The Power and the Glory
In January of this year, I received my MFA in Creative Writing. In July of this year, I became an adjunct English instructor at a community college. It’s September now, and I’m still reconciling the two.
I’d spent two years of intensive study refining my voice, cultivating ways to craft interesting dialogue, mastering structure, and rooting myself in the literary culture. I’d been living off student loans and odd jobs but still managed to scrape money together to attend AWP every year and buy three books every week. I follow hundreds of Very Important Writers and Highly Influential lit journals on Twitter, desperately spending my free time composing witty retorts in 140 characters or less. I subscribe to the Selected Shorts podcast and listen to it in the car and before bed. I am reading no less than two short story collections, a novel, and three lit journals at any given time. If Writing wanted me to kneel in the middle of the street, handed me a knife, and instructed me to cut, I’d say: where and how much blood do you want to see?
I spoke, briefly and not in as much obsessive detail, about all of this during my first day of classes. I told my students my background was in fiction. I told them about how I write short stories, how I believe in the power and the glory of language, how this class is an English class, and it’s a requirement, but we’re going to have fun, we’re going to witness the beauty of words. Four students in my afternoon class dropped after the first day, and I started to feel bad about myself.
Right now, I’m looking at a stack of papers. Some have misspelled words and major grammatical errors. I’m responding to students’ emails about their absences, reminding them that, in college, they don’t get excused absences and a miss is a miss. I’m stressing out about a student paper that I most likely lost. I’m planning my lessons for the next two weeks. If you’re curious, we’re delving into thesis statements. Eighteen year-olds love thesis statements almost as much as they love curfews and speed limits.
I wore heels everyday during my first week of teaching because I thought that’s who I had to be. By the end of each day, I was taking Tylenol and keeping my feet elevated. So I started wearing flats. Yes, I thought. This is the solution. I can stand up here and talk and teach and make words rain. But the flats were scraping the hell out of the backs of my heels. I always think I solve problems, but I’m just finding new ways to be uncomfortable.
I gave my students an assignment on the first day of class. What? I know. What kind of shitty teacher does that? In my heart, I believed they would be excited about it. This is because I secretly cannot fathom how anyone is not exactly like me. They had to write a single-page paper about how they felt about writing. Goddamn that sounds so fun and thrilling that I just might do it along with them. I wanted to get a baseline of their writing skills in a pressure free atmosphere, but I also wanted them to know that this class, even though it’s an academic-y English class, was going to be rad. Instead of them rushing into my class telling me how amazing they felt as the words came out of their brains and went into their fingers, I spent a week regretting how nice and casual I’d been about the assignment.
Most of them turned in three or four sentences that went something like this: I don’t like writing. I have to do it for school. I really don’t write unless I have to. When the teacher assigns me something, I’ll do it. But I don’t really like doing it.
During our next class, I announced that the paragraphs were done and foolishly reinforced the idea that they were just for participation. Hey guys, I said. I have your paragraphs. If you turned it in, you got credit. I made comments on your papers, so read those over and let me know if you have questions. Class dismissed. Two-thirds of the students got up and left and didn’t collect their work. Never tell your freshmen the thing they just did wasn’t for a grade. This led to a lecture during the next class period about participation points, how those factor into your grade, how not picking up a paper tells me you don’t care. In one week, I’d gone from the power and the glory to begging them to pretend to give a shit.