Something happened to me recently. A change crossed the seasons of my mind. It was cold and windy, conditions I happen to like, and I was hiking along a desolate ridge buffeting back and forth with the stunted pines and the browned summer grasses clumped along the trail.
A flurry of snowbirds, mostly Dark-eyed Juncos, picked across the hillside. Wave after wave of them cycled into the slot canyon, escaping the wind, probably in search of shelter but not really in any perceivable hurry. At times they paused and bounded from limb to limb in a short tree. They grabbed hold during particularly gusty moments. They always let go to float in the wind, before dropping out of sight with a flash of white tail feather into the dense cover of winter grass.
The birds were playing. They enjoyed the bluster. Every time I thought the flock ran its course, another surge of birds blew through the bramble of hillside. It went on like this until I left. It wasn’t dozens of birds. Hundreds and hundreds filtered into the slot canyon to hunker down or hang out or do whatever it is that winter birds do.
Earlier I graded a mix of essay assignments for college writing and personal narrative exercises for creative writing. The grading went on and on, page after page, and I found myself, instead of hurrying for some arbitrary finish line, slowing down and hunkering into the brambles of the morning. It was as if I enjoyed the small successes I discovered on every new page, as if I enjoyed being a teacher. A thought planted itself at that moment, but it wasn’t until later in the day, all bundled up and leaning into the wind, that I allowed that thought to really take hold.
Those birds reminded me of teaching. Year to year, semester to semester, class to class, assignment to assignment teaching incorporates the embrace of repetition. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed teaching a 4/4 load. It’s easy to complain about how difficult it is to balance scholarship, teaching, and homelife. Teaching blogs, and social media accounts, and hushed conversations with colleagues often turn negative about all the difficult aspects of modern teaching. To be clear, this job is difficult when done correctly. It really isn’t any easier when it’s rushed or procrastinated, but spending the time to grade, to really hear what a student is trying to say is not only important to the student’s progress, but it’s vital to the teacher’s enthusiasm.
Those birds in that canyon reminded me of all the students I’ve taught and all the students I’ll teach. They reminded me of all my classes, and all my assignments, and all my afternoons spent grading. And they reminded me that being buffeted around in a cold wind might not be for everybody, but it’s okay to like it. It’s okay to play around in it. It’s okay. There will still be days where I struggle to not procrastinate, where I struggle to find energy – because this job is difficult, but even those many waves of birds had to end sometime and even after playing in the wind they did drop down to take cover for a little while, so maybe I’m a winter bird. Maybe that’s the magic that I tap into. And maybe it’s okay to like the difficult things in life.
There are many clichés around the idea of what it means for a job to be well done. I’ll not linger in that space. I’ll just end by saying I’m a flock of winter birds floating and fighting and playing in the wind for as long as I can stand, before I give up for a little while and hide away. Here’s the thing. Those snowbirds can’t have stayed grounded forever. They entered back into the fray at some point. I just didn’t see them take flight, but I know they did it. They’re bound to take flight over and over again regardless of the conditions or how they feel about the wind or whatever issues they’re having that day.