My “About Me” page notes that I am, currently, an educator based in the Denver area, and I think I’ve mentioned I currently teach composition at a local community college. Previous to this year, I taught composition for a year at the University of Southern California, a name I don’t so much drop as note with gratitude; it was my great pleasure to serve my students there, as it continues to be to serve my students at my current institution. When I started blogging on MySpace, the idea of teaching hadn’t so much crossed my mind, and neither had the ideas of either Denver or Hollywood.
And I look around today, and I think: yowza. This, this is special. I’m extraordinarily lucky (and discover every day that the amount of luck I experience is directly proportional to the amount of effort I put into the work I do).
I mention this because I have now been teaching, at the college/university level, for more than a year, but today was the first day I was ever observed. I found out about the observation a few days ago, and just the idea made me nervous: ZOMG authority! What if they realize I’m a sham? What if they realize I’m, well, me, because no matter how many novels I write and how many people love my work and how many classes I teach, it’s still difficult to think of myself any differently. I’m just me, and I still feel like I’m goofy and silly and really lucky to be anywhere at all. Maybe that’s a self-esteem issue, or maybe it’s the truth. I don’t know. I just know that even though USC recognized me as an expert in writing, and even though I taught my students well enough that I went so far as to inspire them, in a few notable cases, it’s still difficult to realize that.
But today, the totally rad woman who is the composition coordinator of our department sat in my class to observe me.
When I was younger, my parents enrolled me into a Catholic school. Second grade was my start, and by then I’d already honed my reading skills pretty well (largely thanks to my grandfather and my parents). Given that I was a bit advanced, in terms of reading, I somehow found myself as the narrator of our school’s Christmas pageant thingy. You know: “And lo, the angels of the lord appeared unto the shepherds,” and etc.
I was, basically, Linus.
And I was excited, but I was nervous. Throughout my whole life, one recurring theme is how much I just want everyone to like me. I just want to please people (this does not conflict with writing, books, and blogging). And I wanted everyone to think I was awesome at reading, and I got myself so completely and entirely worked up I made myself completely sick with the idea that I might fail, somehow, that I might ruin those people’s Christmases because all they wanted was to see their kids in the pageant and who was the little guy squeaking his way through the nativity narrative? I hated the idea, and I got so nauseated I had to go to the nurse’s office (though I’m not sure I ever actually puked).
I’m pretty sure I was instructed to lay down, and at some point, the head-nun of our school, or at least the assistant head-nun, called my mother to relay the now-famous (in my family) news:
“Rita, Willy’s got a case willies.”
And man oh man, did Willy have a case of the willies today. I mean, seriously. The woman was scheduled to attend my afternoon class, and so all day I was both anticipating and dreading the experience. I ended my second class with a few minutes to spare, and I walked to the next with the sort of giddy anticipation you always get when you realize, oh, for shizznit, yo, this is gonna count for something.
In fact, I was reminded of the girl to whom I was engaged many, many years ago. She was a singer and used to go on auditions, and before she did she used to do breathing exercises. Tongue-trills and all the likes. And during the fifteen minutes leading up to that class, I kept feeling like I should be doing warming up exercises or something.
Through it all, though, I had a plan.
Because through more than a year, I’ve discovered that when I’m nervous, and when I’m not entirely sure of something, the best thing in the world I can do is hand it to my students. It’s been my great privilege and honor, through it all, to stand in front of them, and the one thing in the world I remain forever cognizant of is that I’m not there for me or for a paycheck or for the administration or to be observed so much as I am there for them, and I accept that honor with both gratitude and humility.
Which is why, when it came down to it, I stopped thinking I had to be great, and awesome, and remembered that I was only there because my students are great and awesome. I’ve always believed in transparency, in total honesty, and I feel like that is what carried me.
And yes, the person observing me evaluated me, and yes, I got the sort of amazing evaluation that requires the use of words like “brilliant” and “awesome,” but I know that if I performed well as a teacher, it is because I stood on the shoulders of the giants who are my students.
I note all this for a couple of reasons, the main of which is to share it. Because quite a few of the readers who follow this blog remember when I posted them from my parents’ basement in New Jersey, long before I managed to find my way to LA, and to you I’m as grateful as I am to my students. I recently saw a blog in which an agent asked why writers wrote, why they continued to submit their work to the slushpile, which became a post that generated, literally, four pages of comments ranging from “Because I have to” to “For validation.”
And while I take nothing away from anyone else’s reasons for anything, those are not mine.
I teach for my students, and I write for you.
This is my privilege, and for it, I am grateful.
And just like I’m thanking you, right now, I will thank my students on Thursday. I will tell them that the observation/evaluation went well, but I will also tell them that, if I did so, it is because they carried me through. And I will tell them that I feel it is my privilege to continue to stand before them and to guide them, just as it is my privilege that you keep reading this blog and what I offer.
I am in awe of my students, as I am in awe of you.