Thinking about being busy

When the pandemic started everyone thought it was going to last a couple of weeks, at least the people I knew, and it felt like a mini vacation. I dropped the mantle of being busy and sat back to enjoy my two weeks. Then it turned into four weeks, then another month, then the rest of the school year. Even summer school was online. When we started this school year late, we were sure we were going back face to face, just later than usual. When we started online and had the in person deadlines pushed back as our city’s covid numbers climbed and we had one of the top rates of infection in the state, we still thought it was only a matter of time before we were in person. Then we got pushed back another month, and then past the holidays, but at that point we had the highest covid infection rate in the state and our in person start date was pushed back again.

We have since had what the restaurant business calls a ‘soft opening’. We opened the doors of a limited number of schools, all of which were properly ventilated and met safety standards, to a small group of students who were considered ‘high risk’ (meaning they were at risk of falling behind). When that went well, we scheduled another tier of students to come back on the first of March. Almost a year after we left.

Why does that all matter? It matters because over the course of the last eleven months, I have learned what ‘busy’ means in my life. My job still keeps me very busy, but that is my job, not my life, and for the first time in a very long time I am seeing my life and my job as two separate things. When I stop and think about the last time I had separated them, it was because I was unemployed and had no full-time job. I was a substitute teacher at a local Vocational High School. Being busy had no meaning for me anymore. I had no lessons to plan, no assessments to administer, no grades to enter into report cards. None of the things I was used to spending time on were required of me. I had nothing to do. I was no longer ‘busy’ and it not only felt strange, it felt like I was being lazy.

I was still doing my job. I was still meeting all the requirements. I was still doing it well, in fact they offered me a job for the next year, but I didn’t feel like I was because I wasn’t busy. I wasn’t caught up in a whirlwind of lists and meetings and agendas and deadlines. This past eleven months has felt the same. The deadlines and meetings and agendas and lists are all still absolutely in place because we have external guidelines and timetables to meet, but somehow it’s different. Physically I don’t have to run around, that’s different, but it’s not just that. It’s a difference in the way we talk to each other, the grace we give each other when we can’t get something done exactly the way we used to, and the way we handle the expectations that sometimes simply cannot be met in a virtual classroom.

When I take the time to stop and think about it, I’m realizing my lessening of the feeling of ‘busy’ is not a negative feeling like it was the last time, but instead is a gentle and thoughtful way to interact with my job and my coworkers, but also with myself in my role as a teacher. I think I may finally have learned that being busy isn’t a sign that you’re doing something important, or better than someone else could, or even that you’re doing it the best you can. Busy has been a way of justifying working longer hours than I should and doing more than I should. Work never ends, and I know that. As soon as you finish a list, there is a whole other list of things to do. As soon as you finish a meeting, another one is scheduled. What I had forgotten was that being busy is no badge of honor. I don’t know when I forgot it, but until I stopped to think about the enforced downtime and its impact on me I hadn’t even realized how many nights I don’t turn on the tv, how many nights I don’t order out, and how many nights I’m not going to bed later than I should. Instead, I’m moving slowly and deliberately and making conscious choices by stopping to think about what I need, without worrying about how it might look to others.

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