Pride, pomp, and circumstance

Three weeks into my new job at a community college, I was asked to attend its graduation. Sporting a polyester gown I borrowed along with a wrong-colored hood and a cap anchored stupidly with stretched-out bobby pins, I sat on stage with other staff and faculty members to watch a rush of students river on by.

This was not a graduation for those who never question their privilege and entitlement; it was a holy rite of passage for those who toiled like dogs for every credit they earned. The ceremony was book-ended by a religious invocation and a benediction, and, while it made a secularist like me twitch, no one seemed fazed by the many mentions of their Father. It was He, I believe they believed, who made the seeming impossible possible.

The ceremony took place in an opera house located at the intersection of Poverty Street and Strife Avenue. It was crammed with hooters and whoopers and howlers who shouted out whenever they saw their loved ones. “That’s my baby!” screamed a mother. “That’s my wife!” cried another. Corey, Simcha, Teka, Ayo, Lakesia, Varun, Tenia, Nikia, Nakeia, Sarala, George, Crenese, Pema, Brittany, Krishna, Guy, Lavera, Frazontra, Pearlie, Teena, Melvin, Jamal, Bibek, Naresh, Zdravko, Nada, Dante, Leslie, Tyteona, Janice, Dell, Kossi, Cesar, and hundreds more strode across the stage to receive their diplomas from the President.

One had glued fuzzy green and white pom-poms along the edges of her mortar board, someone else had somehow managed to attach blinking white lights to hers, and still another did a shimmy shaky slinky dance that fetched a squeal from a delighted audience. Everyone had someone to cheer them on, which made me so happy I bawled; yet, I couldn’t help but think that had I been one to walk across that stage silence would surely have dogged me.



I went back to part-time teaching because, after a year, I still hadn’t found a full-time job, or any job. In less than two weeks, I will begin a new, non-teaching job. I probably won’t return to the classroom, so here are some things I want to impart: 

1. Teaching is the hardest thing you will ever do. 2. Adjunct faculty earn spit-on-you pay. 3. It’s impossible not to get chalk on your behind. 4. Sometimes when you read graffiti on bathroom walls you will mentally correct the grammar. 5. Be frightened if a student hands in a three-page argument paper with Is There a God? as the title. 6. It is never wise to accept jewelry from someone who is failing. 7. Don’t necessarily believe a student who tells you she can’t take an exam because her father has had a heart attack. 8. If you’re foolish enough to wear silk in the summer, make sure you write on the bottom third of the board. 9. Promise yourself you’ll never use a suitcase as a briefcase. 10. Always have a Plan C.       


Mum’s the word

It can be a torture living inside of myself, but no more so than when I’m monitoring every word that comes out of my mouth. And it’s not just the words themselves that get the once over. I can become easily annoyed with every um and uh that exits.

This all started decades ago, when Marvin Mudrick, an English professor with an asp for a tongue, told me mine was a nice speaking voice but for all the you knows that polluted it. After that, I became a peep-mouse of a thing in his creative writing class, as you can imagine. 

It’s like and it’s a sort of have become my bull’s eyes, too, but, actually, these equivocators are pretty interesting to ponder. The former has been lampooned by comedians far and wide, so I have nothing new to add to that conversation. I haven’t heard anyone talk about the latter, though, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I’ve noticed that it’s a sort of is to the intelligentsia what it’s like was, in its heyday, to the so-called Valley Girl. As in “it’s a sort of exquisite double helix of DNA in biology” or “Derrida was a sort of deconstructionist.” For all of the hot air circulating about the Academy, though, there seems, maybe, a sort of uneasiness with the efficacy of one’s ideas, like “I have this brilliant thought, but, if you don’t agree, perhaps I’m not as married to it as you might think.” Or “I have this brilliant thought, but I don’t want you to know that I think it’s brilliant because God won’t let a braggart inherit the earth.”


Fool me twice

I went into teaching, a second career, in part because I wanted to give students the respect they deserve. Anyone who has felt invisible in the classroom or who has felt shamed by a teacher, as I have, knows this is a noble goal.

For a decade, I taught college writing on the east and west coasts. At times, I would teach at as many as three institutions in a single semester just to make ends meet. Adjunct instructors, or “freeway fliers,” as we were called, are at the bottom of the food chain and earn very little when compared with their full-time colleagues, who also earn very little. This is particularly true in the humanities.

Low pay (and no benefits) is just one of the ways adjunct professors are devalued, but, as some might say, it was my choice to go into education and to accept an inadequate salary; I really couldn’t let myself be too glum about it, and I didn’t. For some 15 years, I had been in the business world, where people of my temperament can easily die, and teaching was my lifeline.  I loved my students, and I tried to give them the very best of myself.

Nevertheless, I left teaching about six years ago because I was exhausted and because I just couldn’t live on the hem of poverty any longer. I hadn’t imagined myself returning to the classroom, but when I lost my job of five years and was not able to find full-time employment after many months, I accepted a part-time position at a nearby community college.

A lot has changed in the intervening years. Most notably, student honesty seems very much on the wane. Whereas before I might have had one clear-cut case of plagiarism in a given year, now it is surprising if a student does not try to make off with another’s words. 

The reasons for the rise of academic dishonesty are, no doubt, many, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex forces at play here. Who, for example, can begin to know what young people go on to think after they witness corrupt businessmen committing wholesale crimes against society with impunity.

One thing is certain, though. It is easier to cheat now than ever before. Just google “cause and effect essay,” and, in 0.18 seconds, you will receive about 2,960,000 results. Even the best teacher-sleuth, and I consider myself to be a pretty good one, doesn’t stand the proverbial snowball’s chance of bringing every cheater to justice.

Last semester, I had 23 students in my class. Of those, six, or about one-quarter of the class, plagiarised all or parts of an assigned essay. Confronting these students was, for me, a torture, and I spent a number of sleepless nights trying to figure out what I would say to them and what actions I would take. This was the hard part because there are degrees of plagiarism, and there are also degrees to which students know they are plagiarising. In the end, I thought I handled it well. Above all, I tried to be fair. Too fair, it seems.

I gave two students the chance to write another paper because they conned me into believing they didn’t know they had plagiarised. Damned if they didn’t turn around and do it all over again.


Underthinking is overrated

I have given much thought to the topic of overthinking, and this is what I have come to: It is never a compliment to be told that you think too much; in fact, by some standards it is shameful to overthink—and all the more so if you are a woman. So thought Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, (or so it seemed), author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. In it, she wrote, “The epidemic of morbid meditation is a disease that women suffer much more than men. My studies have found repeatedly that women are more likely than men to fall into overthinking and remain stuck there….We are suffering from an epidemic of overthinking—getting caught in torrents of negative thoughts and emotions that overwhelm us and interfere with our functioning and well-being.”

No one ever told Einstein to cut it out. If he had cut it out, we wouldn’t now know that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light and that some billions of years hence it will be a cold, dark, starless, earthless place, if it will be a place at all. No one ever told Shakespeare to just stop it. If he had just stopped it, we wouldn’t now know the difference between a metaphor and a simile.

It would be wrong, though, to make this a rumination about whether women have been made to stifle thought more often than men. It would be more fruitful to look at what it even means when people tell us we think too much. Nolen-Hoeksema was not wrong to suggest that “morbid meditation” (and, by this, I believe she was talking about obsessive thinking) can interfere with our well-being. She was wrong, however, to suggest that obsession and contemplation are one in the same: “…Many of us are flooded with worries, thoughts, and emotions that swirl out of control, sucking our emotions and energy down, down, down….Our concerns are about fundamental issues: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What do others think of me? Why am I not happy and content? Answers do not come easily or quickly to such questions and so we search and ponder and worry even more….”

These are good questions to ask, but I am capable of living in a state of ambiguity while I seek answers without collapsing under the weight of any worries that might arise in the process. Searching and pondering do not, of themselves, beget worry.

So, ponder on, and, to anyone who tells you that you think too much, simply say, “My friend, you don’t think enough.”