Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Past Brought Me Here

“Be curious enough to keep an open mind to what’s happening around you in society. You can look at yourself and the world at the same time.” – Jochen Zeitz

Several months ago I bumped into someone I haven’t seen since my first unfortunate attempt at college at The University of Texas (that’s Austin, for you folks who don’t know). This was twenty-two years ago. I haven’t seen her since the day I left. We knew we recognized each other from somewhere but weren’t quite sure where. It took us a while to trace it back to UT. And then the natural question:

“So, what are you doing now?”

“I’m an English teacher,” I told her.

There was that pause. I get that pause a lot. “Oh,” she said. “Really? You?”

“Yeah, me.” I pointed at myself. “I am.” I didn’t understand why this seemed to flummox her. “Why does that seem weird?”

“Well, ok, now don’t take this the wrong way because really this is a compliment, but you just always seemed like you would be doing something really cool or fun.”

In case you didn’t pick up on that, that’s what we call a “Backhanded Compliment”. It’s an insult designed to look like a compliment. Also keep in mind it was just uttered to me by someone I hadn’t seen in 22 years. She insulted me, and she insulted my profession by implying it was neither cool nor fun.

“Cool or fun, like a lion tamer?”

“Well, noooo. Just, I don’t know. Something neat.”

“Okay,” I said. “Well, what do you do?” I asked in my turn.

“I am the loan manager for ----------- Banking,” she said.

We sat in what passes for the food court at the mall in my town and chatted. She was escorting her nephew and his friend on a tour of colleges through the area. He was checking out UT Tyler and TJC with his guy friend while she killed time shopping.

We had eaten our pizza slices and were sipping our Cokes when she said to me, “Ok, now tell me, really. You were part of that group that was always going off and getting crazy, and were just loud and weird and fun. How did you get to ‘teacher’ from that?”

First of all, let me say, I wasn’t “going off” or “getting crazy”. I wasn’t. That’s a false allegation and I deny it. Second of all, she just called me weird, which, yeah, ok, but again, 22 years. That being said, my group of people was a little stupid. We were college freshmen, we were away from home for the first time, and we may have overdosed on freedom a little. Or a lot. We might have walked from the dorm to Sixth Street at night. We dared each other to wear OU or A&M apparel and walk Guadalupe (if you were a true local you pronounced it Gwad-a-loop) to see how many expletives we could each collect without anyone actually laying hands on us. Harmless, really. There was much group lollygagging about campus. There may have been statue decorating. I will never admit to bubbles in the fountain. We went to the go-cart track a lot. We went dancing. We were evicted from a furniture store. Not our finest moment, but it was a hot day, we’d had a long walk, and those recliners were comfortable. Once, we even caught a purse snatcher and the little old lady proceeded to beat the crap out of him.

But I wasn’t wild.

This stuff, really, is all terribly tame…right? College shenanigans?

I guess not from her point of view. Nidia was a bookish sort, as I always had been. She lived on the same dorm floor as I did and I included her in every invitation. She declined. She wanted to come with us, but just never did.

In college, Nidia was just as I had been in high school: quiet, withdrawn, just on the fringes of things, wanting to take part but not quite knowing how. When I moved to Austin – a new city, a new school, a new beginning – I took it as an opportunity to allow myself to change. I asked myself what I didn’t like about high school, what of that was in my control, and how I could make it better going into college.

While my choice of English teacher would have surprised no one who knew me in high school, the quiet, loner, bookish sort wasn’t the box I was automatically ticked into in Austin. I allowed my own voice, my own personality – so long repressed for the sake of getting along – to emerge. I let myself have fun (ok, ok...sometimes a little too much), and laugh, and play. I had access to phenomenal libraries, I debated literary meaning with TA’s and classmates, and I even got to be an artist for a moment.

I grew.

I grew because I allowed my mind to grow. I didn’t cling to the way things had always been, to the thoughts I had always had. I embraced the possibility of “what if?” What if I do this one thing that scares me? What if I ask a question no one else is brave enough to ask? What if I’m more talkative than I was when living at home? What if... What if... What if...

What if we don’t assume that people everywhere are raised with the same ideas and ideologies that we are?

What if we reach out to someone who is alone, rather than leaving them alone?

What if we look for commonalities, rather than differences?

What if we don’t label people without understanding who they truly are? Better yet, what if we just don’t label people?

I teach English not to teach grammar, and diagramming, and punctuation, though those items are important. I teach English because communication is imperative. Because understanding is fundamental to a functioning society. I teach English because literature is life: it records, it documents, it reflects.

Most of all, I teach English for The Moment. Every student has a Moment, and teachers can see it when it happens. There is absolutely nothing more satisfying than The Moment when a student Gets It, when that student’s mind begins to open, begins to change, and suddenly an entirely new light begins to shine from that student.

I could not possibly be doing anything cooler or more fun.

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