The Road to the Whiteboard and the Power of Pretending
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be”- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
This week has been a flurry of activity for me. Lesson plans and rosters need attention, and I’m working hard to memorize my new class schedule. Another semester has blossomed, and another round of students now sits before me, each with a new name and face to be learned. For the next sixteen weeks, I’ll have the constant suspicion that I’m running behind, and I’ll be right.
But all that’s fine by me. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.
Unlike some teachers I know, I didn’t grow up wanting to become one. In fact, from what I can remember of my life as a teenager, I didn’t have a significant desire to be anything. Actually, it’s possible I grew up wanting to be everything all at once: an astronaut, doctor, physicist, pilot, dog trainer, musician, actor, deep sea explorer, filmmaker, you name it. This makes sense now that I think about it, considering my legendary problems with making decisions.
Here’s the odd truth about me and teaching: I didn’t know I wanted to be one until I realized I was one. After the first round of grad school, I decided to pursue a second master’s degree, mostly to give me time to beget that Mediocre American Novel I’d been working on. To make ends meet, the practical choice for me was to continue the teaching gig I’d begun as a teaching assistant. So I did.
During my first two years as a college instructor, I experienced a number of sensations: fear, anxiety, nausea, pressure, confusion, dizziness—everything, basically, except confidence. I also felt like I was living in the shadow of all the teachers I’d ever had, good and bad. Still, although adjunct pay wasn’t anything to sing about, it was a decent job, and it stretched me to the edge of my comfort zone as a habitual introvert.
These feelings continued until the day I turned around from the whiteboard and saw the reality. I wasn’t living in anyone’s pedagogical shadow anymore. Sure, I was influenced by everyone who’d ever taught me, but it dawned on me that I’d become my own person. Whatever I did in front of that class was all me, and I was becoming better at doing it.
Here’s what I now understand. Turns out I don’t enjoy teaching because I expect to change the world. I don’t like it because I believe I’m settling a debt to some of the cool teachers I had over the years, though there were many. I don’t think I’m performing a grand, selfless deed, either.
No, teaching is fun for me because I get to help my students learn about two things I’ve loved doing since my earliest memory: writing and reading. Also, I like to solve problems, which always helps in the classroom. If the world is transformed, or if I happen to pay off a grand obligation to the universe, that’s just extra change.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night, he issues a cautionary statement about the potential danger of pretense, the idea being that we are, to the world, what we pretend to be. In the case of Howard W. Campbell, the novel’s American protagonist, that was terrible, since he was pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer during World War II.
Thankfully, my outcome was more positive than Howard’s. After acting like a teacher for so long, I woke up one day and discovered I’d become one.
Let’s hear it for the power of pretending.