When I was a little kid and we went to the beach, I always had this strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting moment where I’d think to myself this is our first day at the beach; we have four more days at the beach, and then this vacation is over. That sentence, I now realize, doesn’t look strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting at all; the only difficult thing about it, at first glance, is knowing where to put the punctuation. But
when I thought it, I was completely overwhelmed with the realization that time passes, and that time in fact was passing, and in a few days the hotel room and the breakfast place downstairs with all of its impossibly tiny jars of jam and the ocean outside and the sand would pass beneath my feet, and everything would be over.*
That’s the same feeling I always had at the end of every semester of school. This is my first day of exams; I have four more days of exams, and then they are over. All year, time had been passing, and soon my gray locker and bulky typewriter and Trapper Keeper and goddawful erasable pens would pass beneath my feet, and I’d be another year older.** This feeling would be even more strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting than the beach feeling, as it also meant I was one year closer to having to figure out what the hell, exactly, I planned to do with my life. Thankfully, I was able to answer more school! for a long time — long enough for me to at least find, my second year of graduate school, a term that describes this feeling: mono no aware, the Japanese aesthetic idea of things having the feeling of time passing. I’ve read a lot of different translations/interpretations of this concept, and most of them seem to fall in one of two camps: either mono no aware describes an image that represents the passage of time, like falling cherry blossoms or autumn leaves or a rotting Halloween pumpkin, or it describes the very feeling of the beach and the end of the semester, when one can literally feel that time is passing around, above, and beneath them.
I wonder, sometimes, if this is why I chose to teach at the college level: I was able to answer the question of what are you going to do after school with more school! and then FOREVER SCHOOL!
Even as I type that, I know it’s wrong. It’s wrong because I never really chose to teach. It just happened. I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be able to have things like running water and electricity, so I knew I had to find some way to make money. I started noticing that most writers also taught, and so I thought to myself, ok. That’s what we’re going to do, self.
When I fell into that decision — I can’t say I made it — I didn’t even particularly know what professors did. I remember being pulverized by this realization during one of the very first conversations I had in graduate school, a loose sketch of which appears below:
Emma Bolden: Hi, I’m Emma Bolden, and I’m a new TA.
Someone, I Can’t Really Remember Who: Hi, Emma Bolden the new TA. Welcome to your first college-level teaching job, where you will be teaching Comp.
Emma Bolden: What’s Comp?S,ICRRW: Ha ha ha ha. (Pause.) Oh, you’re serious. (S,ICRRW explains Comp to Emma Bolden).
Emma Bolden: Ha ha ha ha ha. (Pause.) Oh, you’re serious. Please excuse me. (Emma Bolden heads to the nearest bathroom to cry, then drives herself home with mascara still all over her face to tell her mother she’s terrified and thinks she won’t be able to do this ANY OF THIS.)
Though I do still have my I-won’t-be-able-to-do-this-ANY-OF-THIS moments, I finally feel more comfortable in the classroom because I finally remembered what my best teachers did: they talked. They listened. Most importantly, they learned. I learned the most from professors who were learning along with me, reading and reaching to understand, who were willing to think in front of us, alongside us, with us. And I learned that perhaps the even-more-most-important thing is to learn from my students, who have, in all honesty, every single day, taught me more than I could ever teach them.
At the end of every semester, I walk out of the classroom after picking up their portfolios. I turn off the lights and turn to look at the empty tables, the empty desks, the windows looking out into the world we’ve all just re-entered. And while I do still feel a tinge of that mono no aware moment, I also feel firmly rooted, as if I’m being held to the ground by my students and their words, which wait for me in the paper-clipped pages of their portfolios. And then it hits me: a semester’s end isn’t an ending. It’s a beginning, and the one we’ve all been working towards all semester long. It’s the beginning of each student’s life outside the walls of the classroom, the beginning of each student walking into the world and taking their words with them, the beginning of their words in that world. Suddenly, I’m happy about what we’re all leaving behind, because it means we’re all taking with us what we need to take with us, the knowledge and hunger and language, to make our own beginnings in the outside world.
Suddenly, being a professor feels like the happiest accident I’ve ever had.
*It’s entirely possible that my mother and/or father are reading this at the moment and thinking to themselves Oh and So that’s what all of that was about. It’s also possible that he and/or she is rolling his and/or her eyes. I’d therefore like to take this moment to say I know, guys, I know. Also, I apologize for that time I spat out my bubblegum while floating in a swim-sweater in a crowded hot tub. Also for sneaking into that crowded hot tub to float around in my swim-sweater in the first place. Also for all of my childhood. Thank you.
**Actually literally, since my birthday coincides with the end of the school year.