Teaching, Emotional Fatigue and “Missing Richard Simmons”

Little did I know that listening to the podcast “Missing Richard Simmons” would make me spiral into an emotional fatigue brought on, in part, by the end of the academic year (and so much more).

Dan Taberski’s podcast explores the mystery of why, in February 2014, fitness guru Richard Simmons “removed himself from the public eye after decades as one of the most accessible celebrities in the world.” In the podcast’s first episode, Taberski interviews Cathy, a woman who had a brief encounter with Simmons when he visited a bakery in her Nebraska hometown in 1994.

Cathy tells the narrator that she was morbidly obese at this time and had very little love or respect for herself. During his visit, Cathy gave Simmons a note with her number on it. To her surprise, Simmons called her and became her weight loss coach. She weighed 450 pounds at the time of this encounter, and Simmons eventually helped her lose 200 pounds.

Cathy believes that their relationship was about more than her weight loss. Simmons would call her in need, too. She says of him, “He’s a human being and hurts in the middle of the night like many of us do.” This is just one story that Dan Taberski uses to frame his podcast’s goal: to discover why Simmons suddenly stops being that kind of person and disappears from the world.

Listening to this episode, tears streaming down my face, I formed my own answer: he stopped because he was fatigued, worn out, tired – so very tired. I know this because I experience this very same feeling as a professor.

I have always been that teacher who blurs the line between professional and personal selves. My dissertation studied this phenomenon, and described how seven first-year English teachers struggled with the demands of the emotional classroom, a space very few discuss. I found that women in this study who were willing to blur the lines between professional and personal lives felt successful at a much higher rate than those who remained rigidly professional.

But there is a high price for allowing yourself to care in the classroom: emotional fatigue. I’ve experienced this when I was a high school teacher, and I do now as a professor. Within the classroom space, I welcome emotional reactions to what we read. I give assignments that ask students, if they wish, to frame course readings from a first-person perspective. And I ask them why reading The Handmaid’s Tale matters to them. Opening up these academic spaces to personal investigation allows for more personal spaces, and I value the resulting relationships that help me connect with my students on an emotional level, too.

Students come to me telling of the conflicts of their lives – how they are failing their families by going to school. How they feel like imposters who are too old, too young, too dumb to finish this degree. They worry about financial debt. They are concerned that they’ll never find a job. They sob, as one male student did, saying that he is no kind of father since the cost of his books meant his daughter could no longer do her ballet lessons. They need this as much as they need my help in reframing their research question or essay thesis.

But by the end of an academic year, the weight of these students’ stories and shame and need makes me want to disappear. My guilt compounds when I come home unwilling to listen to my own family’s emotional needs. I find ways to disappear in the house…to withdraw to a place where I can be alone and recharge. At work, I close my office door and bide my time until the semester is over...I need a place to cry. I need someone to listen.

This emotional fatigue plunges me into despair, and I sit here writing this blog as some kind of testimonial and confession. I’m using it to unload some of my fatigue, and, for the most part, I do feel less burdened and maybe a bit ready to stop berating myself for the hypocrisy of wanting these close relationships and then complaining when they become too much.

I haven’t finished “Missing Richard Simmons” yet. It may be a little close to home right now. I do hope that wherever he is, Simmons is finding a way to recharge. It is quite clear that people need him. I cannot speak for him, but I know that I need my students. Without a personal connection, the content of my courses means little. It is that blurred space, where the academic and personal mix, that real learning takes place.