Fri 19 Oct 2007
i work in a university.
i’m not a prof, though i’ve taught lectures on and off over the past ten years. i’ve done program admin, too, and these days i manage a grant housed within the ivy-clad walls of my local institution. i like it here. i figure i’ll finish my Ph.D, sometime in the distant, blurry future, and – if the boomers ever make good on their long-forecast mass retirement from the tenured jobs – live out my working days in the ivory tower, in a squidgy little office lined with dusty books and increasingly obsolete technologies.
i can’t think of anything i’d like better, professionally, barring waking up tomorrow as Annie Lennox. which i don’t believe i’m actually qualified for.
really, from the time i was a bespectacled, bookish adolescent, slightly overearnest and a little odd, people looking to project a future of any sort on me always told me i was destined for academia.
but destiny hasn’t always been a comfortable fit.
yesterday afternoon i was bouncing down a staircase in the Education building, after having dropped off some papers for signature. two girls passed me on their way up…younger than i, significantly younger, but not really dressed quite like students, either. they looked formal, yet awkward, like they’d pulled themselves together in an unfamiliar way, as if they were playing dress up. and it clicked for me – the building i was in, the time of year. those two blond girls were education students on their first teaching practicum – artfully arranging the dress clothes that they normally wear clubbing in such a way that they magically – so they hope – appear as benign authority figures, teachers, members of the grown-up club. they didn’t see me stop behind them on the staircase, gazing up at their frayed cuffs and tipsy heels with the wistful fondness i normally reserve for kittens in pet shops. i wasn’t really seeing them. i was seeing myself, fourteen years ago.
i thought, when i was first an undergrad, that my small liberal arts college was a bohemian paradise. i confused academia with intelligentsia, and thought my job, in university, was to be literate, verbose, and proudly poor, authentically prole. it was my time to shine, babee, to let my freak flag fly. when i graduated from my B.A, though, i had little sense of how to successfully leave the warm bosom of my alma mater, so i pursued the practical option of a one year Bachelor’s of Education degree back in the same small university town.
i was entirely unprepared for the world i was about to enter.
that one year program was academia by the middle class, for the middle class, and all about the middle class – the most aggressively normative, banal, and exclusionary experience that i’d ever had in the eighteen years of successful schooling i’d enjoyed to that point.
this program talked about education in terms of standard deviations and quantitative assessments, and centred around Sunday gatherings so cordial and chipper i half expected Ward Cleaver to arrive. there was no irony, no half-baked philosophical ramblings about teaching and society and what it all might mean. there were, so far as i could spy, no questions, only answers. the program focused on the sporty manly boys and the keen girls who stayed after class to discuss readings with their professors not because the readings were interesting but because that was just what one did: people made small talk after class like churchgoers leaving Sunday service, echoing the high points, creating a chorus of belonging. according to what this chorus never needed to say aloud, but reinforced consistently, schools existed to reproduce society just as it was for these particular people – pleasant and status quo, without awkwardness or surprises wherever possible. a certain discourse of friendly, unthreatening, vanilla congeniality permeated the entire enterprise. as did expectations not only that one would conform to this, willingly, but that one would know how to.
i did not know how to. i felt like i was from Mars. one girl whispered to me, at the end of year dance, that they’d called me the Bad Ass of the Class. i wasn’t sure how to take that, though i felt vaguely proud. i have never been so lonely in all my life as i was during that long, long year.
my students, with the exception of one group of advanced grade 12 students whom i raced neck and neck through Wuthering Heights and learned one hell of a lot from, liked me. the teachers i worked with, for the most part, liked me. but every time my professors came to see me in the classroom – to judge my efforts, to evaluate me – i felt small and wrong, unable to make myself into the image of “teacher” as they saw it.
because my lack of fit wasn’t all attitude. i remember standing in front of my dresser in the blue, bay-windowed room i rented that fifth year of university, the room with no heater, trying to choose what to wear for my first day of teaching. i had more clothes, that year, than i’d ever had before, because i’d spent the summer previous hooked up with – in a casual, old friends kinda way – my high school prom date from four years before. a hippie kid who’d lived in a commune until fourth grade, he was by that point the scion of the local second-hand clothing store, literally heir to the bales of polyester and vinyl that were shipped in weekly, twelve feet high. he and i had spent our summer dancing late to the local funk band and doing what we called “midnight shopping” – with his father’s blessing, we could pick through the mountains of clothing for treasures to keep so long as we sorted what we discarded. i had a wardrobe fit for a queen…so long as she liked to sit on cement floors.
it was 1993, the heighth of grunge fashion. i wore ancient, butter-soft plaid shirts with pearl cowboy buttons, and i’d cut them down sleeveless. i wore them with long, wrinkly skirts and army boots, or kneeless Levi’s 501s. my “good coat” was a shiny vintage vinyl blazer circa 1972, and my sweaters were all sized XL, though i – in hindsight – was not. i owned a lot of cool tshirts, mostly advertising local unions or pee-wee baseball teams in towns i’d never heard of. and i had two good dresses, one a leftover from the grade 11 Christmas prom six years before, the other bought on sale for a wedding more recently. i’d bought a pair of reasonably sedate black heels the summer before, in anticipation of teaching, but i literally had no money to add to this questionable wardrobe. and i personally thought everyone else looked frumpy, in any case, with their staid little button downs and pantyhose, but i knew, suddenly and certainly, standing in that drafty room trying to decide what to wear for my very first day of teaching, that i was never going to fit in in the close, jocular quarters of that corner of academia, my B.Ed program.
what i realized yesterday, watching those girls in their awkward finery teeter up the staircase past me, is that only now, at thirty-five, do i have the full set of class literacies i would have needed back then to succeed. my program heads would have taken umbrage at the idea that they were classist – why, they were very considerate of the needs of underprivileged students and taught us all how to treat “them” with the special attention that their circumstances so frequently demanded. but they remained a “they,” to them…to the program as a whole. those of us who came into the program without a lifetime behind us of being comfortable, who came with more questions than answers about what education was for, who came without knowing how to rub elbows over the banalities of sports teams and recipe exchanges, because that was not what our home lives had prepared us for, came in at a drastic disadvantage. not necessarily because we had learning disabilities, though that was the only context in which poverty ever came up during that year, unless “Breakfast Programs? Charity or Necessity” were being debated. i was at a disadvantage in that program because it expected, at its core, that we all want the same version of society. i think it had the learning disability.
the B.Ed program at my otherwise fabulous undergraduate college closed in 1996. no great mischief, said i.
it taught me a great deal about what the academy and education shouldn’t be.