I cried when I read his email. It was 4 a.m., I couldn’t sleep, so I grabbed my cell phone and starting clicking through my inbox. Forty two emails. The only one I chose to open was from a former student telling me he would not be attending the university’s graduation later that morning.
He wanted me to know how much I helped him, inspired him, made him feel he was talented at a time when he felt little that was good about himself. I had him in a class a year ago; he was smart, tentative, soft-spoken, polite. But the way he formed sentences was masterful; his typed bold artistry blooming off every page, his view of the world in essays and articles —no matter the subject— was stunning in its honesty. Genius.
Every June I get a lot of those thank you emails, OK, it only seems like a lot. Maybe 5, 10? It might as well be a million, how they swell my heart. I also get handwritten notes slipped under my door, or in my mail slot in the office on the second floor, adjacent to the supply room where it seems the copier is out of service more often than not. Near the desk where the work study student sits quietly typing papers on her laptop until a visitor walks in and disrupts her train of thought. Every June for 17 years, I have been receiving these sentimental messages in a bottle that bob in my memory for years.
This was the last June for that.
I haven’t always been a professor, and I won’t be one again.
The last June
I began teaching journalism as an adjunct in 1996 when I was freshly divorced. I had a cinemactically romantic notion of what it meant to be a college professor. I thought the whole enterprise was simple. Frankly, I thought it would be a piece of cake. Delicious cake.
Here’s how I was sure it would go: I would engage impossibly bright, grateful and eager students who would hang on my every syllable, taking notes on all my comments and nodding in agreement, calling their parents to remark on my brilliance and insight and how grateful they were to be in my class. They would quote me years later when they won awards. They would all like me.
When Julia Roberts played a college professor in “Mona Lisa Smile,” I thought, there, that could be me. Every part of my life was mimicked in some Julia Roberts movie—except the one about her as a prostitute, of course, but then the longing and the partner inequity, well, I have had that too. Mostly I feel affinity to her because most all of her romantic comedies have happy endings, even if she died young making spaghetti sauce in “Steel Magnolias,” but it gave Sally Field a chance to deliver that great soliloquy at the cemetery.
This is what I believed as blind, whole truth: You did your job well, diligently and befriended your students who emulated you and whom you inspired to achieve greatness; that was rewarding. You delivered great information, instruction. You were worth the tuition, well maybe. You could do all that while looking amazing.
And like every other undoubtedly deliriously content college professor across the globe, when the spring quarter or semester of the school year was over, I would relax all summer, doing something intellectually stimulating that would further my career. Write more books, articles, give more speeches, expand my mind, learn, grow, ta-daa! I would be rested, made whole, invigorated.
Then in September, I would do it all over again. I wouldn’t ever burn out. I would never have a bad day.
It wasn’t exactly like that.
For five years I taught year-round as an adjunct, September to September, then for three years was a lecturer where I shared an office in a basement with a half dozen other adjuncts plus a family of squirrels one of the staff apparently fed regularly in secret. Then for the next 10 years I moved up to senior lecturer, then assistant professor, to a brand new building where I had a great office with a view and built in bookshelves, a colleague who brought tomatoes from his garden and a secretary who made us all birthday parties in the faculty lounge. Eighteen years tolled.
My last office was on the fourth floor of the first building (the one with the squirrels who had since been eradicated.) My female colleagues and I had to walk down to the second floor to the restroom. (Men’s room was on three.) We joked about getting a port-a-potty. I shared the ample space with two colleagues who made me laugh. We also shared chocolate and coffee and put our favorite quotes from each other on the bulletin board.
The best part of being at the university was I kept learning and writing, went to conferences where I felt energized and inspired, took in a lot of advice and kept evolving as a teacher. In the position I had, I was lucky to meet so many other people at the university, who are a lot smarter than I am and who do more amazing things than I could ever dream to do. The faculty meetings, and the committee work and the planning meetings and all else, well, wasn’t always loving every second of those, well, not so much. Some of the faculty were always in bad moods.
This year, I retired; was awarded emerita status. For goodness sake, Stevie Wonder was at the dinner the night before graduation, receiving his honorary degree. Cloris Leachman, too. Those of us retiring with emeritus status stood in the stadium as the university president acknowledged us; the crowd of 20,000 cheered. I’m not lying, it was incredibly cool. It all felt worth it. Seriously, no regrets.
Over the years, I saw myself in the young women who sought my advice, saw them as daughters I never had, nieces I did have. I saw my sons in the young men who asked for recommendations and sometimes told me jokes after class. I expected to connect to them all in a way that rewarded us both because I liked them all even before I met them, just by seeing their fresh names full of possibility on the roster, their photographs so innocent and promising. Every quarter I was determined to make this their favorite class ever, align myself with their trajectories, guarantee their successes, show them what I knew, help them every way I could. Help them meet their goals, their dreams. Be their Julia Roberts.
The not so good
And honestly, no really, I was blindsided by the reality that not all of the students liked me every quarter; I didn’t know if I reminded some of them of their mothers or former teachers they disliked, or if they hated the assignments, the pressure and competitive nature of the school or just me.
Not all of them liked what I had to say. Some of them were very mean on the quarterly evaluations. Some wrote about my annoying voice, the way I asked too many questions. Several commented on my bracelets. Really, my bracelets? One insisted I had every student in the lecture class create a Twitter account so they could follow me. Because a student with 18 followers will truly boost my profile. I was wrong about Twitter and the Arab Spring, that’s absurd. Some crossed their arms across their chests in the back row and nearly hissed when I opened my mouth.
I don’t know why that possibility didn’t occur to me, but I truly thought I would be universally well-liked. Across the board beloved, like Julia Roberts, no wait, Julie Andrews. Nobody dislikes Julie Andrews. She is Mary Poppins for goodness sake.
I didn’t aim to be anyone’s pal, and I tried not to be too maternal. I told the young women about striving for all possibility in all parts of their lives, how everything was within reach, just not all at once. Some of them asked for time to talk during my office hours and sought help on personal issues. Family, illness, roommates, boyfriends, stress.
Some avoided me in the halls; you could feel the disdain coming off them like steam as they passed. Not sure why. Maybe I was tough as a grader. But I felt it was my duty to be strict; the world does not grade on a curve.
I wanted to tell some young men not to walk out of class right after the current events quiz or barrel noisily into lecture 25 minutes late. I wanted to nudge them awake when they slept. I banned the use of laptops in lecture because all they did was check their Facebook messages. More than a few times students came two hours late to the three-hour lab portion of class that ran from 1 to 4 in the afternoon.
“Sorry, I overslept,” a student explained.
“It’s 3 in the afternoon,” I said.
But I have learned that sometimes students call it a night at 5 a.m., so that forces them to call 3 in the afternoon the morning. I brought candy, cookies if I had the time to bake.
Sometimes, they didn’t all get my jokes or my sarcasm.
“You have a rip in your jeans,” I said to one young man as he took his place in the third row of the lecture hall. His jeans had about a dozen large gashes; shredded to the point of webbing in parts.
“I know,” he said, completely annoyed, like I was an idiot.
I stopped having them describe me as a descriptive writing assignment. I would stand before them for the first 40 minutes of lecture, then as I departed the room, told them in the next five minutes to write 100 words describing me, what I looked like, what I was wearing. Mostly they were stunned.
The point was as a writer, reporter, journalist, they should take note of every detail in every encounter so they could use those details in the reporting. Some wrote I was wearing a green dress when I was wearing black pants and a blue top. Some were astute and original in their phrasing. But it was the “she is aging gracelessly” description that put an end to that assignment for good and had them describing a favorite place they would visit for the first time for homework.
Click me away
As the years went on I decided some of these students belonged to the clicker generation, because I was sure that some of them wanted to click me right off the stage or away from the podium and change the channel. Some wanted to click away anything and everything they found dull or not entertaining enough. Get to the end of the quarter, get the grade, get the degree, get the job.
They were so used to being in control of the remote, the mouse, the touch screen or the phone. Every image, every sound, every letter of text in their immediate world they could control. They spent their lives clicking or spinning on a new icon when the old one bored them, changing views and exiting content in a swipe. So I was sure having to sit through an hour, two hours, sometimes three, of me as their instructor in a mandatory class, was more than the clickers could take.
Click. Click. Click. Why is she still there?
Ask any instructor, he or she will confirm: teaching is more work than I ever imagined in my fantasy, definitely more work than I had done in a magazine or newspaper newsroom or as a freelancer juggling magazine, newspaper and any other writing and speaking assignments I could land. For every one hour of lecture, I could do at least 10 and more likely 20 hours of preparation. Most everyone on the faculty did that. It was funny when people asked me how many hours of class I taught and figured that was how many hours I worked. Period.
Aside from the hours of research for every class, it was the grading that could do you in, six or more hours a day to edit lab and homework assignments— and the scores of hourly emails that demanded immediate action. While my sons were small, I graded papers at every baseball, basketball, soccer and football game and then for years at every wrestling tournament, placing the stack of typed papers in my tote bag next to the turkey sandwich I packed for lunch. There was not always wireless service in the gyms. I could not go paperless.
“She has very little patience for people who goof off in lecture,” one comment on the course and teacher evaluations read. “She has no fashion sense,” one student wrote. “I hate her,” some wrote. Hate? “She had a little bit of an attitude in lecture and also tried to teach too much,” was another. Teach too much? Tell your parents that when they write the tuition check.
You thought about what new, inspiring lesson to teach every second, how to improve your approach and you stayed awake nights thinking about how to help improve students’ writing and reporting, what you could do or say to make it go well.
When I started paying tuition for each of my own three sons, I appreciated that transaction fully. I was not going to disappoint the parents and shortchange their students in quality instruction. I know how hard it is to write that check, or sign for that loan. I wanted to be value added plus.
Dividing into thirds
I learned that some quarters were just more difficult than others and that most times I could divide a large lecture class into thirds. All of them were very intelligent; it was the attitudes and approaches that varied widely along this triptych. A third of the students were every professor’s dream—ambitious, polite, energetic, eager, respectful, very advanced in their skills and abilities.
Another third were ambitious and respectful, newly exposed to the skills needed, but eager to learn. I loved this group. You got to see them transform.
Another third were what academics call strategic learners, who cared principally about the grade and what it took to get the grade they wanted. Some students would come to my office and argue over a single point on a grammar or current events quiz, even though it was one point out of 400 possible points in the course. We would go over their concerns, I would show the student the page number of the correct answer and he or she would still ask for credit. For these students, at any given moment, any hour of any day, they wanted an answer right now, right NOW, even if they emailed me at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday.
“You never answer me until Sunday when I email you on Saturday and I do my homework on Saturday,” one student chastised me in an email. Another told me in an email the quiz was too “f—-ing hard.”
It struck me as odd that it never occurred to some students that a professor would have a life, a partner, his or her own children, problems, concerns, divorce, illness, a flood in the basement, a dying parent, a spouse who no longer cares. That sometimes we walked up to the podium out of a complicated life.
Sure, most were not that way. Many more students from India to Indiana made me want to call their parents and say what a good job they did raising smart, curious and respectful people with ambition, talent and humility. Like the young man who emailed me he could not make it to graduation.
The real degree
That’s’ why I love graduation. I got to do that — meet their parents— and promised to stay in touch while they took pictures of me with their sons and daughters on their digital cameras under the white tents with the enormous strawberries, the red punch and the small cucumber and turkey sandwiches. This year featured cupcakes, chocolate covered pretzels and fruit kabobs.
With many of the students I felt deeply responsible for their initiation into the profession, for helping them love storytelling, for helping them become writers. When I saw former students in the halls, they hugged me at the start of every quarter, brought me small gifts, mementos from a study abroad quarter. One young man called me “Weldon.” In a nice way.
There were former students from as far back as my first year of teaching who called and emailed me with news of new jobs, new accomplishments, awards, life events, new babies, new books, even heartaches. A few invited me to their weddings. Many have even become my editors. A few weeks ago, a former student was editing an essay I wrote for the magazine where he was digital editor. He had also been stunningly talented at 18 years old, now it was 10 years later.
“This is fun to have you edit me,” I wrote.
“Yes, it is,” he answered.
I bought new shoes for graduation—grey, white and black sandals with a wooden heel. They looked good peeking out from the ankle-length robe. They got mud-caked under the tents as I posed for pictures with my former students. The shoes are ruined; I don’t give a damn.