Three Words for a New Semester

Believe

I struggled my first semester teaching. Frat boys sat in the back, whispered to each other while I spoke. They didn’t have the decency to hide what they were doing by passing notes or texting. One of these boys would walk into my office with a cell-phone pressed to his ear. His high school English teacher was on the other end of the line, refuting something I’d said in class. I’ve forgotten all the boys’ names but his.

One day a female student approached while I was writing something boring on the board.

“I’ve got my period,” she whispered. “I’ve got to go.”

She backed out the door and disappeared down a hallway. I never saw her again. I thought I’d done something to drive her away. I never suspected the boys in the back, who looked strange when she left –– too giggly. Had they done something while my back was turned?

Back then, I knew so little about teaching. I let her go. I blamed myself. Now I think about her all the time. I think about each student who leaves.

I did the same as a first-generation university student, dropping a class the moment it challenged me. After I graduated, I’d said “no” to a stellar graduate program in creative writing. At 23, I rationalized my choice: I wanted to work in a genre not offered by the program.

I made a list of reasons why I shouldn’t say “yes,” starting with the suspicion that I’d never feel entirely at home in the country where I’d lived, and where I’d have to return to complete the degree. I was homesick; I missed my sister. I hadn’t mourned my mother.

These challenges were not untrue. They were also not unworkable.

The larger truth was harder to face: I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe I had anything worth saying. If I could go back to the scared girl I was, I’d say: Believe.

Believe.

Believe the voice that calls you toward your dreams. This voice is inner truth, wisdom, consciousness. It’s your heart speaking. This voice will tell you to do things you think you can’t do. Do them. It’s the only way forward.

Stay

Don’t leave the minute a professor asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Like writing a thesis statement or brainstorming ideas for an assignment. Getting started is the hardest part. It’s the moment when it’s easiest to check Snapchat or text or go to the bathroom just because.

Stay in your chair, in the room, in your mind, in your body.

Whatever your professor has asked you to do is something you can do. It probably won’t take more then ten minutes. If you have a professor like me, she’ll want to help you. She’ll want to see you do what you didn’t think you could do. That’s why she’s here. Raise your hand. Ask for what you need.

Each time you leave a classroom or yourself, you miss an opportunity. You miss the chance to grow.

Stay. Stay even if you’re scared or doubting or consumed by the desire to run.

You belong here. Be present to your longing. Claim an education.

 Wonder 

Do you remember being a kid? Were you the kind of kid who wished on falling stars, believed in magic, your ability to fly? I bet you felt disappointed when you discovered those things weren’t “real.” No matter how loud you clapped during “Peter Pan,” Tinker Bell wouldn’t appear in your living room.  Maybe a sense of wonder left you. What was the point of believing in something you couldn’t see?

But what if magic is real in the way all true, unseen things are real? Love. Hope. Power.  What if you believed in your own ability to be transformed? What if you embraced the wonder of being in charge of who you become?

We can’t control everything. Other people will not see us the way we see ourselves. For example, I’ll always have to deal with men who ask, “Where’s the professor?” when they see me standing outside a classroom door.

I’ll wonder “What’s up with that?” each time, and that’s good. That’s a question I want all my students to ask.

What’s up with that?

 Don’t accept prejudice or platitudes or status quo. Suspect everything. Verify facts, evidence. Question your own beliefs. Where do they come from? Why do you hold them? Who would you be if you didn’t cling so hard?

Wonder. Wonder. Wonder.

Be curious and confused. Open to a thousand possibilities you never saw coming.

At the end of the semester you’ll be the same person who started and you’ll be different. Transformed by what you’ve learned and done. Maybe no one but you will see what’s changed. That’s true magic. Beautiful and sparkling as any falling star.

One thought on “Three Words for a New Semester

  1. Love this post. It’s a beautiful reminder that living in the “in between” places is where the real meat of life is..my husband and I call it living in the gray (which I think is a term someone else coined..) At any rate- reading it made me wish I had an English professor like you back in college!! (Or now..) Thank you for your writing.

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