The First Day of the Semester: Hour by Hour
The 8 a.m. hour:
Rumpled and wild, the bedding reflects the quality of my nervous sleep. Even with relying on my new-found friend, melatonin, I woke throughout the night. By 4 a.m., I rolled around fitfully, the veil of sleep resting lightly upon me, my blood running cold with First Day nerves.
This is the start of my twenty-sixth year of teaching college English, and still, I am riddled with anxiety — some of it about having to perform, but most of it about the people in the room once I open that classroom door and walk in. Fifty eyes will challenge: “I’m bored,” “You’re not funny,” “I hate writing,” “I’d rather be texting,” “This class is stupid.” Usually, at least a few of those eyes also harbor some Crazy.
At least I can make the bed and calm that visible tussle.
The 9 a.m. hour:
A few years ago, I discovered that the days I teach on campus unfold better for me if I spend the hours before class exercising — hard. Instead of letting the nerves roil around with no place to go, I apply them to hopping up and down on a step, doing burpees, jumping rope, lifting weights. One of my favorite classes at the gym has just enough choreography that I can pretend I’m a Bob Fosse protegee.
Jazz hands, bitches. It’s the new Xanax.
The 10 a.m. hour:
Once the class is done and I’ve taken a bow, I am fantastically sweaty. Mixed into that sweat are the sadness and negativity that plagued my mood two hours earlier. My heart had been beating with a quaver, but now it’s thumping confidently. I lean down to the water fountain — crikey, but that water is cold! — and realize that when I think about my afternoon class, my thoughts are now trending “Let’s do this thing. Let’s see what kinds of joys and wonders those bored-looking faces end up revealing over time.”
When I was in my twenties, I didn’t exercise much. Back then, I’d go through a full roll of toilet paper on the first day of each new semester. Now, thanks to sweat, the TP will live to wipe another day.
The 11 a.m. hour:
The third floor is empty and silent, save for the sound of my shoes squeaking on the track. I run two laps, stop and lift weights, run two laps, lift some more, run two laps, lift again, making sure to fold in the physical therapy exercises for my shoulder. Eventually, others meander up, focused on their own workouts. One young woman is using a YouTube video to lead her activity. Faintly, I hear the voice coming out of her phone; my earbuds are piping the voices of Marc Maron and Kristen Wiig into my skull. I quite like Kristen Wiig, but, in listening to her interview, I discover she’s guarded when not in character. She’s less interesting than I want her to be.
Not to self: be interesting when there is a listening audience. Like, say, in your 2 p.m. class today.
The noon hour:
Done at the gym, showered, made-up, wearing Adult Clothes (sans diaper), I have driven to campus and plonked my bags onto one of the chairs in my office. Although I checked my online classes first thing after waking up, I know they will have seen some action during the hours of sweating, so I need to crank out some reading and grading.
Reading the introductions that have been posted, I’m delighted to see I have a certified doula in one of my classes. She’s also taught herself to sew by relying heavily on YouTube videos. I have a moment of thinking, “Well, of course, there are YouTube videos about sewing. DUH. A clever YouTuber would create a new channel, though, one that combines backstitching with backbends. It could be called Sew Sweaty, and all the 22-year-olds would subscribe.”
The 1 p.m. hour:
A student who took an Incomplete in one of my classes last spring has finally, on the first day of the new academic year, gotten around to sending me her literary analysis paper and final exam essay questions. While her intentions have been good, the timing still exasperates. I granted a couple of Incompletes last year, and I will be more reluctant to do so in the future. While many students take the Incomplete and disappear forever (their grade becoming an “F” when this happens), the ones from last year have dragged out their course completions to an exhausting extent. The sheer amount of back-and-forth emails, apologies, promises, IT Help Desk tickets, and excuses more than equals the time it would have taken for them to just do the course work with an emphatic BAM.
So now, in the hour before my first meeting with new students, I am grading work from last May. Clearly, protein is in order.
The 2 p.m. hour:
Moments before I grab the stack of syllabi and folders and hustle down the corridor to the classroom, a notion possesses me: since my sweat has dried up, I’m not feeling so powerful any more. Maybe a bold lip color will fool the students into thinking I’m in charge.
Plunging into my purse, I spot a lipstick I’ve never seen before. DID YOU PUT THIS IN MY PURSE, GOD, JUST FOR TODAY? ARE YOU EVEN THERE, GOD? GOD? GOD? IT’S ME, JOCELYN.
The lipstick is dark and badass; pulling a small mirror out of my top desk drawer (Pro-tip: a small hand mirror can reveal all sorts of shit in your teeth that you don’t want bobbing around while you explain the policy of Academic Honesty), I slather the plum color over my lips. And adjacent skin. Within thirty seconds, my face looks like the Senate floor after Brutus and Casca jammed their steak knives into Caesar’s neck.
First, I try wiping around my lips with my fingers. As I check the mirror to see if improvements have been made, my hand falls onto the stack of syllabi, leaving bloody fingerprints all over the section labeled “Course Outcomes.” Quickly, I grab a tissue from the box I was clever enough to bring from home two years ago. Hypothetically, the college will provide office supplies like Kleenex. Realistically, the amount of paperwork and waiting time required to get a box of Kleenex is so stupid that the guy in charge of supplies will whisper, helpfully, “If you really want Kleenex in your office, just suck it up and bring some from home.”
GOD, IF YOU ARE THERE (IT’S ME, JOCELYN), THANK YOU FOR GIVING ME THE TYPE OF SOUL THAT STOCKS HER OFFICE WITH KLEENEX BECAUSE I WOULD HAVE HAD TO RUB MY FACE ON THE INDUSTRIAL CARPET, HAD THERE NOT BEEN TISSUES AT HAND, AND FEW THINGS START OFF A SEMESTER WORSE THAN A TEACHER WITH RUG BURN ON HER CHEEKS. SO HARD TO EXPLAIN TO STUDENTS. It gets really porny really fast, see.
The 3 p.m. hour:
It’s over. I did it.
My maroon mouth and I strode into the classroom and faced the strangers.
Sure, I spent the first three minutes in the classroom trying to get the projector and instructor computer to turn on. As a rule, I like the initial impression strangers have of me to be one where I’m ineffective and squatting in heels. and .
Also, the first time a roomful of strangers hears my voice, I like the words coming out of my plum-lacquered lips to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Hang on for a few minutes while I run and find a tech person.”
Even better, I supermuch like it when, seven minutes later, I return to the classroom with a tech guy in tow, and he walks over to the computer monitor, pushes a button, and informs me, “With these new fuzzabytes, there’s not actually a power button on a hard drive. You just turn it on here on the screen.” Then I like it when he picks up the remote control on the corner of the desk, points it at the projector hanging from the ceiling, and turns it on. What’s more, it’s radically helpful to a sweaty instructor whose feet just got blistered to be educated: “I know this isn’t how it’s set up in the classroom where you usually teach. We’re working on getting the technology in the classrooms standardized.”
The best moment of all occurs as Tech Guy heads for the door, and I call out, “Hey, I know some of the classrooms have really wonky light switches and systems — and it’s often impossible to dim the lights. Let’s say I’d like to dim the lights now that the projector is on. How would I do that in this specific classroom?” and then he freezes and scratches his head for a minute before walking over to the screen hanging in front of the white board and peeking behind it. Yea, there are some switches there. Nope, he discovers, they aren’t the light switches. So then he walks back over to the door. Hey, more switches! Awkwardly, he punches at them. Nothing happens. Holding longer, he presses again. Gradually, the room darkens.
Cots would be nice. I, for one, am ready for a nap.
But: it’s showtime — time to explain the class to the patient students, right down to how the cutting-edge technology on our campus should make them feel they’re getting the most out of their tuition dollars.
The 4 p.m. hour:
I’m back in the haven of my office. Slumping in a chair, I think to myself, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. Seems like a nice crop of fresh faces in that classroom. Okay, a couple of them might eventually reveal their Crazy, but for this minute, I’m going to call it good.”
On my lap are a stack of diagnostic essays that I asked the students to write during the last part of our 75-minute class period. Before I read them, I need a minute — to let the raw skin on my feet breathe, to file away the manila folders from today’s class and ready the ones I’ll use on Wednesday, to allow a post-anxiety sensation of joy to flood my body.
The 5 p.m. hour:
I’m still reading the diagnostic essays, stapling a little feedback sheet to each one — basically something that will give each student a sense of his or her readiness to handle the class, based on what I’m seeing in the writing. The reading and feedback would go a lot more quickly if I didn’t stop every few minutes to wheel myself over to my computer and dick around on Facebook.
The 6 p.m. hour:
Essays are read. Next class period is prepped. Online classes are dealt with once again. It’s time to lock up my office and find a celebratory frappucino. As long as I’m up on the hill, near the shopping area, I’m going to dip into the Mothership and try to find a shirt with pockets for my beloved pal, Ellen. After having breast cancer this past year, she recently underwent a long afternoon of mammography-if-ication, at the end of which her breasts were deemed Killer Awesome. That news is so great it’s worth pockets.
As it turns out, there is only one pocket shirt left in the store, and I have to stash it on the bath rugs while I use the bathroom. So help me, if anyone tries to take The Pockets while I pee, I will tackle him and give him porny rug burn.
The 7 p.m. hour:
I’ve been to four stores so far, running errands (WHEN PACO NEEDS FLOSSERS, I AM ON THE MISSION), and my final stop is the Co-op, where they sell the world’s best string cheese.
On my way into and out of the store, I take entirely too much enjoyment in a wildass black woman who, with zest and finesse, is working the white liberal guilt in the parking lot. She follows shoppers to their cars, edging into their personal space with a nuanced and dramatic tale of woe. All the ponytailed guys by their Subarus and blondie ladies loading spelt into their hybrids are powerless in the face of this woman’s force. Gleefully, she racks up a handful of donated dollars while the Co-op shoppers race to unlock their cars and zip to their safe, controlled homes.
The 8 p.m. hour:
Finally, I am home, dragging bags into the kitchen. From the television room, Byron calls out excitedly, “AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR IS ON!!”
I love him so much.
Once he makes sure I haven’t brought home some new interesting beer, he cracks a cold one from the fridge. Before I’m ready to settle in and ogle upper-arm strength while sipping, I head upstairs to change into pajamas and wash the day off my face. Checking with Allegra — at the computer, working on the East of Eden assignments that are due in English when the school year begins in a few weeks — I debrief her on my class, telling her they seem really young, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my students were people from her high school. Then she tells me one of my Facebook posts literally made her laugh out loud.
I love her so much.
Before I head back down, I pat Paco’s shoulder; he’s having screen time with his buddies, so his his big headphones are on, and the group of them is chasing some Thing around some Place in some World. He’s all focused intensity, but, still, his shoulder is soft. I learn he slept until 1 p.m., and in the afternoon, he and Byron went swimming in the nearby river. Also, he made another little clay guy for the art sale this weekend. It has hair.
I love him so much.
The 9 p.m. hour:
Living tributes to the 1970s, Byron and I settle in front of the television with our dinner. Once we’re done catching up on our respective days, we’ll watch an episode of Bojack Horseman.
When Byron inhales a kernel of corn into his windpipe and hacks dramatically for four minutes, I take the opportunity to monologue — LOUDLY — about my impressions of this semester’s students. At one point, it seems better to fall quiet and let him work it out, but he chokes, “Keep going. I want to hear it all.”
The 10 p.m. hour:
Halfway through Bojack Horseman, Byron moves into the sitting position that indicates he’s trying to stay awake. This is also my opportunity to rub his back. Barely, he makes it through, having realized he took allergy medicine this morning, and coupling that with a night-time beer has made him groggy. Shortly after 10 p.m., a case study in substance abuse, he is DONE.
The 11 p.m. hour:
Pappy’s asleep, the kids are still focused on their own stuff, so it’s my time to turn my face, once again, towards my online students. Many of them work during the days; thus, the later hours are when the number of posts picks up. As I read introductions and ask questions, I watch Jimmy Fallon in the background.
As is the case with Kristen Wiig, I am not as interested in Robert DeNiro as I’d like to be. Fortunately, the students online are extremely interesting.
Checking email, I see a message from a student, giving me a heads-up that one of my quiz questions is flat-out bizarre. Frantically, I hop into the class and realize he’s right. When I was writing new questions and editing quizzes this summer, I wrongly copied something from one of my sixteen-week sections into one of my eight-week sections and, on top of that error, it’s a summer-based question, not a fall-based question. I hate it when I screw up and, thus, thank the student heartily. In return, he thanks me for getting back to him so quickly. I send him another email reply, just so he can keep seeing how quickly I get back to him.
The midnight hour:
I’ve graded everything that’s been submitted online, so now I can think about my own writing. There’s a piece I’ve been working on for a few months; this past week, it got to the point where I needed perspective and asked a few folks for feedback. Byron just had time to read it today, so before he conked out, he told me two things he feels need editing. I agree with his instincts. In addition, my pal Ellen gave me some good ideas for finally pulling the ending together. And: I need to change “a pair of underwear” to the words “plaid boxers,” per my friend Virginia’s note. Ooh, and my lovely galpal Linda had pointed out a missing hyphen, among other things.
When the edits are done, I reach that rare and special place with a piece of writing: I think it might be “done.” Having interacted with it for so long, changing things every time I read it, it’s hard to know, of course. I could keep changing and changing. The deadline is in a week; for me, that’s close enough that I’d like to submit it now. Helping me decide it’s time is the echo of Byron’s primary response to the essay: “It’s really powerful. It’s really good.”
He’s always supportive, but because I live with him, and he hears all my nonsense on repeat, he’s hard to impress. When he told me the essay is good, that it’s powerful, that was my indication that I can let it go.
Just past midnight, I pay the $20 contest fee and toss my word baby out into the world.
The 1 a.m. hour:
Sometimes after a girl has just submitted an essay to a contest, she needs toast and puzzlin’.
I’m at the point of blackness with this puzzle where I have to pick up each piece and try it in each open slot before I can find a fit. After half an hour, I’ve found homes for two pieces. We call this the Maturity & Endurance phase of puzzlin’.
The 2 a.m. hour:
Byron’s been asleep for almost four hours, so the bed is again well rumpled.
I can’t wait to crawl in beside him.
I can’t wait to read.
I can’t wait to sleep.