18 February 2009


On the campus where I teach, there's a promenade that seperates a Colonial-era cemetery from the grounds of St. Monica's Church, which dates back to 1857. Mario Cuomo was baptized there, and it is being converted to a performing space for the college.

Tonight, as walked that way, a light drizzle floated through the air and misted the stones of that church, graveyard and promenade with the soft haze of streetlamps that line the path. The air wasn't cold; the drizzle felt like some sort of truce with winter.

The promenade ends underneath a Long Island Rail Road (Yes, this Rail Road is two words.) overpass with fluorescent lights that make the color of the walls garish, when they would only be drab during the day. As I approached that overpass, I felt sad: as if a temporary reprieve, a night of freedom, were about to end.

And, of course, a stage of my life is going to end soon: less than five months from now. But I feel that other things are ending now, too.

I can't help but to feel that when I'm at the college. As I've mentioned before, I have become more student-oriented than I had been. The college itself seems more and more like a prison, or at least an asylum--until I set foot in a class I'm about to teach.

And what happens when I get in front of a classroom? No matter how well I prepare myself, I still feel the same nervousness I felt the first day I taught. I feel naked and someone is going to find one of my many flaws.

Today was no different in that respect. But, once I (with the help of one of my students) got the laptop and projector to work, I somehow felt that everything was as it should be.

It wasn't just a matter of "everything falling into place." Today I had students read from two poems by John Skelton: "The Tunning of Eleynor Rumming" and "To Mistress Margaret Hussey." Without my explaining, they understood why: I could hear it in the way they were reading. And, when I talked about the line and rhyme structure, and how they're similar to "rap" songs, everybody understood.

What surprised me was how much the students actually wanted to talk about the poems, and how they discerned what the three-beat (or three-stress) line does to the mood of the poem or song.

Later, we watched a video of The Last Poets' "N***az Are Afraid of Revolution." As I expected, much of the class time was taken up with a discussion of The 'N' Word." Students not only talked about their feelings about the word, but how it's changed over the years.

Most of the students in that class are African- or Caribbean-American, so they had strong feelings about that word. I made the connection to the way the word "queer" is used by straight people and members of the LGBT community.

The students actually brought the discussion back to the poems and songs. One woman, whose younger sister accompanied her to the class, said something really interesting: The Last Poets were talking about shared histories and experiences of oppression, so their use of the N-word came out of what they shared with black members of their audience. That is why the word sounds different than it would from the lips of most white people.

In that class, I didn't feel like I was teaching. Rather, the class felt like a very spirited conversation. That, after I was afraid that I was boring them.

And at the end of class, a number of students made a point to tell me they'd leared so much today. From the brief in-class assignment they did today, I can tell they actually did learn quite a bit.

Speaking of classes, I am staying in the one in which I'd enrolled. I talked with the prof, who said that she actually values my contributions to the class. And she told me not to worry or to give myself a crash course in gender theory: Essentially, she advised me to trust my understanding of what we read.

Now I realize that my anxieties about the class I'm taking, and the one I'm teaching (the one I mentioned in this blog) were not about my appropriateness for either one. Deep down, I knew I belonged in both. And that scared me; I'm not used to that.

OK. So now I'm in a class where the prof and students want me, and I'm teaching a class in which the students want to be. Some told me they signed up for that course because I was scheduled to teach it. And, yes, they want me for the right reasons.

So I'm not a misfit, after all. What do I do now?