When I think about the rhythm of my existence, the words “West Coast freestyle” cross my mind, as does a brief Lambadic beat, but ultimately I have to admit the cadence of my life is most aptly labeled “semesterlyish.”
Back when I was in college, during the “who’ll-shove-Alexis-Carrington-into-a-fountain-this-week?” decade of the ’80s, I attended an institution that paced itself by trimesters, each lasting ten weeks. Pretty much, that meant we all felt pregnant for four years, except at the end the only things we expelled from our bodies were plumes of smoke from Camel Lights and fountains of vomit from 3.2 beer.
Later, when I started teaching at the University of Idaho and then the University of Colorado, I made the switch to a sixteen-week schedule. Damn near wore me out, that business. Because seriously, when I was an undergraduate, the mere ten-week schedule was hectic enough, with me juggling absences in my various classes just into that tenth week before each professor started to realize I was actually enrolled in her course. Yup, right about final exam time, I faced down raised eyebrows and questioning looks when I dared to enter the classrooms of the courses I’d been enrolled in for two-and-a-half months. My defense, when the professor stuttered to ask me if I wasn’t perhaps in the wrong room, was to glare and act affronted that my constant and active presence had never before registered with that poor, confused professor, even though my only constant activity had actually taken place downtown at the bar.
So you can imagine what those later jobs oriented around sixteen strung-out weeks did to my sense of internal scheduling, particularly because I was the instructor, the one in charge, the one who had to be there, like, nearly every time we had class. Crikey, but that was a whole lot of showing up to do. Fortunately, the beauty of “group work” soon shone its face upon me, and I realized that, so long as I got my carcass into the classroom, I could set them on each other before kicking back for the duration, hefting my feet onto the table and peering under the podium on the off chance that some other instructor had left behind an Entertainment Weekly.
Oh, all right, Matlock. Occasionally I’d address words to the room full of students and make some marks on their papers and do a little jollying along. But, really, sixteen whole weeks of anything is ex-haus-ting, sugar. (Hearty Huzzahs, then, to Da Groomeo, who’s kept me on board for nearly nine years now. I stay ’cause he keeps hiding the Nutella.)
Yea, sixteen weeks whups me. But even the ten-week trimester back in the shoulder-pad years highlighted what a fragile and delicate violet is The Jocelyn Who Sways at the Slightest Breeze: at the end of every term, without fail, I’d push through those final exams (introducing myself to the teacher as I exited the room that last time) and, just as I started packing a bag and heading for the airport to grab a flight back to the Homeland, I’d
and a fever.
Indeed, once the push to the end of term was over, my immune system collapsed and invited every random microbe roaming the quad after the previous night’s kegger to enter my nostrils for a gnarly in-head continuation of the party. Thus, “end-of-term” always translated to “buy-Theraflu-in-bulk.”
Even when I started teaching on that even-more-wearying-sixteen-week-rhythm, I was sure this tendency towards end-of-term illness was simply a Student Syndrome. After all, hadn’t I seen how easy it was to be a teacher, how simple it could be to pretend to be engaged in my work? What could possibly be sick-making about filing my nails and pouting out twelve times a week to the tuition-paying kiddles, “No, Jerome, accept is not spelled e-x-c-e-p-t“?
Strangely, though, the sixteen-week semester, under which I still teach, is far-reaching enough to make everyone in the classroom sick. Sure, we’re all sick of each other by about Week 11, but who knew physical sickness would continue to set in at the end of every semester for me, even with the eight-foot buffer I like to call the “No Steppie Here, Tiffany” zone, an eight-foot buffer that happens to exist right in front of the instructorial magic carpet of desk?
It’s like all those students actually do come up to ask questions; it’s like I actually do circulate the room and look over shoulders, making suggestions. It’s like all those gettin’-sick students get me sick, too. It’s like there’s just as much stress for the teacher at the end of term as there is for the rarely-attending students who are frantically trying to get up to speed after multiple absences (“Um, hi. Are you in this class? What’s that? Your name is on the roster? Tiffany, is it? Sure it’s not Jocelyn? At any rate, welcome to the final exam!”).
It’s like, right now, as I type this, we’re heading into final exams on campus. It’s like I’ve been hacking, dripping, and snerfling into the keyboard as I type and consider the 50 research papers, 40 Novels finals, and 20 English Lit exams I have to mark in the next week, before I start to chip away at prepping my summer classes.
It’s like, my external rhythm may be set at semesterlyish, but my internal rhythm innately functions on a six-week bee-bop. On a six-week calendar, by the time anyone even thinks about coming to class…or getting hostile about a grade…or coughing in the No Steppie zone and turning the instructor into some wan Charles-Dickens-orphling-looking thing…
we are out of there—
textbooks tossed into the bonfire,
cars idling in the Wendy’s drive-thru as we await the deliverance of the restorative semi-frozen bev-cream known as The Frosty,
hands beating out a highly-personalized staccato tattoo onto the steering wheel as we wait.