For one year in Florida, I taught community college. My career as an adjunct professor totaled six entry-level English classes, each with about 20 to 30 students. I adored it. I despised it. Both? Regardless, my online business got better and I moved abroad with my husband, so I had to give it up. And that, I thought, was the end of teaching for me.
Then, having drunk myself unconscious on election night before the announcement came, I woke up to an absolute hell of a morning. I was hungover. Trump had skunked into power by a few hairs of his toupee. And suddenly, whether I liked it or not, my career as a teacher was renewed.
My relationship with teaching that year in community college had no grey. It was a vibrant mix of effervescent, ecstatic bursts of joy and rabid, frothy-mouthed rage. There was never a “meh” moment, probably, my husband suggested, because I cared so goddamn much I thought my heart would burst. I cared about the adult students who looked so exhausted sometimes I feared they’d collapse walking to their desks. I cared about the young women who tried to hide at the back of the classroom so they could speak only Spanish to each other. I cared about the kids who were clearly battling disabilities and never requested extra help. I even cared about the students who didn’t care.
Not long ago at a restaurant I overheard a student—not my student, just a young man who was currently a student—chuckling with his buddies about how easy it was to ruffle one of his professors. “I love screwing with that guy,” he laughed, “He can’t even talk!” Of the conversation I’d caught, the acute comments that stunned this poor teacher into silence were in line with the major Trump themes: global warming is a hoax, Muslims are terrorists, feminists are hysterical, etc.
A brief, blinding moment followed in which I fully expected my body to move on its own. Surely, the dwindling sane part of my mind said, you’re just along for the ride. That table is getting flipped. That glass is getting hurled into the wall. And that kid is going to get the lecture of a fucking lifetime until the cops literally drag you away.
It all played out in a white hot flash of a vision.
Breadsticks like confetti in my wake, I charged through the tables between us and grabbed that child by his shirt collar and seized him with my eyes.
Do you know why your professor goes silent? Could you possibly know? I shout, even as the panicked waiter runs to fetch the manager.
Do you know what it takes to be a teacher to a person like you? Have you ever stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon? Have you ever at least seen pictures of that horrific howling void? That is what your professor sees when you mock him! That is what he looks into! Your professor knows, every morning, that he has to go face that chasm yawning between you and him, all of it moaning and marred by the rivers that carved it. He knows of the pending failure, he knows of the risk to his own self and sanity, he knows he may be swallowed himself in the stretch to get to you, but by some absolute miracle of human tenacity and love, that man gets up, he gets dressed, he fights for a parking space, and he reaches out his hands. He tries to teach you. Do you get it? He tries to fucking TEACH.
At this point in my head, the cops were already dragging me away, but the bewildered look on the kid’s face was everything, well worth the night I’d probably spend in jail.
Back in reality, of course, all my family saw was the familiar image of me utterly zoning out, eyes glossy and the slightest hint of a satisfied smile creeping across my face. My husband, in his wisdom of all things me, gave my hand a squeeze and brought me back.
The point is, like it or not, I’m afraid we’re all teachers now. Everywhere. From your uncle’s awkward business party to social media. And constantly. Every minute of every unholy day. When you’re drunk, when you’re exhausted, when you literally can’t take another goddamn minute of answering questions clearly answered in the freaking syllabus. There’s no summer break, there’s no pause between semesters, no hope of snow days. If you know anything about any single one of the pressing issues today, if you merely indulge the thought that even people radically different from yourself are still human and deserving of aid beyond prayer, I regret to inform you: You’re hired.
I expect we’re going to see different kinds of teachers: ones who yell, ones who lecture, ones who coax, ones who listen. We’re going to probably find that some folks are just naturally better at it than others, but tough cookies, we’re all stuck teaching now anyway, whether at kindergarten or college level, so just keep practicing and ask for help when you need it. Teachers are notoriously supportive of each other.
You won’t always be popular. You won’t always be liked.
But the false peace of just “letting comments go” is too expensive now.
Politically, I’m coming round to indivisibility. There is no compromise to be found among the new administration, and to seek it seems to be only a weakness. I’m starting to believe the heartbreaking message that staunch, even if sometimes hopeless, obstruction must be the approach. Four years of nothing getting done may, in fact, be the best option available.
But personally, at home, in our schools, our streets, our coffee shops, and even our own houses, we need to somehow find the courage to teach.
Obviously, under the kind of pressure teaching exerts, at one point or another, we’re all going to have a mental breakdown. It’s going to happen. And it’s probably going to happen again if it’s already happened. Let’s try to grant ourselves some mercy, indulge the madness for a day or two, and then remember that we’re teachers again, which I’ve found is a kind of self-replenishing fuel.
Sure, every once in a while one of us will crack and dive for a student’s throat.
Sometimes we’ll get stunned into silence.
But there are important discussions to prompt. There are voices to evoke and far too many people who need to learn how to listen and to analyze and to understand that science has no secret political agenda and belongs to everyone.
This nationwide education exercise is going to look a lot like a classroom. Some students, unwilling to learn at all, will take any available seat and (at best) scowl deafly through every class. Some, almost too cheerful to handle prior to your second coffee, will sit front and center and make you feel like you’re just preaching to the choir. Some, however, hiding in the back, seemingly just doodling on their notes to avoid eye contact, are nonetheless ingesting the conversation. These are the ones to watch. They are listening, generating and pulling together thoughts they’d never been asked to have up till now.
So based on my (however limited) experience, although we do need to grab several of those canned Starbucks double espressos… we shouldn’t lose hope. If you’re speaking, if you’re vocal, if we’re all teaching together, I promise that people are learning.