I am the generation of showmo who came of age during the height of Jonathan Larson’s Rent. I was in college in Boston when the show premiered in New York, and soon after Beantown was chosen for a nine-month stint that would start the first National Tour. At the same time, I had gone to see a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof with a friend at one of the big theaters downtown. We were eager young thespians (she actually is an actor now), and we giggled our way over to one of the ushers to ask how we could join their ranks. To us, being an usher was the ultimate. You got paid to watch shows! What could be better? The Shubert Theatre was undergoing a new renovation and was to open in just a few weeks with the new production of Rent and we just happened to be talking to the man who would be the new head usher at the theater. He took down our names, and a few weeks later, I was dressed in a tuxedo for the first performance of Rent in Boston.
Now ushering in the professional theater is a union gig. You get paid well–time and a half on Sundays–and every other performance you get to leave after curtain having only worked about 60 minutes. If you work year-round, you even accumulate vacation pay. This became my steady job through my final two years of college. I tried to remain professional around these career ushers, most of whom guarded their jobs like mama bears protecting cubs. Most of them were pretty nice, but they certainly treated the few newbies like we were children–and honestly we were. I was in my sophomore year of college, and I had just come out of a fairly turbulent relationship with an awfully immature and painfully beautiful freshman boy. I was about two months out from meeting the man who would become the love of my life, the man I would marry and start a family with. That night though, I was trying to stay focused on behaving professionally and not being too weird about how excited I was to be seeing Rent.
Rent is certainly not without its problems; it’s maudlin and manipulative, but sitting in that darkened theater at that point in my life, it spoke to me in ways the theater had never spoken to me before. The presentation of gay relationships as equivalent to heterosexual ones touched me, and when the audience is coerced into tears by the death of an infectiously charming gay character, I was reduced to a puddle. When the lights came up, I was supposed to be working, but eyes were puffy and snot was pouring out of my nose. And this was the scene that replayed about six times a week for the following nine months.
Nearly twenty years later now, I am aware that the show wouldn’t probably move me to hysterics in quite the same way it did when I was at that stage in my life. I brought my then boyfriend (now husband) to see it in Boston, and he thought it was okay, but didn’t think it was totally amazing. He’s seven years older than me, so I think he just wasn’t in that Rent sweet spot that I was at 19. Several years later the movie came out while I was teaching high school. I saw the film and had much the same reaction my husband had the first time he saw it, but the high school kids were dying over this movie. They went to see it dozens of times. They were in that Rent sweet spot, and I had become old.
The big number in Rent is “Seasons of Love,” which counts out the number of minutes in a year. Today was my third day of school with students, and all day I kept telling myself, “Only 177 to go,” and I was constantly reminded of that litany of numbers in the opening of Act II of Rent. I do love my job. I love teaching. I love working with students, so it makes me somewhat sad that I’m thinking in terms of how many days I have left with them, anxiously anticipating the summer when I am free. If I was left to teach my students all day and didn’t have to interact with any adults, I would probably have a much easier time at work because what really gets that timer counting down are the interactions with certain adults, adults who for the most part sit comfortably in their privilege and don’t have to look at the world the way that my family does, the way some of my students do. Thankfully these people aren’t the majority of the adults I interact with during the day, but not a day goes by that I don’t encounter at least one.
Today, I started that “177 to go” tally far too early. It started early this morning when I was in the room for a few colleagues having a perfectly reasonable discussion that bordered on a venting rant. The problem is we don’t have our own rooms at my school; we share office space. There is literally nowhere to go when you don’t want to listen to people vent, which they should definitely be allowed to do. I don’t begrudge these people the right to speak candidly with colleagues they consider friends; when I’m upset about something at work, the first thing I do is seek out my allies to unload on them. From time to time my anger causes me to be selfish too. For some reason though, today this all made me feel really uneasy, like I was getting pulled into a mood I didn’t want to get pulled into, and my only recourse was to put on my headphones, blast Kelly Clarkson, and take my first ever anti-anxiety pill.
The pill is a recent contribution to my psychological well-being from my current therapist. I’m a huge proponent of therapy. I think everyone should pay someone to listen to them talk about their problems once a month so that we don’t selfishly unburden ourselves on unsuspecting passersby. I started seeing someone when my mother was in the throes of her alcoholism, a disease that eventually led to her death, and while I’ve taken breaks here and there, I tend to find myself most grounded when I have the emotional assistance of a psychiatrist.
Lately I’ve been wondering how many of my anxieties at work are simply a result of my being pretty high strung to begin with, how much of it is due to growing up in a dysfunctional family, and how much of it is due to being a gay teacher of color in this school system. I can pretty much confirm that it’s a lot of each, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that I really only have control over the first two. Last week, my therapist and I were discussing the ways in which I tend to get unreasonably upset about things. He suggested I try this extremely low dosage pill when I feel overly anxious. This morning I felt myself getting all riled up hearing these colleagues go off on their little riffs, and I decided that it was ineffective to get upset. These people are absolutely allowed to say what they are saying; I often do the same thing, and because of the physical set up, we sometimes have to rant with other people listening. I’m pretty sure that the effect of this tiny pill was all placebo. It probably didn’t do anything other than convince me I had the strength to not get upset, and I carried on with my day in the usual manner: having great, positive interactions with my students.
I know those of you who come to read this blog don’t need to hear me complain about office politics. The reason I started writing about this topic is that this anxiety I feel is at least partially driven by the differences that exist between me and my colleagues, the same differences that separate me from the majority of this town where I live and teach.
Peggy McIntosh has this great checklist on white privilege in her article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and some of the statements have been haunting me lately in relationship to my career:
- I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
- If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
Because my own nonwhite children are getting older, I’m starting to question when they will respond “no” to these questions. The last time I would have answered “yes” to either of these items would have been in my 20s because I didn’t start thinking about all of this until my daughter was born. I feel “isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared” after nearly every organized meeting, possibly because my sensitivities are now heightened because my love for these beautiful brown children has exposed my nerves. I am constantly empathizing with my kids’ lives, and that has forced my own experiences to bubble to the surface. When a supervisor bends over backwards to help a white colleague, I am reminded of the same situation I was in the previous year when no one lifted a finger to help. When I am chastised by the higher ups for failing to adhere to an often unenforced school guideline, I can’t help but notice when a white colleague who did the same thing is told she “just made a mistake” and not to worry about it. In all of these cases, I have to “ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.”
So what happens is that in order to be happy, I focus on the elements of my life that I expect will be carefree for me and my family. I have a countdown app on my phone that includes the following:
- 9 days until Book Club: A monthly gathering with good friends whom I love and I know love me.
- 59 days until Provincetown: Our family escape to the one place within driving distance where everyone is accepted as they are.
- 78 days until Washington, DC: Spending Thanksgiving with dear, dear friends.
- 106 days until Christmas: Because Christmas with little kids is pure joy.
- 158 days until Disney World: Yes, we’re taking the kids to Disney World, but for a friend’s wedding!
- 169 days until my daughter’s birthday: Again, pure joy.
- 235 days until Alvin Ailey: We take the kids to see this almost entirely African American dance troupe every year and it’s the highlight of our spring.
- 261 days until my son’s birthday: Pure joy.
- 287 days until the last day of school: That’s counting weekends and days off obviously.
Now before you end thinking how sad it is that I’m holed up like Prufrock “measur[ing] out my life in coffee spoons,” I’d like to make the assertion that what I’m doing is promoting my personal mental health. Living an existence where my family has to constantly question the dirty looks we get–and ironically enough wondering whether or not someone is including us in their social circle because we fit a quota that’s missing in their lives–is exhausting. The way I cope is to focus on the upcoming portions of our lives that are freeing. I don’t walk around with a scowl on my face the rest of the year (in fact my students comment on how creepy it is that I smile even when I’m mad). Thinking this way usually allows me to function in a healthy way at school, providing the best I can for my students and colleagues, and it contributes to positive interactions with my family so that I don’t end up sending my children running to therapy themselves when they’re a little older. Focusing in on these touchstones is the way that I measure a year in my family’s life, and it helps keep everything else in perspective.