Don't look down

21st February 2014 at 00:00

It's your first day teaching at an American community college. So what's the big deal?

You arrive at your morning class a couple of minutes early. As you set down your book bag you feel a few pairs of eyes on you, but when you glance up only one student is looking. "Hello," you say.

The student laughs. You smile. Is it your accent, your manner, your fashion sense or your first-day jitters that amuse her?

You turn and see you have a whiteboard and a blackboard. What was it that the department chair told you? "Each classroom is supposed to have erasers and the appropriate markers - except when they don't." You have brought markers and chalk; you have forgotten an eraser.

You glance at your watch. You don't use your phone in the classroom and you expect your students not to either. But they will, continually, as if orienting themselves. Next week your heart will sink when you realise that for some of them their surroundings are created by their phone, not by the classroom or the college.

You read the class list aloud. You smile as you match each "Yeah" to a face. You're like an actor reading cold. You are, in fact, playing a teacher, but you're somehow still you and you're happy.

Some names you could never have imagined seeing or saying; some names conjure up associations that don't fit. You also have a name and you tell the students that they can call you this or that.

You hand them a syllabus and give them the link to your online materials.

You're excited. They're excited. Besides that, what do you have in common? It's not books. It's not even language. It's desire.

But for what?

You're going to meet them halfway between their desire and yours. But where is halfway? You don't know where the line is, where they're starting from, so you're going to stride over to their side.

You make jokes, you clown around, you try to blur the lines they may have drawn between you and them, between them and college.

You talk to them as if you want to know everything or anything they wish to tell you.

But really, for their good and yours, you want them to write it, not speak it, although in class you will all declare that talking is good.

You beckon, and beckon responses. Most of the students are game and offer them up.

You tell them about your personal life, because "it's only fair", as they tell you, but you wince about a couple of details and wonder if you'll mention them to your partner at the dinner table tonight. By week two, you will be hearing about legal difficulties, marital troubles, drug addiction - in front of the whole class.

You have never had such an intimate job. Today it doesn't weigh on you; it brightens you.

But one day, like a rodeo rider, a tightrope walker, a skyscraper window- washer, you will look down and wonder: how did I get up here?

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College, New York City.

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