I want to believe that everyone has a filing cabinet like the one we began cleaning out last night: the filing cabinet that's the repository of all paper that may or may not be important some day. We're not very good at going through and deciding that the paperwork will never be important and thus can be recycled. Only when we need more room for new paperwork do we tackle the old paperwork.
Last night we sorted. Out with the instruction manuals for tools we no longer use! Gone are the old receipts that are so faded we can't tell what we bought. I even found an old grade book from 1989. I think I kept it because it was the first time I taught at a community college; I think I saw it as a historic document. Last night, I tossed it--but not before I separated the names from the grades and shredded the names. I've been well trained in student privacy laws.
As a side note, I looked at the types of assignments for which I recorded grades: daily writings, essays, revisions, and a final paper. It seemed like a solid approach then and now. What's changed is the nature of the way we write and the way we record grades. When I started teaching Composition classes, we'd have never dreamed of teaching in a computer lab. Computer labs were for people who would learn to program the machines. Computers weren't yet cheap enough to put them in every class room.
We kept the files of records of destruction from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma. What a tough year 2005 was--we have the catalogue of damage to prove it, along with the check stubs from our insurance company. I kept the file that shows that we've paid off our undergraduate student loans. Sure, we finished undergraduate school in the late 1980's, and thus will likely never need that paperwork for those loans which are very tiny in comparison to later loans we've taken on--but the file made me grin. Back into the file cabinet it went.
Next up will be the tougher files to sort, the writing and school files. I have every graduate paper I ever wrote, and I'll probably keep them, even though I'm not going to turn them into academic essays for journal publication. I also have photocopies of articles that helped me write those papers. I'll probably recycle those. I've kept them because even now, because I remember how frustrating it was to make those copies at the creaking machine in the library--and how many nickels it took to make a copy of an article.
I've also got files of assignments I've used through the years of teaching that I've done--out they will go.
But tougher to call: I have copies of every draft of every piece of writing I've ever done. Keep or toss? As a graduate student, I was trained in the importance of those drafts. As a creative writer, I see the final draft as the important one, inasmuch as any draft is really final.
There's a reason why I don't sort through this paperwork often. It consumes a lot of time and energy. It also launches me on an existential introspection. What will become of all this paper eventually? Does a human life condense down to this? Am I the sum of the old drafts, the faded receipts, and the instruction manuals for machines that would break long before the manual decomposed?
And the most important question: why couldn't a poet have written more lyrical wedding vows? My spouse, the Philosophy major, wrote more moving vows than I did.