Cleaning Up

The clutter in my house and classroom reflect the clutter in my mind. I jump from thing to thing, always interested, always curious, always going, going, going. It’s not enough to teach, a career that already takes up the time of both a full time and part time job; no, I have to learn languages, add authorizations to my credential, be department head, be a union rep, take classes at my local community college. No wonder I don’t have time to organize.

This week, though — one of two weeks of pure vacation this summer (I’m back to work tomorrow) — instead of decompressing by reading a dozen or so books like usual, I cleaned, and I discovered something: yes, my organizational skills suck. But more than that, I have way too much stuff. You can’t organize what doesn’t fit, so I had choices to make. One full recycle bin and trash bin later, I’ve done the following:

Tallied half my school supplies
I take home everything from my classroom that doesn’t belong to my school and/or isn’t part of my classroom library each year in big plastic bins. This year, I brought home six of those bins, plus a full file box, plus three full boxes. So far, I’ve gone through four bins and cut down those materials to two bins. Most of what I got rid of were redundant school supplies in perfectly good condition (pencils, pens, white out tape, erasers, a ridiculous number of rulers, etc.). These I put into a large duffel bag that I’ll bring to school in September. I’ll let students exchange Pride Points for supplies.

I did notice a disturbing trend, though. I’m so disorganized, I replace things I have plenty of. I thought I was out of staples towards the end of the year, but I have 8 full boxes. I have 50 Vis a Vis pens (for overheads — something I haven’t used for years), 11 pairs of scissors, 3 single hole punchers (two of them still in the package), over 300 binder rings, 48 highlighters, 30 post-it pads… It’s absurd, and humbling. I knew I was disorganized; I didn’t know how wasteful that made me.

This is a work in progress, but I think by the time the school year begins, I’ll be able to fit all my supplies for the year in one carload. I also have no idea what I’m going to buy with the $100 Office Max gift card all we teachers received for use by October. I’ve only gone through four bins, and I already think I have more than enough.

Decluttered my bedroom
I have three large drawers under the base of my bed, and they were so full and disorganized, they may as well not have been there. Also, my bookshelf wasn’t tidy. Yes, it just had books, but they weren’t neat because I had too many for the shelves; books were piled in front of and on top of books. On the top of the shelf, there were various knick-knacks.

I removed 38 books from my shelf and sold them — they were books I was never going to read again (and sometimes, in the case of Les Miserables in the original French, never going to read at all). I sorted the knick-knacks: some went in a newly designated toy box (one of those school bins I’d emptied) for my nieces and nephews to play with when they visit, some I tossed, and some found appropriate spaces on the newly not-overflowing bookshelves. Only a few items for display were kept, and it makes the room look much less cluttered to have them on their own shelf rather than on top of the bookcase.

Purged my closet
Considering I wear jeans and t-shirts 99% of the time, you would think those make up for 99% of my closet contents, but you’d be wrong. Dresses, skirts, blouses, shoes… Some of them I need for special occasions, but not most of them. I also got rid of things that no longer fit. I’m still working on this, but I should have two big bags for Goodwill in the near future.

Hemmed curtains
Our Ikea curtains were too long. We put them up right away for privacy purposes, saying we’d hem them once we were settled in. We’ve been settled in for a while now, but the curtains were still too long until two days ago. I hemmed my bedroom, office, and dining room curtains, which does quite a bit for making everything look more tidy. I still have to hem the curtains behind the couch (low priority due to them being hidden) and in the other bedroom. That’s been a project hanging over my head for so long that I didn’t know how much stress I was carrying because of it. I’ll finish up the other curtains within the week.

Organized office
This is where the worst clutter is for me. I save work-related papers and magazines, and that habit is reinforced by me often using those materials I’ve saved. Unfortunately, it’s become unwieldy, so I had to make some tough choices. All Department Head items and Union Rep items were tossed as most exist electronically. Lesson plan ideas were ripped out of spiral notebooks otherwise full of things I do not need to keep, and will either be typed up or filed. California Educator was tossed, as was Reading Today. I’m keeping The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Rethinking Schools, English Journal, Voices from the Middle, California English, and Social Education on shelves for now, but I’m going to look into paperless subscriptions when I renew. Creative Nonfiction I’ll keep as a paper subscription. Magazines I bought for student use (Time, The New Yorker) will be housed in my classroom, purged at the end of the new school year, and not resubscribed to. Financial documents other than those that absolutely must be kept for tax reasons were shredded.

I would say about 90% of my recycle bin’s capacity is full because of things from my office, and I’m only about halfway done. Even incomplete, the room looks much better. Now the only eyesore is my desk, and that’s going to be quite the undertaking. It’ll have to wait until after this week’s conference, though (a conference I fully intend to bring nothing home from. I’ve already recycled all the materials from last Monday’s conference — who needs a binder of powerpoint slides? — and now have a perfectly nice 3-ring binder to give to a student in need).

Lessened the load of the entertainment center
Like my bedroom bookshelves, the entertainment center DVD and bookshelves had become overburdened. Who needs DVDs of TV shows now that there’s streaming? Not us — they’re all now in bags waiting to be sold or donated, along with some books I’ll never reread. The result is a very nice entertainment center that doesn’t cause me any stress as I look at it (who knew too much stuff was causing me stress? I certainly didn’t).

Dealt with sentimental items
This is where I’m weakest. I love memory triggers. I keep journals, but it’s those ticket stubs, souvenirs, gifts, heirlooms, and cards that bring me back to a moment of joy. I made some serious headway when I moved to this house (throwing away nearly every playbill, for example), but tons of items made the initial cut, and tons of items have been added since. Here’s what I’ve decided to keep:

All thank you notes and letters from students. I’ve dedicated a drawer for these, and I need them when I feel discouraged (basically, every March).

The ticket stub from my first date with my husband.

One item from each grandparent.

Five memory items from high school (not including yearbooks).

There are plenty of other choices to make still, but this is a start.

Avoided the garage
I actually started this project in the garage and emptied about four or five storage boxes. Good, right?

Wrong. I brought some of those items inside. (“Oh, I forgot about this! I must bring it in!”)

Now my plan is to finish up the inside of the house and then approach each item in the garage as a purchase. If I wouldn’t buy it again, then into the donation pile it goes.

Created a system to discourage new clutter
Under the mailbox outside there’s now a small trash can so junk mail never wheedles its way in.

On my desk in the office is a tray for mail that must be taken care of (paid, mailed, shredded, filed) by the end of the week.

Once all flat surfaces are cleared, the plan is to do a nightly sweep of anything on flat surfaces that need to be put away. So far, that is working well in my bedroom. I’ll do the same in my classroom.

I have a plan to be more thoughtful in my purchases. I need to ask myself: Do I already have something like it, and, if so, do I really need another? Where will I put it? Is it something I will use regularly? What will I get rid of in order to allow this new thing in my house? This series of questions kept me from buying anything in Thai Town this past weekend — that was a first! It also got me in and out of the mall in no time at all since I needed new jeans and nothing else. I hate shopping, which could be why, when I have to go, I buy more than I need. The idea is to avoid another trip, but that obviously hasn’t worked out for me.

My history
Maybe cleaning my house doesn’t seem like a learning event worthy of this blog, but it is. I don’t know if my hoarding issues are psychological in nature or learned behavior from growing up with a wonderful woman who hoards (don’t even get me started on how reality television has turned complex human beings with real mental illnesses into spectacles), but I know it’s something I’ve struggled with all my life. I’ve made attempts at organizing, but this is my first real attempt getting at the root of the problem: my ability to give exaggerated importance to things as mundane as an angenda from last year. I have never gotten to an those sensationalized, extreme heights of clutter, but it’s safe to say I’ve never been neat, either.

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