I taught freshman composition at two upstate New York colleges in the early 1990s. My last class met for its final session at the conclusion of the fall 1995 semester, two decades ago. From the start of that school term, I knew that this was going to be my last semester teaching or attempting to teach or referring to myself as a teacher; of course, two of those three classes that had my name on the syllabus that semester were two of the best groups of students I had yet worked with and almost made me regret my decision to retire at age 27. Almost.
The decision never was mine to make; I was not a good teacher, and I am grateful that I learned this on the sooner side of “sooner or later.” I am, maybe, an entertaining lecturer and an even better student; as a twenty-something freshman composition instructor, I must have been execrable. It’s too bad that I had barely made even the faintest start in my pose as a long-suffering anything by the time it was all over.
But to this day, I have dreams in which I am on an unfamiliar college campus, can not find my classroom, and I have to collect papers to grade or I have grades to deliver to ever un-found students. In them, I find myself on an unfamiliar campus, in a building much like my high school, a very crowded building in which everyone knew where they were going and I did not. Each classroom I entered was full, in session, and no one was pleased to see me.
(I will not bore you with any further attempt to describe my dream(s); it is a landscape I will not be able to depict well enough for you to envision. As you can tell, if I am dreaming anxiety dreams about school, 19 years after leaving school, my dreams are not at all interesting.)
Even though I no longer have a connection with the teaching-learning-educating profession and do not yet have kids to purchase notebooks for, my experience as a teacher obviously left something in my psyche.
I loved school. Rather, I loved to say that I loved school. Growing up, I liked air conditioning, the smell of old books, and being left alone. I liked starting books but not finishing them. (I loved and love books and aspire to be associated with creating one someday; the only title in which my name has appeared lists phone numbers.) Thus, I do not know why no guidance counselor ever said the phrase “Library Sciences” to me; perhaps they did not want to be blamed for anything. (Librarians and copy editors are in two of the most honorable professions, for their silent service to the word and to learning. Moms, teachers, firefighters and police and EMTs all deserve daily thank-yous, but the silent service to education and general smarts provided by librarians and editors is worth extolling.)
(Another parenthetical thought: My mom’s birthday is Tuesday. It is to her credit that I do not have a memory of the process of learning how to read; my sister and I were reading before kindergarten. Happy birthday, Mom!)
My shortcomings as a teacher lay in my lifelong problem of being a control freak. I responded to each clunky sentence or flat-out error as if the student had stepped on my cat. This is not a helpful approach. (Two favorites are an argumentation paper that started out with, “However,” and another that included the phrase, “On the other side of the hand.”) I had teachers who tried to coach me out of being a control freak. My driving instructor once gazed at my white knuckles pushed against the steering wheel, my fingers spread wide to enclose as much of the wheel as I could hold in my hands at once, and said, “Relax your hands. Those cars have drivers, too. You can only drive this one.”
I failed my first driving test. Of course. Sixteen years old (or whatever age) and a white, preppy-ish, suburban kid, like the boy-child I was? If anyone reading this is a driving tester, I hope you please flunk anyone matching my description, at least once. I earned my license on the second test, which my memory tells me I took later that same day, but knowledge of how things actually happen on Planet Earth tells me that this could not have been so.
I am a control freak. And I usually fail the first test, the tests in life where any coincidences between information in books and the life as it is lived are revealed to me to be rare or nonexistent. Anyone who grips life too tightly will be given the chance to learn, if they are lucky, that anything gripped too tightly might break. But life has given me more than my share of second chances at these tests, more than I deserved or expected, deserve or expect, present tense. There have been many teachers. Eventually, finally, I learned that all of you can drive your vehicles far better than I can drive yours for you, as long as I pay attention to mine.
I still have many friends who are teachers and my admiration for them grows every year as I read their blog posts about the teaching life. I do not think I missed my calling, but I do remain someone for whom the year still starts in September and ends in June.
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The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 1 asks, “Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?”
In case I forget…. Happy Tuesday Birthday Mom!
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So sweet. Thank you!
I think I’ve enjoyed reading a version of this before, Mark. Even if not, a great post as always; for what it’s worth, I’m glad you are ‘where’ you are now (I know it’s selfish but), writing on WordPress.
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Yes, you did. And wrote a nice response. I cobbled together sections from two posts, losing some of my more flagrant self-flagelling that was in them, and edited them into one …
Happy Birthday to Mark’s Mom 🙂 Good thing you had a head start on reading as words have been your oyster ever since. I see that we relate in many ways, from the way we loved books early on, to being seen as controlling with certain things, to even failing our first driving test!
I’m sure your students look back on the time your were their teacher with fond memories as you look back on being a professor with fondness.
Thank you for sharing these parts of your life. I enjoyed it.
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