The semester is over.
Twenty minutes ago I dismissed my Introduction to Fiction & Poetry students for the last time. It was pouring rain all morning, such that I had to walk to campus wearing a thirteen-gallon plastic garbage bag with a hole for my head. My tights are soggy, the hem of my dress is clinging to my thighs.
I’ve taught before, but never how to write fiction—let alone poetry—and it had been a long time since I’d taught college students. This semester I only had five students, an awkwardly small number for a discussion- and workshop-based course. But everyone plugged away at it; I can’t complain.
Surprises? Teaching poetry was a lot more pleasurable than I thought it would be, even though the students claimed they liked it less than the short story portion. I have barely read poetry since my own college days, and it was pretty satisfying to realize that I can read a poem, break it down (that feels like the right term: the same thing butchers do to large animal carcasses), prepare some leading questions, and ferry a group of bleary-eyed undergrads through a conversation about it.
Most of all, though, the thing that surprised me this semester was how non-consuming teaching has been. I’ve taught maybe ten or a dozen semester-length courses in real life, and even more online, and most of the time the in-person classes have been huge arbiters of my energy and emotions. I dread going to class. I feel high after class is over, especially after it’s gone well. After teaching, I obsessively scribble notes about what went wrong and what went right, and how to do it better next time. I spend hours online looking for course materials, checking out potential readings, Googling lesson plans I can adapt. Even if I am only adjuncting for peanuts, I feel primarily like a teacher. My students’ names and faces haunt my mind and sometimes my dreams.
But this semester, I’m both proud and weirded out by the way I was able to let it ride. I think I did a pretty good job teaching, but the course didn’t get under my skin the way I’m used to. Every grad student in the MFA program teaches the same class, which is the gateway to a creative writing major. The syllabus is set, and while some instructors work hard to substitute unique readings and make the class their own, I didn’t. I assigned the work, read the readings, led the discussions, accepted and graded the assignments, facilitated the workshops, tried to crack a joke or two, and then went home and lived the rest of my life. I didn’t feel that familiar pang of fear and anxiety before class. (Memories of sitting at the counter of Sliver pizzeria off Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, bribing myself with slices, watching the minutes drain away before I had to head up the hill and meet my Writing Skills Workshop class. Feeling I was off to the gallows.) Nor did I ever get that elated, on top of the world, I-am-a-golden-god sensation afterward. (Memories of after those same classes, steering my bike toward home in night, with joy and victory in my heart.) I was glad, that’s it.
I’ll be unhappy if teaching never again feels more intense than it did this semester, but I think that’s unlikely to happen. For the most part, I’m happy to have had this glimpse of how someone might experience teaching not as a calling or a drug, but just a job.
In other news, being finished with classes, finished with the semester, feels good but bizarre. I’ve been waiting so hard for this, and putting a lot of weight on what I hope to get done, writing-wise, over the summer.
It’s strange to feel both so happy that school is over and so generally in love with school. I like it here. I like the MFA. I’m glad I’m doing this. More broadly, it feels good to have returned to School, capital-S. I always liked school but I used to have this twitchy anxiety, as if I had to prove to myself that I could get along without it. Well, I did, and now I’m back, and it’s a happy homecoming. School is ridiculous and clunky, and studying the fine art of literature in particular sometimes feels frivolous or absurd. It occurs to me that I’m so not at the leading edge of what my world is all about (thoughts I had plenty of occasion to think over the last few years, actually, living at the margins of Silicon Valley). But I guess I don’t care. I like this. I can do this. It’s a challenge, it doesn’t hurt anyone, and from time to time it brings a moment of joy. Teaching has its sorrows, but I think I am old enough now to recognize that everything does. I’ll be happy if I get to stay here—capital-S School, that is—for a long time to come, meeting classes, gnawing up semesters. Sometimes it feels presumptuous to wish for. I take it for granted that most MFA candidates want to teach. But there, I said it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to figure out how to spend the rest of my day. And the next one and the next one and the next.