Light and Momentary Afflictions

This writing thing works best, I think, when I tell the truth and show the rips in the fabric.

Late one night in early December of my first year of teaching I decided I was going to quit at the end of the semester. I was exhausted. The pushback I was receiving from some students and parents at the time felt like too much for my thin shoulders. There had been too many nights when, finally putting away my grading or lecture notes at two a.m., I had lain in bed, cried fat, angry tears, and wondered to myself what sadomasochist had dreamed up teaching as a profession. This experiment was over. I was calling it.

So the next day I went into work with grim determination that these trudging days were numbered. I think it was a Tuesday. That afternoon a smart, articulate student who had often liked to challenge me in class came up and asked me if I could help him with something. Would I look over the rough draft of his junior thesis? He knew it had a long way to go and he wanted extra feedback. He posed the question as if, though the assignment wasn’t for my class, I might know something about it, as if my opinion were worth listening to. So I said yes, and read the paper. It was clear and readable, but he hadn’t really addressed the opposition at all and made some unfounded statements, so I covered it in red. He came back in a couple days later and sat next to my desk, and we talked through my comments. He accepted all of them and thanked me profusely.

I think his asking for my help was, at least in part, a conscious act of kindness. He treated me as if I had something of value to offer, and so I changed my mind. I didn’t quit. I gave the experiment another try.

I stayed, and year by year things got easier. The work got simpler and faster, and I got to know my students better. I carried their weights and worries more heavily and mine more lightly. I still cried often, but gradually I laughed more and more. My feet grew to suit the ground where they stood.

When I leave Caldwell in a few months it will feel as if I am slicing the hundreds of nerves that connect me to the place. It’s a happier and more logically accurate metaphor to say that I’m leaving behind something I’ve built, but that doesn’t account for the hurt I know I will feel, because I already do.

Yesterday I sat down and graded the personal statements my sophomores turned in last week. They responded to one of three prompts: a prompt about failure, a prompt about challenging an idea, and a prompt about a moment of transition. And as I read their various experiences, often little but sometimes big, I was reminded how much personal growth necessarily involves discomfort. It involves inconvenience and sometimes pain to come into something new, as well as to leave something old. Being born and dying are both famously uncomfortable.

So the beginning of this chapter was marked by tears, and by all indications the end may be too. But though my worries and insecurities may show up as markers and half-rubbed-out stains all through the last four years, they do not define my time teaching. These years have been characterized by unasked-for grace: grace offered to me by my family, by my friends, by my colleagues, by my bosses, by my students and even their parents, but most especially by my God, who has said time and time again, “Yes, I intend for you to be here–I am here with you. Now take another step forward, and another, and another…” until I walk right off the page, on to the next unknown.

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