As a child, I felt like I belonged in The Boxcar Children, The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown more than I belonged in my own life. Reading became less about fantasy and more about escape as a teenager. My portals were contemporary fiction which allowed me to imagine a world outside my troubled narrow slice of New Jersey. Books remained my companions as a young adult while I bounced between unsatisfying jobs and relationships. My knowledge of the classics was pitiful, but Nick Hornby, Adam Davies and Augusten Burroughs wrote words that kept a spark of hope flickering intermittently in my brain even in the darkest of times.
Once I got through those turbulent years, I became serious about school. Reading, writing, and poetry in particular, became joys in my life. On some days, moments spent reading Kay Ryan or Terrance Hayes or Li Bai and responding with my own bad poems were my only joys. I expelled words out of head and onto the paper with extreme force. As I finished my associate degree after four arduous years at my beloved community college, a Bachelor’s degree in English was the next logical step. I had a choice between a small state school about two hours south of me or the biggest state school in New Jersey, maybe fifteen minutes from my shared apartment. I chose the latter. Two years and a few inspiring creative writing workshops later, I graduated from Rutgers-New Brunswick with a 4.0 GPA and a plan to pursue an MFA degree. My poetry was improving and my voice was slowly coming across on the page. However, I also knew that I was approaching my ceiling as a lay scholar. I wanted to break through that ceiling and see what was above it.
I ended up with an acceptance at an MFA program in a state I had visited three or four times and an acceptance at Rutgers-Camden. I started my second semester at Camden a few weeks ago, but for all intents and purposes, this is my first real semester. I only took one class in the fall, not an MFA class but a teaching practicum designed to prepare me to teach English composition. Never in my nomadic academic journey did I seriously consider that I would end up leading a college classroom. I grew up working class. I admired my professors but didn’t see myself becoming one of them even as we discussed the possibility of it.
Yet, here we are. I’m an instructor for English 102. It’s been two weeks and four class sessions so far. In the fall, I felt disconnected. I was on campus only once a week. I wasn’t engaged in reading or writing in a way that I enjoyed. Honestly, I was more concerned with paying my bills most of the time.
None of those obstacles have really gone away, but my mindset has changed, almost from the first minute where 23 freshmen blinked at me expectantly. Before that, the idea of teaching was a chore. But I forced myself to come up with a plan for the first class that went beyond the usual “what’s your name, where are you from and what’s your major” and hand out the syllabus. I am lucky that my class has been enthusiastic from the beginning. Students have come by my office hours and turned in extra credit work. They follow my directions and ask questions. They have done everything I didn’t do until I approached school like something that could allow me to escape from heartbreaking New Jersey.
I assign my students an in-class writing prompt most days. Seeing how they approach their responses to my prompts makes me want to give them feedback until my hand hurts. I’m not teaching four classes at two schools like most adjuncts or taking a full-time load of literature and workshop classes like most graduate students, so it’s not too much to me. Already some of my students have told me that my feedback has helped them organize their thoughts or propel their writing forward. So, pen in hand, I press on.
I can already see how teaching is going to inform my own writing, whenever I finally find time for it. Some of my students have trouble figuring out how to put their thoughts on paper. Others freeze up once ideas like page length or citations are introduced into the conversation. A few of my students write really well, but that unique voice bleeds away as they try to write how they are “supposed to.” Before I started teaching, thinking hypothetically about these problems bored me. But now that it’s real, trying to guide my students into becoming better writers is exciting and challenging. Their problems aren’t only the problems of novices, either.
I see some of my own mistakes on their pages. Being an instructor has already affected my identity as a student in one significant way. I feel challenged to take more risks in the classroom and in my future academic pursuits. I often get the sense that even at the graduate level, students are afraid to be wrong. I certainly have felt that fear before. If it wasn’t my vocabulary that I felt was lacking, it was my workshop or writing experience or my knowledge of literature or philosophy. I’ve had many occasions in and out of the classroom where I kept my mouth shut because of those things, despite knowing full well that I wasn’t any less of a writer or reader or scholar than anyone who was talking.
I don’t care about being wrong anymore. I feel more liberated intellectually than I ever have. In responding to my students’ words through my own, I’m learning to read again. All I really want out of this MFA degree is a chance to make reading and writing more of a priority. I’ve gotten that for the last few weeks and I have to stop sometimes and remind myself, this is still just the beginning.