Today is my first day back to teaching at Keene State. Although fall semester classes started yesterday, I don’t teach on Mondays, so I spent part of my last official day of freedom swimming at Goose Pond. The day was hot and sunny, so there were lots of other folks (including a former student of mine) enjoying an illicit dip. Once again the dog and I fled the huddled masses in order to swim off a relatively quiet peninsula on the far side of the pond: there’s nothing more relaxing than watching clouds pass while you’re floating in the middle of a tree-fringed pond on a hot summer day.

That was yesterday, though, and this is now. It’s Tuesday, August 31, 2004, and I teach my first class of Fall Semester–ENG 101/Essay Writing–to a group of sleepy eyed freshman at 8:00 am. I’ve been up since 4:00 am, the first of three alarms I’d set waking me bolt-upright at first buzz: “Shit, it’s the first day!” “First day jitters” is a polite euphemism for the state of pure panic I feel before the start of a new academic year. It doesn’t matter that my syllabi have been crisply copied and are ready to be distributed; it doesn’t matter that I have my stack of books ready to take to class. It doesn’t even matter that I’ve taught both of today’s classes (two sections of freshman writing and a single section of ENG 202/Expository Writing) countless times before. Today, on the first day, my stomach with its flock of flapping butterflies is saying, “Are you sure you’re prepared for this?”

The proper answer to that question, of course, is yes and no. Yes, I’m prepared: I know what tasks need to be done in each of my classes, and I have a lesson plan as to how to get those tasks accomplished. The first day of any class in any semester is pretty much the same: you’re doing the basic housekeeping of seeing who showed up, explaining class policies, etc. The first day of any class isn’t rocket science…you’re just trying to set the mood for the stuff that is to come. This being said, though, I freak out before every first day: am I ready? What if I’m not? What the hell am I doing standing in front of a roomful of staring people pretending that I have anything of value to tell them?

Part of why I have a massive freak-out before the start of each new academic year–and part of why I have a mini freak-out before I walk into any class–is the other side of that question “Are you sure you’re prepared for this?” Yes, on the one hand, I am prepared for this: I’ve been teaching college for over 10 years at this point, so I know what I’m doing. I’m not waltzing into class making things up as I go: this is a routine I’ve planned, rehearsed, and tweaked over countless semesters. But on the other hand, you never are completely prepared to teach any given class: there’s always an element of unpredictability. What if this semester brings a particularly challenging group of students? What if someone ask a question that’s never been asked before? What if this particular moment of teaching is unlike any other that came before it, a fact that is, of course, absolutely guaranteed: will I be able to handle it? Just as you can never been completely prepared for your life and the spontaneous curveballs it hurls at you, you can never be completely prepared to teach. At a certain level, it’s a highly improvisational art form.

And so, like any actor in the final moments before striding onstage, I have a bit of stage fright. As soon as the curtain rises and the spotlight hits me in the eye, I know my Teaching Self will rise to the occasion, saying and doing the same practiced things she says and does every time I put her in front of a sleepy eyed classroom. In the meantime, though, it’s just me and my butterflies, wondering what would happen if Teaching Self decided to call in sick…do you think Teaching Self heard that first alarm clock, or is it possible (egads) that she overslept? “If you’re not nervous about teaching a class,” my undergraduate mentor advised me when I first started teaching, “you have no business teaching that class.” I guess big butterflies make for alive, energetic teaching: instead of running on fumes, this machine is fueled by adrenaline and light flapping wings. After my first class (and my first day of classes), I’ll feel much better, thank you. For now, though, I’m going to watch the clock and fidget from now until my 8:00 am showtime.

    Yes, you’ve seen that last blue-painted window before, back before it had a yellow spray-painted face emblazoned on it. Even the graffiti in Keene changes with the seasons.