Thursday, June 12, 2014

Dili Detox

Dili, East Timor, June 12, 2014
Sporting my new $5 Dili haircut at Cristo Rei
It's a pleasant tropical evening here in the courtyard of East Timor Backpackers, a slightly down-at-heel hostel here in the capital of one of the world's most recent countries, only gaining its independence in 2002 after a quarter century of blood-soaked warfare.
I have been here for about 48 hours, and tomorrow after lunch I will fly back to Bali.  I had hoped and planned to see more of this tiny country, but a combination of sloth on my part and high prices/inconvenience on the part of East Timor has reduced me to having done very little so far.  I am going to blame it all on the idea of the Great Year-end Detox.
The Cristo Rei statue just east of Dili
There are those people who take a chunk of time periodically and starve themselves for a week, drinking cranberry juice and letting their intestines purge themselves of accumulated toxins.  Others, such as a bartender with whom I worked in London a quarter century ago, stop drinking alcohol every other month to avoid developing a dependency on the stuff.  Celebrities addicted to a variety of intoxicants check into Betty Ford to purge their systems.
Dili town seen from Cristo Rei
I feel as though teaching has a similar deleterious effect on my well-being and requires a similar mental and physical purge.  There are those people who feel that my existence, teaching in the Swiss Alps, skiing and cycling and playing tennis throughout the ski year, and then travelling during my ludicrously lengthy summer vacations, is some sort of perfect dream existence.  To a certain extent this is true; every morning when I wake up and gaze out on the morning light glinting on the Dents du Midi, and every afternoon that I spend schussing down the slopes of Leysin, I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am.  However, as the years slide by in some sort of existential merry-go-round, the day-to-day grind of teaching starts to wear on my soul.  Things that I can stand for a few months or a year start to drain my soul dry as the laps of the sun start to pile up.  It's definitely a first-world sort of problem, but I find myself starting to have a longer and longer psychological hangover every June as the school year stutters to a close. 
This year was definitely the hardest year I've had since my dismal 4 months in Cairo in 2004.  As those of you who either follow me on Facebook or read my year-end letter know, I had a nervous breakdown in early November, was completely out of action for a couple of months, and then worked only 60% for the rest of the school year.  It was miserable, and despite my reduced school load, I was absolutely exhausted and mentally fried again by the end of the year.  I sank so low as to have a few sessions with a well-meaning psychiatrist.  We never really hit it off, but he did say something that stuck with me.  I said that I felt as though I had been poisoned by work, and that it was a bit like someone who has a horrible night drinking tequila and who won't touch the stuff again afterwards.  He said that he understood the analogy, but not to forget that it wasn't so much the tequila as the sheer volume consumed in a short amount of town that poisoned the body.  This is a good way of visualizing working in a boarding school:  far too much work that, taken in moderation, might not be harmful, but which, taken in excess for years and years, leaves you feeling like Keith Richards circa 1976.
So what I'm doing here in East Timor, I realize, is a psychological cleanse.  I sleep prodigiously, wake up, go for a run along the seafront, do some yoga, have breakfast around 1 pm, go for a bike ride, read for a few hours to cleanse my mind of the nonsense of teaching mathematics and physics, do some sudokus, juggle a bit, read some more, have supper and go to bed early. 
I remember, back in 2003-4 when I was taking that black hole of human effort known as the Ontario Bachelor of Education, being asked to write an essay on the whole experience of teacher's college.  I fired up the computer and wrote a scathing review of the mind-numbing, soul-sapping, time-wasting rubbish that constituted eight months of my life that I would never have back again.  One of the lines that stuck in my mind was something to the effect that "if I wanted to become a better teacher, it would have been a better use of 8 months for me to go be a ski instructor in the Rockies, take a dive instructor course down on Utila, or spend 8 months riding my bicycle from Tierra del Fuego to Point Barrow; these eight months did nothing but dull my senses, destroy my enthusiasm, rob me of sleep, stultify me and make me a less happy, less creative and less effective teacher."  The sad truth is that the day-to-day grind of trying to teach teenagers, particularly rich ones with outsized senses of their own intellectual gigantism and senses of entitlement the size of their trust funds, is just as abrasive to one's intellectual powers as sitting through the horror-show of my BEd.  This is why I need such a long summer vacation; if I had only 4 weeks off every year, I wouldn't make it through my first year of teaching.
The ancient Israelites had the idea of a sabbatical every seven years.  I think we all have an inbuilt sabbatical clock; mine runs about 2 years before I need to get away, not think a single school-related thought, travel, get my body into shape, experience something new and completely unplug from the formal education system.  I am in awe of people like my friend Charlie who has taught every single year for 43 years; I could no more do something like that than I could flap my arms and fly across the ocean.  In retrospect, trying to force myself to teach at one place for 5 years (as it will be at the end of this upcoming school year) was a mistake, an attempt to force myself to do something absolutely antithetical to my well-being, a twentieth shot of employment tequila that left me sprinting for the toilets and has left me (as the Chileans say) "achazado" (with a hatchet in my skull). 
I hope that the next 2 months of diving, snorkelling, hiking, reading and birdwatching will repair my mind and body (did I mention that I finished this year with a beer gut, no discernible aerobic capacity and nothing positive other than a pretty decent first serve in tennis?) and let me survive another year of teaching in Leysin?  I will keep everyone posted.

Sunset over the Timor Sea