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.

Demarcated

It all started with a simple question. This past weekend was the BRAWN Summer Institute, which means I spent the past three days at Boston University attending workshops and comparing teaching techniques with about 80 other Boston-area college writing instructors. Over lunch on Sunday, one of my colleagues asked a simple question that inspired a flurry of conversation. How many of us intended when we were younger to become college composition instructors, and how many came to teach college-level writing by a circuitous or even accidental route?

Terriers

In the process answering this question, my colleagues and I uncovered the wild, weird, and roundabout ways that life sometimes unwinds. One of my colleagues trained to be an actress; one intended to be a ballerina. Another always knew she wanted to be a college professor, but she trained as a linguist, not a lit or writing scholar. One colleague grew up wanting to be a nature writer, and another discovered the field of composition studies after accidentally realizing he wanted to study the science of writing. Yet another colleague was coerced to share the story of how he’d actually flunked out of college but continued to hang out on campus for a few years without telling his family, even going so far as to rent a cap and gown and sit with his former classmates when his parents showed up for graduation. Is it fate, chance, or cruel karma that someone with that kind of history would eventually find himself at the front of a college composition class, teaching?

Parking lot mural

Teachers of writing, it turns out, are excellent storytellers, and we each have stories to tell. When I was in high school, I had no intentions of teaching college-level English; instead, I wanted to become an interpretive naturalist, wearing khakis and a Smokey Bear-hat while leading nature walks. After realizing that most interpretive naturalist jobs are seasonal rather than year-round, I decided studying biology would be a more dependable choice than studying natural resources, and after realizing I had little interest in the dissection and laboratory work that college biology classes involve, I switched to English, thinking a career as a lit professor would offer a dependable day-job to fund my extracurricular nature studies.

Ivied

It’s interesting to consider (especially in retrospect) the alternate lives any of us might have led if our lives had turned out differently: this is the classic question of the road not taken. If you can’t pursue all the goals you ever envisioned, how does it happen that you end up walking the path you do choose? Are our lives a maze of forking choices, each irrevocable and final—don’t look back—or are our lives like a meandering labyrinth, where there’s only one route to our destination, albeit one that wends and winds in a nonsensical and even dizzying fashion? At the end of our days (or at least our careers), will we look back and see how all the twists and turns make their own kind of logical sense, or will we look back with longing and regret, noting the turns we might have missed?

Obscured

As it turns out, adjunct writing instructors juggle jobs that are just as seasonal, unpredictable, and underpaid as any interpretive naturalist position, so perhaps you never can escape your fate. My high school penchant for biology survives in my blog, where I post pictures of birds and buds, and somewhere along the way toward finishing a doctoral dissertation about American nature writing, I discovered I didn’t want to be a critic responding to other people’s prose but a writer who produced my own.

Green Line

The same BRAWN colleague who asked us yesterday if we’d planned to become writing instructors also asked whether we’d initially planned to teach writing or become writers, and my knee-jerk response was immediate and emphatic. “I still want to become a writer,” I insisted: there is no past tense about that. Perhaps the acorn never falls far from the tree, and perhaps an acorn has no choice but to become an oak in the end, regardless of any apparent denials.