Kumquats are tiny citrus fruits that my brother and I used to steal from our neighbor’s front yard during summer break. This was when we were children and theft was more cute and less depresentative of an ill-formed risk/reward center of the brain. Kumquats and theft are what I used to think about when summer came to mind, but I’ve changed a bit. Part of that change is due to being a teacher and always working on new ways to trick my students into thinking writing is actually a good time and not the most exhausting endeavor they could ever devote an entire class to. I’m teaching a class this summer, and I know a lot of my students won’t be coming into it thinking about writing or working at a crazy pace because we’re rocking through 15 weeks of work in only 5. They’ll be thinking about kumquats, or the beach, or naps, or people they’d like to look at instead of me.
I’ve taken summer classes. I’ve also spent 3 months completely nocturnal, seeing and speaking to almost nobody except for the cashiers at a 24-hour grocery store. I know they don’t want to be in class as much as I do. I don’t think anyone wants to be in my classroom as much as I do. From past summer teaching, I know I have to be sneaky to get them to like my class. Few people find themselves giddy at the prospect of writing in a hot room for a few hours a day.
I wonder if my students know I only really want to be there because I get to do cool work with them? Is that something students think about? It certainly wasn’t when I was in high school, or even in college. Do they know that the whole reason I like my job is because I get to work with people who are still learning what I’ve had so much fun suffering through?
When I teach, I like to try to imagine what my students are thinking while they’re in my classroom. I see a slight smile or hear a sigh of exhaustion, but what’s really going on in there. I like to give my students a lot of opportunities to ask questions, and one activity that facilitates that involves them writing questions, crumbling them up, and hurling them at me while I wear a plastic hard hat designed for a child. Do my students know this is weird for all of us? I don’t go home with the hard hat? My SO doesn’t throw that much paper at me, so it’s always going to be a novelty when I do that weird activity with my students. But do they notice that it’s only fun because we’re all trying to make it that way?
In a lot of ways, I’m just myself when I’m teaching: I’m odd, kind of frazzled, and extremely enthusiastic about things that may not merit that level of enthusiasm. However, I definitely present all that differently to my students than I would to someone I’m talking to at a bar. I’m a pretty mobile presence in the classroom. I like to walk around, gesture emphatically at my board, and I’ll even dance if the music is good enough–that includes songs stuck in my head. I also talk a lot because I feel like it would be weird if I was just a silent presence glowering at the back of the room.
When I’m out of the classroom, all those traits still remain, but I can perform my identity differently. I can let other people do most the talking. I can make jokes that aren’t about writing. I can show I’m interested in something by having it plastered all over my social media. Same person, different performance.
But do students know that’s what it’s like? Do they know I’m hauling myself from my comfort zone to try to make the class a little more pleasant of a place to be? And do they know I’m totally aware they’re doing the same thing? They’re professionals by the time they’re in my classroom, but I do recognize that the person I see is not the same performance of that person that exists outside the context of my classroom. These people cuss and cry and hate presidents and believe in gods, and most of that stuff looks completely different in my class than they would present it outside. They can cuss in front of me, but I prefer the cuss be really worth it. They can cry, but I think they recognize that I’m not someone who’s very good at helping with that, and I don’t have to be. They can hate the government, but they have to learn how to defend their ideas instead of just having them. And they can be spiritual, but there are few ways in which a religious text is going to fly on one of my works cited pages. Everyone in the classroom, including me, is someone who has to present themselves quite differently when we’re together.
And it can be really difficult if someone presents themselves in a way that hurts the goals and work of the class. Imagine buying a trampoline, but everyone you invite to tramp on it with you just sits down in the middle and spits at you when you try to jump. When everyone isn’t working to make it a good time, or when a few people are actively having an awful time, everything starts to rot.You want to jump, but Alex and Bertha are set on launching phlegmy wads at you. That’s what teaching can be, one person trying to convince an audience to have an alright time.
I’m going to be teaching again this summer, and the hardest part isn’t trying to always be standing in front of a fan or grading 20 papers for every one a student produces. The hard part is convincing them to try to have a good time because all this is weird for me too.
Teaching is weird, and when I’m doing it, I have to put a dozen different things out of my mind or I won’t be useful. This summer, I’d love to be sitting in the grass eating stolen kumquats–from Safeway this time–but I can’t, and I can’t let my students know that’s what I want to be doing. I can’t let them know how much I love the idea of staying in bed until 3 pm, talking to only the people closest to me, and seeing nobody else except, maybe, a bartender. My students can’t know that because it would make teaching them really hard. Just like I can’t know how much they’d rather be smoking weed behind the library or torrenting Disney movies and watching them until 5 am. I don’t need to know all that because I’d be distracted by the knowledge that, in terms of their priorities, my class is only high on that list because they want to get their degrees, and if I had no bearing on that degree, then I’d fall somewhere between needing to do laundry and needing water the plant they bought to convince themselves that something could survive in their dorm.
But once the class is done and the grades are final, then I can tell them that I’m going to go grab a bag of 30 micro-oranges while watching Netflix in my pajamas, and they can do the same thing.