I just did something I’ve always wanted to do: teach. It was a blast and a lot of hard work. I felt like I contributed something important, but I had to give it up for lack of that almighty commodity called time.
I taught composition at the local community college. My students and I gathered a night a week for three hours straight in a small, overheated computer lab in building two of the campus in central Iowa. As if I’d assigned seats, the students always sat in their same spots, haphazardly scattered around a big table in the middle and computer stations around the perimeter. I stood at a make-shift podium in front, shadowing the glare of the respective video clip queued up on the big screen behind me.
Teaching took me out of my comfort zone in terms of time commitment but not in terms of enthusiasm. I had wanted to teach and was lucky enough to get into the adjunct rotation through a faculty friend. (Adjunct teaching is for people who do not need the money to pay their bills, because it won’t.) I taught this night class on top of my day job, grant writing. Why teach when you can’t earn a living from it? Because community college students are magical. They work toward degrees while keeping a full-time job, or two jobs, or two jobs plus children. There’s nothing simple about a community college student. They’ve already graduated from the university of hard knocks. Maybe it’s my own blue-collar upbringing that made me feel a kinship with these learners.
One of my students was only 17 years old and had the pretty smile of a homecoming queen. She was petite with an elfin face and long, blond hair, which she dyed the color of honeycomb midway through the semester, as though indicating a change within. Her hand was always the first to shoot up in class discussions on an essay or movie or book. Her analyses were heartfelt and reflective. She was in my class because she had dropped out of 10th grade. Why? Because she fell in love at age 15 and had a baby at age 16. As a “teen parent” (her words) her life became quite different from the other kids in her high school. She secluded herself for two years — nine months of pregnancy, one year of motherhood, and untold time of grieving her ex-boyfriend, aka the “sperm donor” (her words) who ditched her and the baby. One night I prompted the class to write about a time they lost something. She cried when she read aloud her two pages of spontaneous personal narrative about loss. The other students respected her with silence, and then they clapped for her bravery.
My writing class was this girl’s first return into academics since she dropped out of high school. She was raising her kid, waitressing, and working retail while taking courses to earn her high school diploma. She was so serious in her approach and careful in her writing that I forgot she was practically a child. She was just one of my students, but I felt the same about all of them. I couldn’t have been more honored to be the teacher. They were all overcoming their own life challenges through education, and I was the facilitator for those few hours.
“Will you be teaching Composition II?” a couple of them asked me on the last day of class.
No. I would not be teaching again, at least not next semester. While I wanted to say yes to the teaching, the timing was not in my favor. I had my own kids, my own day job, my own other-responsibilities. The very thing that linked me to my students was also the factor that separated me from them: complicated time.
If you were to come to our congregation during Christmas, you would see hundreds of stars hanging from wires above the pews. A myriad of five-point celestial creations, golden constellations floating just above the heads of parishioners as they stand and sing. “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” It’s a fine art installation that makes you feel the sense of wonder, even if the holidays make you feel blue.
Does time stand still on Christmas? You might think so if you came to my church on the eve and walked into that galaxy of a sanctuary, like stepping willfully into heaven whether you belonged there or not. You might look around at the magic and believe your own time could wait, that your own sadness would heal, that Jesus could set you free, that the people around you would teach you something. Art is like Christmas, it makes you wish and believe. I wish I could teach. I believe I can.
We all brought food on the last day of my composition class. I played the audio of the Kenyon College commencement speech by the late author, David Foster Wallace. I braced myself for a squirrely group, between the pizza and the giddiness of semester’s end. Plus, I had no flashy You Tube video to provide as a visual, other than a still shot of David Foster Wallace, long hair and wire glasses, standing at a podium. So it was just plain old listening and I was sure my students would be restless. This address is commonly referred to as the “This is Water” speech because Wallace tells a parable of fish not understanding water nor their dependence on it. It’s his illustration of how we dismiss the stuff around us that’s most important, like, say, air or love. I was surprised that my students sat spellbound for 20 minutes in rapt quiet, barely making a peep as they politely munched on pepperoni slices or brownies, listening to the speech. I was prepared to only play half of it, but they wanted to hear it all.
If I could have one thing for Christmas, it would be time. I would like to grab one of those infinity stars in our sanctuary to acquire an extra day, grab another star for a few more hours, grab another for a whole new semester with another batch of students. But I’m wishing for the wrong things because what I need is all around me. I’ve got my quirky son, my funny daughter, my awesome husband, my messy house, my living parents, my well-paying job, my … you know, the list goes on. My list is very long.
The time to teach will come. The time to (insert your own wish here) will come. The time to breathe is now.
Terri Mork Speirs recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. She is a writer and mother as well as a grant writer for Children & Families of Iowa.