Friday, February 04, 2005

Owls and Other Fantasies

Last night's teaching experience was horrible. Just reliving it so I can write about it here is upsetting; I prefer to forget all about it by going out for a night of competitive drinking with friends, except I can't afford this! Instead, I had to opt for the cheap method of coping; writing and treating myself to something special. So I found myself in an organic food store this morning and in the span of five minutes, I spent almost half of this morning's cat sitting income (from one client) on two boxes of organic chai tea. Besides the fact that I had wanted to treat myself to chai tea for weeks, I was hoping that the gentle Yogi's pesticide-free leaves and poop-nurtured spices would restore some sense of calm to my unsettled life. If only problems could be solved so easily!

In my fantasies, I was the perfect professor, helping my students find their wings so they could soar upward to high-paying and satisfying careers. As their professor, I always knew when to step in to help and when to step back and cheer, I was both accessible and remote, humorous and serious, interesting and knowledgeable, and my students loved who they were when they were with me. In my little dream, my evening lectures with my students were punctuated with insightful and clever discussions that left them wanting more, the labs were fun and useful, and in fact, all of my students were brilliant because they couldn't help but be so. Then my students and I left for the evening after lingering over spectacular flaming sunsets curving over the twinkling city-constellations of NYC and New Jersey, all of us enriched and full of anticipation for our next meeting. Of course, my colleagues and supervisors were all impressed with my skills and jealous of my swarms of adoring students and I was not only asked to return to teach next semester, but I was also given a pay raise.

But reality rudely interrupted like the proverbial bull stampeding through a china shop. I walked in to the communal Adjuncts' office yesterday afternoon to find five or six of my colleagues engrossed in a hushed conversation about forming a union and possibly striking against "Sweatshop U" (yep, that's my new employer). OH GOD, NOT THIS! NOT NOW! I wanted to groan aloud. I JUST got a job that pays enough to cover my rent! If I strike, I'll end up on the streets!

Fortunately, my class was to begin in 30 minutes, so I left the Adjunct office and waited for the CLT to unlock my lab door so I could prepare. This is when I discovered that I did not have the necessary materials for class. There was no chalk to write on the chalkboard with (are we the only college in the world that still uses chalkboards?) so I stole a small niblet of chalk from the lab next door. The transparencies with the necessary diagrams for my planned lecture had been removed from the lab, probably by another Adjunct. Pre-prepared glass slides of human tissue were missing even though they were required by the lab we were supposed to be working on (fortunately, the Allium root tip slides and whitefish embryo slides were present and in sufficient quantities). The CLT said that the CC wants me to discourage my students from making the required wet mounts of epidermal cells collected from inside their cheeks due to "health issues". Then, five minutes before lab was supposed to begin, I was informed that I would be showing two videos during class. OH? I could feel the last remnants of my carefully planned lab schedule crumble into the swirling dust of chaos. I barely resisted the urge to scream.

Half of my students wandered into the lab between 10 and 45 minutes late, even though I am required to take attendance in the first ten minutes of class, and I had to repeat -- several times -- everything I had already said. This is when I began to suspect that my students suffer from serious hearing and reading comprehension problems. Despite the fact that I had written the "lab goals" and the lab manual page numbers on the chalkboard for them to follow and refer to, and in spite of the fact that I repeated several times everything I told them in my lab lecture, almost all of them, late arrivals or not, needed private lectures over the same material.

Then I discovered that my students suddenly were unable to focus their microscopes properly (they were capable of this only last week), were unable to find the pre-prepared slides that they needed (on a table at the front of the lab, as I told them), several of them broke the slides after they did manage to locate them, and then, many were unable to see anything at all using the microscopes. Then my students -- almost all of them paid professionals in their fields -- began wasting class time by whining about absolutely everything from the scheduled evening class times to the size, heft and detail (or lack thereof) of the textbook! Before the end of class, I tried to review the correct answers for the last week's lab reports but their collective hearing problems became especially acute at this point. Frustrated, I finally gave them an impromptu lecture about things that I, as their professor, can control versus those I cannot control. Unfortunately, this was a lecture I needed to hear, too.

After class was over for the evening, I forgot to take a moment to enjoy the square lights of the city glowing in the darkness outside the lab windows. Instead, I left, wishing to never return and wondering if the powers-that-be would do me a favor by firing me. As I walked to the subway, I wondered what the hell I was thinking by teaching this class with only 36 hours advance notice and I wished to run and hide forever in the quiet solitude of my lab, my office, the collections, my Secret World, my writings .. anywhere that I don't have to deal with this overwhelming crush of insatiably needy and desperate people.

I went home, hoping my birds would be sympathetic, but they tortured me by improvising new and increasingly annoying shrieks that echoed inside my skull. I hid in my bedroom, called a friend who is halfway across the country and poured out my frustrations to her, hoping my own venting and whining would not forever alienate her. I awoke this morning with a raging headache after trying to ignore The Dump Truck as he rumbled around on my ceiling most of the night. Because I have many things to do today, I was unable to spend the day hiding in my apartment with my nose in a book, as I wished.

So after taking care of all my cat sitting clients this morning, I finally made it to the post office by late morning and discovered a large squishy yellow envelope waiting for me. It was a birdthday gift from some of my west coast bird watching friends, a gift of a t-shirt covered with bird footprints, some money to buy a new pair of jeans, and the newest book by one of my most beloved living poets, Mary Oliver, entitled Owls and Other Fantasies. The dust jacket is decorated with the charming painting of two snowy owls by John James Audubon -- owls like my Craigslist namesake, Hedwig the owl. The accompanying card was covered with a lovely color drawing of peonies and written inside was, "We are so proud of you!" I watched my world grow fuzzy as tears of bitter disappointment filled my eyes.


It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves --
then I saw him clutching the limb

in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still

and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness --
and that's when it happened,

when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree --
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,

and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward

like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing --
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed

not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky -- all, all of them

were singing.
And of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last

for more than a few moments.
It's one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,

is that, once you've been there,
you're there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your soul need comforting?
Quick then -- open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.


-- Mary Oliver [Such Singing in the Wild Branches in Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 2003]

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Such Singing in the Wild Branches by Mary Oliver is republished here without permission with no intention to profit in any way whatsoever except to share a little beauty with my readers and to provide a little comfort to my own aching heart.

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Included with the best of Education Blog Writing by the Carnival of Education, Issue 6.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

3 Peer Reviews:

Blogger DenverDarling said...

I think you may have just created another Mary Oliver fan. What a beautiful poem!!!

7:36 PM  
Blogger Miranda said...

I started as a social science turned nursing major who was dragged kicking and screaming to chemistry anatomy and biology classes at my my local community college. Withen a week, and thanks to some really wonderful professors, I was hooked on cell biology. I hope to do some kind of research, or more likely, teach science at the secondary or post-secondary level. I tutor in biology and english to meet expenses and boy do I have stories to tell.

You sincerely care, and that will rub off of your students more than you realize. Most students won't really get it, but some will and I hope it makes up for those other days.

7:56 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Ah, you finally commented DD .. I am happy to see you here and I am glad I could share my favorite living poet with you .. I hope to meet her one day soon (she's in her early 70s now).

Thanks, Miranda, for your kind words. I would like to believe that my students realize I care that they master the material, but I think they view me as an impediment standing in their way to their $45-70,000 per year careers. I sometimes wonder if the huge pay differential between them and me (what they currently earn, and also what they will earn in the near future in their new careers) plays a bigger role than anything else in their decision to not respect me.

Well, needless to say, I am going to buy a new paid of jeans -- a pair with holes in the appropriate places ONLY! It's about time!

9:41 AM  

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