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