I am obsessing about my clothes. The navy top makes me look thin. Good, good, yes. But I feel like I should have a jacket. Or maybe the black jumper over a dress shirt? But the suit really does seem to lend an air of authority. It’s appalling, really. I start teaching in less than a week and instead of, say, going through the details of my still-perhaps fatally flawed syllabus or creating lesson plans for the first week, I find myself, most evenings, standing in front of the full-length mirror in my damp storage room, modeling clothes I deem “Teachin’ Worthy.” This morning, I finally headed out to write up a prompt for the class’ first writing assignment at a coffee shop, and after an hour I packed my things up and went to a mall instead.
My friend Brian, another beginning professor, told me over drinks with several other TAs that he had warned his family: “If you buy me a briefcase or a jacket with patches on the elbows, I’ll slap you.” I have the exact opposite conviction. Tweed, umm hmm, with corduroy patches, I was thinking as he spoke. Maybe that, with a sort of worn leather bag I could at least look a little like a professor—a person dressed like a professor for Halloween, perhaps, but still they would get me closer than the skinny jeans and flip-flops I’m wearing right now.
This same evening, I had drinks with five other TAs, all of us in the throes of syllabus preparation and anxiety-laced, teaching nightmare dreams. My main nightmare consisted of not being able to find my classroom. Brian’s turned him into a high school science teacher who was being mocked by his classroom full of other professors. One girl claimed her worst dream involved appearing naked in front of her students, in an interesting juxtaposition to the ever-present “Picture them naked” advice.
We joked about first day strategies that ranged from throwing a desk against the wall to scare our students, to hitting on them, to getting either ourselves or our students drunk. We discussed attire and presence and grading and syllabi. A lot of things were said. Here is my favorite:
If I don’t end up in the corner of the classroom crying, I’m going to consider the first day wildly successful.
My father refers to me as a “perpetual student.” While I’m pretty sure he means it in a negative way (a “gee-I-wish-my-daughter-had-a-real-job-where-she-made-a-salary-above-the-poverty-line” way), he’s essentially right. If I count both pre-school and online classes with titles like “Project Risk Management” as well as legitimate, accredited college and graduate school programs, I’ve been in school pretty much straight through for the past 27 years.
I like school. I’m good at it—much better at it than I am at keeping myself content sitting in a cubicle writing deadening marketing copy 40 hours a week, which is how I got back here in the first place. It turns out, if you spend enough time doing something that bores you to tears, it will drive you to what you love—which for me is writing.
I was in a master’s program a few years ago while working full time as a copywriter. After gaining thirty pounds from fast food for dinner after class at 11:00 p.m. and sleeping approximately three hours a night for two years, I still had my job and I finished school, or at least I think I did. There was literary theory and crying and papers, and at some point they let me stop coming to class, although the graduating in itself is a blur. So, I decided that this time around I wasn’t going back until I could really go back—as in full time—to study creative nonfiction writing and focus wholly on academics.
Because I’m not a rich woman, I knew that quitting my job to go back was unrealistic (and financial suicide) without a teaching assistantship. And luckily, somehow, I got one. For the first year of my three-year writing program, TAs work in the university’s Writing Center as tutors, which I did and, surprisingly, really liked. For fifteen hours a week, generously, purposefully planned around my class schedule, I worked with students one on one who wanted help with their academic writing. I was a little nervous at first, but eventually started to see that I wasn’t bad at explaining things like prepositional phrases and organizing a history paper. I also found that, for the most part, I really liked my students. Some I saw only once for a specific paper, and others came in to see my every week with different projects. Some were international students struggling to get a handle on American academic English writing, and others were graduate students in public policy who just didn’t trust their research skills.
Halfway through that first year, all of the TAs also began a course in pedagogy—the study of teaching—focusing on first-year composition, which we were slated to begin teaching in our second year. The class was hard and valuable and overwhelming (more on that later), and even though it was pretty much solely focused on preparing us to teach English 101, I still pretended that the idea existed only in the theoretical. In my head each sentence began with, If I were going to teach, rather than When I teach. Now, though, suddenly, it’s two weeks before the start of my second year, during which I am expected to lead a group of 18-year old freshman into writing glory. I fully expect to make a complete fool out of myself. I imagine I will be faced with 18-year olds with the faces of demons who want to crucify me for my lack of public speaking abilities. I will likely trip and/or accidentally drop the f-bomb during the first day. I suspect it will be an uncontrollable, raging disaster.
In more important news, I think I’ve settled on a khaki pants suit with three-quarter length sleeves. “Casual Authoritative” is the look I’m hoping to conjure.