On Teaching for the First Time

I’ve spent the last few days grading papers. Soon I will email each of my students with comments and grades, thanking them for their contributions to the class, for their insights, questions, energy, and humor. I may teach some of them again—some may even turn out to be Classics majors—but this will probably be my last interaction with many. I’ll see them on campus, racing their bikes towards the engineering quad. Perhaps they’ll shout a greeting, and I’ll wave back.

These students were my first. When they walked into the classroom on the first day, I tried not to let them see how terrified I was. I worried that they could tell that their TA was only five years older than them. They all, I was certain, would hate me and try to switch to the other section of the class.

But they didn’t. For four hours a week, they came eager to discuss Plato and Augustine, Kafka and Richard Wilbur. As I became more comfortable facilitating discussions, my sixteen students started to facilitate themselves. Instead of always addressing me, they spoke to one another, picking up problems and questions their classmates brought up. We read excerpts from Antigone and the Aeneid, broke into small groups to hunt for metaphors in Confessions Bk. X, wrote speeches for a symposium on friendship, held heated debates pitting Manichaeism against Neoplatonism. We discussed big ideas like courage and love and the problem of evil.

About halfway through the quarter, I stopped being terrified and started to enjoy myself.

How lucky am I, I thought, to be teaching these students? These students were all freshmen, taking the first writing course of their college career. All of them were intelligent, ambitious, curious, engaging. They came from all over the world, from different cultures and religions and socioeconomic backgrounds.

I feel rather guilty; I learned far more from my students than they learned from me.

I remember being surprised, my first term at university, at how invested my professors were in me—in my interests, my ideas, my well-being. Even though I was in several large classes, my professors took time for me. My survey professor talked to me for an hour about epic elements in The Rape of the Lock. My theater professor let me write a ridiculously ambitious paper comparing Racine and Euripides. I wrote a sad poem, and my poetics professor asked if I needed someone to talk to. My Greek professor listened when I said I was homesick, and gave me a hug.

Part of the reason was that I was there. I was (and still am) something of a keener, and showed up to office hours regularly, asked questions, sent emails. A bigger part is that I had wonderful, warm-hearted, and student-oriented professors, right from my first semester.

But now, sitting on the other side of the desk, I can see another part of the equation. My students are eighteen years old. They are full of ambition and ideas and optimism. They are full of doubts and uncertainties. Many of them are away from home for the first time, excited and nervous. Over the next four years, they will question their plans, their beliefs, their identity; they will change and grow in a thousand dimensions.

At twenty-three, I’m certainly not done asking these questions myself, nor am I very much further down the road of self-discovery than my students are. But I have just enough distance to see how beautiful this moment is. I’m curious to see what my students do next. What will engage all the intelligence and curiosity I’ve observed over their first quarter? Which ones will be doctors, writers, engineers, preachers, actors? How many of them will keep thinking about Socrates and Augustine and how the mind is like a bat, precisely?

I’m invested in my students, not because they show up to office hours, but because they are so worth investing in. They are fascinating, intelligent young women and men who are going to do amazing things with their lives. And I am one of the lucky people who gets to see them start.

I’m sure that I will become just as fascinated by future students, that I’ll keep learning from them term after term. But I’ll always remember these sixteen freshmen, my first students. If any of you are reading this—thank you. I can’t wait to see the wonderful ways you change the world.

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