Teachable Moments: Adulthood

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The other day, I pictured the decade ahead and realized, “I’ll probably have kids in ten years. Okay.”

Then I recoiled and thought, “Okay?? What do you mean okay? Why am I not horrified at the possibility of growing, birthing, and raising another human?”

I guess it means I’ve grown up.

It’s not like I did all of my growing up this year. I became more mature as I went away to college, studied abroad in Madrid, and navigated the challenges of my senior year in college. But being in the workforce has also shaped me for the better, especially as I remind myself that I am no longer a college student whose duties for the day start at 11 AM. I feel even more grown-up in comparison to my high school students, many of whom are facing the end of what they’ve known and the beginning of all they will discover.

As I watch the excited seniors at school reflect on their experience and dream of the future ahead of them, I see how they wear sunlight. They are going through one of the first poignant transitions in their lives. The hallways are spiked with a curious yet potent mixture of summer sweat, ennui, joy, and terror. For one of the first times in my life, I breathe it in but do not own it. I’ve gone through all of the “firsts” that they’re about to experience. I’ve already figured out who I like and don’t and like from high school, what I chose to remember, and what memories will remain important to me. And I’ve come to see that adulthood is a tricky process of leaning out – basically, it’s not about you anymore.

My students are still in that lovely phase where they believe their experiences are unique. And in some ways they are. No one’s memories are quite like yours, no one loves the same people for the same things that you do, no one finds your particular joy in the vignettes that clutter your brain. But I’ve come to realize that the best way for me to let them enjoy things is to lean out – to support, to ask questions, to congratulate a job well done before going home to my room of my own.

I know I’ve already quoted this essay here, but a line from Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” resonates with me as I reflect upon this nascent stage in my life:

[O]ne of the mixed blessings of being twenty or twenty-one or even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.

I chuckled at this statement a year ago at twenty-two, but I don’t think I truly got it until I was hit in the face this year with all of the “evidence to the contrary.” My struggles are not unique. Everyone has been dumped. Everyone has had a difficult boss. Everyone has carved out their place in a new city. Everyone has taken a good hard look at their life and thought, “What do I really want?

I’m past the point where teachers will coddle me. I’m no longer in a phase of life where people will pat me on the head for doing the right thing. Instead, I’m entering a long period of giving back, stepping back, and making myself useful to the greater society. It is the only way I can make the world a little bet better than I found it. It is the best way to let others be as joyful as I was in high school and college.

College was a time to develop a unique suit of armor. I emerged from Wesleyan with an interlocking sense of identity, a fierce commitment to feminism, a newly forged set of ears, and a newly formed trust in myself. I must not wield this armor as a weapon to cut down things that would take attention away from myself. That’s what the worst of navel gazers do. Instead, teaching has been a process of thinking:

if this identity/self-confidence/belief/behavior has been so useful to me, how can I develop it in someone else?

I learned early on from watching one of my mentors that the goal of teaching is not at all to make students think like you. Instead, you want them just to think. The best discussion questions are actually quite simple: Why do you say that? Where do you see that in the text? Who’d like to add on to that? Tell me more.

Or, as another colleague put it, her professor at Middlebury theorized teaching as “being the guardrail.” Your job is to prevent students from running themselves completely off the road, and theirs is to drive the car. Guardrails do not protect you by throwing themselves across the highway and yelling “BE CAREFUL BECAUSE WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE…” Instead, they lean out. They give you just enough room to get to where you need to go without falling over a cliff.

Work has been fairly easy for me at times because I’m a young single person. At various points in this year I’ve thought, how do you work when you come home to a failing relationship? How do you work when you come home to a sick family member? How do you work when you come home to a tiny human whom you have to convince to eat dinner? There is so much more of life to sweat through, and as my fourth-grade teacher used to say (borrowing from Robert Frost), miles to go before I sleep.

This is not to say that nothing will ever happen to me past the age of twenty-three. Instead, Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College who spoke at my graduation, urged my classmates and I to jump at opportunities in our lives:

Imagine this scene: you are in a room and the phone is ringing. Everyone is sitting around and no one gets up to answer it. You say to yourself, why doesn’t someone answer that phone? You look around and everyone else is motionless and undisturbed. They don’t seem to even notice that the phone is ringing. You start to wonder if it is your imagination, maybe the sound of the television, maybe the phone isn’t ringing at all – that’s why no one else is getting up to answer it. But no, you definitely hear it, and so finally you say, all right, someone better answer this phone, I will. Whenever I think of this scene, I think to myself, “I guess that’s what they mean when they say you’ve been ‘called’.”

I answered that call when I took my first job. I very unwillingly picked up the phone that led me to the Mellon Mays Foundation, which will lead me to a PhD. I literally picked up my cellphone to accept a new job and a new apartment for next year. Most importantly, I hope I’ve been responsive in the times I have been called this year to be a good friend, colleague, and daughter.

But for now, in this first week of June, the phone is not ringing for me. It is my job to guide others towards the phones that might be ringing in their lives, to congratulate them on new achievements, and to be grateful to all of those who have taught me this year. It’s my job to lean out and give those who celebrate a wide berth for their joy. I’ll claim some big life achievements soon enough, but for now, I’m going to continue on the winding path of adulthood.

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