A Folder or a Binder: Lessons from the First Day

“They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” This is what people say about spiders and crickets and, it turns out, freshman in college when one is about to begin teaching.

On the Saturday before I started, I dealt with my oppressive anxiety by getting completely blitzed with three friends. After leaving the bar and coming back to my apartment, we decided it would be a good idea to mix the peach vodka I had brought home from a bachelorette party a few months earlier with the peach juice I use to make my morning smoothies, and then sit outside and talk. And by talk, I mean scream and cackle. By outside, I mean directly next to my favorite neighbor’s bedroom window.  Apparently, sometime around four a.m. another neighbor called the police, though by this time I was passed out in my bed, my contacts permanently attaching themselves to my alcohol-soaked eyes, and my body covered in greedy mosquito bites.

Clearly, I am unfit to teach college students anything other than binge drinking.

I spent Sunday avoiding food, choking down Ibuprofen to combat my pounding headache, and making scattered, fear-infused notes for the next morning. Talk about the importance of revision, read one of the more reasonable ones. Slightly less decipherable were my reminders to Bring blue pen! and Be tough but smile. I am officially the least capable professor in the history of professordom.

Luckily, when my alarm went off at 5:45 this morning, the hangover was gone and had been replaced with the kind of energy usually associated with seven-year old boys or meth addicts. Before leaving the house I drank three cups of coffee, took out the trash and recycling, read a magazine, loaded the dishwasher, and, left with nothing else to do, walked laps up and down the hallway.

On the drive to school, I actually started to calm down. As I drove, I practiced my opening speech, still hoping that in this last hour I would develop the kind of improv comedy skills I’d always longed for. (Note: I did not.) But by the time I got to campus and parked most of the dread was, oddly, gone.

The fear reappeared twenty minutes later as I approached my classroom and saw six students standing outside, waiting for their professor, and it reappeared in the form of sweat.

Lesson 1: Don’t get to class early, especially on the first day. As each person entered the room I said, “Hi.” “Hi, there.” “Hello.” I stood there, watching them drag themselves in and became so nervous that I knew I had to do something to distract myself—or at least look distracted. So, I decided to pull out a piece of paper and start writing so as to look busy and important. This is what I wrote:

I am so sweaty. Oh, God, I am sweaty. Surely they can tell that I’m sweating. Coming early was a terrible idea. It’s awkward. Never again. That’s one habit I’m going to have to break. That and sweating. Why the fuck did I wear this suit? It’s August in Virginia. Sweet Jesus, what was I thinking?

Eventually, once most of the seats were full, I started talking. My voice shook for a sentence or two, but then I started to calm down (and stop sweating). The first thing I asked them to do was raise their hand if it was their first-ever college class—which seemed pretty possible considering it’s English 101 on the first day of Fall semester, and at 8:30 a.m.—and 18 of the 19 hands went up. I said: “Welcome to college.” I thought: “Nothing to compare me to—awesome!”

I asked them some more general questions, this time about writing and experience and expectations, and I watched them fidget and touch their faces and realized that they were, in fact, more nervous than I was.

Lesson Two: They’re young. For real. At 18 I definitely didn’t look like this, I kept thinking all morning. And 18-year old boys could not have looked this young when I was in college, did they? They’ve literally just finished high school. It turns out, telling them they can bring coffee and breakfast to class if they need to makes them feel like they’ve won the lottery. They’re also just so used to being told what to do, that they genuinely need affirmation for everything. (And because this makes me feel like I am in charge, I love it.) The first question I got was, “Do you want us to keep our things for class in a folder or in a binder?” The girl had—honest to God—a ribbon around her ponytail. At the risk of sounding like a condescending asshole, she was adorable. “Well,” I told her, “I’m not going to collect your notes, so you can organize yourself any way that works best for you.” And then I felt powerful. And flexible.

My explanation of the syllabus seemed to go well (if blank stares and an occasional nod means things are going well, which I’ve decided they do), and then came the introductions. I’d told them a bit about myself in the beginning of class, and then I asked them to go around the room and tell us their name, hometown, major (if declared) and one interesting thing they did this summer. “It will help me—us all, really—to remember who you are and get to know you a little bit,” I told them.

Lesson 3: Activities that are interesting to 18-year olds are generally not so to 30-year olds. I should give them a little bit of credit. Some of them came up with decent stories about what they’ve been doing with their lives the past three months. One girl caught a shark on a fishing trip. Another learned Greek. One boy had earned his pilot’s license. But then the rest pretty generically “went to the beach” or “worked a lot”—neither of which qualify as particularly interesting in my book, but still gave me the opening to ask follow-up questions and get them talking about their job or boogie boarding.

And then, before I knew it, it was over. I clapped my hands and yelled, “Break!” really awkwardly, two kids smiled sympathetically and they all filed out. Overall, it was shockingly kind of fun.

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