I’ve been teaching college for twenty-eight years now and my classes usually fill pretty quickly. But in all of that time I’ve known some truly amazing professors. I work with a woman named Robin who has been teaching college since I was in third grade, and she is excellent at it; patient, experienced, knowledgeable in every aspect of her discipline. She’s the real thing. Like my brother-in-law, Greg, whose expertise in history has earned him respect around the world.
In my own fields, writing and English and arts and humanities, I’ve listened to lectures by colleagues and was amazed at their focus and thoroughness in presenting examples. These people are good, really good. They enjoy meetings and long discussions about accreditation and textbook selection. They can sit for hours and swap ideas about incorporating technology or revamping placement tests.
I can’t. I haven’t the patience. Sometimes in the middle of a lecture I want to stop and say, “Do you all realize that you can die at any moment; that a fighter jet might crash into this room right now, and you’re spending those last moments discussing the relevance of Kafka? What the hell is wrong with you?!” I can be a joy sometimes. It reminds me of a scene from Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” in which parents bring their young son to a psychiatrist because the child won’t do his homework. The doctor asks, “Why won’t you do your homework, kid?” and the kid responds, “The sun’s going to dry up in four billion years. What’s the point?” For awhile I thought this was a fatalist position, but I’ve reconsidered. I once asked a class what their topics were for the first paper due that week. No one answered. I said I was not grading them at all on topic choice, so they could tell me the topic was creamed corn and I would not have cared, I just wanted to know. No answer. I asked twice more and they stared at me. Then I said, “What the hell are you doing here?” They were quiet so I repeated it: “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
The dean of the department called me in and asked what happened in class because someone complained. I told her I asked them two questions and they couldn’t answer either one. She said I should have perhaps phrased them differently. I asked her what the hell is she doing there. I said, “Are you seriously going to sit here and suggest how I could have rephrased a question instead of telling the student to consider doing the work?” I walked out. I tend to walk out a lot.
For years—decades—I thought my colleagues at work shouldn’t be there if they’re going to insist on treating students like children. But I have been wrong. It’s me. Maybe I shouldn’t be there.
I can keep their attention; that I’m good at. I’ve been in front of crowds since I’m nineteen-years-old, and over the years I’ve stolen some excellent late night Comedy Channel material, and I can keep them laughing, and I can make the work relevant. But that’s not teaching; that’s entertainment. While I may argue that they need to be paying attention to begin with before I can start to hope they hear the lesson, I also well know that stimulating them like that doesn’t help with retention, both in their minds and on my enrollment sheet. No, a successful professor shows how the material is relevant, essential, and hopefully interesting.
So last week I went for a walk across campus. I passed the geese in the lake, the rows of crepe myrtles which run from my office to the parking lot and the grove of trees separating campus from the highway. I walked along a path near a farmer’s market and asked myself, very seriously, “What am I doing here?”
Why are we ever where we are? It is because we like it? Or is it because we simply lost momentum? There’s a great line in You’ve Got Mail. In a scene with Meg Ryan’s voice over for an email she is writing, she contemplates how she has a good life—simple but good. And then she says, “But sometimes I wonder: Do I do what I do because I like it or because I haven’t been brave.” Every once in a while I’ll watch a scene in a movie that makes me loose concentration in the film and start thinking about my life. That’s one of those moments. Every time.
For me the real answer is somewhat Kafkaesque: I’m here because my car broke down in the parking lot in 1989 when I was passing by the college headed from another city back to the oceanfront. I went in a building to use a phone and one thing lead to another and now I have twenty-eight years under my belt. I’ve been awarded many, many grants, taught full classes in subjects as various as African-American Literature, college composition, and creative writing. I even spent some time teaching a course about the art and culture of September 11th, 2001. I’ve written articles about education for newspapers, magazines, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve been to conferences to present and to learn, and I’ve taught as a guest in colleges in Russia, Prague, Amsterdam, and Norway. What an amazing twenty-eight years. I’m grateful.
But as a kid growing up listening to Fogelberg, reading Peter Jenkin’s A Walk Across America, and hanging out with adventurous people who traveled the world, “I want to teach college comp at a local community college” doesn’t roll off my lips.
I know that the reasons I stayed make sense, are justifiable, even absolute because some degree of responsibility is expected of a young father trying to find “roots” and a place for my son to come from. It is the great American dream, created centuries ago, made personally possible for me by the efforts of my beautiful mother and father. I was “on the right track.” I had “grabbed a corporation job by the tail before I die,” as an old friend of mine once sang. This is the Great American Dream. Yes. But equally true is the reality we aren’t all built the same.
My grip isn’t nearly as tight as it used to be. It sank in staring at the Gulf of Mexico the other day that in twenty years I’ll be in the final countdown to eighty. The list of things I’ll never get to do or do again is extensive, but this week convinced me that the list of things I still plan to do is too long for such an amount of time. I cannot believe—I mean, I cannot believe I let anyone—ANYONE—distract me from what is truly essential.
I do not plan on quitting my excellent job—don’t worry Mom. But I will not be defined by it anymore.
I’m fifty-seven years old and have never lived a conventional life, and it doesn’t seem like it is going to smooth out anytime soon. I prefer sunsets to Wheel of Fortune and sunrises to Good Morning America. I have theories, of course, about why I could never settle for the 9-5 gig so many I know settled into very comfortably. Maybe we have different stresses. But if I think I won’t get to see some place I’ve dreamed of I can’t sit still. Ayers Rock, Patagonia, Arles, Singapore, Banff. I have to see these places. I have to. I can’t explain this. It is as if to not see these places, to not go meet people who live lives there, to not write about it, to not be part of it all even ever so briefly is punishment, prison, some sort of cruel joke, and the stress can be unbearable.
The brain is freaking amazing. At four-thirty in the morning I can wake with regrets that make my stomach feel ill. Regrets about things I’ve written, said, did and didn’t do, the fate of the world, the trajectory of my life, or the smallest decisions. Fast forward to mid-afternoon, add some caffeine, some Cat Stevens or just the right James Taylor song and the same material I so decided was going to be my downfall before dawn can be exactly what drives me. Same work, same brain, different times of day.
It’s our call.
How often do we worry about disappointing someone else, or an entire group of someone else’s? How long does it take the average person to understand that the only way to pass our eventual aged years is by pursuing our own reality instead of someone else’s illusions?
I can’t help think of Denis Finch Hatton’s words made famous in Out of Nowhere by Robert Redford: “I don’t want to wake up one day at the end of someone else’s life.”
Ironically, it might be just that awareness that makes me an excellent college professor; the ability to make students question their place, contemplate their path, and evaluate their own truths.
It’s just that sometimes I’d rather be the example than the preacher.