Celebrate the Student
This week, I start my 25th year of teaching college English.
The brain, she boggles. Brain has been along for the entire ride–since the first day my clammy hands pushed open the door of a classroom on the University of Idaho campus. Clutching a stack of fresh-off-the-ditto-machine, purple-inked syllabi to my chest, protecting my carefully dot-matrix-printed Instructions to Self (first line: “Write name on board”), feigning confidence, I strode into the computer-free classroom, paralyzed by twenty-two sets of eyes that stared in shock at an instructor their own age. From that first day in Idaho, through a move to the University of Colorado–where Christian Coalition-ized students in the early 1990s wrote papers arguing that people with AIDS deserved it–and then on to the community college system in Minnesota–where I’ve taught students whose families were still scarred by the Hormel strike of 1985, students who are locked in the grips of meth and opiate addiction, students who increasingly embrace the culturally transmitted message that college is a place to learn workplace skills, not to gain a broad-based education–my brain has shrieked “Wheeee!” and “Whoaaa!” the entire ride.
Yet, she reels: 25 years?
How can this be, when I’m still a four-year-old who wants to feel the brown, crunchy grass of August under her scalp as she turns somersaults in the yard?
How can this be, when it seems only last week I noticed with frantic pride that my mom had let go of the bike seat while I pedaled wobbily down Forsythia Boulevard?
How can this be, when there’s still a part of me that’s waiting to be asked to Prom by someone other than a cute gay guy from the speech team?
How can this be, when I just want to burn up the dance floor at The Saloon, mouthing the words to “Groove Is in the Heart” until last call?
How can this be, when I still feel like a young mother, stuffing the desperate entreaty of “Someone, please, help the hours pass” beneath my smiles?
How can this be, when I’m busy falling in love every day with the man who’s been my husband for the quick blink of 16 years?
How can I have done anything for 25 years when I’m just getting started?
Naturally, as is the case with all interactions with the world, teaching has had its challenges. There have been students who scared me silly, students who broke my heart, students who pushed boundaries. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors who have caused me to retreat into my office, lock the door, cradle my head into my folded arms, and cry. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors whose words and actions have led to 3 a.m. pacing around the living room, a fleece blanket caped over my shoulders to ward off the chill. There have been long-term effects on my body’s health (I’m starting physical therapy for that nagging shoulder, most likely caused by mouse usage, but at least the pain counters the fire that runs down my left scapula when I write by hand), long-term effects on my defenses (I’ve gotten better at spotting sociopaths and drunks), long-term effects on my psyche (when someone treats me with affection, I now game out the many ways it might morph into rage).
I have earned every dollar, no matter what the public-institution-funding state legislature might argue.
On the other hand, if I’m a creature of free will, a woman privileged with choice, and I’m still doing this thing, then there must be more to it.
For every unnerving interaction, there are ten affirming moments with students, colleagues, and supervisors. For every time I’ve paced the floor in the middle of the night, there have been ten evenings of chattered debriefing with my husband, in the kitchen, rundowns where I tell him about someone emerging from a life of abuse to discover she wants to be a psychologist, where I regale him with classroom hilarity, where I cry the happiest of tears–the type that spill out when someone who lived in his car for two years earns a degree.
For every student who scares the crikeys right out of me, there are ten shining lights who blaze into the classroom.
One such light brightened this summer for me when she enrolled in Multicultural Literature. Every week, her discussion posts elevated the tone of the class; through her modeling, her classmates were able to see what the behaviors of a successful college student look like. Midway through the class, students were given a “Coming to America” essay assignment with a variety of topic choices. Each student could interview someone who immigrated to the United States. If the student lacked a firsthand subject, he/she could research an immigrant and report on that person’s experience of leaving home and the facing the challenges of assimilation–a topic option that yields entirely too many papers on Albert Einstein and, get this, Mila Kunis. Finally, if students had ever lived abroad for 3 months or longer, they could write about their experiences as “foreigners in new lands.”
Below is the response submitted by the tremendous student who made my summer: Sarah Y. After I read it, I immediately noted that her writing and story deserved a wider audience; I asked her if I could publish it on my blog. Her response was quick, enthusiastic, and lovely. From start to end, Sarah was a student for the ages, one who reminded me that
I couldn’t have a better job.
An American in Spain, 1998
In late 1997, my parents let me know that they were divorcing. I was in the middle of a very unsatisfying semester of college, my grandmother dying, and my future seemed a swirl of dank unhappiness. I instantly decided that I was moving home to take care of my dad. It seemed perfectly logical at the time: he wouldn’t be able to keep it together on his own. I knew I could give his life stability and my life meaning.
“Maybe you should go to Spain,” my mom hinted. Something in those words woke up a sleeping part of me, the curious, engaged person that had been stuck in a quagmire. The idea to travel seemed purely selfish, but it took my head out of my parents’ problems. It was also a good idea for my study of Spanish. So I jumped on it. Plans fell into place easily, as is the case with many good ideas, and before I knew it, I was on a plane.
I had a small backpack crammed with a few clothes. I didn’t take much with me because I wanted to be a minimalist and I also wanted to be forced to abandon the comforts of my American lifestyle. I would be living with a Spanish family, so my household needs would be taken care of. Electronic devices were not a thing yet, so a film camera and a journal completed my pack.
The plane landed in Madrid, and I was to take a bus to Oviedo, in the north of Spain, my home for the next half year. First I had to spend the night somewhere, which involved a series of transportation decisions and communications. I was congratulating myself on getting through this respectably while waiting for a taxi, when I saw a very blonde head bobbing my way. Next was the familiar smile, and I was standing with that girl Emily from my college! I was not super excited to see her, because I thought I could do better independently. I wanted the whole experience of Spain, unencumbered by reminders of my old life. Nevertheless, Emily and I teamed up, spent the night somewhere, shared notes and jet lag remedies, and got ourselves on the proper bus to Oviedo the next morning.
My eyes were glued to the landscape out the bus window. The lack of trees surprised me. There were some mountains, but not much else to look at. At midday we stopped at a roadside rest area, and I bought my first slice of Spanish tortilla, an egg and potato quiche. This moment of Real Food while on the road, and the discovery of the ubiquitous Good Coffee, made me fall in love with this country a little on my first day.
The initial journey came to an end in Oviedo, where I registered with my program, and met my host family. They lived in an apartment about a 45 minute walk from the University of Oviedo. Walking became my new way of life, and I spent most of the next six months on the streets, the lovely streets, the ones that were built before cars were invented, so cars did not fit. There were winding alleys and steps and narrow arches, and stone plazas with more statues than I’d ever seen before. I learned that young people rarely went into each others’ homes in this community, and so most youthful business was conducted out of doors. Couples necked on benches, and large groups of teenagers cruised in flocks through the parks. I had never lived in a city before, and along with all the streets and buildings, I had to get used to all the people, all the time, everywhere. I was a solitary, pale-faced, too-big, non-feminine anomaly among them, walking through the crowds and taking it all in.
My host family had two daughters, but one had recently moved in with her boyfriend, so they had a spare room for me. Meals were provided. I thought that this meant I would spend time with them and get to know what life was like in a Spanish home. The family was not very warm, and didn’t spend much time with each other. Each one had a different schedule, and although I always got a meal, it was usually sitting alone in the kitchen. Once, the mother told me that she wished we could all just take a pill when we got hungry. Mostly I lived on chocolate cookies and cured sausages, and the maid when she came would fix me rice with a fried egg and tomato sauce, and leave a huge salade nicoise for the family. Once in a while the mother would make croquettes or a fish called pixin, pure white and very flavorful. But like the rest of the people in this city, I started going out, and discovering the food of the city.
As my few supplies ran out or wore out, I shopped to find new things: shoes, pants, hair clips, notebooks, a knife. I was amazed by how shopping was done in this place. It was unheard of to browse. The shop workers wanted to know straightaway what you desired. I was not used to admitting to anyone what I was looking for. I was a wandering shopper. This didn’t work well in Spain.
I did eventually find out how to get what I needed. I also found a guitar, which I had been desperately missing. It was a cheap Korean thing. I was in the wrong part of the country to buy a bona fide Spanish guitar. This one had six steel strings that stayed in tune well enough, and a soft case with backpack straps. Back in my solitary room I focused on songs, writing down lyrics, and learning new melodies. Soon I had an idea: I would sometimes see scruffy people on the street singing and making money, and I decided to try it. After much scouting, I chose a place under an archway in the pedestrian zone. I lay my wool jacket on the cobbles in front of me and sang my heart out– all the American folk songs I wanted to sing. Carter Family, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan. Coins clinked together steadily down into my jacket. There were lots and lots of ones, but many fives as well. I usually played for an hour, and never made less than forty bucks. It all went to my eating/drinking/travel fund.
I wondered why people gave me money…. Was I begging? Did they appreciate the music? Or was it pity? Were the gypsies going to get mad at me for taking over their turf? As I played, I had a unique vantage point. I was staying still, and could watch all that was going on around me. I became invisible, in a sense, and could stare at people much more overtly. Dramas unfolded before my eyes. I learned another side of the city.
I had a boom box in my room, and I picked up albums, fueling my musical studies. All were American artists, nothing had anything to do with Spain, but here I had so much time to focus on my obsession. I also began to spend large chunks of time at the public library. The process to get a library card was excruciatingly complex, so I contented myself with sitting among the stacks, pulling out a variety of books, and then puzzling over the I Ching in Spanish, trying to find some oracle of wisdom to make order come to my life.
When I got sick with a bronchial infection, I didn’t know what to do. There was no campus nurse, no family doctor. At the weekly market that I walked through on my way to class, I saw a lady vending herbs. I described my symptoms to her, and she made me a bag of something to take as a tea. It seemed to work for a day or two, but then a classmate clued me in: I could just walk into any drugstore and buy antibiotics. That was a miracle.
One of my biggest challenges was finding who to hang out with. I imagined meeting Spanish people and making friends, really absorbing the culture through them. I loitered around the college, and skulked in the students’ coffee house. I made tentative eye contact, smiled. I carried my guitar around and made excuses to talk to people. Again and again, I was treated like someone you would pass on a New York City sidewalk. I was there, but I felt ignored, like everyone knew I would not be staying permanently, and I was not worth the investment. I watched friends sitting in pairs and trios at outdoor cafes, deep in intense conversations, touching each other, laughing ecstatically, their speech dripping with tantalizing obscure slang phrases that I would never know. I was not qualified to be friends with anyone. I would be gone soon enough.
So, I was left to the Americans. I spent part of my day with them in class anyway, and they seemed to be just as hungry for companionship as me. In my first week, I had been disappointed to learn that although I was enrolled in the University of Oviedo, I was not to be taking classes with the general student population. We Americans were stuck on the non-EU floor with a few Japanese, Australian, and Brazilian students. The classes were designed for non-native speakers, and were not challenging and full-speed like I had been imagining. It was not so bad, once I accepted it, as was hanging out with the Americans. But when I realized that my grade was based on the final exam, which I was sure to pass, I gave myself liberal permission to cut class and experience as much of the non-academic culture as possible.
But I did become friends with the Americans. And we traveled together and experienced Spain together. We looked at thousand-year-old bridges and churches, and ate huge festive meals, and showed each other the bars that served French fries with twenty different sauces, and the underground pub with all the board games. We reminisced about Bon Jovi and the Beatles and TV shows that we were missing. We moved in a pack, and dared each other to be more outgoing. And then the Spaniards seemed to see us. We found ourselves in conversations with people who saw us less as individuals and more as a force. We had strength together. One week I rented a car with a couple of my best friends, and we explored the coast. In a sketchy neighborhood in Santiago de Compostela, we returned to our parked car to see a pair of threatening men flashing a gun. We linked arms, put our heads together, and laughed as we walked towards our car. No one got shot.
I still most often traveled alone. I went to France by myself one rainy spring week and cried in the Louvre, unable to absorb any art. I bought a book of poetry by Raymond Carver and sat on a Paris bench and got lost in it. In Bordeaux I met roller-skating kids and ate canned soup cooked on a hot plate in a dorm room, and tried to explain why I was not a hippie. I stood under an awning during a drenching cloud-burst with an old French man, and he gave me a vocabulary lesson. “When it rains like this we say it is ‘comme vaches qui pissent’” He wrote it down on a piece of paper and I tucked it into my pocket. Later I puzzled out that it meant it was raining like peeing cows.
On the way back to Oviedo, dreadfully sick again, I tried to telephone to find a room late at night and lost all my Spanish. The kind woman on the other end revealed that she was an American and she comforted me in my mother tongue. I was too relieved to be offended, and accepted my luck. I spent too much money for clean sheets and slept and slept. And then I bought more antibiotics at another corner store.
I wandered. I read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and decided that I needed to experience bullfighting. Ciudad Rodrigo was having a fiesta and bullfight coming up, so I threw some clean underwear and a notebook in my backpack guitar case and hopped on a bus. I stepped off in Ciudad Rodrigo at ten in the morning, and walked smack into a group of three drunk young men who had been up all night. For the first time, real Spanish people were paying attention to me, so I kissed all of them. And then one of them said he had to go home to echar a las vacas. Let’s go to the farm and feed the cows. Then we’ll come back to the fiesta. I jumped in the car with these boozy strangers and got dropped off twenty minutes later on the side of the dusty road.
The fellow I was with, Pedro, lived with his parents and sisters. He slurredly introduced me to them and told me to get on the tractor. He started it up and we rolled toward the gate, and he motioned to his father to open it. The old man just stood there. “Open the gate!” he roared. The father shook his head. The mother came out. “Por favor, Pedro,” she called. “Por favor.” There was a standoff. I just stood on the back of the tractor, along for the ride. “I have to feed the cows!” “Please, Pedro. Get down.”
He finally gave up, and he stumbled to his bed and passed out, after telling me we’d go back to town and stay at his grandmother’s house that night. I was glad of that, because I knew the hostels were probably all booked up. I sat at the table, waiting stoically. The mother and sisters just looked at me. Then they fed me. They told me there was a bus back to town in twenty minutes, and told me where to stand to flag it down.
A couple hours later I was rolling once more into Ciudad Rodrigo. I never saw Pedro again. On my own again, I wandered the town, in this fragile, lonely, hungry state. The time was up for the running of the bulls, and I found myself in the perfect place, in a bar along the road they ran down. Iron bars on the open door warned people not to casually walk out. At the last second, several men jumped inside, and a couple of black shapes hurried by. We all filed back out and followed them to the plaza. I sat on bleachers as the bullfight happened. I tried to put myself in a Hemingway frame of mind, but I never quite understood the ritual. I was surrounded by men, this lone, strange American girl who wanted to do manly things. I didn’t work out very well. I returned to Oviedo, dusty and sad.
I went to Valencia with an American friend of mine to visit a Spanish guy that she had dated when he was an exchange student at her high school in Massachusetts. She was my best friend in Spain, but as we got nearer to Valencia, she distanced herself from me. Revisiting this friendship was on her mind.. We were there for Las Fallas, the big festival, where neighborhoods build huge sculptures and then burn them. On the way there I lost a contact lens on the bus, and spent the rest of the trip half blurry-blind. I was constantly disoriented, and had the increasing feeling that I was an unwanted companion. Not knowing what else to do, I tagged along, knowing I was boring and in the way. The ex-boyfriend and his friends were artists, into motorcycles and cocaine. My friend was swept along in the excitement. The best part of that experience was the sandwich that the ex-boyfriend’s mother packed me for the bus ride home. She squeezed tomato pulp onto the inside of a cut-open crusty roll, and layered on the ham and razor-thin slices of manchego. I ate it, and we rode home in silence.
With every experience in this country, making my way through these uncomfortable situations, my shyness dissolved. It had to. I forced myself to speak up, to be understood, to insert myself anywhere I thought was a good idea. And, I inserted myself in plenty of bad ideas. Through it all, my accent got pretty good. I learned new words constantly. I understood just about everything. I felt fluent, comfortable moving through the country. I would go to the movies, and know I hadn’t missed anything.
One evening I watched Good Will Hunting, a current American drama, overdubbed into Spanish, as all movies were. I don’t remember much about the movie except for the closing scene. A car hits the road, the road reaches West, forever. It is an absolutely American image, and for the first time, and like a load of bricks, I began to miss home. I had enough Spanish loneliness; I yearned for the American loneliness of the open road. I cried through the credits.
Six months into my stay in Spain, my mom came to visit me. We explored a few new places, but mostly I ended up taking her to some of my favorite finds. We went to the same paella place I had been to in Valencia. We went to the Inquisition museum, had many drinks, and many tapas, and stayed in lodgings one grade higher than my norm. One evening, in the plaza of a beautiful town, we took a walk before dinner, and the whole rest of the town was out, walking, holding hands, sitting together, gossiping. My mom decided this was an excellent time to show the world her faux tap-dancing routine. Maybe the sound of her leather-soled sandals on the plaza stones gave her the idea, I don’t know. I was mortified that she had blown my cover. I was suddenly just another American traveller, not cooler than all the rest. We were just as obnoxious as anyone. We went to dinner and my mom tried to speak Spanish with the waiter. She was getting it all wrong, but I couldn’t shut her up. I don’t know if I needed to prove more to her or to the Spanish strangers that I was good at this, that I could blend in and be part of this country. But she was the reality check: I couldn’t hide where I had come from. I brought her to the airport, and sent her back to her country.
While I was at the airport, I inquired at the ticket counter about changing my departure date. I had a week left, and $212 dollars. It wasn’t enough, but I was planning to play more music in the street. I just didn’t know where else I wanted to go. The lady behind the counter told me it would cost $200 to change my ticket. I boarded a plane a few hours behind my mom.
The same day, I was stepping off the Amtrak train in upstate New York, shell-shocked. My friends picked me up at the station, and we spent an evening together, trying to catch up, although everything seemed much too current to be news. It was so sudden, I was back, and I didn’t know what to say. The language that I had been working on so diligently had just evaporated from my surroundings. I continued to dream in Spanish off and on for the whole summer.
I haven’t been able to pretend that I had a fantastic, lovely time in Spain. For a long time I blamed Spain for being inhospitable and lonely. Now I think that I was going through a hard time in life, and it would likely have been hard no matter where I was in the world. I struggled with insecurity and lack of direction. With the false confidence of the uncertain, I went there thinking I would fit in, become European, be celebrated, stay forever. It wasn’t the case. However, in Spain I developed the ability to push myself out there, even with low self-esteem, to communicate and to perform. I found some real strength underneath the arrogance, and had more reasons to like who I was. But in the end, I needed home and family. I missed the endless American road. I wanted to be driving west into nothingness.
I went home and worked at a gas station. Then I went back to college and no one had missed me while I was gone, but I didn’t necessarily need that. I knew what I needed, I loved everyone more, and appreciated the wonder that is a small college town in America. I was still looking for connection, reality, independence, and authenticity.
When I finished reading this essay, I sat quietly for a minute, feeling, of all things, gratitude.
Thank you, Sarah, for pouring yourself into this assignment, for viewing it as an opportunity to record and clarify an important part of your life.
Thank you to all the students who are thinkers, workers, wanderers, wonderers–you students who remind teachers that they are privileged witnesses to transformation.
Indeed, thank you to all the students who make Year 25 of a teaching career feel not like a sigh of exhaustion but, rather, like the start of another beautiful adventure.