The dusty bookcases reached the ceiling; stacked and double-stacked spine-worn books shared the shelves with photographs spanning three generations of the head of the department’s family. I studied each item to avoid looking at him. Female students were known to throw themselves at him for his stratospheric intellect and piercing eyes. I was not going to be one of those girls, even though I wanted to be. I was in his office to discuss an up-coming essay for his Dickens course. It was more like Dickens triage as the essay needed to be twenty pages, was due in two weeks, and I still didn’t have a topic.
Rubbing his face with his hands, he groaned, “God, Amy, what are you trying to do? Kill me?”. That was one point toward not being one of those girls. I fixated on a photo of his kids and smiled sheepishly, and wondered if my professors ever talked about their shared triage moments: Whitman triage, Stein triage, Dickinson triage, Coleridge triage. We bounced around some ideas related to Great Expectations when he picked up a sheet off of his desk and studied it.
He pierced me with his eyes, and I could not look away. I picked at a cuticle instead, managing to rip off a good chunk of skin. Blood pooled immediately. Lacking a Kleenex , I sucked it away. I didn’t even want to imagine the picture I made. “Are you okay?” he asked. Still sucking, I nodded. Did I hit an artery? He waved the sheet in front of me demanding, “Why don’t I see your name on the list of TAs?”. I stopped sucking. TAs were Teaching Assistants–a misnomer for graduate students who were the teacher of record of their own College Composition course. After taking the required coursework, applying and interviewing for the job, they planned and created their own syllabus, chose the texts, created the lessons, and taught freshman undergrads. I hadn’t planned on pursuing a position. I had decided to get a Master’s degree in English on a whim– mostly because I didn’t want to enter the “real world” yet and had always wanted on. What I was going to do with my degree was still an unanswered question. Plus, I didn’t think I was a student of that caliber and thought such a possibility was a long shot. I kept those thoughts to myself and replied that I hadn’t taken the coursework. He furrowed his brows together and frowned, “Well, get on it!”
I left his office a bit stunned at this unexpected vote of confidence. He had expected to see my name on that list. I hadn’t envisioned it there. Why he zeroed in on me was confusing– I didn’t really do anything particularly outstanding in his class beyond raising my hand and answering questions. However, I am a big believer in following the advice of one who should know, so I researched what I needed to do to become one and enrolled in the necessary courses the following term. If he thought I could do it, then maybe I should give it a shot.
Up until this point I had only taken lit courses, and the idea of studying composition was a bit of a snooze. But I was introduced to the power of writing: how it helps us obtain and construct knowledge, its role in education and empowering students, it’s politics. Through our studies we analyzed the role of the teacher in the classroom–what made an effective teacher and how can one better teach the art of writing. It was downright fascinating, and those classes quickly became my favorites. This knowledge was useful, pragmatic and had practical applications. Designing my own coursework with challenging ideas that questioned the modern world, what we know, and how we know it, challenged and excited me. If I had my own class, these ideas could be shared, thought about and discussed.
Even though I performed well in those classes, I still wasn’t sure if I would get the job. My confidence lagged, and when I got the interview, I wasn’t very enthusiastic. The professors were probably humoring me. I slouched, gave short answers, and really just wanted to run out of there so I could stop wasting their time. One of the professors on the hiring panel (the interview was with me and five professors), commented on my lack of energy afterwards. Did I get a lobotomy right before the interview? Where did my normal self go? She was baffled, but despite my poor interview, they hired me anyway.
To say I was scared shitless my first day of teaching is an understatement. My hand shook terribly as I took roll. My students were only a mere five years younger than I. Could I really teach them? Would they learn anything? Would they take me seriously? Each day my heart pounded at the start of class. I waited for one of my students to stand up and cry, “You’re an imposter! I can’t believe I’m paying good money for this!” They never did, and I was offered to teach each semester until I graduated. The department also gave me a more challenging class of remedial English. The experience gave me confidence and maturity.The words of encouragement my professor gave me that day in his office changed my life. I had always thought of entering the teaching profession, but I never really thought of it as a reality. He most likely doesn’t remember this conversation, but I certainly do. It was a life-changing moment: His words and expectations made me a teacher.