Monday, February 29, 2016

Adjunct Lyfe: Floating Between Two Worlds, or Maybe Teaching Really Does Matter

Some days I can barely wrest myself from bed.

If it's a morning class. If it's a large class. If I'm behind on grading. Sometimes I really hate teaching.

My mood is perhaps the other influencer, but undoubtedly there are days when I dread standing up in front of the room. Their beady eyes half-closed (not half-open, I'm a pessimist) as they fail to respond to my overtures for class discussion. I crack the same tired jokes, and then move on to complain about how old my mattress is and consequently how much my back hurts. Some days that's the only reason I get out of bed.

Five years of being an adjunct could probably do this to anyone, but I comfort myself in saying that it is largely circumstantial. If I were paid a decent wage for my work, if I had actual benefits for the first time in my life, if I had more time to write...there's the kicker. Day after day I prop myself up in the front of the classroom to extol the virtues of personal writing and offer my time honored pearls of writerly wisdom and the truth is that I struggle to write on my own anymore.

My Twitter bio denotes I'm a "writer/blogger" but it might as well add a blood red bold "FORMER" before it. Because the truth is I rarely find time to write anymore. Between teaching, drinking, fits of depression, working another part time job and drinking I'm lucky to set aside time to write. My blog sits untouched for the better part of 6 months. I haven't completed a decent short story in over two years. And my freelance career reviewing music has all but dried up. Let's be honest here: the most substantial thing I've written recently is a tweet.

So I suppose I'm resigned to the teaching lifestyle in the way that many failed writers are. But then there are weeks like this one.

Weeks where I'm forced to reflect upon what it is I do and how it can influence people. And how they influence me. (It's like the Blind Side sort of...)

Earlier this week I learned a student of mine from just about a year ago had passed away. He was a shiny faced, well groomed young man cut down in what should have been the best of his years. I received the campus-wide email on Tuesday and then proceeded to track down what little tidbits I could online.

I paused for a moment and thought of him. Briefly I debated attending his visitation, then signed the online guest book as a consolation for the fact that I wouldn't be there...I remembered the conversations we had in class. How calm his demeanor seemed. How affable he was, even though I didn't at all agree with his opinion on Ferguson, MO. Passing him in the halls or on the campus sidewalks, we'd said hi to one another not 8 months ago. And yet, he was gone.

I barely knew him of course, but it was enough to shake me and ponder whether I'd made a difference. Do the students remember me the way I often remember them? Or do they quickly forget the discussions we had, the reflection assignments I forced them to do?


A couple days later I noticed a flyer for a book sale in the student center. I checked the time and realized that it actually started today. Offhandedly, I told myself I would visit in the afternoon after class. It was a Sigma Tau Delta (International English Honor Society) fund raiser, and the name brought to mind my time as an undergrad and member of Sigma. Roaming the same halls I do now as an underpaid adjunct, I had my mind shaped and my pursuits influenced by some of the same faculty members still huddled in their cluttered and aging offices. I count one of the soon to retire English faculty as my mentor, and to her I owe much of my post-graduate career. When I try to end a sentence in a preposition, I still hear her voice in my head.

Class was filled with the same lack of attention on the students' part, and the same self deprecating humor on my part that everyday is. I read a paragraph aloud and then asked the students to tell me what the focus of the description was. Immediately I called on one student who said he forgot. Another who hadn't listened at all...Suddenly, I was taken back to the time my mentor had yelled at us all in British Lit. Clearly no one had read the entry from the text. She spun her wheels for a moment then grew angrier than I'd ever seen her and dismissed the class midway through. I realized if I approached my freshman this way we'd probably never have a full class period.

As class ended, I spoke with a few students individually. One student asked me for help editing a paper for one of her other classes. Once she had left, I remembered the book sale. After informally committing in my head I already felt obligated. I packed up my tattered textbook and headed outside. Up the same old crumbling cement stairs I'd traversed as a student. Noticing the "Caution: May Be Icy" sign flung to the side in the process, I realized how unseasonably warm of a February it had been and marched on.

My time was limited because I'd agreed to meet my mom for lunch at whatever chain restaurant she would decide on this time. Her general negativity and dietary restrictions aside, I looked forward to eating a decent and free lunch.

In the lobby of the student center, past the cafe I spotted two of my former students conversing in front of a long table covered in paper backs. Their spines pointed skyward for easy viewing, as if they actually wanted to be fondled and flipped through.

I greeted both of the students warmly but casually. In my head, I placed that they had been in the same morning class with me. He sat against the far wall, was ex-military and, if the uniform hadn't given it away, was also security on campus. He was a damn good writer, and in particular he had a story about PTSD that I told him he could probably have published somewhere. We would joke about Seinfeld in class. Sometimes I still repeat to myself his perception of Fitzgerald. "It's another story about rich WASPS" and then I laugh.

She was quieter but a great writer. At the time she had worked early morning hours at the airport before class. Her glasses were large but modern and stylish. A sleeker version of horn rimmed glasses for millenials perhaps. On several occasions, I had commented on her paper that she should consider being an English major although I wasn't quite sure what her major was. It was a rarity that I remembered distinctly. I had seen her on campus several times since and realized she was involved with English club and the school literary publication. She looked more professional and mature though, and I'll confess that a couple times I had passed her in the hall and not fully recognized her.

We chatted, the three of us back and forth. I could tell there was some reserve on their part, either because I had been their English professor or simply because they weren't sure if I would even remember them. I couldn't tell them how much I remembered of course, but later on I did tell them where they had sat in my classroom.

She was in fact working the table/event and returned to a secondary spot where the money box was being kept. The security officer slinked off in the same direction and I followed him to the other table. He was picking through novels and commenting on what he liked and didn't like. James Joyce was too wordy, but he liked Hemingway. I remembered his sense of humor, and grabbed a copy of Twilight and offered it to him. We laughed and then I noticed a book by one of our own faculty members. It was none other than my mentor herself.

I thought about my one and only proofreading credit for her scholarly collection on the work of the Brontes. She had dedicated it to me and one of my friends from college. "For those intrepid proofreaders..." it had said and mentioned us both by name.

I chatted with the young woman in charge of the sale again. She claimed that new editions of textbooks always added more female writers. As I picked through the virtually worthless and discarded old editions of English textbooks I considered her claim.

In my pocket I felt my phone buzz and knew it was my mother calling me away from my used book reverie. Attempting to make a casual exit, I walked over to where my former student was standing. She told me how busy she was working two jobs, and that she would graduate at the end of the semester. I should've congratulated her but instead thought about how much she looked like a young faculty member rather than a student. For a second I even confused myself into believing she was talking about teaching rather than attending classes. I chastised myself after I'd said my goodbyes and left, but planned on telling her next time I ran into her.


That night, I was still thinking about all three of my students as I sat at the kitchen table in front of my glowing laptop screen. Using my best internet skills, I'd spent some time researching the young man's passing. There was a newspaper piece about his brother winning a wrestling championship and dedicating it to him, but not much else. The death was listed simply as unexpected but no causes were mentioned. I thought about the irony of calling any death unexpected. They all were, even if you had a terminal disease. In my head I invented scenarios and thought about him. Somehow I decided on a car wreck or a truck flipping over somewhere in the sticks of Missouri. It was no more likely than anything else, but it satisfied my curiosity momentarily.

Afterwards, I moved on to the upcoming graduate. I remembered vaguely her mentioning a boyfriend in class, but not much else besides her previous job. The first thing I stumbled upon was a wedding registry and an entire site about the upcoming nuptials. They were to be married following the spring semester around the time of her graduation. On the wedding site was a list of places to visit for out of town patrons. Included was a book store I knew well and the art museum two blocks from my apartment in midtown.

I clicked through the google entries a bit and came upon her Wordpress site which contained a CV and some writing. In the background was a picture of her crouching amongst shelves of books in the basement of the bookstore mentioned in her wedding registry. (There was a picture of me virtually in the same pose floating around the internet somewhere, so I knew the spot well.) Within her blog I found a post about her transition to being an English major her freshman year and a mention of me and my class. She remembered each time I'd written on her papers, praising her work and suggesting she become an English major. Not only that, but it had actually influenced her initially nerve-wracking decision to switch from psychology.

Closing my laptop, I thought about the people who had told me the same thing along the way. And all the teachers and professors that had shepherded me through academia and into the throngs of adjuncts and struggling writers. Maybe it wasn't such a bad way to make a (meager) living after all.