A High-impact Life

Life as a Teach for America veteran can make for some pretty interesting moments of self-reflection. I joined TFA because I knew I wanted to teach, and I no longer cared where that would be, so long as somebody would put me in a classroom and let me be a part of something important. I had left graduate school disillusioned, feeling like I was in a very isolated and out-of-touch community of limited cranks.  I researched and wrote: who would listen? Who would read my writing? Academia offers a chance to affect the long-term critical direction of thinking in a culture, but I knew I needed something more immediate. In my own (selfish and impatient?) way, I wanted more assurance that my contributions would have an immediate and important effect.

This is hardly a surprise if you know me, I guess. I enjoy the edges and the adventures in life, and the memories that come from them. I train hard in the weight room, I drink hard when the bottle is good, and I love hard for the people that matter. I notice some of the aches and pains in my body, and the force of a bad 10 AM hangover at age 34, or the complete exhaustion I feel after pumped adrenaline, and I think of the term “high impact”—in reference to training style, and I laugh.

But “high impact” is a pretty useful term for the kind of life I wish to lead in general. When I think of my students, and what has been able to happen in my classrooms for kids that much of society writes off as “unable to learn” or “from the wrong neighborhood,” I’m really grateful to be a part of what they have accomplished. We hear all of this bullshit about “doing something worthwhile,” “following your heart,” and “being yourself,” while at the same time enduring a cultural bombardment 24 hours per day of signals telling us the exact opposite: “money + toys= success,” “what’s your long term financial situation?,” “your life is incomplete without these products!” I feel like I’ve stuck to the former line, and I’ve found great love, great fulfillment, and all while helping my kids in a very measurable way. The “high impact” life has served me well.

How long can or should it continue? The simple fact is that there will come a time in my life when I can no longer chase a 500 pound deadlift without serious risk to my health. At what age will that be? 50? 60? At what age should I consider ‘slowing down’ a little bit and taking in some of the subtle benefits of a life with a good foundation? When 500 pounds (or 600, or whatever) becomes a total that is unattainable without irreparable damage, in what direction do I go? Is it enough to switch to hundreds of jumps, sprints, and pushups, and take satisfaction from a badass background?

Teaching brings similar thoughts for me. I am in the midst of my fifth year as what I like to think of as a ‘front-liner.’ As an educator in a high-poverty, at-risk population, if you want to make an impact, you need to go balls-to-the-wall, all year, all the time. My teaching work week is easily 60-70 hours long, and I am with kids for a minimum of nine hours per day at my charter school, before we even talk about planning and copying, etc. What about high-poverty public? I’ve done it, and the stress is the same: you are very often fighting a system with criminally low expectations and a lot of factors that are totally outside your control.

By the time my teaching hours and my training hours are finished, I drag my battered carcass home for an hour with my awesome wife before I drop off to sleep. As year five lurches into high gear here, I find myself thinking of my wife, my friends, my really cool hobbies: none of which get even a fraction of the time I’d love to spend with them, and I wonder if it’s time to pose the deadlift question to myself, except in the context of my career. I want time with my lady, time to enjoy a life well-lived with my friends, time to read the great books that are piled on my shelf, and time to have kids and watch them grow up in a happy and healthy family. These things aren’t going to happen in one hour per weekday, plus a few chunks of hours on the weekend.

When does that incredible high I’ve had for the last couple of years (I sucked at my job for the first two) at years end, reflecting on the successes of my students and giving them their final hugs of the year—when  does the price become too high to justify? I wake up with spiritual aches and pains from the neglect of other things. But will I be satisfied anywhere else? In so many ways, I thrive on struggle: on defying odds and proving people wrong. What if I entered a community in which my students were perfectly supported and all I had to do was essentially a non-shitty job to deliver critical thinking practice to them? Would I get bored? I don’t think so, but I often wonder where the balance lies.

 

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