by Shari Dinkins

I ONCE SAW this notice in the San Francisco Chronicle: Workaholics Anonymous meeting. Tuesday, 8:00 pm. Church at 16th and Church Street. We understand if you can’t make it.

I laughed; then I felt a small tightness in my belly. Workaholic. That’s me. And I did not go. Later I sent for some information from the organization. I received it four months later. I wondered if a workaholic, like me, just couldn’t find time to get the thin, blue tri-fold and the two stapled white sheets into a #10 envelope, address it and send it to me.

Yes, above many things, I choose work. Yes, I have read books. I have seen therapists. I have prayed for answers. And the fact is that I work too much.

As an adjunct, this defect suits me perfectly. The fact that I can teach two intensive courses during the summer not only ensures me rent money, but also gives my department what they need-a competent, confident instructor who will show up under any circumstance with papers graded, assignments ready and a worn leather attaché under my arm.

Yes, I have gone to class sick, many times with one eye watering from fatigue. Touching my eye with a tissue, I taught. One morning, tired from grading and graced with five hours of sleep, I locked my attaché, purse and keys inside my trunk. Security could not reach me in time; I retrieved a legal pad and made up an assignment on the way to class. My 7:50 a.m. class applauded when they found the quiz was locked in my trunk, and maybe they viewed me as a little more human-who can tell. But I taught. Under all conditions, I teach.

Why go on and on and on? Why grade papers for a university all day Saturday, then spend all day Sunday grading, making up work, going over handouts? Why? I think I cannot stop. I have learned to value work above all things.

The summer I turned thirteen, I discovered the magic of work. Until then, I had been a thin, angry child; full of energy and the sense of the uselessness of things. I struggled and packed down the feelings of anger and sadness. Every summer I was dropped off at my grandmother’s. Sometimes I would chase the dust behind my mother’s car; other times I would sulk, and run off to the brush when she left. The summer would drag on, and I waited to be brought home and sent to school.

At thirteen, I asked again, “Do I have to go?” whining, crying, “I don’t want to go.”

And my mother shook her head, as she did every spring and I turned the anger inside. To be taken away from my dog, my house, my friends, my sky, my asphalt streets, the corner, the mailman, the beat-up convenience store a half a mile away. I did not know how I could stand it. I kicked the thin dirt by the street and tried to think. Think, think, think. Must be some way. Without knowing it, my older sister presented the solution: work. She got a summer job. Work. She was exempt from exile. I schemed. That summer I worked, too, at a dingy mailing house that exploited teens and old people; middle-aged women who did math poorly; older men who drank and could not hold down a job. I sat at a table and sorted mail for bulk mailing. I rubber banded; after a time, my hands worked so quickly that they seemed to do the sorting on their own. Work. The beauty of work.

I bought a new sweater, a pair of new tennis shoes, a bottle of orange nail polish. I reveled in my paycheck and cursed the government that took away a slender cut. And I was not sent away for summer. Never again. I had enough money to buy hot lunches, a ticket to the movies, a concert ticket at Shoreline. At sixteen, I dropped out of high school and moved out of my mother’s apartment. I went to a community college with bristling trees and buildings that looked as if they’d been built in different decades. Working as a waitress, I made my way into business and, later, through undergraduate and graduate programs.

During summer school, I work all hours; grade until midnight, then up at 6:00 a.m. I sometimes wake up at 2:30 a.m. and wander into the living room. Pencil, must remember to have the students read the essay on rain. Then I turn, weaving with fatigue, I make my way to my bed. During the semester, I may read a magazine–Real Simple, or Sunset–but for most of the time I am reading textbooks, short stories, essays, or novels that I can use for a class. I work grading papers and assignments; until they are done, I feel the weight of them on my coffee table.

Some have told me that it’s the excitement of the first few years of teaching, but I have always been this way. I was the waitress that helped bus tables (not busy), the prep cook who refilled all the produce and stacked boxes in the pantry (slow out front), the receptionist who organized the binders of sales sheets (phone’s not ringing), the assistant buyer who compared price sheets while eating a turkey sandwich (curiosity), and the buyer who came in on Saturday morning to make sure the last shipments got out (always accountable). I have a love of teaching, and my desire to bury myself helps. It helps me stride into the dilapidated building on day one, look down at the list of names and start.

Workaholics Anonymous: I’ll mark the meeting on my calendar again. Tuesday night, 8:00 P.M., and a week will pass and I will write it again for next week. I’ve got to go to that, I’ll think.

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