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Teacher

This time of the semester calls for reflection. Classes are over. The final exams I’ll give this week are a formality—make that an informality—because the results of the finals are useless. I can’t use the results to help the students taking them. So I am left to contemplate the waning semester and wonder what the students learned.


This is nearly impossible to measure. I say “nearly” because once or so a year, a former student will send an e-mail thanking me for something I told her or him Back Then. Even when the student is specific about the “something,” I usually don’t remember it. When I do remember, it’s invariably a bit of borrowed wisdom I’ve passed along—with attribution, I should point out. One of my favorite borrowed sayings is from my college mentor and academic adviser, Dr. Richard Kline, who peered over his glasses one day more than 30 years ago and said, “He who hangs back gets less.” It was, and is, great advice. But whether I recall what I told a student or not, the e-mail winds up in my scrapbook. It’s gratifying someone remembers.

As for this semester’s students, I wonder what moments and memories will endure. I wonder if the first semester composition students will remember anything other than the day I broke a cheap plastic clipboard by banging it on the top of my head to make a point. I wonder if my University 101 students will recall anything other than the last day of class, when I bought them breakfast at the on-campus coffee shop. I wonder.

But these doubts are countered by a conviction that I was brought here for a reason. As John Hiatt once sang, “I didn’t have no plans to live this kind of life. It just worked out that way.” If you had told me at age 19 that I was going to turn into a college professor at age 47, I would have asked for an ounce of whatever it was you were smoking. Even now, midway through my tenth year, it seems unreal when I stop to consider it. This is why I believe I was guided to this path for a purpose.

That idea humbles and comforts at the same time, but the fact remains I never will know what the purpose is, or if I’ve served it already. Was it something I said to Student A, who remains in touch many years after his graduation and keeps me abreast of his success, or was it some way I will help Student Z, whom I haven’t met yet? There is no knowing.

What I know this time of the year is the past semester has exposed some of my shortcomings. My wife, who for 30 years ago was a teacher and then an elementary school principal, says a teacher should never let students see her or him sweat. But at least twice this semester, my exasperation with a classroom full of disengaged students bubbled over to where it was visible. I need to prevent it from happening. I need to address what I don’t do well and do it differently, do it better. And I need to address what seems to work, what’s fun—and there’s a lot of that—and do it better.

So, this end-of-the-semester reflection isn’t like standing in front of a mirror; it’s more a like facing a mirror with another mirror at my back. The reflection bounces back and forth, tapering into infinity.

Is there anything else I would rather be doing? No. Do I wish I could better tell how I have affected my students, for good or for ill? Of course. But the deal I’ve been given stipulates that in exchange for believing I’m here for a purpose, I have to forfeit knowledge of how I’ve served that purpose. I can live with it.

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Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”

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