Most of the people I’ve known in twenty-nine years of teaching college should not be there, or they should be there and I shouldn’t; either way, someone’s out of place, and it’s probably me since I find myself that way most of the time—out of place. Like when I first started teaching and I was nearly the same age as the students who all were about the same age as each other so anyone of us could have been any other one of us. But I was the professor and everyone else wasn’t, and because it was their first time ever in a college and my first time ever teaching, college or otherwise, we were all a bit awkward and out of place. This really could have gone either way; disaster of the blind leading the blind, or one massive group therapy session in college composition. We all pulled and pushed each other through by our commas until we ended up twenty-nine years down the line, the students all with doctorates or partnerships and me walking away from the college feeling like I just wasted three decades.
Once, a student wanted to go on a study abroad to Russia with me and I thought it was a great idea because she was so enthusiastic; I mean, more enthusiastic than any of the other hundreds of students I’d brought before. She told me she was going to have a baby and would be about four months pregnant on the trip but the doctor said no problem so she went. She was by far the most exciting person to have along, videotaping everything, photographing everything, and asking questions; and she even took the lead several times on tours through St Petersburg. Once, she was walking right in front of me at a full clip and was about to step out into oncoming traffic, ignoring my lecture about pedestrians not having the right-of-way, and I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her back out of the line of a speeding truck. This delivery truck was close enough to her to pull the bag out of her hands and onto the ground, and she said, “He saw me!” I told her yes, and probably he aimed; when we got home we told that story with a laugh like most people do when the shock and fear of what could have happened wears off. We connected well and she was like a much younger sister or daughter, and she had her baby and brought her to see me. She had promised to bring by the photos and videos from the trip sometime but she never did. She never did, no, she never had the chance. Her ex, the baby’s father, went to her apartment one evening to take their child. She ran outside terrified and hid in the bushes and called 911, and the operator heard her whisper “He saw me” just as her ex shot her in the back of the head and took the baby; Fuck. I almost quit then. It’s all so fragile, I thought.
I almost quit after 911. I thought, like a lot of people thought, my already questionable career became irrelevant. It wasn’t of course; it just needed serious reevaluation.
My first boss and I had a disagreement about procedure. It was after I had the students read Hamlet and they didn’t and after asking a few simple questions which they could not answer I asked who had read it and they all admitted they had not. So I told them they were all absent and told them to have it read by the following class, and they really should since after six classes of these “absences” I can drop the entire lot of them. I left and someone complained to my boss. He called me in and politely told me he had tried the same thing once and I really shouldn’t do that since a more appropriate approach is to simply give them a quiz and fail them. When I told him I didn’t want to teach them material they didn’t bother to read he said they might not have had a chance to get the work done, being a community college with workers and single parents and a variety of other excuses. I left his office. The following class I sat and opened to Hamlet and told them I was aware someone had complained and that I was told to handle it differently. I told them my boss wanted them to know I didn’t know who complained and that their complaint was taken seriously. When everyone seemed satisfied I asked who had read Hamlet, and when everyone admitted they still had not yet read it I stood up and said they were all absent—again—and they had better read it by the following class. I walked down the hall into my bosses office, told him what happened and told him if he thinks interfering with my teaching methods is a good idea then he should teach the damn class. He stared at me a long time and then laughed and said he bet they’d read the play now and told me to have a good weekend. This is insane, I thought. The students did read the play, but by then I no longer cared.
I went into class one day and just stared ranting: The problem isn’t technology or over-attachment to cell phones or drugs or violence or video games or sex, too much or too little. The problem is college is boring, it is boring, It. Is. Boring. The problem is college is boring, it’s as boring as fuck, as boring as uncooked potatoes; it is as boring as a completely blue sky, as boring as season four of House where you already know how this shit plays out, it is that boring. Like the fourth movement of a bad symphony, like the way a guitar player feels the need to talk while tuning, it is as boring as an airport, as boring as a bus ride, as a rock garden, as John Cage’s 4’ 34”, it is that boring. Everyone here knows they can do an IT Boot Camp for six grand and get placed in a job making 40K, and they can work from home, they can live in Dad’s basement, they can, of course they can. But they don’t yet know that if they are that bored that they will probably find all of life boring as hell and it isn’t, and I told them that, and I pointed out how the completely blue sky has infinite stories, but they didn’t understand. I’m not very good at this, I thought.
Someone complained again. Go figure. “I’m sorry; he’s right,” my boss told the student. I liked my boss more than my job, and that isn’t right. I almost quit then.
I’m bored. I’m leaving. It isn’t you, it’s me. I sold out I went for the paycheck when I never wanted to be part of this relationship to begin with. I totally whored out my entire career, took a dump on integrity, spit in the face of self-respect. I made a grave mistake; I took the job, I took the damn job. A lot of people are going to say I’m out of my mind for leaving and I should have worked it out but the truth is I’m bored, and tired and I’ve had enough. So, yeah, take care. See ya.
I knew these people: Trish hung herself because her meds got messed up. Reetika killed her son and then herself because she didn’t like her husband. Dave sucked an exhaust pipe. Bud popped himself on live television. I’ve known these people. I’ve wrapped my arms around too many people who saw no way out; I’ve made them drinks, I’ve made them mad. I’m not like that, though people do worry about my bouts with impatience and distance. They have worried for a long time. I get calls: “Are you alright?” They don’t know, they just don’t and they’re worried about me. That isn’t fair. But if I have to explain to another student one more time the concept of double negatives I’ll be doing time for something. I have colleagues who can work with the eight people out of one hundred I actually asked who was shot at the Ford’s Theater in 1865 and these eight answered Christopher Columbus, but I’m not one of them. I don’t have the patience, or, more so, the interest. I’ve reached my limit on defining “complete thought.” I’ve done all I can about explaining the difference between “search” and “research.” I know for certain that if I saw one more student text someone while I was talking, I might have thrown the phone into the campus lake. I know this. This was a big red flag for me.
When I first heard I had been hired back during the Bush 41 administration I was sitting on a picnic table behind the humanities building. My boss walked out and told me I got the job, which meant a great salary, benefits, and security. I was a college professor. My family was thrilled, I suddenly was met with respect when asked what I did for a living. “I’m a college professor” comes in second for respect just behind doctors. My path had been cleared; my future in tact. My boss asked what I would have done if I didn’t get hired full time, and I told him I really didn’t know. He asked if I had been scared that I wouldn’t get the job. No, I said.
Almost immediately something wasn’t right, something sour in my stomach. Really, right away something felt wrong with this, and I think it had something to do with the realization that no where on my long list of hopes and plans and dreams and ambitions was “teaching college.” I got the job but lost my nerve. That’s usually how it goes. I am not afraid of commitment. I am afraid of wasting time. It terrifies me. But I was about to have a son and it was time to get serious. I wanted to say to the people in my life, “I’m sorry if my decisions are not in line with what you would have done, that they can be seen as irresponsible, that they can be regarded as misguided, but I’ve made up my mind,” but I didn’t; I was a coward—I took the job.
I drove by the campus recently and it didn’t feel close, didn’t feel a part of my past at all, let alone my recent past. It felt more like I used to know someone who worked there but only vaguely. A friend texted and asked what I was going to do next and I said I wasn’t sure, and she said, “Well, at least you have experience at that.”
Then she said, honestly, then she said, “Well, after more than thirty years it sounds like you’re finally the Bob I knew again,” and I put down the phone and cried because that was the only thing I ever wanted, to be myself again. And for everyone else, sorry if you don’t agree with my decisions; but they’re not yours. Isn’t that the best we can do? To know that the final decisions about ourselves are actually our own? If that is the grand test in life, I finally got one right.
I can’t possibly count the amount of things I would have done differently in my life, but I love this one quote which has followed me since college. It is by Leo Buscaglia, and we exchanged letters many years ago, and I picked up one of his books in which I keep those letters, and it was on the page of this quote:
“I exist, I am, I am here, I am becoming, I make my own life and no one else makes it for me. I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, transgressions. No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again. And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.”
― Leo F. Buscaglia,