My mother always taught me to share, but I think she was more concerned with my toys. I can’t quite remember who taught me to share myself. I wouldn’t say I’m from a family of teachers (there are a few), but somewhere along the way I became fond of sharing things with others I had figured out. The delight came for me in seeing that another person could bypass some sort of suffering that I had experienced. The greatest suffering of my life—academically—came during college for me: organic chemistry.
Most people have the wherewithal to run the opposite direction from a class like o-chem, but I have always been attracted to dangerous things. Never has my brain been so punished, sleep been put off for so long, or my eyes burned by so many lachrymatory fumes. I agonized for a B in this class through six-hour labs, pages of reports, and acid burns (I melted a pair of glasses actually) among other things.
Before I left the wonderfully dangerous world of chemistry behind for English, I had a life-changing experience; I was asked to teach. Through some miracle (or clerical error I’m sure) I ended up being asked to do summer research with one of my professor’s teams. I was excited, terrified, and honored all at once. It was a chance to earn minimum wage every day in a summer for graduate level cancer research; I was psyched. Also, I had to teach a freshman biochemistry lab for nursing majors.
Growing up, I was a camp counselor, youth leader, marching band section leader, and aficionado of anything that allowed me to stay away from my dorky parents for hours or days at a time. Later in college, I became a peer advisor in a freshman dorm; today I teach high school communication arts. Before that, even thinking about teaching a class of my peers made me feel like staring over cliff.
I’ve always liked climbing too. As a kid, I was a tree-scaler. In high school, I discovered indoor rock gyms. Friends in college introduced me to top-roping (tying yourself onto the top of a rock face, rappelling down, and then climbing back up). It was a tense transition, going from a safe 30 feet of indoor rock holds and plush padding to more than double that of real, skin-destroying, finger-crushing, billion-year-old quartzite. Staring over the edge, you can’t even remember what a climbing pad feels like.
Teaching left me feeling just as exposed in the beginning.
I could tell you all about the different names for failing rock climbers (there’s something called “Elvis Leg” that you get when you’re nervous and shaky on the wall), but all you need to know is that when you fail, it’s public. The good thing about climbing is that if you fall, at least you never have to face your friends. Ok, that was too morbid, I don’t know anyone who has ever even broken a bone climbing. However, the “reel me back up!” conversation never leaves you feeling accomplished.
Facing a class, you don’t get a “reel me back up” option.
On the wall, there are cracks you have to stick your hands into in order to go higher. There may be spiders or razor-like spines inside, but there aren’t many ladder-like rungs on the face; you have to make your own holds. You have to take what the rock gives you, add a little chalk, a lot of guts, trust your anchor and jump.
I don’t remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach. I think I may have been light-headed (either from nerves, caffeine, or the toxic fumes that I was so familiar with in the chem lab). Luckily, I was not alone; I had an anchor in the room.
Dr. Gary Earl was the dean of the department, my unofficial advisor, and would become like a second father to me during my two year stint in science. He was the advocate I didn’t know I deserved. It took the separation of a few years for my hindsight to focus in, but eventually I realized what a boon to my career he gave me while I was there. Dr. Earl is a champion of his students in every way. He assures them the knots are tied and that falls result in pendulum-like motion and not death.
Something happened on that first day that made me come back a second time. I was introduced as a person who could help, a guide for the tough waters ahead. I had almost forgotten, just last year I was chartering my own path through similarly stormy seas. I remembered my own lab teachers and their steady suggestions along the way. If I had to pick a moment for the conception of my teaching career, it would have been then.
What does it take to make a teacher? It’s no simple formula, I can tell you, but it isn’t so strange. Share what you know with others. Convey to them that, while the wind is blowing hard, the water rising—the metaphors for challenge mounting—they can reach the other side.
As I work through the first weeks of what I hope will be many years, I find myself looking backward with one eye, staring into the vanishing point. The other is looking forward at—well, I’m sure you can imagine just as well as I what the future holds: an exciting challenge.