The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.
It’s a cooler-than-seasonably normal day here in the San Gabriel Valley; though summer has three weeks left to run, autumn is in the air. It’s a remarkable change from the first day of classes last year, when we were in (literally) blazing heat as the smoke from the Station Fire saturated our campus. Last year, it looked like hell outside — today, things look genuinely lovely. But fine weather belies the general mood of gloom that is pervasive, perhaps more among faculty and staff than among students. California still doesn’t have a budget, our class offerings are woefully inadequate, and the reality is that a great many students who want courses will be unable to get them. If that has been the case before, it is all the more so now.
My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth year as a professor at PCC; soon, my youngest students will have been born after I started teaching here.
In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Six years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:
The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? Itâ€™s not stagefright â€” public speaking has never been a fear of mine. Itâ€™s not new material, at least not this year â€” all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. Itâ€™s not fear that my students wonâ€™t like me â€” though I do struggle with vanity, itâ€™s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I canâ€™t believe they pay me to do it.
Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me â€œWeâ€™re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else.â€ Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I â€œgot away with somethingâ€ when I was hired to teach here.
Iâ€™ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling â€œthe suspicion of oneâ€™s own fraudulenceâ€. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say â€œReally? Thatâ€™s how I feel too!â€ (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isnâ€™t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt and the drive to prove oneâ€™s self. Actually, thatâ€™s silly â€” I donâ€™t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!
My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and bepinked and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.
UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.
I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.