Classes begin for me this coming Wednesday. I’m ready—syllabi stacked in neat piles on my desk, required books waiting at the bookstore (I checked), and my Blackboard sites ready to go. But the last few nights, just before I should be falling into sleep, my brain has begun twitching. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone through this—that I’ve become jittery a few days before school begins. I also start to have bad dreams where I find myself doing things like walking into a classroom without having prepared a syllabus, or sitting in my office realizing I’ve forgotten to go to meet my first class. I’ve been teaching for so long you’d think I’d be cool as a cucumber by now. Such is not the case.
Last night, even my tried and true yoga-inspired maneuvers to find sleep failed me. I lay wide awake, victim of random memories. I recalled the first few nights when I went to college, and I’d stare at the sharp, white, institutional light that crept into my room from the hallway. A dim memory of my mother, carefully laying out my dress and name tag on my dresser, the night before I started kindergarten, flitted into focus. I recalled Louis, my very first date, and how the two of us stared straight ahead, speechless, while riding side-by-side to a party in the back seat of the car his father was driving.
Professors understand that the first and second day of a course have a way of setting the tone for the 13 weeks that follow. They also know that recovery from a dismal first-day performance, where the professor comes off too soft or too harsh, or too friendly or too distant, can be iffy. The first day of class is like opening night at the theater, where the actors need to shine if the play is to have any shot at a good run.
Something else gnaws at me this year—something causing a more intense anxiety, something deeper than my usual desire to perform well on the first day of class and inspire my students to work hard and do well in my courses. Having signed an irrevocable, early retirement contract with Hofstra two years ago, I’m now three years away from retirement. The impending departure, which I hasten to add was of my own choosing, and which I am happy about, is hardly what you’d call “looming.” Three years is a lot of teaching, and it still seems far in the future.
Yet with my departure from academe getting closer, I am becoming more acutely aware of the passing of time—something academic life, with its endless repetition of semesters, grinds down into the flat-line time found in the movie “Ground Hog Day.”
What a brief shot at life we mortals are given! Mustering a sense of urgency while still young—even if we’re lucky enough to go to college—doesn’t come naturally to most people. With youth, there’s an unconscious infatuation with the condition of being young, and young people can never grasp, in any visceral sense, that it’s a mere hop, skip, and jump from their college years and the decade that follows to middle age and beyond.
When I first walk into my classrooms and see my new students on Wednesday—especially when I greet my first-year students for the first time (because I love teaching first-year students, I always try to get assigned as many beginning level courses as possible)—I hope to see multiple sets of eager, earnest eyes. I’ll hand out the syllabus, talk about course requirements, and give the first assignments, due the next day we meet. I’ll ask for questions, and then ask the students to introduce themselves to one another. After finishing up with a pep talk, I’ll send them on their way.
Were I just a tad crazier—or perhaps a tad more youthful—I’d scrap this scenario. Instead, on bended knee, I’d plead with my students to sense the urgency and seize the day. They’d wonder what in the world their professor was talking about.