Last Friday, I took the day off. A personal day. A day in which I indulged in the very fabric of being me. By that point, I was on my second day of antibiotics to help cure a sinus infection that had been developing since the week before. I could have changed my personal day status to a sick day status. but I didn’t care enough to do it.
I am exhausted beyond belief, something that eight hours of sleep per night can’t cure. I stare at the mounting folders of grading with a sense of fatigue and despair, knowing that no matter how many hours I devote towards plowing through them that I will find no real sense of reprieve.
Welcome to the end of the school year.
At the same time, I’m finding that the yearly exhaustion is a bit more debilitating every year. I love my job. I love my students. I don’t love this debilitating exhaustion that comes with it, this sense that I’m barely treading water. And I know I’m not the only person who feels this. Voices are edged with tension, with barely contained tones of frustration or anger. The sarcasm runneth thick this time of year. And it’s really not because of the students or the parents or the lessons.
I’m not certain where it’s coming from. It’s just there and it’s becoming more and more of a menace as opposed to a nuisance.
Even writing this, I feel the weight of fatigue. It’s made me stop writing. Made me stop seeing the beauty that surrounds me. Just made me stop.
But Friday, I woke up. I drove my children to school while wearing my pajamas. I dropped them off and came home and drank a fresh cup of coffee and took my medicine and coughed until my throat cleared and then I curled up on the couch with the dog and drooled on myself while watching something that I can’t remember.
And then my husband woke up. And he drank a fresh cup of coffee and we stared at the television and just wore the burden of our mutual exhaustion while the minutes unraveled.
Eleven o’clock arrived. And we were both still so tired we could barely function. But we managed to drag ourselves out of stupors and go to my car and get on the road.
We stopped at McDonald’s and got a snack, got on the highways and drove to the backroads and started driving north.
We stopped at a county gas station and bought fried fish filled with bones and we continued to drive north.
As we drove through backwoods country towns and marveled at the old architecture, at the beauty of the landscape.
And we talked and talked and talked. We talked about projects around the house. We talked about moving. About staying. About expanding the house. At not changing anything because our son is three years from graduating and we’ll have the house paid off four to five years later.
We talked about the changes we want to see happening and the frustrations we are experiencing now.
We talked about the demands of our jobs, at the fact that we are both held to such impossibly high standards that we can’t breathe at times with the ropes around our necks that dangle us from the bars the world has set for us.
It’s not like we want to turn to lives of crime, but it would be nice to feel like we are still human.
We’re not allowed to feel. Not allowed to be frustrated. Not allowed to say “No” when the demands are too high. I learned the day before that new teachers are making only eight thousand less than me. I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years. I have a master’s degree. Two College Board endorsements. A National Board Certification.
I should have known, but I am so focused on what I am earning and how I’m going to make sure that I can pay for some of my son’s college education that I never paid attention to the salaries of the first year teachers.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m right. It doesn’t change anything.
The secrets of the road unraveled between my husband and me. We made no huge discoveries about one another. But the everyday-tensions that exist between us eased and topics which usually erupt into major battles became nothing more than simple topics of conversation.
We planned on the changes we are going to make around the house. I don’t think we’re going to move until our daughter is out of high school (at the earliest). And I might still push for us to stay a bit longer. I don’t know. I don’t care.
We have a timeline for our projects.
We have made decisions about the projects we are going to finish, the projects we are going to abandon.
We talked about retirement. And as I read more and more about people who are preparing to divorce when their children leave the homes, my husband talked about his plans for us when we are seventy years-old.
Life is good.
After many long hours, after taking the wrong turn and going the wrong way, we eventually arrived at Skyline Drive. And even though I have a membership to Shenandoah National Park, we entered for free because it was the celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial birthday.
As we drove, the clouds banked on one side of the mountains, peeled through the pine trees, and became fibrous tendrils on the other side. On one side of the mountains, the vistas were obscured by thick columns of grey-soaked, water-saturated clouds.
On the other side, wide open valleys, another ridge of mountains, farm fields, a grey river cutting like a silken ribbon through the valley floor. A silo. Churches. Homes.
We stopped at an overlook and I noticed a path, thinking it was a short walk to the peak that would give us a better panoramic view.
This “short walk” was twelve-hundred miles to Maine, about eight hundred to Georgia.
I had found the Appalachian Trail. The white blazes beckoned to us and without thought we followed the white-paint strips on the trees. Walk up a little. Turn to the left. Climb a rock. And stare. At the valley, at the clouds drifting and being shredded the by trees. At the quiet nuances of life that exist within the same debilitating and bone-crushing exhaustion that Pat and I were feeling but also releasing.
I clung to the edges of the rock and felt the sirenic-call of the trail. Thirty-five more school days until graduation and then I’ll be free to hike, to camp, to run away. To work some more because I will be working this summer, even if I’m not under contractual obligation to do this work.
We returned to the car, drove north a bit more and exited the park at the Front Royal entrance. And as we followed the roads and the Google directions which didn’t make sense to my husband (he’s not stupid….it’s just Google), we found a point where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road. So we turned around (on private property…here’s to rule breaking) and went back and parked the car in the itty-bitty parking lot there for other hikers. And we walked across a recently built or recently cleaned bridge. And we walked up a hill and stood beside someone’s private property and looked one more time.
In three and a half months, my hiking partner and I will be dropped off at that parking lot, at that little bridge. And we will carry with us our lives on our backs. And we will hike up that first hill and probably glance at one another with a sense of anticipation. This is what we have been planning and dreaming for the last year.
We will be exhausted every night and will sleep well (hopefully) despite the initial nerves of bears coming through our camp.
Pat and I returned to our car, almost gleeful. I wish he could join us, but this summer-adventure is for me, a women’s adventure into the mountains. And in some respects, I need this.
As we drove home, we came full circle through all of our topics of conversation. We made our decisions. We set up our timelines.
And then we stopped for ice cream and coffee at a little shop situated next to the railroad in a sleepy town filled with retirees. We ate ice cream and doughnuts and chatted with the owner, learned about the history of the town, stared at photographs of trains and old warehouses that no longer exist.
And then we got back on the road one more time, drove home, and periodically, I would reach over and hold his hand.