For the most part, life as we know it is not immutable. It is constantly in flux: seasons change, fashion changes, culture changes. People change. These changes take place over time; usually they are not abrupt. The old fades. Suddenly we realize the leaves are a different color. We are wearing different pants, different shoes now (or maybe we aren’t–everyone else is). Our favorite television shows are being shown in syndicate on channels like TVLand or NickatNite. Technology, however, changes right before our eyes. The only constant thing about it is that it’s constantly changing. And we accept these changes as unavoidable, in the way that tax season or natural disasters are unavoidable.
My students are always teaching me things. Thanks to them I know how to circumvent dorm monitors and where to buy the best tacos at 2 am. The educational exchange never ceases to amaze me, particularly with regard to their fascination with technology. Every backpack holds a laptop, every palm of every hand a cell phone. Excuse me, smartphone. These gadgets have been parts of their lives forever. They’ve never known a world without them, and they never will. Changing technology is their norm; they can chronicle the timeline of their lives with old cell phones, batteries long since dead, chargers long since lost.
When it comes to technology, age discrepancy becomes glaringly obvious. There are those completely resistant to change, those who embrace change with some measure of hesitation, and those for whom change is the only way the world works. My students are of the last ilk. They will continue to upgrade those smartphones until they themselves become irrelevant. I am of the middle kind: I appreciate change, but I’m beginning to feel technology-induced exhaustion at the prospect of yet another software update. Technology has a way of making me feel obsolete. Sitting in Starbucks on campus I overheard a conversation: two guys discussing whether or not it is better to rebuild an old computer or purchase a new one. “My processor is old, outdated,” one of them said. “I would replace it if I could.” I discreetly turned to look at them. They were not old. They were not young either. They were somewhere in the middle, both wearing sport coats with patches on the elbows. Professors, I thought. Then I wondered: were they talking about the processors in their computers, or were they talking about themselves?
Most of us begin our adult lives with some vague optimism about the future. Even if things aren’t ideal in the beginning, we reason, surely the harder we work the better life will be. Growing up we all harbor some deep-seated hope that our jobs, whatever they may be, will in some way influence the world for good. We are told to dream–dream big, dream often, don’t stop–and we begin to believe in ourselves.
The truth is that most of us, upon being launched into adulthood, become satisfied with jobs that pay the bills. World changing? Perhaps not. Life-altering? Yeah, potentially. We trudge through each day, each week, paying the bills and wondering what all that dreaming was for. But a lucky few are able to carve out more than that for themselves. For some of us, reality and occupation are not combatants. Rather they coexist, and we are able to have one without falling prey to the other.
Arguably, no one ever goes into teaching for the money. Education is seldom, if ever, championed as a lucrative career choice. But I would argue that those of us who have chosen this profession have duped the rest of the world. Ours is a secret so delicious it must be told.
Every day I go into a classroom where I sit with my books. Some of these books have been with me for awhile, since I was a student myself. They are worn; they are tattered and coffee-stained. They are old friends, keepers of solace. I go into a classroom with my books, and there are students there waiting for me, waiting for me to tell them what’s in the books. But instead of dryly delivering information for them to file away and regurgitate later, we have conversations. We talk about theme and plot and symbolism and all the things that make my books tick. And my students begin to know what they’re doing. When my day is finished, I find myself sitting at a desk trying to figure out when the actual work is going to begin.
Being a teacher is like being on the inside of a joke. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly know what I do for my paycheck. Of course they don’t; if they knew how much fun I was having they probably wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I don’t mean to suggest that being a teacher is not without its problems. Anyone who has ever done it or tried to do it before will tell you that it’s tough. The grading and the grade-grubbing and the constant reminders that our work will never be done are, at times, maddening. Then payday roles around, and for one brief moment we all feel like the joke’s on us.
But at the end of the day it is my job, it is my occupation, to go into a classroom and discuss “Jabberwocky.” It is my job to watch my students develop confidence in themselves, my job to watch them come to appreciate and love the very same books that have meant so much to me, my job to help them find their own voice and figure out what to say and how to write with it. And while no job is without its problems, it’s not a bad way to earn a living.