Friday, November 20, 2009


Today at noon, I finished teaching my sixteenth class. It's been five years and some change since I walked into my first, and I still remember the pounding nervousness of standing in the hall beforehand rehearsing my opening joke. At 22, armed with a hastily-constructed syllabus, I figured I had little else to offer my freshman students.

(First day of school, 2oo4. I don't seem to have grown into my feet at this point.)

I paced, crossed myself, spurted out a Hail Mary, and went in. The two dozen hooligans that made up my first group looked so old to me, reinforcing my feeling that I was not grown-up enough to be their instructor. They all had the attitude of Catholic School girls who'd just been smoking in the stairwell--even the guys. It was only their first college class, but they already slouched, cynically. It's hard to say who was more uncomfortable, them or me.

The room smelled like radiator heat and spearmint. I forged ahead.

Even now, walking into a classroom for the first time feels like a strange sort of blind date--with 20 people. I try to be charming. They look at me suspiciously. I ask them about themselves. And they, having expected someone different--an animated older woman with skunk-spot hair and a deep knowledge of Shelley, for instance--know that they just have to get through it.

Teachers, like actors, share an adage about that opening-night/opening-class feeling. If you ever lose the butterflies, they say, you know you're in the wrong profession. Based on that conventional wisdom (and the turmoil of my stomach), it seemed as though, on that first day in September 2004, I'd found my true calling.

I pulled out the roster with all their names so I could take attendance. The time had come for the joke that would win them all over. As I took roll, I said, after a dramatic pause, "Okay, let's get rolling."

The laughs were, as you can imagine, not forthcoming. And now the scripted part of my show was totally exhausted!

I blundered forward, in blue blazer, embarrassed. As I trembled through the calling of their names, I felt my credibility dissipate further.

There was some noticeable tittering.

I had them interview themselves in order to buy a little bit of prep-time (nothing like group work to take the pressure off teacher). I wrote "WANCZYK" on the board, breaking the chalk, and sat down.

In huge letters, I scrawled, "THAT WAS CRAZY" in my notebook. I figured if I looked like a loose cannon it might distract them from my general unreadiness, so I muttered to myself. I was like a pitcher who's purposefully wild when warming up just to scare the opposing hitters.

As I took the teaching-mound again, though, I had trouble throwing strikes.

The class was called Writing and Rhetoric 1--in other words, the subject was How to Think. I certainly hadn't mastered that myself, so mostly we talked about books and about their weekends. I determined that my teaching style was something I called "Energy Theory." As long as I was excited, they'd be excited.

Sometimes this worked. Often not.

One day, I asked a question about an essay they'd had to read and, taking my cue from a veteran teacher, waited as long as I could for a response.

"How do you think the structure of this piece works? What's the writer trying to accomplish?"

We sat silent for six minutes. They held their ground. I looked at each one of them imploringly. They folded their arms. There was some noticeable tittering. I grew a zit.

"Ok, then. Let's take a break."

A pop quiz helped me save some face, but they'd earned an early dismissal with their courage.

The next class, I tried to throw a kid out of class for goofing before we'd even gotten started. Marty Gertz. "Get out, Marty," I said. "Get out now." (I'd planned this bad-copping in advance to get some respect back). He apologized and I let him stay. I always do. "Okay, let's get rolling, then," I said.

Later in the term, some of the guys took to calling me "coach," which was mostly insulting but better than nothing. We worked hard on their compulsory papers about social issues. I tried to get them to punctuate correctly; many of them did. There were fewer silences, some laughs, and I didn't have to threaten anyone again. In that class, I claimed very small victories.

I still do. Teaching is a strange job because its benefits are long-term and mostly intangible. I can't know if my students actually think more acutely after they're through with my class. If they remember any of the scenes from the books we've pored over. If they've changed at all.

There's no widget at the end of the assembly line, no healed wound, no million bucks in the bank.

Sometimes I don't even know what my end product is supposed to be.

Early in my career, I had a similar crisis. I was droning on and on before I finally said to my students, “If any of what I'm saying is making you like writing or reading less, then I'm sorry. That's the exact opposite of what I want.”

And I do want them to like these things. But can sharing that enjoyment be a life's calling? Sometimes I'm not sure. I do know I was thrown off-course for the better by English teachers and that I would like to do that for my students.

Now that I teach personal writing, though, that task seems even harder. I say, "Be Honest, idiosyncratic, over-analytical, self-reflective." Sometimes I worry I'm trying to teach them to be me. And while I wouldn't mind if the college offered a minor in Wanczyk, I don't think I'm necessarily the role model who will nudge them toward a productively off-kilter life.

Then again, if one guy starts thinking he likes school because I do PR for knowledge, because I'm an oddball, maybe he starts believing he wants to learn more, be odd, maybe he writes the world's best sentence (something like Keats's "Hedge-crickets sing"), complete with spondees and perfectly-placed hyphens and concise, ecstatic revelation: maybe he feels fulfilled, gets the girl, makes the world--at least his--more tolerable.

If he keeps writing long enough, I remind him, he'll surprise himself. That would be good. It's worth a try, at least.

As a coach, that's the answer I'm looking for. So I keep asking the question, I guess, even though I might have to wait six minutes--or six years--for some variety of hedge-cricket.


Zach said...

While many freshman look young, many or most, I have found, could pass for 20, at least for a little while. Because of this, I tend to think of them, at least for a little while, as 20-somethings. Since I am in this demographic myself, I have found, further, that while I know I am their supervisor, I assume us all to be of the same clan.

It was for this reason that it came as something of a shock to me at the beginning of this quarter when one of my students, a young woman, an old child, introduced her getting-to-know-you partner in part by addressing my question "what do you see yourself doing in ten years?" by saying, "When Amanda grows up she wants to be a doctor."

I believe that now I might be cured of this particular oversight and have since started taking centrum silver and doing light cardio at the gym dressed in pleated chinos and loafers.

Meghan said...

Ey, Dave! I've really enjoyed reading through your blog since you email-ed us the link. It's so witty and sincere! I'm so glad to see that you have a david shrigley drawing in your post-he's one of my favorite "artists." It is also nice to read YOUR very personal, vulnerable life stories for a change! I think one of my friends who is an excellent writer may audit your class next quarter.

Maybe I should get a blog, because it is hard for me to be motivated to write without some goal like a class or a contest or something. (I need rewards!!) Hope you enjoy your winter break, and hopefully abbie, jordan, and I can meet with you for some tea next quarter.

welp, i'll see ya round!