The Beauty of Good Work
Does anyone ever really see the quality of our work? What were the ancient cave painters thinking? Did they really believe that someday their beautiful pictures of antelope would be discovered and admired? Who cares how well we make our beds or if we paint the inside walls of a closet? Who will see it? Who will care?
I am one of the administrators in the largest high school in New Jersey, and each day I observe the work of teachers who, on a daily basis, work in isolation. It is odd to think that teachers, who stand before people all day, actually work, for the most part, alone. They prepare lesson plans at night, grade essays alone, think about their classes in the middle of the night. Yes, they might be officially observed three times a year, or their plan books might be evaluated every two weeks, but no one is in the car with a teacher as she or he drives home alone, planning the next day.
Over the summer, I was asked by the school principal to confirm some attendance issues concerning a student. I was asked to dig up a teacher's attendance records from the year before and report back to him.
I walked into my office, pulled a chair up to the metal shelves, stood on the chair and reached up as high as I could and slowly pulled down a box filled with the teacher's old records.
I was able to quickly find the teacher's folder, and when I opened her records, I saw that they were like an artist's account book. The handwriting was beautiful. The names of the children were in alphabetical order, inscribed beautifully as if the teacher was a monk writing out a manuscript. The teacher had each student's folder carefully labeled. Each student's records were in order, each day carefully marked absent or present, or "doctor's note," or "excused for college visit."
In all likelihood, the teacher's attendance records would never be looked at. Once they are stored at the end of the last semester, we keep them for five years and then toss them out, and yet, even with the rarest chance that such records would be seen, this teacher maintained daily records with attention, diligence, and professional integrity.
What does that say about a person? Yes, she is a professional, but it also says something about her inner character. My teacher had the freedom to maintain sloppy attendance records. She might have even gotten away with not keeping any records at all, and yet she felt a personal responsibility to do what not only was right, but to do it beautifully as well.
Freedom is perhaps the greatest prison for when we are allowed to do exactly as we please. We are confronted, daily, with the constraints of being human. We see the way things could be, and we see the way things are. If we have complete freedom, we are truly caught between the two extremes, and we live a life of reflection mixed with both sorrow and joy.
When I complimented my teacher in September about her excellent records and how impressed I was that she maintained such records in isolation from any evaluation, she smiled and said, "It's my job. I sleep well at night."
Perhaps, in the fields of our labor, we will find solace. Perhaps, in the work done well, we'll feel, even in our exhaustion, an inner sense that we have accomplished something of worth which defines us as human beings. In a world that too often appears to be ugly and chaotic, we can add a measure of grace when all that we do, no matter how insignificant, is a celebration of order and beauty.