Monday, September 10, 2012

Back To School, Or, How I Gave Up A Life Of Chaos And Became A Prof

When I was a kid, I thought being a prof was the kind of job that fell outside the acceptable range for glamour, excitement, and coolness.  My dad was a prof -- and later, a university administrator (chemical engineering) -- and while I thought it an excellent career for a person of his sensibility and talents, I thought "No, that is not for me."

I was an eye-rolly type of kid, at least on the inside, and every time some well-meaning person said "Oh, you're good at math! You could become an engineer!" I imagined rolling those eyes right back into my head. 

I didn't really think in a coherent way about what I was going to do with my life during school.  I double-majored in math and dance, the two things that interested me most.  OK, I virtually double-majored.  As the distracted youth that I was, I didn't finish the final project for the dance BA.  If you know me as a prof now, you might be surprised to learn how deep and vast was my disaffection, disorganization, and general living in chaos when I was a Young Person.

I guess in the back of my mind, I thought I'd get plucked from obscurity to do something interesting, or I'd meet some other person who'd show me something fascinating that I was good at and enjoyed.  But boy oh boy was that wrong.  If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that doing interesting things requires working really hard at Doing Interesting Things, and isn't the sort of thing where the opportunities fall from the sky just because you happen to be an Interesting Person.

The first glimmer of interest I had in a life in academia was the September after I'd finished my four years.  I stuck around the town (Middletown) my school (Wesleyan University) was in, and got a job working at the campus bookstore and an apartment in someone's attic.  And what gave me that glimmer of interest wasn't anything really substantive or intellectual.  It was really just the mood of back to school.

Working at the bookstore, I spent the start of school helping all these new hopeful and nervous kids and occasionally their hopeful and nervous parents.  I saw, from a different point of view, the returning students greet one another with whoops and hugs and questions about the summer.  It seemed so nice:  so optimistic, so full of life.  I thought, "Well, being part of this could be an OK thing."

But I wasn't quite ready to give up my dreams of being the next Edie Sedgwick. Where was my Andy Warhol, who would think me fascinating and feed me drugs?  For the next while, I lived in different places -- including New Orleans -- doing different waitressing jobs -- including one at a tourist trap cocktail bar on Bourbon Street and another at an all-night diner attached to a fleabag hotel.  The customers at that diner on the midnight to 8am shift at the diner were one third junkies who lived upstairs, one third drunk and laughing tourists who wanted eggs and cheeseburgers at 4:00 am, and one-third Danish/Swedish/European travelers who read in some book that the hotel was perfect for local color.  It was, of course, well before the internet, so people never knew what was going on 'til they were in the middle of things.  A lost world, that world.

I sort of didn't know what the hell I was going to do.  My dad had died when I was fifteen, and since he was the breadwinner, there wasn't any financial cushion.  After about two years, the Great American Problem of Living in Poverty hit me like a ton of bricks:  I had no health insurance.  I'd managed to stay pretty healthy.  But then I caught something, and had some problems, and I realized, fuck, I have to go to an emergency room and hope they forgive the charges.

What to do about this state of affairs?  The only skill I had that I could imagine applying in a way that would get me health insurance was my intellectual skills, and I figured I'd go back to graduate school.  Because it was the stone age, when school info came and went on paper, and because I didn't have a phone of my own, I had to borrow someone's for the long-distance calls and request written information packets.

Thank heaven, despite the rough lifestyle of my youth, I was still pretty good at math, and I got in.  There's a long rest of the story about how I decided to give up math and study philosophy and all that, but we'll talk about that some other time, because the essential die was cast:  I was in graduate school and I became a professor. 

Intellectual life suited me, even more than I expected.  I worked like a dog to accustom myself to long hours spent alone, doing proofs -- and later, writing papers.  Now my favorite moments of my work life are when I walk into the library, and it's still morning so it's quiet and empty, and alongside my interest in what I'll do that day, I have a sense of belonging somewhere.  I feel at home.

If you know about profs you know our jobs are often part research, part teaching, and part service, which means being on committees and going to meetings and stuff like that.  Today is the first day of school which means back to teaching.  Like a little kid, I often think about what to wear to the first day of school.  When I was a child, my father -- from whom I inherited my material objects obsessions -- always liked to put nice things away 'til a special day, and back-to-school clothes were always in a closet until the actual first day of school.

I love my scholarship and I love my hours alone in the library, but I have to say I'm ambivalent about actual teaching.  Teaching is very difficult, and requires thinking about difficult things and interacting with large groups of people all at the same time.  As an introvert, I find it overwhelming.

Though I'm ambivalent about teaching itself, I love my students, and I love being around 18-22 year-olds all the time.  Talk about the life force.  Whether they're studying for a test, updating Facebook, stressing about romance, or just getting some coffee, they do everything with energy and aplomb.  I often think how weird and maybe sad it would be to have a job where you just see other middle-aged people all the time, and you never hear the particular squeals of pleasure or indignation so characteristic of people just past high-school.

So I have to say:  that glimmer of interest I had from the Big Return in September, when I was just 21 years old myself -- it was a trustworthy emotion, in the sense that the same things -- the hopeful and nervous new students and parents, the whoops of reconnection with summer friends all give me a feeling of happiness and connection to life every year. 


Molly said...

Now my favorite moments of my work life are when I walk into the library, and it's still morning so it's quiet and empty, and alongside my interest in what I'll do that day, I have a sense of belonging somewhere. I feel at home.

Love it and how fortunate I am, get to this for my work!

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Molly, me too! I sometimes set my alarm for a bit extra early just so I can get there before everyone else.

thefringthing said...

This 18-22 year old is glad to know you so enjoy being around us.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi fringthing, I do - I also hope you guys can sort out some of the crazy problems this world has gotten itself into!