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And You Feed Them for a Lifetime

It wasn’t until my third year at UNM that I realized a graduate student could get some potentially worthwhile experience and earn money in the process by becoming a university teaching assistant instructing freshman composition.  The assistant received a modest stipend, was provided a shared office in the Humanities building, and was required to take several classes in composition theory while teaching. 

On the one hand, the bookish introvert I fancied myself to be recoiled at this possibility.  I simply couldn’t imagine myself in a blazer, dress shirt, bolo tie, khakis, and penny loafers standing―or, perhaps, sitting with an I’m-on-your-side casualness on the edge of an imposing desk―before thirty pimply eighteen-year-olds variously bright-eyed, asleep, anxious, and bored, pontificating on rhetorical approaches, syntax, theses, logic, and diction.  Then again, the eagle hadn’t flown for me in three years and I was beginning to feel guilty about it.  Furthermore, after graduation, a part- or full-time job teaching English at one or more of the various community colleges within a commute from my home in Albuquerque did strike me as a respectable way to make extra income while reaping royalties from my “underground bestsellers” and generally establishing my œuvre.  Of course, I invited Linda to weigh in on the idea of husband-as-professor.  I never doubted that she minded being, in Rilke’s words, a “guardian of my solitude.”  Still, a natural extrovert, she felt that teaching, in addition to bringing in some money, would expose me to new people and new experiences and thus do my craft and sullen art some good.  So I applied for the assistantship, and was accepted. 

Standing outside Mitchell Hall on a late-summer morning, professorially decked out, I clutched my Samsonite attaché case.  It was stuffed with thirty copies of my course syllabus and the text, assigned by the rhetoric department, for the first half of the course: Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen.  I felt reasonably confident as I prepared to teach my first class.  I strode into the building, made a left turn down the first-floor hallway to my classroom, realized what I was about to do . . . and commenced to come apart.  My hands shook and my face flushed.  Surprised, astonished, terrified by the multiplying cracks and splinters in my composure, I paused in the hallway, furiously attempting to understand what was happening and pull myself together.  A minute later, I entered the classroom, breathing shallowly, feeling as if I were staggering, aware of but avoiding the thirty pairs of limpid eyes on me. 

After placing the Samsonite on the massive metal desk at the head of the classroom, I picked up a stick of chalk and prayed my trembling hand would legibly write “Mr. Davis” on the blackboard.  After I managed my name, I recalled the mantra―offered by Mike, my thesis advisor who also happened to be in charge of the freshman composition program―that was supposed to soothe the nerves of the novice teaching assistant: “You know more than they do.”  When I first heard it, the obviousness of it seemed to render it useless.  But, by heaven, it worked, and I relaxed somewhat as I scribbled my office location and hours. 

Throughout the fifty class minutes, as I went over every line of my syllabus with the students, I variously stood, paced easily a few feet to the left and right, and, yes, even sat on the edge of my desk like a lovable, venerated coach delivering a pep talk.  Finally, I issued my first writing assignment: “Four hundred to five hundred words telling me about the last book you read.”  I wanted to “get a sense of your skill levels,” I explained to my students. With this, a young man in the back raised his hand and tentatively asked, “Can I write about a biology book?”  Obviously a budding science or engineering major, I thought. In any event, almost certain he was referring to a textbook assigned by his high school, I was tempted to somewhat jokingly and with smug erudition reply, “Yes, if it’s On the Origin of the Species.”  Then, realizing this might be met with thirty baffled expressions, I instead offered to the young man: “How about a book from your high school English class?”  He thought for a moment, then smiled and nodded, which I regarded as promising.  By the end of class, I was thoroughly relaxed, thinking: They respect me, perhaps even fear me.  Wow.  This might be fun.  And I then proceeded a door or two down the hall to meet my one additional class. 

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