complained about the fact that none of the celebrated Oscar-worthy movies are in the theaters yet.
So here’s a thought: find the email address of a teacher you remember and send her/him a note. Explain that it may have been a while, but that class meant something to you and you’ve always remembered it. Tell the teacher what you’re doing now. And end your note by saying, “I know you’re busy and might not have a chance to respond, but I wanted you to know that you had a big effect on my life and thinking, and I still remember it.”