Ever since I began teaching close to twenty years ago, I've felt like a fraud. I'm not an expert on anything. I've been writing longer than my students, so I've learned a few more tricks than them. Because of my age, I've read a lot more than most of my students, as well, so I have a broader knowledge base to draw from. My biggest fear, however, is that my students are going to look at me one day and say, "You don't know jack shit." It hasn't happened yet, but I honestly believe it's only a matter of time.
And then I'm just going to have to shrug and say, "You got me."
One of the smartest guys I've ever known (a professor at the university at which I teach) once told me that, after he received his PhD from the University of Michigan, he walked out of the graduation ceremony and realized he didn't know anything. So, I'm not alone in my feelings of inadequacy.
I know I've written about this subject before. When you've been teaching as long as me, you sort of start wondering if anything you've done in the classroom has made an iota of difference in anyone's life.
When I went to the mail room in the English Department a couple days ago, I ran into a former student. I'd had him in class about five or six years ago. I even remembered his name, which usually doesn't happen. At the end of a semester, after I've submitted my final grades, my brain usually does a dump, getting rid of names and details. The students I remember are students who have done something unique or gone out of their way to keep in touch.
The student I ran into in the English Department was a great beginning poet when I met him. He showed me his work when I was his instructor, and I remember wanting to kill him, incinerate his body, and claim his poems as my own (in a metaphorical sense, of course). He was that good.
I asked him what he was up to.
"Oh, you know," he said. "I'm a teaching assistant in the MFA program"
Hence the dress shirt and freshly shorn hair, I thought.
"And I've been writing poetry," he said.
"Oh, yeah," he said with a little too much enthusiasm. "I just had a poem accepted in Cream City Review." He then went on for half a minute, listing all the journals and magazines in which he'd been published.
And with each addition to the list, I wanted to stab him with the mechanical pencil in my hand. Edit him out of existence, so to speak.
"And this is my first semester in the MFA, " he finished.
"Wow," I said. "You've been busy." You rat bastard.
"And it all started with your class," he said. "Almost seven years ago."
I nodded. Now you're calling me old. "That's nice of you to say." I wanted out of the conversation, out of the room.
He smiled a killer smile that, I'm sure, the undergrad girls in the class he's teaching go wild over. "No, I mean it," he said. "I wouldn't be here without that class."
I looked at him closely. He was being sincere, in an un-jaded, just-stepped-off-the-boat-from-Ellis-Island kind of way. He was in the land of opportunity, and he was thanking me for helping him get there.
Joseph Calasanz is the patron saint of students. A Spanish priest, he started teaching poor children mathematics, reading, and writing in rented rooms outside the walls of the Vatican. Several other priests joined him in his efforts to educate Rome's impoverished boys and girls. Eventually, Joseph established the religious order called the Clerics Regular of the Poor Schools of the Mother of God.
I don't think it's a coincidence that my encounter with my former student/rising poetry star happened on the feast day of the patron saint of students. That was just a little too convenient. God loves playing those kinds of jokes on me. I'd been wondering if I'd made a difference in any student's life. Here was the answer. If you're wondering what I told my student, I took the saintly road.
"You should stop by me office some time," I told him. "I'd love to read some of your stuff." Stuff. That's what poets call poems.
"Yeah, sure," my student said, practically wagging his ass like a puppy.
I left the mail room, my student standing before his mailbox, shining like a fresh penny, a promising future unfolding before him.
I walked back to my office. I turned off the lights, pulled the blinds, and closed the door. I pretended I wasn't there. I'd had enough messages from God for the day.