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The dunce in me

The end of the semester draws forth. Normally, it would be a good time—burden of grades and complaining students soon over. But I draw out the remaining time, dawdling, hoping that someone or something rescues me.

Truth is, I want this semester to last forever. The days have become comfortable and routine, my cargoes light. The classes I have run themselves. Being in the moment a lazy man, I have become used to sleeping late. I skid into class at the last minute and worry little about what students think because they are all having a fabulous time.

Past semesters blend into one another, particularly when I teach the same courses. When I remember classes, it’s because they were either really bad or fantastically good. I remember the last semester. I taught a class I convene only rarely—Western Civilization: Ancient World to the Renaissance. What a great class. The students had to read fourteen books in whole or in part. And they did. They came to class prepared. They listened and took notes and conducted discussions almost without my prompt. Their papers were stellar.

At the same time, I had two of the worst classes I ever taught, and these followed a semester last academic year when I thought I had the worst classes I ever taught. These three classes, two American History to 1877 and one American History Since 1877, stand out in memory due to the student’s impenetrable malaise and cynicism. My charges made me angry. How often do you get to be 18 to 22? What kinds of things can’t you do with the stamina of youth? When I was that age, I stayed out all night, slept with as many people as I could, and drank until I couldn’t see straight.

These kids! I said to myself, are wasting their lives watching Youtube and internet porn and laying around their parents’ houses. Now is time for dissolution, I thought. Go out and abuse yourselves and life a little. Either that or find that one good thing that motivates you. It not that, then work and sleep and work some more. You only get to “sow oats” for a short time. The rest of your life, you regret not having broadcast yourself thin enough over fertile social soil or you criticize the length, width, and straightness of your rows.

In other words, while I took the crooked path to adulthood, I don’t recommend taking anything more direct. Youth should burn out, run into the wall with determination, and fail or succeed in flashy, memorable ways.

Those students in my crummy classes . . . They had other things going on, I realize. Some of them worked jobs that wore them out. Others just couldn’t mount the enthusiasm for school, which is fine. I don’t demand that a student be excited about the work. I only ask that a student put his or her head down and do the heavy lifting. In lieu of that, they should be missing assignments, skipping class, and writing crummy papers due to the call of the Wild, a few good bowls of weed, or a drinking habit that incapacitates them.

Students shouldn’t be screwing up their grades just because life doesn’t thrill them. I’m not a circus clown or daredevil or entertainer. I am your hard-ass teacher. If you’re going to complain, then complain about how your employers are exploiting you, how the bank is charging you incredible fees, and how your parents and the police have so locked down playful youth that you actually believe Youtube is a good way to waste time.

I was glad to see my bad classes go, and that’s significant. I don’t encourage the passage of time, as it flees too quickly before me anyway. Life should move slowly. I invite periods of waiting and boredom. In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly. He had figured out that a single hour on the skeet-shooting range with people like Havermeyer and Appleby could be worth as much as eleven-times-seventeen years.” When time begins to tick by, one Friday and suddenly another, I want to go shoot skeet with Havermeyer and Appleby and bring the whole show to a crawl. Time moved like molasses on a cold day with these three classes. I was grateful to have the time but resentfull that I couldn’t wait until they ended.

Then comes this semester. It started out just great, sort of. Of the three classes I was scheduled, one dropped for lack of enrollment. Bad news. My need to feel worthy in my house depends on me bringing in a proportionate share of the money, and two classes is a little too part-time for that. But the other two classes made up for what I lacked. The students, except for one, were excited to be in school. I must had done a good job. They liked being in my classes.

As the semester unfolded, the classes ran themselves, almost. The day class starts at 12:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These people take things on their own shoulders and move through the material almost without guidance. My night class starts and 6 p.m. and goes for three hours on Tuesday. They come to class tired but ready to pay attention. They don’t do well on their own, so I have to lecture. My lectures are loud and, for me, exciting. After lecture, they perk up a bit and take the rest of the class on its way.

I earn my keep. My class is not easy and even good students demand attention. I give tests and grade papers. The classes are small—ten to twelve students—which makes things personal. And rewarding. I have watched several students who didn’t have a clue what they were doing get their act together and apply themselves to the material. Good show.

My schedule and the fact that I have only two classes makes the end of the semester a hard thing to face. I will probably never have a semester like this again. I sleep late and the students leave me little to do. It’s a college teacher’s dream.

It’s also been something of a blessing. As you have read here before, spring is not my best time of year. For the past two months, I have been able to luxuriate in low- to medium level depression cured only by the fall of night and lots of sleep. The students and my schedule have allowed me the space and time. I worked through my issues. And I have time. My routine includes lunches with friends on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I nap every day.

Now, the darkness of the season has lifted. Time has sped up again. Within the next ten days or so, I will grade final papers and tests. Then, my honeymoon semester will be over.

I wonder what the next round of classes will bring. My summer will be two months of teaching several hours four days a week. I will probably have a number of students who come to my class thinking, well, history can’t be hard. They will be surprised at the stunning amount of work I present them in eight short weeks.

I will be better off mentally. But I’d be a fool to think I will ever have classes like the ones I have now again.

Who knows? I may be on a streak.

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2 Comments

  1. Nick Clohecy Nick Clohecy

    You may not remember me. And if you do remember me, please don’t remember too hard, because I sure was a turd of a student in your class. That’s not the point, though.

    I have come here to say that—to this day—you remain in memory as one of the most fantastic lecturers in my small college “career.” And, as far as college-level writing is concerned, you whipped me into shape. I like to give credit where credit is due; and no matter how shitty or glorious the semester is for you, I just want to remind you that Yes, yes you do make an impact. Teachers don’t get to hear that enough, and I am getting a good sense of this fact as I fast approach my final semester in the Teachers College at Emporia State University.

    Anyway… I have enjoyed my rediscovery of you. Your blog posts and writing style make keeping up with your life such a pleasure, and I urge you (though I doubt you need urging) to never stop!

    But in case you would like to remember a student from one of those crappy classes of yesteryear (I want to say Fall 2013, History from 1877 to Present), consider this small description: young guy who frequently wore jeans and black shirts (or band shirts), skipped class with his friend, Nate, and who often visited with you after class to discuss—among other thinkers and philosophers—Aleister Crowley and Friedrich Nietzsche. I hope your semester finishes strong! One day, I would love to return to JCCC, take one of your classes, and then try really hard to sponge up some of your oratory prowess.

    Take care,

    Nick Clohecy

    • There is a glimmer of memory in there. But don’t feel that I didn’t notice. I have many students and, after just a semester, the faces and names fade. I’m very happy that my class had a lasting and beneficial effect on your academics. It matters for me to hear it. I wish you all the best and thanks for reading my work. I enjoy comments and would like to hear from you anytime.

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