Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Do What I Do

Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. I get paid very little and don't have health, vision or dental insurance insurance. I haven't had my teeth cleaned in 3 years. Not that I need it; I avoid sugar and eat healthfully. My income tax return says that the government owes me money every year and they're sorry the taxed such a small amount of income. The refund check looks embarrassed. My monthly paychecks are pathetic, especially in summer when adjuncts are limited to a certain number of classes lest they fall into the full time category and then be afforded benefits.

And I'm a full time graduate student. I've been a full time student since 1997, earning a biology degree, an English degree and a master's. Now I'm coming up on my last year of college, ever. It's a scary thought. I returned to college because I can't make enough money as a teacher with a master's degree. If I want to help people- and really my life and focus as a teacher has been to help people- I need a doctoral degree. And the starting pay for what I want to do is around $35k per year. Yup. That won't even cover my student loan payments.

So why do I insist on teaching adults that they can find voices as writers? Why do I insist on returning to places that pay me peanuts so that I can spend time with reluctant writers and recovering addicts? It seems, well, a retarded strategy. I should by all rights just get a teaching certificate and take a cush job at a high end high school or private school and take summers off to relax and watch my 401k build up. Maybe plant a real garden. Maybe have some children and get a tan for heaven's sake. Spend time at the lake. Or the ocean. Travel.

Because sometimes I get a bigger kick and payoff than you'll ever find in a 401k. Sometimes, ok a lot of times, my students teach me more than I teach them.

I spent this summer semester shoving 16 weeks of curriculum down the 8 week program's throat. I don't believe in abbreviating the work. It has to be done. And tonight was the last night. I bought pizza for the whole class and gave the final exam. Students were to use the skills they had learned over the course of the semester to argue what their grades should be. They could refer to their essays, assignments, the syllabus and class and environmental notes or videos, handouts and anything else they thought would be helpful.

I have a lot of amazing students this semester. Among them are some pretty decent writers who just needed a little shove in the right direction to develop their confidence. One in particular stands out. In her forties, she wore glasses and dressed modestly and kept her long dark her neat and straight. She checked all of her work twice and worked closely with a few other students, rarely volunteering in class but writing insightful and grammatically sound essays. Overall, I got the distinct feeling she was paying attention.

She handed in her final tonight, thanked me (and I her), and quietly left the class. Her paper reflected thoughtful consideration of her work in the course and came to a logical conclusion that she deserved a particular grade for the course. I concur. Her paper was in correct MLA format and was of appropriate length and addressed all of the proper higher order and lower order concerns. I never worried about her a bit. She sat on the front row and showed up early, every single class period.

At the end of her paper, she wrote: "You know I am a convicted felon. I have been to prison a couple of times. I got my GED in prison. I always feel like an outcast. Like I am different, and should not speak about such things. I have never felt that way in your class. I need to thank you for that. I did not want to put that in the body of the paper but I wanted you to know what it meant to me."

The emperor has no clothes and I've no right to complain. I feel so small next to so tremendous a person. And grateful. How lucky am I to get to do what I do?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the beautiful blog today...I was that person many years ago sitting in an entry level writing course scared to death! I had barely graduated from high school when a few years later found myself sitting in a classroom at Brookdale Community college in New Jersey.

    College was not on my list of things to do, but my roommates at the time were attending so I decided I would too. It is teachers like you who sacrificed God knows what in order for me and many others to get an education. I'm grateful for people like you who continue to forge the road of money verses the "love of teaching".

    I'm sure your students will be thanking you for many years to come!

    b swift