Friday, April 20, 2007

Living Life Amid Uncertainty

Those of who grew up in the 1950’s have learned to live with uncertainty and doubt. We were taught to prepare for nuclear bombs. Initially, we were deceived to believe simply ducking down in a school corridor and covering our heads would allow us to outlive the blast; later we came to understand that our bodies would vaporize from the heat, especially those of us who lived in my neighborhood in Glen Burnie, Maryland, which was only a short commute from NSA at Fort Meade.

It’s this uncertainty that led to the turmoil of the 1960’s because when the length of one’s life is not known and when one’s life may be cut short, what’s important is making the most of what we have now. Hedonism, to a degree, is an outcome of this awareness, but so is striving for one’s equal rights.

Those of us who weren’t college material after graduating from high school also recognized that we risked getting drafted into the Army or Marines before being shipped to Vietnam. It was only a matter of time before our birth date would appear in the newspaper as one of those numbers drawn for the draft. My initial attempt at joining the Navy wasn’t successful because of my test scores. I think I would have hated getting crowded onto a ship with so many other sailors and sleeping in a bunk with only a foot of space between my mattress and the bunk on top of mine. I tested for the Air Force soon after and enlisted six months after high school and three months after arriving back in the States from the UK where my father had been stationed.

That familiarity that I had acquired as a child preparing for nuclear war was reinforced in the Air Force when I guarded nuclear bombs. Spending so much time with that kind of weaponry seemed easy at first. Those of us in the restricted area housing jet fighters armed for immediate take-off got together at night, when the fog prevented anyone from outside of the perimeter seeing our movements, and smoked hashish. Even so, it was hard to take life seriously after my discharge. I still kept waiting for that white flash to appear overhead.

It also proved difficult working for anyone else. When I had first started teaching, I mentioned in class one day my job history and included the list of firings and jobs that I left without notice. My students were amused at first but also surprised that I continued to show up three times a week. Knowing they depended on me was what it took for me to become a caring and dedicated teacher.

There have been times since that first semester when I have worried about some of my students seeking revenge because of their grades. Some students take any criticism of their writing personally. I have had students break into tears when they got back their essays. Students have also become aggressive, accusatory, and threatening. My grading has even become harsher since I started teaching online. Whereas I used to think about having to hand back the essays in class and having to face the students afterwards, I now grade more consciously aware of the criteria for each assignment. At the same time, I try to stress the positive in any one essay and provide helpful advice for the next assignment.

Much as I love my family and want the best for them, and much as I like my life, despite the hassles of student loan debt and the academic crapshoot regarding full-time employment, I recognize that the possibility of death always exists, whether it’s from an accident while driving, getting shot when walking to the mailbox, getting shot by a disgruntled student, or anything else. All I can do is make the most of my life while I can.

It’s for this reason that I also get outside whenever I can to take pictures and appreciate nature. I find that taking pictures draws me outside, taking me away from the computer and my student essays. It’s easy staying awake all night to get my grading done; it’s easy getting up after three hours sleep to take to my son to school when I know that the possibility of rest and renewal exists at some later time.