“I could love everybody in this room if I had an opportunity to know you, with equal intensity, and I still would have the same amount of love and the same potential to love that I have right at this moment. I will have lost nothing. But I first must have it. If my love is neurotic, if it’s possessive, if it’s sick, all that I could teach you is neurotic, possessive, sick love. If my knowledge about anything is vast and endless, I can give that to you. And so my responsibility to me is to make myself enormous, full of knowledge, full of love, full of understanding, full of experience, full of everything so that I can give it to you and then you can take it and build from there.” —Leo F. Buscaglia, Living, Loving, Learning.
When I was a kid, I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I had some ideas that filtered in and out of my brain. Restaurant owner, because I liked to go out to dinner. Interior designer, because I knew that the mood of a space had an impact on me. Then, in high school, I thought, newscaster. I have no idea why. Perhaps I thought newscasters looked like pretty people, and I was comfortable in front of a crowd.
The fact that I loved to read and write seemed completely irrelevant. Those were just coping mechanisms, I assumed. Means of escape that had become pathological. (Those are not the words I would have used.)
In college, then, in a school with no communications major, I gave up the newscaster idea and fell on the teaching track. It seemed practical enough. Why not share a love of reading with people who had to read? Why not help other people learn to write when it was something that, if you were good enough, could save you from having to study so much? Things sounding good on a page seemed to reap good grades, and we all knew that grades were what mattered.
So I found a professor I admired and decided I’d just be her for high school students. I’d be for them what she was for me. And I saw how much creativity was involved in selecting which books to read, which poems. How to encourage students to engage with something new. How to facilitate a class discussion. Boy, do I like to talk. But I also love to listen. Especially when people are trying to grapple with big questions, with figuring out their minds and beliefs and tendencies.
What I practiced often in those early days of teaching was a kind of heavy headedness, an idea that I had information, and students were empty vessels, and I had to pour the knowledge and thinking from my head into theirs, like sand into an empty cup. Then I’d be successful.
Oh dear. What a backwards way. I was so cute with my short haircut and my lipstick and my slacks, standing in front of the classroom with the weight of all knowing.
What I didn’t do was see who was in front of me. What I didn’t do was allow for space for everyone to breathe. What I didn’t know was that who I was—my presence, my manner, my kindness or way of operating—could be much more impactful than getting a girl to write an essay about a William Wordsworth poem. What no one taught me was that being a teacher is more like tending a garden than filling a black hole.
I don’t think I was a bad teacher. I think I was like many teachers. In fact, I was in a situation recently where the same philosophy was in place, only with adults. The mentality seemed to be, These people standing up here are important. Revere them. Let them fill your empty brains. Rather than a more creative, helpful, free-flowing operation of Hey. Let’s play.
I say all of this because I am returning to teaching literature and writing after a three-year break. Since I graduated college, I have been a teacher in many different high schools and colleges. I had to adapt to different curricula and kinds of classes, different atmospheres of learning, choosing different texts that I thought the students could relate to. The list of colleges where I’ve worked is tiring, but I traveled around so that I could make a living. And I left teaching for that reason—because it was too hard to make a decent living. Because many universities don’t respect or value their part-time employees. Because getting full-time work as an English teacher is so difficult, with stiff competition, like some episode of Survivor. Because there is so much bureaucracy and political maneuvering that it takes away from why we do it. Because so many teachers teach simply because they have a degree, and it’s what they’re “qualified” to do, but they don’t necessarily love people, or want to share.
That all bothered me, but what is more important is that I have missed it. Because I do love to share what I love and who I am. I love to sit together and talk about stories. (If only we could have battery-operated bonfires in these classrooms.) I love to ask questions and encourage people to think, to listen, to grow. A classroom—when all participants are present and engaged—is a magical place. It is a place of healing, of opening, of creating, of generating. It is a place of cutting away the old and making way for the new. And of integrating all.
Teaching, writing, and forming relationships—this is exactly what I want to be doing in this world, both in and out of a formalized classroom. And I am privileged for the opportunity to do it (job security be damned!). Grateful, too, for the knowledge that my own life experience and wayward paths make me a better facilitator, listener, creator, and guide.
Once, still in college, I had a moment of recognition one day in my mother’s house. By the time I’m 40, I said, I want to be a college professor. I’ve thought about that goal for years now, since I have worked in many colleges, in and out through the years, though only part-time. And I wondered if I would reach that goal, or if I had already, and there was no sense worrying about it.
But now, one month shy of my 40th birthday, I enter back into the vibrant fray. I step in to be a professor of life, though I’m hardly an expert. To teach, not just a set of literary or philosophical pieces that many may soon forget, but about life and love and figuring out who you are and what you want, about why we do the things we do and how we can be better at being human.
I hope that doesn’t sound egotistical. I just know that since I first started as a teacher, I have been fortunate enough to have my cup runneth over so many times, in so many ways.
I have a lot of water to spare.
“Rose Garden Hershey Gardens 2016 East Coast Family Trip”by stevendepolo is licensed under CC BY 2.0