Class dismissed

Note: If you follow my other blog, you know I normally include gifs and other images in my posts to break up the text. I'm still learning this platform, so if you want to read this post and have the whole experience, the doors to my other blog are open. I know that's probably not the best idea, but the experience is the experience. You'll be back to buy art, I'm sure. 

I want to start this missive off by saying that I’m a good teacher. I am exceptional at my job. Well, at least I was. On December 14, 2019, I turned in my last set of final grades, my state issued identification and gate access cards, the keys to all the doors I had keys to, and left campus for the last time. I had been an instructor of English-Professor Me- and in a matter of a few hours, I was *just* me again. Can we talk?

I never wanted to be a teacher.

I come from a long line of teachers. A decade or so ago, during a family gathering of my maternal or paternal relatives, you could (though it would be ill advised) throw a rock and hit a teacher, principal, or some other administrator (working or retired). And growing up, I thought all families had that kind of continuity, that some matriarch decided what everyone was good at, or it kind of naturally happened that people in the family were good at the same thing, so everybody did it. Like singing families, or families that build things. But I soon learned that my family’s dedication to education was a bit different. It was, and still is, inspiring and beautiful, and I’m happy to have contributed to it in some small portion, but teaching wasn’t my bag.

I entered college a Biology/ Pre-Med major. And the running joke I tell is that I was a Biology major for 3 days and then changed it because of the rigor. But that’s only a joke. What really happened was, because I didn’t have the support to do something different from what I knew, I lacked confidence, so when things got challenging, I ran instead of proving to myself that I had the juice. The expectation was that I would major in Education, but I’m stubborn and tenacious, so I majored in Biology because I loved science and I wanted to be (quite specifically) a Pediatric Oncologist. It wasn’t my first choice in a career, but I was denied the opportunity to go to school and study what I really wanted to study, so I figured I might as well be a doctor. I know I sound facetious, but I also know that had I had the support I needed, I wouldn’t be writing this missive.  Once my grandmother found out what I’d actually majored in, she was not happy. It didn’t help that my partying and sleep schedule killed my chances at passing my 8AM Calculus class. A D at midterm set off all the alarm bells, and my gramma basically said “teach or come home and work at the plant”, so I majored in Education.  

And I fucking suffered.

I decided it would be okay to teach Middle School or High School English/ Social Studies because I had no intention of teaching small children. And I had resigned myself to that idea, trying each day to convince myself that this was how life worked. You picked one thing and did it until you retired, or someone told you what to do and you did it. I made good grades, so I didn’t see getting the degree as that much of a challenge. But as a major, Education didn’t satisfy my soul. I didn’t look forward to class because there wasn’t much action. The program was arduous and rigid, and students were expected to be on all the time, which left little room for creativity and passion. I thought that’s how college was. How adulthood was. That was until my last summer as an education major when, just before I was to apply to student teach, I took classes in the English department to fulfill the required upper level literature component of my balance sheet. I was expecting more of the same from the Education department: lectures, little student engagement, a lot of note taking, et cetera. It was a culture shock.  I hadn’t fit in with the education department, but in the English Department, I was at home. Students and professors debating lines of Shakespearean verse, and the impact of Hurston’s anthropological work on the New Negro Movement? I had found my tribe. I could be a professor. I changed my major to English with a Literature concentration and found new mentors in the department to help me overcome the backlash that ensued once I told my grandmother I would not be a teacher like she and my mother had been. I was going to be a professor.

But the pressure of failing to please people had already gotten to me. I was depressed for several reasons, and my grades were dropping. I couldn’t function anymore. So I dropped out during my junior/senior year. When I dropped out I thought I’d never be the English professor I’d daydreamed of being. I mean, my depression had taken over my life, and there wasn’t much in my purview except my new reality as a bartender. But I always finish what I start. So somewhere in me, there was the promise that as soon as I could muster it, I’d go back to school and finish my degree and not stop until I was Dr. Me, a super dope Blackademic teaching African American Literature and Rhetoric at my alma mater or some other HBCU. In my daydreams, I was the cool professor, reminiscent of the professors I’d had, but who listened to trap music and cursed more. I was, in those fantasy sessions, the absolute ultimate version of myself as a “smart person”. Because that’s one of the things smart people like me did, right? We went to school for a long time, wrote books, gave interesting lectures, and helped students find meaning and purpose in themselves and the world.

I dedicated my Senior Capstone and my Masters thesis to my mentors, because they’d been so supportive and loving while I was lost. They kept me motivated to finish my degree and get in the classroom, because they’d made being an English professor seem so awesome. They were masters of their craft, wielding pedagogy and a seemingly unsearchable depth of knowledge like ancient, esoteric weapons against ignorance; willful or otherwise. I wanted that kind of mastery. That kind of influence. I wanted to be for someone else’s child who and what they had been for me. The person who sees the diamond in the rough, who reaches past all the walls and defenses, and pulls talent and brilliance out of hiding for the world to experience and admire.  All my mentors in undergrad and graduate school had looked at me and seen me. They loved on me and nurtured me because they knew that no matter how I felt about what I could do, I could do “good work” that was better than most people’s “best work”. They encouraged me when I couldn’t encourage myself. They helped me see myself as a scholar and servant of the larger community. But most importantly, they made it possible for me to see myself as a human being deserving of love. I’m sure they know because I’ve told them all. And I don’t know if it ever helped them get through a bad day, but their example kept me motivated to teach every day I could until I could no longer stand it. I tried to keep going long after I knew it was time for me to go. I kept trying to find the thing that would make this job worth it. That one student, or that one journal article I’d write, or that one lecture I looked forward to giving, or that one literature class I got to teach once a year. I kept pushing and pushing and looking for the thing that would make it okay for me to keep giving of myself knowing that I hated every moment. My numbers were good, the majority of my students loved me, I got along with my colleagues, got good evaluations from students and admin, and was clear to coast to the 7 year cap with no issue.

But that shit was not for me.

I can’t help but facilitate learning wherever I go. Does that mean I need to be a professor? No. It absolutely the fuck does not. I didn’t know that until 2 years ago, but by then I was already in my 2nd year as an instructor. Can we go deeper?

There are things about being a Black woman in academia for which no one can prepare you. My first semester as an instructor was a culture shock that sent me to my then girlfriend’s apartment every weekend to cry and lament the mistake I was making. I thought it was impostor syndrome. It wasn’t. It was regret.  I complained to my friends about how much I hated my job on an almost daily basis, hoping someone would offer me a piece of advice that would save me from the situation, or provide some kind of touched by an angel insight to show me I really was walking in my purpose and needed to grow up. But they were fresh out of that. Instead, they laughed at the stories of my run- ins with racist students, racist staff, bad sentences, and my self-degradation.

Nothing, not even my time in graduate school as one of two African American students in a predominantly white English graduate program in an unapologetically racist town, prepared me to be a whole professor having to show identification for reasons including (but by no means limited to) the fact that I “look young” or whomever I was speaking to had no idea that the English department had hired a Black woman (at the beginning of my time at the university I was the only one). Or when people would come to my office and ask me if they could speak to Professor Me, sure that I was an administrative assistant ( I initially shared an office with a higher ranking professor and would often be mistaken for his secretary). After being corrected, the confusion didn’t cause embarrassment as it should have, only thinly veiled bewilderment and questions about my credentials. And then of course, there were the students who out and out asked to see my degrees and needed a full explanation of how I came to be a professor. Was I an affirmative action hire? Was I a real professor or was I like some kind of substitute? If I was a real English professor, could I spell (insert word)? Could I “translate” Shakespeare? Did whoever it was who hired me know I was Black when they hired me? At one point I considered having my degrees printed on 5 tee shirts and 3 hoodies so that I could remind my students and everyone else who encountered me that I had earned the right to be there and was more than qualified to stand in front of a room of often ill prepared, functionally illiterate first year students, and make the attempt to impress upon them the importance of composing essays “on a collegiate level”.

I was prepared for some colleagues and students to believe me less intelligent because I am unapologetically bidialectal. And I was okay with knowing, (because I am unapologetically bidialectal, and I also use profanity at my discretion, and I started that job with a head full of free forming locs, and I’m masculine presenting, and I don’t give a fuck) that some of the people I would encounter could never have any interactions with me beyond those superficial encounters of my choosing. I was and still am willing to die on that hill. I was also prepared for the kind of perverse emotional voyeurism which white people who are only marginally acquainted with Black people like to participate. You know that thing where if something racist happens, they want your opinion on it, even if it happened to you and hurt you to the point where you fought tears but you had to act like it didn’t hurt because you’d be damned if they saw you break. And of course it’s always prefaced with some mention of how angry they were when it happened, and how sorry they are that I had to experience it, but what never happened at any point, at least not in my presence, was one syllable of defense or rebuttal when the thing actually happened. Just awkward or curious sideways glances in my direction as it happened. Which made it so much easier for me to miss meetings, or duck out immediately after the meeting was over, and disappear until I had to come to work again. Or not volunteer for committees, or do any of things that would’ve made me “look better” if I were to go up for a promotion.  

I feigned difficulty with certain aspects of my job that were easy to me because I was always told, and saw it more than once, that when coming into a new environment, you never allow yourself to be seen “doing too much”. So I kept everything light and only showed glimpses of my classroom personae because I learned quickly that I wouldn’t necessarily be considered in the same league with my colleagues. Every once in a while, I would think about how when I graduated from GC, I had a 4.0 that I’d kept the entire time I was in graduate school. Or that the department had to create distinctions for my Comprehensive exam scores, and my Master’s Thesis. I endured conversations about mediocre poetry and prose, but really had no one who could carry on a conversation about any of the stuff I found interesting or had studied or written about. I went along to get along with a lot of people, I wore the mask. It was hell. But it was designed to be that way. I had to be uncomfortable so I would leave, because I wasn’t supposed to be there that long.

I wasn’t prepared for the amount of emotional labor I’d have to do, either. And I think that’s the part that wore me down faster than anything. Many of my Black students chose a PWI for the sake of “diversity”, believing that by enduring the rigors of this space they would be granted access to a better life wherein their past and pedigree wouldn’t matter. But part of that rigor meant that they needed support from someone. As human beings are wont to do, they gravitated to the person they knew who looked like them and kinda reminded them of their favorite auntie or older cousin, me. So in addition to my time in the classroom, I spent an inordinate amount of time out of the classroom being Professor Me. Writing letters to judges, calling probation officers, et cetera, because a student I loved and barely knew, or didn’t “love” but had asked, was in trouble. I bought meals for students who didn’t have money. Helped a few that were in dire straits keep a roof over their head so they could take finals. Was a counselor when a student was called nigger by someone in the community, or someone in their dorm, or someone in their class. Or, when white professors were especially or un/expectedly unkind, reassured that baby they weren’t inferior.  I know I didn’t have to do any of these things, but I was trained to be a servant. HBCU professors indirectly teach you how to be good citizens. That the job isn’t just a job, it’s your life. That if you can do it, the world will be better served if you do it. So I did. Even when it infringed on my inner life.

During new teacher orientation we were told, among a mind-numbing litany of other things, that we represented the university in the community. Which made me think of how wherever I went with my grandmother, some former student of hers, her sister’s, or my mother’s would stop her and have to talk to her about something. Some days, she was okay with it, others, like if she wasn’t feeling well, or if we were on our way to do something important, she wasn’t okay with it. I asked her a few times why she didn’t just tell them she had something to do and didn’t have time to talk, especially those students who had been problem students or whatever. Her response was that sometimes people just need that moment with you. The moment isn’t really about you per se, but them scratching some nostalgic itch. They want to know if they are remembered and to let you know you were remembered, even if your memories aren’t pleasant.

So when I became Professor Me, I thought about that kind of interaction. And when I started having those experiences, I found myself travelling further and further away from “home” to do the most innocuous things like buy groceries, go to Target, or get coffee. I hated being caught off guard by current or former students in public, because I never knew what kind of bag they were going to come out of upon seeing me outside the classroom. Prime example: In my first semester I had a student who rarely came to class. During one of their cameo appearances, their partner came along. Apropos of nothing, the partner interrupted my class as I was giving the wrap up before I dismissed them to “piggyback off a comment that was made” only to start screaming about dicks. Fast forward to the end of the semester and I’m in Kroger being followed by these two people who felt it necessary to let everyone on the chip aisle know that I, in my sweats and slides, was a pretty cool professor because I let them talk about dicks in class. In my non Professor Me life, I’m an introverted empath, meaning it takes a lot for me to deal with people. When I’m out and about, I like to be as expedient as possible because, being around people takes a lot out of me. When shopping, I normally have earbuds in to drown out the noise of other people, and I generally don’t engage in small talk because it has been my experience that strangers will tell me the sordid details of their lives when I’m just trying to buy coconut milk and mangoes. So to be followed around stores by former students (which happened more times than I can count), or the threat of being followed around stores by former students, had me driving an hour away, at minimum, to get my basics because I just couldn’t stand it after a while. And even that didn’t help. One day I drove all the way to the DeKalb farmer’s market, only to be roped into a conversation with a student’s mother while looking for elephant garlic. If you’ve ever been there, you know it can get crowded and cramped, the lines are long, and “excuse me” often gets drowned out in a symphony of languages, and the ambient sounds of shopping cart wheels and sleep fighting babies. But I stood there, listening to this woman tell me about this kid’s struggles, and her worries, and how my classes had helped him have more confidence and better grades, and how she had hoped to meet me one day. I left soon after, without my garlic.

 

And I know you may be thinking I sound like a pompous, entitled ass. Maybe you’re thinking I should be grateful that I was able to be impactful such that my students were excited to engage with me no matter when or where they saw me. Or maybe I should’ve thought about all of this being a potential outcome when I applied for the job. That maybe once I got there and realized that there weren’t many people like me there, I should’ve just done a year and left.  Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should’ve been thinking more clearly a few years back and decided to say fuck my fear and do the things that scared me most. That would’ve changed the trajectory of my life forever, to be sure. But I think I was supposed to have this experience. Because I’m hardheaded. I’ve thought about the many ways I fucked myself over these past few years, and part of me saw doing a job I didn’t like as some sort of emotional self-flagellation. I was punishing myself for making decisions that didn’t serve me. Every time a student got out of line, or a fellow faculty member questioned my ability or my “right” to be there, I took the hit on the chin and came home to mull over how deserving I’d been of the slight. Because if I hadn’t been such a coward, I would’ve done something else with my life and not allowed myself to suffer. I couldn’t rationalize how this thing I thought I wanted so badly, and had worked so hard to attain, was so unfulfilling. I wanted to love teaching. I wanted my students’ expressions of gratitude and admiration to mean something more to me than just platitudes. I wanted the thrill of watching a student progress and grow to be enough to sustain me, but it just wasn’t. And even though I was good at my job, none of that was enough. Because I had settled.

I have a way with people. Even in my introversion, my ability to build rapport with students was undeniable. A lot of it was because I am my authentic self in the classroom. So I crack a lot of jokes, I speak on a level that removes pretense, and I’m honest to a fault. My students, many of whom were first generation college students, or were deer in headlights afraid of college, appreciated the fact that I treated them like the adults they legally were. I allowed them to speak their minds, use profanity, and talk to me about life. It seemed unorthodox to a lot of people but my philosophy is simple: if I can connect with you, I can teach you. If you are willing to connect with me, you can learn from me. This philosophy is loosely based in African educational philosophy, and it works. I never differentiated between the student and the person. The student was the person, and I wasn’t going to allow any of them to play themselves small. Which was interesting considering that my very presence on that campus and in that classroom was an exercise in playing myself small. So it didn’t bother me that I was often one of the people charged with teaching student populations on the fringe, or cohorts of students who’d proven challenging in the past. Because I can teach anybody. But after a while, that shit gets insulting. I taught students who could barely write sentences, which is taxing on the brain. It got so bad that when I finally got the chance to teach students who were college ready, I was so fucking tired, I couldn’t give them my best. And it broke my heart. This is not to say that the fringe students were bad people, they just required a level of preparation on my part that made my job all the more stressful and their success a non plus.

So I had to quit. And I fought myself over the decision. And I pushed against my higher self for a year and a half. I stressed myself into dis-ease., which required a slew of medications and eventually a surgery.  Had surgery and came back only to be headed down that same path again. But I was scared to leave because I didn’t want to let my mentors down. I thought I needed to stay the course to prove myself worthy.  I didn’t want to be making a huge mistake. Teaching, for me, was easy and safe, but I was so tired of performing. I was tired of lying to myself. I was tired of pretending that it didn’t bother me that I would come home and snap at my partner for no fucking reason other than I hated my job. There weren’t many pros to weigh other than a steady paycheck and insurance. Another life was calling me like a bill collector, I had to answer.

You may, if you’re still reading, be wondering why I told you all of this. My goal is to encourage you to find the thing that sets your soul on fire. A lot of people hate their jobs. They’ve outgrown them. The thing they do isn’t doing it for them anymore. It’s okay. Find something else to do. I’m a creative and a consultant. I paint, write and help other people master their language through my writing coaching and consulting services. I don’t need a classroom to do that, and the work makes me much happier than teaching ever could. The interesting thing is, I’d been doing all of that while teaching, and it never dawned on me that the reason why I would be in such a rush to get home from work is so I could do the things I loved. I would come home and lose myself in editing a document for someone, or painting, or working on a strategic plan for a client and not be tired or worn out. But I didn’t think that work was “good enough” even though it kept me fed during the summer when my career did not. The thing I know about life is that you only get one. And in comparison to eternity, that thing is shorter than a gnat fart, so there’s absolutely no point in being miserable and making other people miserable because you’re afraid to try. I can tell you now, on the other side of my fear, that I am happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I wake up everyday excited to do the things I love. I approach each challenge with the knowledge that I can absolutely conquer it. No matter what comes, I love myself and believe in myself enough to know that I can handle it and excel. It only took me 20 years to learn that lesson, but I have learned it. Now it’s time to apply my knowledge. Class dismissed.

 

 


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