The Writery Ink

Why Do I Teach?

Why Do I Teach?


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Huddled against the chill of the early October New England morning, I await my turn at the stoplight, my thoughts turning on themselves. My chest aches and I don’t know why. I should call my doctor I know because it has been aching like this for a couple of days. Mentally, I calculate the days to our next break. I am exhausted and we are just a month into the semester. My exhaustion is more than a physical one. I feel drained, almost empty but not like a sack. My brain feels like it has finally stopped working and everything has seeped out of it to places unknown with no retrieval possible. I am all ‘gived’ out. I do not know if I can continue teaching beyond this semester. At fifty-seven, I had been a college professor for the past six years. I taught at two area colleges, one a community college and the other a four-year institution. Before that, I had been an instructor at an airline for almost twenty years. Long before that, I had cut my teeth in the classroom at age twenty, teaching high school. Now, I glance at the long road to retirement and it is seeming a whole lifetime away. “Why do I even teach?” I mumble under my breath as the slight wind reminds me that winter is coming with snow days and other emergencies that could close a college for a few hours, maybe days. God, how I live for those. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a young lady walking toward me. In fact, a number of people are walking my way, all intent on crossing the street to the parking garage. They all have somewhere to go and some of them dance from leg to leg like antsy toddlers trying to figure out how to cross without waiting for the signal. “Professor!” a voice exclaims in delight. I turn slightly toward the sound. For a quick second, I do not recognize her. And then, as she smiles the broad smile that I have come to recognize from students I had not seen in a while, I recall this young lady who had asked me to write a recommendation for her a few semesters ago. She is Pakistani and I recall her as a student anxious to learn. She would look at me with worshipful eyes, hanging on to my every word. I am more than pleased that she has transferred to a four-year college and is doing well. “And it’s all thanks to you, Professor!” she says. I make some noncommittal remarks because I don’t think I have that much power. But, as we bid each other goodbye and good luck, I think about the many times I have heard that statement or something similar from a student or former student. My students are diverse. Some of them are refugees. Others are undocumented immigrants. Still others are US born and raised. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, race, and sex. Their accents often have me leaning forward in the classroom as I try to make sense of what they are trying to articulate. Sometimes I am not successful at doing that and I blame it on my age. They come from every continent (except Antarctica). Wherever they came from, it has mattered to me. Each of my students represents the potential for success I believe every human being possesses. Sometimes, all someone needs is someone to believe in them and show them the places they could get to. Later that afternoon, I rush out to FedEx to send off a package to my brother. Waiting patiently in line as the agent seals my package, I joke around with him and he is game. Everyone in the office seems in a good mood and we all chat with each other as if we do meet at the same place and time each day. My transaction almost completed, I turn around, getting ready to make my exit. There she is! Another former student. The wide smile again. The wide open arms for a hug. And not just any hug. “I saw those earrings,” she says. “I heard that voice.” It is days like this that make a difference. Bumping into former students and hearing them say that I made an impact on their lives makes me glad that I became a teacher. It might sound cliché since every other teacher seems to have said this before. I still struggle to pay my bills and often wonder why I had not chosen a more lucrative profession. I had enough opportunity to do so. But, something kept making me stay. I think it is because, each time I decide to quit, I encounter a former student (or two or three) who greets me with delight and tells me I was an inspiration and that their life is better because they spent at least one semester with me. I still beat myself up wondering why I keep hanging on to a profession that keeps me slightly above the poverty line (I wish someone would remind the IRS about that). Some of my students would laugh if they saw my paycheck. But, as I rush from campus to campus each day wondering, “What am I doing?” I know that, inevitably, I will bump into a former student with a wide grin and appreciation, even, dare I say, love, in their expression and who will remind me that I played an important role in who they became. My spirit gets renewed. I guess this is why I teach.


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