The past week has been the most difficult and most reluctant back-to-school perhaps since I started preschool eighteen years ago. Despite sleep-deprivedly lugging my bags up the hill from the train station early last Saturday and feeling as if returning to college was returning home after too long away, I’ve spent the past week feeling alienated and sort of dazed. I’ve let the internet and my reading and my sleep fall by the wayside while I dash around seeing people I haven’t seen in months, only to return home too late and find myself unable to sleep out of nervousness that my friends think I’m idiotic and uninteresting; only to pace my little bedroom (now on a tiny quad, not over an archway) and beat myself up for continuing to think it a good idea to socialize so very much instead of working. But after spending all summer grappling with the problems of motivation and doing Good Enough work as I struggled to pull some major-research-project thoughts together, I feel exhausted from the effort, and reluctant to dive into the school year. I emptied my bank account on textbooks but am sort of terrified at the thought of opening any of them. I walked away from my first class hating my stupidity; the other night, I had a meltdown—and it’s still only been a few hours more than seven days since I first set foot back on campus. I feel very tired, very fragile, and very concerned about the months of classes and extracurricular activities and social life ahead that it will take to get me through to January, when I leave for England. I feel as if I’m in a holding pattern here, waiting to leave—but I also feel as if it’s going to be a difficult four months.
I treat you to this self-pitying confessionality, however, and break my blogging silence to do so, because I think it’s useful: I know how helpful it can be to read on the internet the first-person narrative of someone struggling with the same things I do, and I am sure I can’t be the only one whose summer burnout is making the transition into term-time difficult. And, furthermore, I use it here to set up a transition, to demonstrate how one can rise above morose self-loathing to dedicate oneself and one’s energies to better things. It’s actually surprisingly simple, or at least I’ve found it so: all you have to do is remind yourself of what’s important, and what you do that is important to others and to the world at large.
This summer I didn’t live on my own in the big and weird city that is our nation’s capital. I lived at home with my family, but in a mode so very different from that which I’d adopted during high school, and so this summer was not without its own brand of personal growth and self-discovery. Some late night in July, when I’d driven my mother’s bumper-stickered station wagon full of younger friends to a 24-hour coffeeshop downtown, and we sat over espresso and half a dozen 18-year-olds were letting me Socratically question them about identity politics, I realized that while I may dream someday of being a tenured professor at a fancy-pants university, I already have a vocation and a purpose in life: I am already a teacher, I already convince by my presence, and I already have a calling which I believe it would be immoral to ignore. At twenty years old, I’m still figuring out who I am, what I want, what I need to make me content with myself, what my thesis is going to be about, whether I would make a good grad student. But all these limitations on my sense of my own adulthood (despite the fact that I live 3,000 miles away from my parents and am fast learning how to cook) needn’t limit my sense of my purpose, my value, my calling, my self- and others-worth. No matter how intimidating my seminar classmates seem, or how lonely I can feel when I come home at night, I am still a teacher. And that sense of identity isn’t going anywhere.
Last night after over two hours of dining-hall dinner-time conversation, I invited a set of kids who, when trying to think of a single adjective to describe me, settled on “pedagogical,” upstairs to my little room. They squeezed themselves onto my secondhand couch and my bed and my desk chair and my floor, and following the good example set me by my own teachers (a big part of teaching, I think, is intergenerational transfer!) I offered them tea and let my knowledge of my own work inform a freewheeling discussion about ethics. One of my kids stayed on after all the others had left, and we psychoanalyzed our friends and talked about books and art and I found myself thinking how, if the context were just slightly different, it would be me talking like this with my elders. This kid is perhaps more confident than I am, but I could see myself naming the books I wish I’d read, anxious to please my elders, my teachers. And I impressed myself with how easily the tables turn, now, as I grow older and a little smarter, and how when you’re in your second half of university you can invite the kids to your room and feed them tea and know, more or less, where you stand.
This morning I made coffee for myself with my new press-pot and sat down on my new secondhand couch and blearily worked my way through the internet. This morning I happened upon a blog post whose ideas I felt demanded that I spend twenty minutes writing a rigorous defense of the humanities, of my own identity as a humanist, and of the work that I do. As I summarized my defense in a Facebook status:
Building a more beautiful world requires scholars who love what they study and study what they love as much as it does the people who build things and the people who fix things which are broken and the people who make the trains run on time. We can’t teach people physics or statistics or life skills, but we can marshal our rhetorical and pedagogical skills and teach people to care.
Those of us who seem to have dedicated the next several years to learning to study the humanities must also dedicate ourselves to marshalling our rhetorical and pedagogical skills and teaching people to care. We must, as we learn how to think, how to read, how to write, how to speak, consider how we will tell the next undergraduate class, the next young generation, to do the same. If we are not to be the people who solve the scientific and medical and public-policy problems of the 21st century, we must be the people who remind those people that our goal, our route towards happiness, is not a wealthier world or a faster world or a more powerful world, it is a more peaceful world and a more beautiful world. It is we who must read the books so that we can tell the world what a wonderful thing it is to read books. It is we who must understand the work of writing history so that we can tell the world what a dangerous process it is to construct a narrative, and still how essential those narratives are to knowing where to find the beautiful things when you want them. It is we who must collect postcards from far-flung museums to put up as conversation pieces on our walls; it is we who must ask our parents to send us good tea from the imported-foods store; it is we who must open up our little undergraduate bedrooms to all those who come and want to talk about books and about ideas.
What I tell myself, as I prepare to embark upon a new semester’s course reading on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, is that those of us who know we are teachers need not worry about whether we are clever or successful or impressive enough. We need not feel lonely or unwanted or alienated. For even those of us teachers too young and uneducated to have our own classrooms can find students anywhere and everywhere, and every day there are people to teach, by whatever means we can find, that building a better world, a more beautiful world, is an object worth fighting for.