The Days Before Classes Begin

by Jeff Oaks

I worry I’m not smart enough. I worry that I don’t have the old energy. I worry that my compassion has vanished. I worry that the students will find out I frequently mess up the difference between lay and lie, who and whom, right and left, and will complain to someone above me in the hierarchy. I worry that there will be glaring mistakes in my syllabi. I worry that I’ll blank on some very easy word, like _________ that one, right in front of class and have to pantomime my way toward what will be, at best, an inexact synonym. I worry that this will be the year I’ll lose it on the first student who misses class and then the next class asks me what he missed. I worry about writing in cursive on the board, two technologies the students will soon outgrow by all predictions. I worry that I won’t ever get my office organized. I worry that the grade inflationists will catch me or the counters of working hours will find out I don’t work hard enough. I worry that I’ll work too hard. I worry that I am already a dinosaur in my thinking on some important issue.

Every single year, I worry. I’m guilty of every sin of teaching even before I even enter the classroom. It’s the old catastrophic thinking I learned growing up among Depression-era grandparents and parents, who had seen everything fall apart and were prepared to have to do everything for themselves. My grandmother could make cakes out of drawer dust and coffee grounds. My grandfather controlled an arsenal of tools, a virtual card catalog of screws, nails, nuts, bolts, and doodads, out of which he could fashion or repair or repurpose almost anything. They had prepared for every eventuality, it seemed. They had grown up without electricity and could live that way again if they had to. On top of that, my generation of kids grew up watching a great cavalcade of disaster movies–The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and so on. On Saturday afternoons were the great monster movies, where disaster wasn’t usually a global issue, but occasionally there was Godzilla or Rodan leveling cities or Killer Bees or Snakes or Spiders ferociously taking back what civilization had thought we’d stolen away. The old natural terrors have turned into new fears of technological terrorism from state and non-state actors.

All of the things that I worry about in the first paragraph have of course happened. Not all at once, of course, but I’ve survived them all. Civilization still stands in all its versions, despite all the images of cities being demolished by aliens, Supermen, and fundamentalists. Sometimes I think the catastrophism I inherited has seemed to be a blessing: nothing can ever be as bad as I expect it to be. In my more compassionate moments I sometimes think this is why certain religions start with the notion of ruin first. After that it can’t be worse, right? The worst thing is only that which one expected to happen.

At this point too, after twenty-six years of teaching, of living on my own, of being an adult, the worry is part of the cycle by which something in me readies itself to go back to work again. The doubt before the storm. The dressing up before the party begins. At some point I need to stop calling it worry and call it what I think it actually is: excitement.

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