Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something."

I saw this quote painted on a wall at the school where I was substitute teaching this morning. Don't you love it when random phrases completely synchronize with something you are so strongly thinking about and feeling?

This morning I was scheduled for a half day of substitute teaching art at a middle school downtown. As usual, the alarm went off at 5:30 AM and I made the commute down the 101. It was actually an extremely pretty drive. The sun rose as I passed through the neon lights of Universal Studios, the still-lit skyscrapers of downtown Hollywood, the everyday folk bustling about the Koreatown coffee shops, and into the heart of downtown LA. After arriving at the school, I checked in at the office, was led to the classroom where I would be teaching, and waited for the homeroom teacher to take roll. In a matter of minutes, for better or worse, the class would be mine. But something was a little off...

The office lady who had led me to the classroom mysteriously couldn't find lesson plans. This worried me a little, since, by the nature of substitute teaching, there is always some degree of lack of control. After all, you don't know the kids and they don't trust you, and even if the lesson plan is crystal clear, you receive it 10 minutes before gametime at most. The last time I came into this school to sub, the kids definitely gave me a run for my money. Today was only a four-hour day, but anything could happen during those four hours. A minute before class, said office lady returned to tell me of another twist in the plot -- the art teacher was actually there! Guess I wouldn't be subbing art after all. (Apparently they had mixed up the months and she was supposed to be gone in April, not March.) So they sent me over to the special ed class. Big unknown, but sometimes the prizes from the grab bag are the best...

It actually ended up being an amazingly wonderful workday. There were two teachers in the special ed room and only three students in the class at most at any one time, all of whom were either working on their own or closely with the teachers. "If there's anything you need from me, let me know," I said. They told me they could use some help rearranging the laptops, which needed to be charged inside a drawer. "INSIDE the drawer???" I wanted to make absolute sure I had heard correctly. Indeed, there were three surge protectors in the drawer, one of which had been plugged into an outlet in the wall. The second surge protector was plugged into the first, and the third was plugged into the second. After making sure I wasn't going to blow a fuse (we were never actually sure; they just shrugged and I guessed), I started on the job.

"This would drive us crazy," they told me. I wasn't surprised, given their stories of some of the things they had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. For me, the job was fun; a good challenge; I'd go so far as to say exhilarating. You see, I am rather OCD when it comes to spatial relations. Anybody who knows me well will know that I especially have a thing with containers. Whenever I pack food into the fridge, I have to find the exact right container in ratio to the amount of leftovers. It really bugs me when there is a small amount of food put into a large container for multiple reasons. First, it wastes valuable fridge space. Second, more surface area of the food is exposed, which keeps it from staying fresh. Third, it just looks and feels icky. Conversely, when food is packed into smaller containers and perfectly topped off, I get a bit of a thrill. And I feel a huge sense of accomplishment when I eyeball some food in a pot or a wok and find the absolute perfect-sized container for it. My mother is especially skeptical of this. She says, "You'll NEVER be able to pack that amount of food into that size container." I say, "Just you wait and see!" And 9 times out of 10, I win.

So there I was with a stack of laptops, a pile of tangled chargers, and three surge protectors awkwardly arranged in a drawer. I put my spatial relations OCD to work. First, I untangled any chargers that were already plugged into the surge protectors. Must start with a clean slate. Then, I stacked a few laptops-- just a few -- some with the AC adapter outlets pointing one way, some pointing the opposite ways. I plugged the chargers in on both sides, then wound and Velcro-sealed the extra cord wherever I could find a bit of empty space. I wasn't completely sure if it would work, but I had a good feeling about my MO.

By the end, there was indeed enough space. The operation was a success! They looked at me and said, "We are so grateful you did this." I grinned big.

It was a really good moment for me. A breakthrough moment, in fact. When I'm doing my own work, I drive myself stark raving mad over my various daily activities. My brain is a tangle of wires, my to-do list feels like a stack of dead laptops, and somehow I have to unwind all of these knots and bring these tasks to life. And in the process of attempting to make the connections, I feel completely powerless. But that's not the only problem. On top of everything else, I criticize myself for being so OCD -- micromanaging every detail in order to make it all fit. I think of it as a bad thing because sometimes it drives me up the wall. I want to be "laid back"; "free"; to not give everything so much analytical thought. Furthermore, I worry like crazy that all of this self-labeled OCD is going to carry over into my interactions with other people and that they will end up feeling like food that I'm trying to stuff in a particular sized container. And maybe they wanted to be stuffed into a yogurt container instead of a half-pint plastic one because they want more breathing room, even if I want them to fit perfectly. Or maybe they're environmentalists who prefer glass. Or maybe they don't want to be stuffed in a container at all. And if that's the case, oh no! Better not let anyone know how crazy I really am...

These are the kinds of weird thought loops I get myself into when I'm working on my own. But once I took myself into a different environment, I realized that I could reframe my so-called neuroses as strengths. Furthermore, I could use these strengths to help others. Being a wildly ambitious person, I always try to "do everything", and in the process get so caught up in my hefty task lists and my unhealthy thought patterns that I end up feeling frustrated and confused at the end of the day, even (or perhaps especially) if I get it all done.

Not to say that I need to "stop doing" everything I normally do, especially the spatial stuff. (The picture you see up top is my newly acquired jewelry holder, on which I just rearranged my earrings this afternoon.) Ultimately, is a helpful thing-- for others, as well as myself. Sometimes, it just takes a couple of kind people, a random mural quote, and a drawer full of dead laptops to be able to see it that way.

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