School’s out for Summer

I taught freshman composition at two upstate New York colleges in the early 1990s for five years. My last class met for its final session at the conclusion of the fall 1995 semester, just over two decades ago now.

From the start of my last-ever school term, 20 autumns ago, I knew that this was going to be my final semester teaching or attempting to teach or even putting the word “teacher” on the line marked “profession”; thus, of course, two of the three sections that I worked with that semester were two of the best, brightest, most entertaining 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, however; 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 what eventually became 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 and I can not find my classroom and I have to collect papers to grade or I have grades to deliver to all of my many not find-able students. In the dreams, I find myself on an unfamiliar campus, or a larger version of the two campuses that I once knew intimately, or in a building much like my high school, a very crowded building in which everyone knows where they were going and I do not. In dreams, each classroom I enter is full, already in session when I stride in, and no one is pleased to see me. I am simultaneously student and professor, and I am wrong in either direction.

Did school truly stress me out so much that I dream about it decades later?

(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 in words for you to envision. As you can tell, if I am dreaming anxiety dreams about school, 20-plus 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. (All still true.) 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 and usually has a cover with ads on it.) Thus, I do not know why no guidance counselor ever said the phrase “Library Sciences” to me. (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 kicked my cat. This is not a helpful approach in the whole teaching thing.

I have been lucky enough to have had many teachers who tried to coach me out of being a control freak. Many teachers, each of whom I ignored. 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 I was) and a white, preppy-ish, suburban kid, uncomfortably white-knuckling his way through every unscripted moment 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. The kid needs it. 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, it must have been days or anxious weeks later.

I am a control freak. And I often fail the first test, those real tests in life where any coincidences between information in books and life as it is lived can 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, more than I 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. Which is a funny analogy, as I no longer drive.

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.

* * * *
I am a control freak. Indeed. This is a several-times (re-)edited version of a column from February 2015, last seen in January.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for May 13, 2017, asks us to reflect on the word, “Final.”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for June 20, 2016, asks us to reflect on the word, “Summer.”

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  1. Gradmama2011 · June 20, 2016

    Reblogged this on SOMETIMES and commented:
    This post strikes me on several counts…Mark Aldrich is an excellent blogger, always writes about something I am interested in. I’m trying to reconnect with some of my old blogger buddies that might have gotten lost in the email flood! Thanks for the reblog, Mark! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. timewithlyme · June 20, 2016

    Thank for your this article. I, too, am a teacher (Kindergarten)…although I’ve been home on medical leave since January. I can tell you that even without the title of “teacher”, everyone still teaches something to someone in the course of their days…and I can also tell you that I have nightmares about work and middle school…the whole forgetting the locker combination thing just really weighed on me in middle and high school. Memories…some are worth keeping and others are worth getting rid of, even if we can’t! Happy Summer! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. likethelamp · June 20, 2016

    Wonderful writing, Mark! This is one of my favorites.- Tiffany


  4. Lola · June 20, 2016

    Delightful self-deprecating humor with a light touch! I enjoyed skipping along with your words. 🙂


  5. But you are still a teacher Mark. You’ve taught me a lot from your writing here and yet I have never exchanged a face-to-face word or exam paper with you. Don’t even have to pay tuition either, bonus for me.
    Keep writing. I want to learn some more.


  6. Ron. · May 13, 2017

    My school year (and teaching career) will be ending on June 19, having been slightly extended due to an excess of accrued snow days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · May 14, 2017

      I hope you are ending your career on your own terms. If so, congratulations on your career and thank you for reading my column.


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