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, right about … now.
From the start of that school term, 20 autumns ago, I knew that this was going to be my last semester teaching or attempting to teach or even correctly referring to myself as a teacher; of course, two of the 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 they 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, perhaps, an entertaining lecturer but I am an even better student; as a 20-something freshman composition instructor, I must have been execrable. It’s too bad that I had barely made even the faintest start in my now well-established 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 the dreams, 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; they take place in 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, 20 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.)
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.
* * * *
This is an edited version of a column from February.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 14 asks, “You get to redesign school as we know it from the ground up. Will you do away with reading, writing, and arithmetic? What skills and knowledge will your school focus on imparting to young minds?”
* * * *
Follow The Gad About Town on Facebook! Subscribe today for daily facts (well, trivia) about literature and history, plus links to other writers on Facebook.
And please visit and participate in the Alterna-Prompt, “The Blog Propellant.”
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.