From 1995 until 2003, I taught English in a variety of colleges and universities — first in Iowa, and then in Colorado. I really enjoyed it, too, at least for the first 5 years or so. But my favorite part — the absolute hands-down best part about teaching college students — was the very first day of each new semester.
I was a pretty good teacher in terms of relaying the material, guiding the learning, demonstrating examples and knowing my stuff, although I was not tough enough on students. Being too lenient can have the drawbacks of not teaching as deep and rigorous knowledge. Being too tough turns students off as well. It’s a fine line for every college professor, and I definitely stayed on the too-easy side. But I was not on the first day. On the first day I talked about why every person should take English classes.
“Why? Why should you learn how to write a correct sentence? Why should you read a short story by Hemingway?” I would ask the class, but not give anyone a chance to answer before I answered my own questions.
“Because this gives you a chance to touch Beauty with a capital B, and Art with a capital A. Because no matter who you are or whom you want to become, the ability to write clearly, concisely and well is a vital skill in society — if you can communicate well, you can have successful relationship with your child, your partner, in your personal life as well as business.
“No one is born with the ability to write well — we are all born babies. But it is a skill that be can learned, and, with practice, even perfected. It’s a skill that will serve you in every aspect of your life, whether you want to write to your Congresswoman or tell your trash collection company about the extra trash that needs to be picked up from your house.”
“In other words, while effectively communicating through writing is a very practical skill, effective writing can also put you in touch with the celestial — our highest aspirations.”
These statements are something I believed in then and believe in now and passionately. If I would start teaching again tomorrow, I would begin the exact same way again. To be complete, my first day speech would also include a disclaimer that I like to use adult language — I like to explore the complete range of the English language, which also includes salty curse words. I said if anyone was offended by any of my words, they could speak with me openly and honestly after class, and I would tone it down.
I also let the students know that you have to start somewhere. I, myself, am an immigrant from the Soviet Union, so English is not my first language. While it is my second language learned, I think my Bachelor and Master degree in the subject matter give me a right to say that I have learned the language well enough to teach it to native speakers.
After years of teaching, the heart went out of it. Actually, my heart went out of a lot of things. I no longer enjoyed teaching students, no longer looked forward to creating lesson plans, grading papers. Worse, I stopped caring — about imparting knowledge, about reading really bad writing and precise directions to make it better, about the beauty and simplicity of the five-paragraph essay.
I once read that the opposite of love isn’t hatred. The opposite of love is apathy. When I realized that I was in that zone of apathy that slowly wormed its way into my life after having a stillborn daughter, I stopped teaching completely. I couldn’t do it, and my students deserved better.
I’m not saying I’ll never teach again. Maybe a time will come when I will feel the same kind of pull I used to feel, the same kind of calling, and if that were to happen, then I will begin a new semester with my statements about Art and Beauty, and the attainability of true craftsmanship within a sentence.