Measuring Life in Semesters: I Am a Teacher

During what was probably the most important ten-plus years of my life, I was a member of a tiny parish in the Episcopal Church. Actually, it was so small that it was officially a mission, dependent upon the diocese for financial support and headed by a vicar. And during the heart of that decade, I selected and played the music for Sunday services (and weddings and funerals), published the quasi-monthly newsletter, served on the altar guild, sporadically taught adult Sunday school, and occasionally prepared the weekly service bulletin. That period began on the First Sunday of Advent in 1996 and ended on the First Sunday after the Epiphany in 2007.  I once referred casually to a favorite collect as the one for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost* and realized with sudden clarity that my identity had become so Anglican that I was living my life according to the liturgical calendar. I knew which Sundays were white, which green, which red–and why. I knew the appropriate hymns for Trinity Sunday and the Feast of Christ the King. I experienced the rhythm of time from Advent through Christmas, from Lent through Easter, through the long season of Ordinary Time after Pentecost to Advent again. Quiet waiting to joyful celebration, humble contemplation of sin to joyful celebration of redemption, and the long process of sanctification: These are even surer reminders of the seasons of our lives than the pages we tear from the calendar as spring moves inexorably to winter.

After that memorable Sunday in January of 2007 when I sat for the last time at the keyboard of St. Christopher’s and abdicated the myriad responsibilities that had provided the ballast I needed during those turbulent years, I foundered. The organ at St. Michael’s has 57 ranks, 47 stops, and 3,385 pipes–and a choir to match. The parking lot and the pews are full every Sunday. No one needs my paltry musical talents, the newsletter I cobbled together from Microsoft Word and a Xerox copier, my quirky “Imagine Life with God” series of Sunday school lessons inspired by a sign in a coffee shop: Imagine Life without Coffee. Although everyone greets me weekly with a smile and the “the peace of the Lord,” only one person actually knows my name. So I, dependent as I am upon calendar and community and duty, no longer feel those rhythms that once sustained me like breathing out and breathing in.

What does all this have to do with semesters? I digress? Very well, then; I digress. I am large. I contain multitudes. The entire first 400 words have been a long digression. The common thread is a shared calendar–for now, the academic calendar–as a symbol of identity and even meaning.

Last Friday as I made the long drive to work, I thought to myself, “It’s the last day of the semester.” Along with the relief that there would soon be no more essays to grade,  I suddenly experienced one of those rare moments of awareness that are the mileposts in our lives: I am a teacher. Yes, it was in boldface. A warm sense of peace enveloped me as I understood that I am where I belong, doing what I was born to do, living my life in semesters.

I heard my calling as early as the third grade. I found it articulated best in an essay we read when I myself was taking freshman composition. I have long forgotten the name of the author, a professor at Columbia who refused to take part in campus-wide demonstrations against the Vietnam War because they would disrupt his classes and, in the process, contravene the “longing to impart” that he called “the soul of the teacher.” Once, during my early days at St. Christopher’s, a wise spiritual teacher illustrated a point by describing his realization at 10 or 11 that he was an artist. Unable to respond, I bolted from my chair and ran to the bathroom in tears. After teaching as an adjunct at a local community college for six years, I had just received a letter in the mail telling me that someone else had been hired for the full-time position I had interviewed for. During that period, when I met people, I always said I was a disability examiner for Social Security, never added that I was a teacher because I felt unworthy to claim that honorific based on two night classes per semester. I wasn’t a real grandmother because the child who lived with me was not related by blood, nor was I a real teacher because I had so few students, made so few dollars behind the lectern, was deemed unworthy of a faculty position.

In July of 2011, I finally received the call–the telephone call, that is–I had waited for so impatiently for so many decades. I accepted a full-time position as an English instructor at Fayetteville Community College. But the first six or so years were also turbulent ones for me. Yes, I made lasting relationships with some remarkable students. Yes, I developed some courses that I was proud of and presented some well-attended workshops had some interesting colleagues. However, those years always felt like a struggle–with one administrator in particular who developed an instant dislike of me and with a long series of students who complained that I was too strict or too demanding or too condescending (the ones who have rated me as “awful” on ratemyprofessors.com). I was always afraid of the next time my supervisor came into my office and shut the door, anxious about the next annual review, feral of the next time a disgruntled student went straight the vice president with his complaints. So I never felt confident that I would ever truly fulfill my vocation.

However, although I’m not sure I noticed the gradual change as it was happening, I can now see that the last couple of years have represented a stunning transformation, and I have finally lived into my identity as a teacher. One of my proudest accomplishments, my class in writing across the curriculum, inspired a campus-wide commemoration of the World War I Centennial last year, and another will be the theme of a workshop at the annual Student Engagement forum of the College of Arts and Sciences next month. Probably because my 170-pound weight loss has made me more comfortable in my own skin, I have developed more collegial relationships within and beyond the English Department, and I have participated in far more campus activities–I exhibited photographs in the faculty art show, took classes in aerobics and French, sang in the college choir, and even ran in the Trojan Fit 5K Color Run.

Most importantly, though, I have become so much more relaxed and approachable in the classroom that the entire pedagogical atmosphere has changed. It’s not that I have become less of a draconian taskmaster–just that my students like me so much better that draconian measures are no longer required. Because I am at ease, my students are at ease. We laugh a lot–and I especially enjoy allowing them to laugh at me. Some have revised their course schedules for the spring so they can enroll in one of my sections. A few have trusted me with their stories–tearful recitals of medical emergencies, physical abuse, or homelessness; those same students have seemed genuinely surprised and grateful when I offered compassion and a willingness to bend the due dates or accept new versions of a plagiarized essay. Some even said that their other instructors weren’t so understanding. A few of them hugged me during those conferences, and even more hugged me on the last day of class.

That last day of class when I suddenly realized that I AM a teacher offered even more symbolic moments to verify my newfound self-awareness. As she left class after taking her final exam, one student–brilliant, blue-haired, bisexual and gender-fluid–saw the boots peeping out from under my pants and asked, “Are those the new Doc Martens?” I proudly raised my pants leg so she could see the boots, Doc Martens combat boots embroidered with red roses, and she exclaimed, “I am so jelly! Those are DOPE!” She left the room and then rushed back in. “I just realized this is the last time I’ll see you this semester,” she exclaimed as we embraced, and she said she will see me next semester in English 112.

The warmest and fuzziest of those end-of-semester moments came as I read the reflections essays written in class on that momentous final day. At random, I’ll quote from a few who received from me exactly what I long to impart to all my students:

The organization using an outline is probably the single most important thing I learned this course. . . . If I can spend 30 minutes organizing my thoughts before I start typing, it saves me hours on the back end trying to put sentences in areas they don’t belong or trying to insert material into paragraphs where it doesn’t flow well. I found that by the end of the course my first drafts were not much different than my finished product.

Throughout this class I have seen many personalities and have learned a little bit of something from everyone. This class wasn’t just about the subject to me. It was also about the people and how we all perceive things around us . . . [and] deal with things differently.

Not many people feel comfortable discussing problems about race, sexuality, or political issues in an educational setting. This topic made me ore open minded and mindful about my assumptions of people. I will forever use this topic when approached with controversial elements to prohibit myself from being so closed minded about certain groups of people and topics.

Critical thinking is a skill that I understood, but never actually had to practice. It is something that everyone needs to learn and I am incredibly grateful that I was forced to practice the skill throughout the course because this is a mindset that will greatly help me throughout my life. I love how this course challenged us to review controversial issues and pick sides because it allowed us to think about things that might normally be ignored or cast aside.

[T]his course has changed my attitude towards reading and writing. . . .  I have started believing that reading is one of the most important aspects of education. It is the foundation for all other knowledge to be absorbed and can affect our emotions, opinions, and imaginations. I think some of the most challenging aspects of the course are what molded me into a better writer. My confidence in my ability to write something in my own words has almost become second nature.

I always loved to write, but I always felt like many of my past teachers didn’t really appreciate it. I really do like how we had someone who enjoyed reading what we had to say about certain topics. Since the instructor made me feel that my writing and all my ideas were important, I will definitely continue to improve my writing.

What more could I ask? What more could any teacher wish for? The next semester begins on January 13.

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1 Response to Measuring Life in Semesters: I Am a Teacher

  1. Boz says:

    *Proper 11: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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