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REST or DIE: what is "rest" for a Black male teacher?

Opening: so what's the problem?

In 1996, rapper Jay-Z asked “Can I live?” In 2022, I am now asking “Can I rest?” Sadly, I cannot define or perform “rest,” for music, movies, and ‘merica taught me: “hustle hard,” "sleep when you’re dead,” and “I don’t get tired!” I take that back. Modern (white) America, raised with a puritan work ethic and soiled in Black and Indigenous blood, told me to “work hard” while Black America had to take things to the extreme just to survive. In other words, my Black ass has had to overwork just to be undervalued, overlooked, and potentially put under the dirt, prematurely.

More than a decade into my teaching career, I have no f**king clue what a 40-hour work week looks like or feels like. I am not writing this piece to complain because I did choose this profession. Instead, I am writing this piece because I am wondering if and when (and how) I can rest, not necessarily die.

While I know this belief to be untrue, I feel like capitalism has fostered in me this noxious notion that Blackness is synonymous with permanent states of anxiety, exhaustion, restlessness, busy-ness and production. There has got to be some biological and cultural reason why I do not know how to sleep at night, why I feel anxious when I am not side-hustling, why I feel brain dead but still can’t rest my mind. Sure, we can talk about diet, sleep habits, and self-care routines. We can also talk about media, trauma, and fears. My mind can rationalize those things; however, my spirit just feels dispirited, disordered, and dis-eased.

The Back-Story: how did I get here?

Ever since I started private school in the seventh grade, I have averaged 4 to 6 hours of sleep a night. And I am not talking uninterrupted deep-sleep. I have worked every summer since my first job at 16. Yes, I have gained tons of skills, experience, and dollars, just to serve capitalism first, the American government second, and then me last. During the same time, I have gained zero strategies to rest myself. My friends will tell you that I am a reclusive workaholic and a poorly-trained chronic napper. I just end up staying up at night trapped in my mind, working on school stuff, or continuing my never-ending to-do list.

First, let me tell you about life as a teacher. Whether you are a solid teacher or a slacker, you most definitely have homework (i.e. grading, lesson-planning, answering emails, etc). Otherwise, you probably wouldn't have a job if you couldn't perform certain basic duties. Why don’t you lesson-plan or grade during the school day when you are not teaching? This is my point: there are no real breaks during the day. I can go a full eight or nine hours without a bathroom break or snack break. Mornings, lunches, and after-school hours are usually spent working with the students or thinking about the students. Confession: to conserve energy, I have occasionally eaten or napped in the corner of my room with the lights off. Sometimes a "Do Not Disturb" sign is not enough because some kids and adults will bang on that door until it feels like they're banging on my skull. Sad, I know. No pity party; just an experience (or a laughably sad coping mechanism). #TeacherLife.

Furthermore, no matter how many “meditation circles” I implement during class or throughout the day, a teacher’s mind and body are never truly still to fully engage and enjoy such a practice. To be honest, I have been so tired that I have had to fight from falling asleep during meditation and mindfulness exercises. Tip: don’t turn the lights off for too long! I know I need to do more reading on these classroom practices, but it is really hard to fully engage when you are restless, unrested, and arrested (mentally). I am focusing on the meaning and efficacy of rest, specifically (not necessarily self-care) because how often do we teachers tell ourselves and our kids to rest? Especially middle school and high school teachers? In education, we have ongoing discussions with our students about how to find and make quiet time and space for reading and studying; however, do we have similar conversations about the different forms and functions of rest beyond just daily recess and calendar breaks?

Lastly, I have started wondering about rest because I worry about my body’s capacity to relax, release, reset, and recover. Teachers never get to really reset and or release all of the negative energy they absorb from students, colleagues, and school spaces. To a certain degree, teachers and students become unhealthy energetic repositories. Of course there are many life-giving moments throughout the school day and week; there are also daily stress points and sometimes traumatic moments that teachers just suppress in order to "get through" the day. And then there’s this compounding effect that occurs daily, weekly, monthly, annually. For example, graduation is bittersweet. There’s not really much time to mourn the loss, meaning the departure of students, nor is there enough time to celebrate their moving on either.

Usually, during the last month of school, I watch both teachers and students get stressed out due to testing and transitioning. Who can really celebrate when you have been conditioned to believe that certain tests will decide someone’s career, someone’s college admissions, and someone’s mental health status? To be honest, finals week does not do much for anyone’s mental health. Teachers and students end up cramming content, checking out, and or cheating. Finals week puts everyone in a state of survival, not a state of peak performance. By the end of the school year, everyone is somewhat numb, cranky, and just plain "over it."

I can already hear people saying “you care too much,” “you are too attached to your job,” “you are here to do a job, not to have a good time.” Yes, I get the sentiments. For those not in the profession, this job challenges me to focus on the whole person of teachers and students, not just some teacher persona. My point is that whether it is your mind, body, or heart, teachers feel like they are always going, always “on,” always “performing.” This just shows a whole other meaning to the phrase “pump and dump.” If I keep "pumping" without rest and recovery, then my body will be dumped somewhere by someone. All this to say, depending on one's personal philosophy and investment, teaching is one of the few careers that asks of a person's full humanity while, at the same time, endangering it.

Terms & Conditions: what exactly is “rest” for a Black male teacher?

As a Black teacher at a predominantly white private school, I can say that I feel like I am being socially stretched in every direction while also feeling like I am politically shriveled, meaning my lack of say-so or decision-making power. Sure, I have dominion over my class; however, my authority and decision-making is in response, usually in subordination, to some (tends to be white) higher power outside of my classroom, like any job. We teachers always talk about “doing the work” in education. To folks in the political majority (i.e. white folks, men, etc.) we mean doing the social justice, anti-racist liberation work. For folks in the global majority but political minority, we mean fighting white supremacy, white patriarchy, capitalism, etc. For me, I am wondering do we, teachers of all backgrounds, ever talk about “doing the work” while simultaneously “doing the rest.” I mean that literally and figuratively. What else needs to happen to do the “work?” Preferably in a sustainable manner?

Quite frankly, have Black people really recovered from the trauma of slavery? Sure, I can technically find a therapist but who has the time, energy, money, and quite frankly the trust to do that? If I can barely find, listen, and talk to the various voices in and outside of my head, what makes you think I can open up to a complete stranger? Come to think of it, I give props to my students for doing this daily with me, some random Black guy. Anyway, can I get rest when my body is always running its task manager (shout-out to my computer nerds) in the background–always troubleshooting, searching and destroying threats, and just working to keep the body up and running even if slowly? Shit, has slavery intergenerationally corrupted my operating system from the start? Also, if the task manager goes down or "needs a rest,” then what?!

To be honest, this "work" is and must be individual and collective. The "work" is remote and in person. The "work", especially without rest, can reward you but also reduce you, resign you, or retire you. Don’t get me started on teacher burn-out. During a Black men’s healing circle, I recently met this dope writer, musician, and Black man named Karega Bailey, and upon meeting me, he said, “Let’s connect because no one checks on brothas in education.” I felt that. I would love to learn more about “rest” in addition to healing, grieving, and fathering from another Black man. Not to mention, I feel like I can’t afford to rest because I am preparing for a wife and kids someday. Shoot, do I even have time and energy (and money) to date during such times of political and economic distress? It’s either change my job, change my priorities, or change my mindset. Each decision doesn’t necessarily require rest but rest could help. My father taught me to plan to work and work the plan. I repeat, the work (and the rest) is individual and collective. The "work" (and the rest) should be remote, in person, and in community.

Apologies, I haven’t quite defined “rest.” I do not think I can at this time. I can tell you my symptoms and outcomes. And I can only offer admonitions and premonitions. Real shit, I can feel my body temperature feverishly rising whether I am under imminent threat or under the covers. I know the body responds to the mind. That said, I tire myself out just trying to protect my state of joy and peace in the face of constant institutionalization, indoctrination, and endangering. Damn, is that a paradox? I have to expend (psychic) energy just to be (mentally and physically) still? No, in biology class freshman year, I learned that the body works to repair itself especially when at rest. All I am saying is that I know that being mentally brain dead or emotionally under cardiac arrest by the end of the night, the week, and the school year can’t be good long-term.

Reference Check: do you have a “rest” role model?

Let’s put this all in perspective. Geeked up on high fructose snacks, overstimulated from glowing little screens yet anchored down by unresolved trauma, Black boys and Black men may not know what rest can mean to them. When I was a kid, any male caught laying down was considered “lazy” and “saw-ry.” This resting could have occurred after a long morning of mowing the grass or hours of fixing the car; didn’t matter. Any boy or man who wasn't hustling 24/7 was called a “loser.” Many Black boys do not have “rest” role models; all they see is just “hustlers.” Many Black people have been conditioned to not see or value an individual who has mastered skills such as organization, time management, planning, and foresight in the context of a legit, legal job. Forget what the movies and the music propagate, while drug-dealing, scamming, and other illegal activities may call for certain organizational skills, these "ventures" are not careers with long-term prospects, just fatal demotions. Take it from me: my biological father was a subpar drug-dealer during the Crack Era and now spends his last days behind bars. Making and taking the time to rest comes down to priorities, discipline, and the aforementioned skills.

In conversations among adults, online and offline, I hear so much about making the bed rock, meaning sex, but not necessarily about making the bed for people to enjoy rest. At least in America, we have made "over-working" sexy and “rest” trivial. I grew up around hustlers who damn near slept on the corner just to be laid to rest on that corner. I want to hear more about peaceful resting rather than “resting in peace.” And if I am going to rest in peace, can I do it while alive?

To put it in sports terms, can we learn to change pace like in basketball and switch between quick fast movements and slow, methodical ones? And then, can we wrap our heads around the concept of load management outside of sports? For my anime fans, what do you think will happen if I never leave the Hyperbolic Time Chamber? Exactly. My body won’t last. You can tell Vegeta wasn’t my favorite character. I'm "Team Piccolo," all day.

A Little R&R: reimagining and reframing

What if I prioritized rest? What if I worked really, really hard and really, really smart for a short period of time just to have the option to rest later? What if I discipline myself to rest?

I am making, saving, and investing money to have financial freedom and ultimately the choice to work or rest whenever I want. Whether I am lesson-planning or life-planning, "less is more" is my growing philosophy. As I grow up and grow within the profession, I want to streamline and simplify my life. From working as a parking attendant to doing online tutoring, I have side-hustled for more than a decade, and I am growing tired of trading in time for money. I want to make and invest money to the point that I can fully and happily invest in creating space for peace and quiet. I am talking about investing in the best mattresses, the best pillows, and other house amenities to put my body at rest and eventually my mind at ease. One will inevitably pay for or pay off that sleep debt one way or another.

When my mind is at rest, I can hear myself think; I can enjoy muses for inspiration; I can sustain a creative flow. In terms of creativity, could you be limitless if you were not constantly pressured to punch-in, produce, and perform? Again, what if the goal is rest? What if rest is the short-term and long-term reward? Rest may look like having the option, time, and resources to take that day off to go eat lunch with your kid at school or declutter your apartment. It may look like having the peace of mind and time to actually become a well-informed, civically-engaged voter, who sits down and carefully reads up on politicians, propositions, and their "pay-offs."

Think about it: when do most people break down? Seriously, when do folks suffer from mental breakdowns? Why do music fans appreciate when J. Cole and K. Dot take breaks in between projects? I want to make a distinction among always working, always producing, and always creating. I am always writing and creating out of my own volition and joy, and not out of obligation or economic desperation. When I am producing (in the context of rugged, ruthless capitalism), I am creating for others mostly for financial gain. For me, creation thrives on choice and clarity of mind. Production thrives on labor. Capitalism, especially when unchecked, takes creation and production and turns my life into nothing more than a series of soulless transactional exchanges. In the context of capitalism, creation and production can have quite the differing effects on the mind, body, and community.

In short, I am working on being both goal-oriented and rest-driven.

Conclusion: call to action

To anybody who has made it this far, consider your ability and your desire to rest in conjunction with your job’s (in)capacity for rest or your job’s demand for labor. Again, I couldn’t tell you what a 40-hour work week looks like or feels like. I am always working, seriously. I am writing this piece at 11:30 on a school night when I should be getting ready for bed. Like many of us, I have to wake up between 5 and 6AM just to make it into work by 8 or 9AM; plus, I have an hour and half commute on public transit, during which I can’t afford to snooze or else wake up with my shit stolen. Gotta keep your eyes open at all times. This pecuilar relationship between rest and robbery would keep anybody up.

At this time, all I can offer is the invitation to reflect; no real strategies, for I have to make time to study and learn how to rest and recover. I sometimes think as we grow up, we learn to stop resting and keep running. Who isn’t at their best when they are rested? Yes, I can set boundaries with work, but how do you set boundaries in and with a place like America, where high inflation deflates dreams of financial freedom, where a house or a college degree can turn you into a permanent debt-slave, and where skin color is the cause and target of civil unrest?

My ancestors couldn’t afford to rest, and (not but) do I owe it to them and those after me to rest, recover, and retool in order to reform, release, and ultimately remain?

I rest my case. Peace.

Soundtrack to my life: the throwbacks


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