For the umpteenth—but final—time, I begin September by asking myself why I ever became a teacher. I know the answer well enough. “We’ve been over this a thousand times,” I say to my pining soul. “You’ve always loved to read, write, and speculate, and you got academic awards in your youth for doing those things well. When you were in college, you kept retreating to areas where you’d found success. Then, when it came time at last to find a job, you were fit for nothing else but pedagogy and pettifoggery. A journalist? We tried that major: they sneer at good writing—takes up too much space. A lawyer? Never! Arguing for pay that the kettle is blacker than the pot hardly qualifies as seeking truth. A government position—living high and wide on taxpayer dollars for shuffling papers? And besides, by the time you came along, white males weren’t exactly receiving serious consideration for hire.”
And so I became a teacher. To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with students (well, almost always, to be really honest)… but nobody ever told me how very secondary that was to the job. First and foremost, flatter and fawn upon your bosses. Do their bidding with a smile. Laugh at their jokes, fight for their ideas in committee, and clap vigorously from the first row when they deliver public speeches.
On a related matter, be the boss’s “pet”. Make yourself highly visible. Stay on campus from dawn till dusk, even though serious grading, lesson-planning, reading, and reflection can only be done at home. Don’t even attempt thoughtful work at the office: it will impede your being seen. Make frequent trips up and down the corridors of power as if you were on urgent missions—but always detain a passing dean or VP to remark how brilliant you think the new curriculum revision is.
Go to conferences in Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco, Boston… and maybe London or Madrid. Soak up coffee and doughnuts like a Hoover for junk food, and get yourself on the program with some five-page paper about Aphra Benn’s lost diaries that you cooked up from a note in a previous paper about Aphra Benn’s perhaps having kept a diary. There’s nothing you can say or hear at these gatherings that couldn’t have been (and isn’t being) disseminated over the Internet without the cost of airfare and hotel—but you need to be seen.
So how did I get myself into something so antithetical to my nature that the fanfare of the new school year quite literally makes me faintly nauseous? I know, I know… but that thousand-times-recycled answer is really no answer at all. The truth is a failure of character: I was too cowardly to fling myself into something for which I had no apparent aptitude or no previous training—architecture, agriculture, marketing—in order to escape from Hell. And so I have spent almost forty years—pretty much my entire adult life—drifting through Limbo, neither saved nor damned: a psychic zero.
No more. This is the last year. Whatever I have left of life will not be passed in this egotistical, futile maelstrom.