After a six-week stint of thinking I was an artist my first semester of college, I discovered what most people already knew about me: I was okay with a paint brush in my hand but I was better with a pen. Sitting in an introductory lit course called “Valuing Through Literature” taught by Gibb, the man who would eventually become my mentor, it hit me that when I was in the art studio the smells of paint and the easels and the attitudes of the other art students were exciting but only in that exotic, foreign way that never quite feels like home. When I think about those first six weeks of college, I remember how homesick I was, how lost I felt, and I remember the smell of turpentine.
I can’t remember what happened at the six-week mark in the Valuing Through Literature course. We were reading things like Madame Bovary and My Antonia and Huck Finn and from this vantage, I suspect that Gibb’s sole purpose in the course was to try to get us to think more deeply about our values instead of relying on the rote Christian ethics we promised we had when we enrolled at the smallish college with the twin missions of educating us well and teaching us a life of servant hood. It was in this class that I began to value questions above answers.
Gibb was not charismatic. People weren’t lining up to take his classes, wherein he often stared at a yellow legal pad, talking more to himself than to us about Emma Bovary’s infidelity, or how presidential inaugurations hadn’t been the same since people quit wearing top hats. It was up to the student to figure out if some anecdote of his was a quick detour or something that applied to what we were studying. I wrote them all down diligently in the margins of my class notes because I was sure there was wisdom there, and if not, there was always humor. My classmates were primarily interested in only what would be on the test.
I felt like one of the students sitting at the feet of Plato in the academe grove. I thought he was genius for letting his stream of consciousness teaching style lap up onto our banks. I was unconvinced anyone else in the class even heard what Gibb was saying, but I didn’t care because it felt like he was speaking to me.
I don’t remember formally studying Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time” in this class, though I have a vivid memory of Gibb referring to it multiple times and the poem’s message that espoused the importance of finding a career that overlapped nicely with the thing we most loved to do. Gibb was a firm believer in this and young as I was and hopeful as I was that one day I’d make buckets of money, I was clever enough to know that this marriage was the only way I could happily live.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
After class that day I marched over to the registrar’s office and changed my major to English and did so with a light heart. I was home.
While I’m contemplating life after May of next year, I’m having to reflect on what it means to unite my vocation and my avocation. I thought I had, but what I’ve discovered after a decade plus of teaching higher ed is that I have a love and some skill in helping people make their writing stronger, but I write for myself infrequently. I have loads of plans but it is a delicate, difficult balance to juggle your own writing with someone else’s, particularly when you are being paid to focus on the other person’s writing. Some writer-teachers don’t have this problem. They are disciplined tightrope walkers and/or comfortable with putting their own work ahead of the students. This has never been the case for me.
There is no time, or if there is time it feels like I should be working harder at grading or planning. Or if the grading and planning has become overwhelming then I sit and stare out the window or at the TV because I’m too overwhelmed with the muchness of it all and so I don’t accomplish anything until there is a deadline I can no longer ignore.
One of the greatest joys of my day is the half hour or so in the morning when I let myself write a lengthy email to my friend Julie (who was there with me in several of Gibb’s classes). My emails to her are the equivalent of journal writing but with the satisfaction of someone besides me or a snoop on the other end, reading my words.
Unfortunately, the pay being offered for Daily Julie emails is complete crap.
I finish teaching my last summer courses at FU U next week and my goal for the six weeks that remain before fall courses start up is to nail down this uniting of my tramps so there’s only just the one. Before the bills pile up and it becomes imperative that I get a job, how do I envision my life the way Gibb and Robert Frost would have wanted me to? Right now, the possibilities are being rotated around in one of those hand-crank cages they use for bingo. I hope I pull out the right number.