In a humdrum


October skies / view from May Hall

I teach in Framingham until 6:30 on Tuesday and Thursday nights, so this means I’ve seen firsthand how inevitably the days have shortened: a class that used to end in daylight now lets out after dark.

Sunset from 2nd floor women's restroom

I teach my afternoon class in May Hall, where my office is also located. May Hall is perched atop a hill, and its stairwells have west-facing windows that offer lovely views of distant hills and afternoon sunsets. October is a busy month for professors, so I haven’t had much time to go leaf-peeping. On late October afternoons, however, you needn’t go far to enjoy the seasonal scenery.

White snakeroot

It’s been an unusually warm October: today the temperatures were in the mid-seventies. Apart from a few clear, brisk days, the month has been soupy, with warm temperatures, rain, and unseasonable mugginess. Although it feels like bad luck to wish for cooler days, I’m looking forward to the end of summer humidity…assuming, that is, that October eventually starts feeling like fall.

Mumkin in afternoon light

Even when the weather doesn’t feel like October, however, the sun always knows what time of year it is. Late this afternoon on my way home from doing errands, I had my car windows down while the setting sun illuminated the street, sidewalks, and neighbors’ yards with a metallic sheen. Even at high noon, October light feels belated, and on an October afternoon, the world feels downright antique. Although today’s temperatures still said summer, the low-angled light of late afternoon was tinged with the same bronze hues that ripens every year in October: the witching month, when the earth leans into an approaching chill.

Takeoff

Today’s weather is the same as it was sixteen years ago today: brisk and beautiful, with turquoise-blue skies. I’m not sure if there is a meteorological reason why September skies are often so deeply, vividly blue, but that’s how the sky was on September 11, 2001.

Logan Airport flyby

Sixteen years ago, I was living in Hillsborough, NH with my then-husband, and September 11 was a Tuesday. I’d just started teaching at Keene State College, but I didn’t teach on Tuesdays that semester. Instead, I was working a part-time temporary job at a publishing company in Portsmouth, NH, about an hour and a half away from home.

Jet Blue on blue

That morning’s drive to Portsmouth was largely uneventful, but there had been a car crash on the stretch of highway between Concord and Portsmouth, and police had blocked the road and detoured traffic. I remember driving on small, rural roads through communities I’d never visited before. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS devices, and I was genuinely worried I’d get lost trying to find my way to work, but the day was so lovely, I almost didn’t mind.

Overhead

When I got to work, I learned someone had died in that crash: the first of the day’s many tragedies. But since I didn’t know the person who had died, I quietly settled into the cubicle of one of the of two women on maternity leave I’d been filling in for that summer. While I was working, someone sent out an inter-office email saying the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane, and I quickly skimmed and deleted the email. Since I was juggling this temp job with the new school year at Keene State, I had a lot of work to do that day, so I continued working without checking CNN or turning on the radio.

Wild blue yonder

The same thing happened when another email came around saying the second World Trade Tower had been hit: I read the email and kept working. I hadn’t seen any photos or videos of the attack, so I imagined a scary but somehow explicable accident wherein two planes had gone off track, clipping a wing against one and then a second skyscraper. Because I was busy, I was able to compartmentalize the news: something bad was happening in New York, but I was in Portsmouth, and I had a tall pile of work to do. I was probably the last worker in my office–the last person in America–to realize the gravity of what had happened.

Fly-by

I wasn’t until lunchtime that I fully realized what was happening. I was supposed to attend a staff meeting, but everyone was so upset by the news from New York, several coworkers and I went for a quick walk instead. It was an attempt to dissipate some nervous energy on a clear autumn day that was too beautiful to spend inside. When we got back to the office, I finally saw my first glimpse of the attack.

Overhead

A throng of co-workers was crammed into a single cubicle, huddling around a computer to watch CNN, and that was when I saw for the first time the incessant replay of planes crashing and buildings falling. Like countless others before me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene out of a movie, not something actually happening under an impossibly blue umbrella of September skies.

Overhead

Not long after my co-workers and I stood slack-jawed and silent around a single computer, our boss sent us home for the day: my co-workers to nearby homes and loved ones, and me to a lonely hour-and-a-half drive. The roads between Portsmouth and Hillborough were nearly empty, and I listened to the news on NPR while scouring the skies for planes. It’s been sixteen years since I took that long, lonely drive, and I still hold my breath whenever I see a distant plane fly anywhere near a city skyline, waiting to make sure it flies behind each silhouetted skyscraper rather than directly through.

Kindergarten class, Barnett Elementary School, 1974-1975.

Ever since I decided to go to my 30-year high school reunion last month, I’ve been sorting through old photos and mementos from my school days, photographing and posting them online as a way of making a digital backup of the analog artifacts of my early life. Yesterday, I photographed and posted two photos from kindergarten: first, my class portrait, and second, a composite photo of everyone in my kindergarten class from Barnett Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio.

Kindergarten portrait, Barnett Elementary School, Columbus, OH. I wanted to be a school teacher. ☺️ #fbf

I’m Facebook friends with two members of my kindergarten class, and I recognize and remember a handful of other classmates I’ve since lost touch with. But the names and personalities of the other children in that composite photo are lost to time. I remember my kindergarten teacher, Miss Mock, and I remember vague details about our classroom, like the fact it opened onto its own brick-walled playground and had in one corner a playhouse with toy kitchen utensils and costumes for playing dress-up. But everything else is a blur.

Through

I remember learning in kindergarten not to be a tattletale, even though I was greatly aggrieved that Miss Mock didn’t spring into action when I dutifully “tattled” that some now-forgotten boy was doing something both dangerous and forbidden in that walled-in playground. Wasn’t preventing a child from braining himself on the concrete a more pressing priority than teaching me, an obedient and good child, an abstract lesson about minding my own business?

See-saw

Clearly I was wrong: Miss Mock wasn’t concerned that so-and-so would fall from whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be climbing, and indeed nobody was hurt that day. But the lesson–or, more accurately, my sense of outrage that I was being scolded for following the rules while a boy who was doing something naughty got no scolding whatsoever–clearly stays with me. In retrospect, this might have been the most valuable lesson I learned in kindergarten: not a lesson about tattling, but a lesson about life’s unfairness. Sometimes good girls get scolded and bad boys get away with being naughty, a lesson I suspect many women would understand.

Grab a hold

The only other experience I remember from kindergarten involves wooden blocks. One day I was playing with blocks, and a little boy knocked over the tower I was patiently building. (As a child who grew up with older sisters, I hadn’t realized until kindergarten how senselessly cruel little boys could be.) Enraged, I picked up a block and promptly threw it directly at the little boy’s head. It was a clear instance of vigilante justice: you touch my toys, I bean your brain.

Make it better

Except…after hitting the boy, I immediately started crying, upset at the bad thing I’d done. (Have I already mentioned I was an obedient and good child?) I don’t remember if the boy cried because I’d hurt him; I was probably too upset to notice. Instead, I was completely overwrought by the tiny tragedy that had played out: first he ruined my tower, then I hurt him in return.

Pretty pony

When Miss Mock asked what happened–as I remember, this all transpired in a split second when she was out of the room, so a more savvy child would have denied everything or pinned the blame on someone else–I gushed out a tearful confession: “He did this, I did that!” Ultimately, I think I was more wounded from the encounter than he was. The boy whose name I no longer remember presumably rubbed off the bump to his head, but I was heartbroken to think I’d hurt someone simply because they made me mad.

First day of issue

Yesterday, J surprised me with first day of issue covers of two US postage stamps commemorating Henry David Thoreau: one issued in 1967, and the other issued this year. The stamp from 1967 is ugly as sin–its designer managed to make an admittedly homely fellow look even worse–but this year’s stamp is lovely, with a portrait of Thoreau in muted earth tones alongside a reproduction of his signature.

Postcard with Smokey Bear stamp

I was never a serious stamp collector, but I still have the albums from when I dabbled in stamp-collecting as a child, along with a souvenir postcard with a Smokey Bear stamp I bought and had cancelled at the Smokey Bear Station at the Ohio State Fair in 1984, when Smokey turned forty. (That sentence tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me as a fifteen-year-old. Not only was I nerdy enough to collect stamps, I was nerdy enough to love Smokey Bear.)

Stamps about stamp collecting

To me, stamp collecting was an aesthetic pursuit, like admiring tiny works of art. I enjoyed the serendipitous nature of stamp-collecting: getting mail was exciting enough, and getting mail with interesting stamps was even better. I still like to use pretty stamps for even mundane mail: if you have to stick a stamp on an envelope anyway, you might as well use an attractive or otherwise interesting one.

Thoreau stamps

When Thoreau’s new stamp came out this year, I bought several sheets even though I didn’t need any stamps at the time. I like to think that sticking Thoreau’s face on my mail draws attention to a writer who has left an indelible mark on my intellectual life. Even if the adult recipients of the mail I send don’t notice the stamps I use, maybe some curious child will, just as I did when I was younger.

This being said, I haven’t yet used any of the Thoreau stamps I bought; so far, I’ve been saving them, using other stamps instead. I like to think my secret stash of Thoreau stamps is there just waiting for me to use them when the time is just right: in the “nick of time,” just as Thoreau described his own birth.

Apparently, I’m a true collector at heart, buying sheets of Thoreau stamps when they became available only in part because I wanted to use them. In reality, I just wanted to have them.

Your moment of Zen.

I spent this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio visiting family and attending my thirty-year high school reunion. I still can’t believe it’s been three decades since I graduated from Eastmoor High School, went to college in Toledo, and never looked back. In my mind, moving back to Columbus was never an option: moving home after college would have been an admission of failure, a white flag of surrender indicating I’d botched my one big chance to leave home and make it in the real world.

I'm here.

My ex-husband used to deride my lack of corporate experience, given I’ve only worked in academia, with brief, part-time stints in retail sales and secretarial work when I was in grad school. My ex-husband believed that because I’ve never worked in the corporate sector like he did, I didn’t have “real world” experience. But from my perspective, I’ve always been in the real world, and I never worked for a corporation because I never needed to. Even though my ex-husband dismissed academia as being too “Ivory Tower” to count as “real,” it’s taken me an inordinate amount of scrappiness to survive on a patchwork of part-time teaching jobs I’ve juggled not for fun, but to pay the bills.

And for the past thirty years, I have paid the bills, persevering with an exhausting assortment of adjunct jobs because teaching is what I do. There have been many times over the past thirty years when I’ve sweated the small stuff, wondering whether there would be enough paycheck to cover the month. But I always found ways to make ends meet–I always managed to scrimp, save, and budget my way–and it doesn’t get much more “real” than that.

Goodbye, Columbus.

The story of the past thirty years has been almost entirely self-motivated. My parents were proud when I earned a college scholarship, but they never pressured me to finish; even if I quit after just one semester of college, I would have achieved more education than they had. But even in the absence of pushy parents, quitting college was something I never would have allowed myself to do: the drive to finish what I started was mine. Although I’ve had friends, teachers, and mentors who have encouraged me along the way, I went to and finished both college and grad school because I wanted to.

What I lack in ambition, I make up for in stubbornness. My path through college, grad school, and a meandering career as an overworked adjunct instructor was a difficult, clueless road: I didn’t know where I was going, but I kept climbing. Because I enjoyed the work I was doing–because I enjoyed reading and discussing literature, researching and writing papers, and ultimately teaching and encouraging students–I kept doing it, persevering primarily because I didn’t know what to do other than take the next step, then the next, then the next.

Logan Airport

The fact I’ve managed to support myself as an English major these past thirty years is, in my opinion, my greatest accomplishment: not even getting a PhD can top it. Simply surviving and supporting myself in New England, some 700 miles from where I was born and raised, is the thing I’m the most proud of. Not only did I go to college and get a degree, I’ve figured out how to support myself while doing the things I love. It’s natural at a high school reunion to compare your lot in life with that of your classmates, and I arrived back in Boston on Monday feeling pretty good about myself. I might not be the thinnest, least-wrinkled, or best-looking of my high school classmates, but after thirty years of making it in the real world, I feel like a success.

30 years ago

It’s been thirty years since I graduated from Eastmoor High School in Columbus, Ohio, so that means it’s been thirty years since I accepted a full scholarship to the University of Toledo. The rest, as they say, is history.

Had I not gotten a full college scholarship, I probably wouldn’t have gone to (much less graduated from) college. I certainly wouldn’t have gone to graduate school, and I most definitely wouldn’t be a college professor today. The daughter of a truck driver and a housewife, I never seriously considered going to college until my high school guidance counselor suggested that my standardized test scores would qualify me for scholarships. Since my family has never been one to refuse free money, that was it: if I could go to college for free, I’d go.

Class of 1987 senior awards ceremony

Much has been said about the power of a college degree to lift students out of poverty: workers with college degrees consistently make more than workers with only a high school diploma. But money is only half of the story. Nobody gets rich as an adjunct English instructor, but the job offers other benefits: for me, having an intellectually-stimulating, satisfying job I enjoy is truly priceless.

Thirty years ago, Eastmoor High School class of 1987. #tbt

This is easy for me to say, of course: because of my full scholarship, I didn’t graduate with student debt, and it was only in graduate school that I had to juggle my studies with the demands of being a teaching assistant while holding down a part-time job. In 1987, the value of a scholarship covering four years of undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board, and books came to a whopping $20,000: these days, a four-year degree costs significantly more than that.

Thirty years ago, Eastmoor High School class of 1987, with @ericloveslife68

But even though many of my current students have to work to pay their way through college, I still see higher education as being a sound investment. There are plenty of respectable, well-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree: when your toilet is spewing sewage or your car won’t start, you’ll pay whatever price your plumber or mechanic demands. But if you don’t want to pursue a trade, and if you recognize the job you’ll have in twenty years probably won’t be the job you have today, a four-year degree offers something better than a mere boost in pay: it offers the flexibility to do a variety of jobs, not just the one you get when you first graduate.

Class of 1987 senior awards ceremony

What my full-ride scholarship ultimately gave me was a ticket to ride. I sometimes tell people that I went to college and never came home, and that’s one way of understanding the trajectory of my professional career. Receiving a scholarship and going to college not only opened doors, it opened my eyes to greater possibilities.

Next Page »