Are you the kind of person where your shit is either completely in order, or it’s all a disaster and you’re basically one step from living in a van down by the river while shoveling a steady stream of Bugles into your poor-me-hole? I don’t mean your literal shit (is it backed up and kind of squeak-farty with bad breaks, or is it a nice solid loaf of — no), I mean your row of ducks, your overall life situation. I’m a special fractal snowflake of rigid commitment and overindulgence, basically, where I swing from one extreme to the other when it comes to exercise, housekeeping, diet, personal enrichment, self-care, and so on. I’m proactively scheduling flu shots months in advance or I’m waiting in the line of pallid Walking Dead extras in Rite Aid on January 20th. I’m making my bed first thing in the morning and cooking a nutritious breakfast or I’m emerging from a cat-hair-coated pile of discarded pillows to nab a stale donut. I’m doing crunches and folding the laundry or I’m crunching through a bag of cinnamon-sugar Pita Crisps while justifying the visible cobwebs on the ceiling as startlingly realistic Halloween decorations. Etc.

I’ve been enjoying the firing-on-all-cylinders side of my personal productivity cycle lately, which is a good feeling. I lost most of the weight I allowed to creep back on over the summer (damn you, Jeni’s ice cream, for being incomprehensibly delicious AND having a brand name that looks like “penis” in a URL bar), I scheduled the first dentist appointment I’ve made in *loud distracting cough* years, I have all my millions of soccer practices and games carefully and redundantly entered into both a paper and digital calendar. I start training for an enormously intimidating new volunteer job this week, and I’ve even been forcing myself to step outside of my hermit comfort zone and actually talk to the other parents I see each week at my kids’ activities.

It’s all awesome stuff, but I can never escape the belief that no matter how well I’m doing, it’s all temporary. Like, the woman who’s currently juggling several things with what appears to be a decent amount of discipline and capability, she’s just a facade. The real me is waiting in the wings, and she’s wearing chocolate-stained sweatpants and an expression of self-doubt. She’s ready to take over when Mrs. Doing-It-All runs out of steam, and she’s got the ass-dent in the couch all pre-warmed for me.

Do you ever feel this way too? How do you convince yourself that there’s no good you or bad you, there’s just you, and it’s okay to be proud when you’re doing well and be gentle with yourself when you’re not?

During the summer I made a promise to myself that once school got underway I’d volunteer in both Dylan and Riley’s classrooms. I haven’t done this before, and to be completely honest the prospect didn’t particularly hold a ton of appeal, but I know teachers need the help and I’ve got the availability now. Riley’s teacher wasted no time in scheduling me for a couple hours every Thursday, and yesterday I went for the first time.

I was oddly nervous about it beforehand. I mean, I know there’s no real reason to be scared of a bunch of third graders, but … I kind of was. I don’t know, I guess I just had no idea what I was in for, and felt unsure I was up for the task.

When I got to the classroom Riley’s teacher gave me a bunch of little books the kids were supposed to read, and I was assigned to bring small groups to the library and work on reading and comprehension with them. The first group was a little bumpy — I quickly learned that once we were done taking turns reading the book out loud and were supposed to discuss it for the remaining fifteen minutes or so the kids could get pretty distracted and rambunctious. By the second and third groups I’d worked out a better system: I brought them to a section of the library where we could sprawl in a reading nook rather than sit around a table, and once we were done with the books and I’d asked a few questions, I had the kids put on a little play and act out various concepts from the story.

They loved this, and thankfully the library had emptied out by then because they were pretty energetic about it. I don’t really know if that was an acceptable thing for me to do or not, but it really seemed like they needed to move around and shake things off after sitting there listening to their classmates laboriously work through their pages. God, I remember hating that as a kid, the seemingly interminable amount of time it would take slower readers to mumble each word.

So I guess that’s what I’ll be doing each Thursday for a while, at least in Riley’s class (I’ll be helping in Dylan’s in a couple weeks), and that one experience sure gave me a taste for how hard teachers’ jobs really are. Out of one relatively small group of kids, the sheer spectrum of personalities — the obnoxious one! The goofy one! The one who can’t sit still! The one who’s easily distracted! The somewhat rigid rule-follower! (That would be Riley, by the way) The one who’s incredibly shy! — required me to multitask to a degree I’m completely unfamiliar with. Quieting one kid, gently drawing another out, giving one a quick burst of the attention he clearly craves, praising another, and on it went. I went home with circles of sweat under both arms, no kidding.

I ended up thinking how deeply unfair it is to teachers and kids alike that classrooms are so crowded these days. With 30 kids in a room, how can one adult possibly give kids the one on one focus they need? When you have even one kid like the one I met yesterday who I’ll just refer to as the Energy Suck, how is there any space left to really help a kid who’s failing … or just stays under the radar?

I don’t know, but I’m blown away by the folks who can do it. Riley’s teacher is firm, funny, and seems to be able to spin fifty plates at any given time, and it’s goddamned amazing there are so many like him.

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