I had just finished teaching my first Art of Literature class as a graduate student at UMass, Boston.
“It was so great!” I said, stopping her in the hallway, just off of the elevator on my way to the Lounge. “I was able to engage with them and get some conversation going and it was just … great!”
She looked at me, smiling a bit, “I’m so happy for you. You might want to think about the neckline of your shirt before you teach your next class.”
I looked down, just a short-sleeved gray t-shirt from Old Navy, and then looked back up at her, confused and just a little bit deflated.
“You want to make sure that they’re paying attention to you for the right reasons,” she said. “You’re a teacher now.”
We’d scheduled a check-in a semester or so later and I sat in her office.
“Things are good?” she asked. “Your evaluations are excellent. You’re doing well?”
“Yeah, I’m great. My courses are good. I think that my students are doing well,” I said.
She looked at me and said, “I’m not sure that that shirt is appropriate. You’re a teacher now,” she said.
“Really?” I asked, looking down at my Obama shirt. The neck line was super high and I was confused. It was the eve of his first election. “I think it’s totally appropriate, actually,” I said. “My students will be discussing one of Obama’s essays today. And the election is tonight. And, I don’t know if you remember this, but Obama was the Keynote Speaker at my undergraduate ceremony here–at this very University–in 2006. And, well, the neckline on this shirt is all the way up to my damn neck, so I’m not really sure why you would think that this t-shirt is inappropriate at all. With all due respect, Professor, I think that my shirt is one-hundred-percent fucking appropriate.”
She looked at me.
“Is there anything else that you would like to talk with me about today? My grades or my academic progress or anything else relating to any of my students or my syllabus?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
And so I smiled and I nodded and I left her office.
My classroom discussion of Obama’s essay was an excellent one. He won the election. My shirt was appropriate. All of my shirts were always appropriate.
“Here are the rules,” I said. “Choose at least two elements and tell me how they work together. Pick anything literary–a poem, a play, a story, a novel, a film … a song, I don’t care–pick something literary and show us all how the elements work. You know what the elements are,” I said. “Make us a presentation of anything literary and give it to us.”
I looked at them. Almost 30 college-aged faces looking back at me.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Anything as long as it’s literary,” I said. “You each get five minutes to present,” I said. “Five minutes. Character, setting, motif, theme, dialogue. Whatever. Five minutes.”
“That’s it?” she asked.
“Yep,” I laughed. “That’s it. Good luck.”
The guy whose laptop I banned from my classroom on the very first day–me, demanding that he take real notes with pen and paper (no technology, sorry)–brought us an excerpt from ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and talked about Dialogue and Setting.
The girl who later became my Teaching Assistant brought something very Elizabethan and got everyone engaged somewhere around Minute Two. She talked about Character and Motif.
Someone brought some Dr. Suess in and talked about Star-Bellied Sneetches on Beaches. He talked about Illustration, Verse, and Theme.
Another one showed a clip from “The Breakfast Club” and talked about Character and Dialogue. She was a bold redhead wearing a pair of heels that day.
I woke early that last morning, that last morning of my teaching at UMass, knowing that I’d be moving to Florida the following week. Early, before the train started running. And a cement block sat on my chest. I pulled it off, over to the side, and I breathed as much as I could. My heart raced and I sat up, gripping the corners of my bed, breathing and sobbing. I had never known anyone who had died, but I imagine that that kind of loss felt like something like what I was feeling that morning.
“What the fuck you cryin’ ’bout?” he asked.
“Go to sleep,” I said as I went off to the shower.
I wore a hat to class that day.
The University hired me to teach my thesis. It was an experiment. Literature and Society is what they gave me and I taught Dystopia. Because that was what I had created and because there were people there who wanted to learn. So, I did it. It was mine. My thing. It hadn’t been done before. It came straight out of my literary heart, my t-shirt high in the neckline department. I looked at them and I said goodbye and thank you and someone said, “She’s crying,” and I tipped the brim of my hat closer down toward my eyes and I wondered if I’d ever get that same thing again.
“So to be honest, it was really hard for me to not get emotional during class today. I hope everything is okay, but I needed you to know that you have changed my life. Before this class, I was outspoken and opinionated, but I never knew why or where to channel that. Because of you, I know do. You have made me rethink my whole career path/life.
Just a background of me, I was going back to school to be an interior designer and own my own business. If you would of asked me in September what my passion and dream was, that would of been it.
Then I took your class and realized that doing that is bullshit. I have a voice, I have a strong personality and quite frankly, I am not afraid to stand up for what I think is right and voice my opinion. In a world full of people that have been conditioned to shut up, I speak louder. You really are the reason why I have now changed my path of life to becoming a writer and activist. I want to write a dystopian novel and have my name next to all the great people who are trying to breath life back into this lackluster world.
I would love to keep in contact with you, maybe even grab some drinks sometime. You have just joined my list of heros and I am really interested to know what else you have to say! Especially outside a classroom setting where you don’t have to somewhat filter what you are saying.
Thank you again for everything that you have done.”
(She found me on Facebook and sent me this message as I walked toward my car on my last day. I tipped my hat even lower on my brow. She traveled the globe and is an artist now. A really, really good one.)