I am bereft without my students. The semester is over and I’m alone again. I’ve waited for this moment the entire fifteen weeks of the term. After the first class, I check off the days on my calendar and count the weeks, one by one. I imagine all the time I’ll have to myself. Time to read and think. Time to find me again, and open up to my imagination. I always forget how hard it is to move back into “Jyl, the writer” and out of “Professor Felman.” This year I’m having a particularly hard time. In fact, my “Feminist Theory” class is having a reunion next week (two weeks after the last class) and I’ve already assigned readings! I’m excited. I invested so much in these students that I can’t wait to see them.
I talk to my classes about things I never talk about with anyone else.
Like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. After we read the book, I gave them their assignment: write a piece from the point of view of your vagina. Everyone was surprised. One young woman said, “I never knew my vagina had so much to say,” and the others agreed. In my “Memoir” class, we discussed the risk of revealing “family secrets.” I tell my students how I did it in Cravings, and then how it estranged me from my family. “You must not be afraid,” I say. I’ve been teaching for over thirty years, and I’m still discovering the ways of the classroom, and my role in it. In all my courses I talk about the importance of “discovering your voice.” I talk to the students the way I always wanted my professors to talk to me. I needed to know they really cared whether or not I succeeded. I depended on my professors to cheer me on as a writer and an intellectual. To tell me to “Go for it!” In my dreams, my professors told me that I could be a writer and to hold on to my desire, and that Women’s Studies is a serious, intellectual subject worthy of study.
Sometimes I was lucky. There were two professors, one in undergraduate and one in graduate school, who believed in me and weren’t afraid to tell me so. I believe in all my students, even the ones who give me a hard time and wear me out. Even the ones I don’t like. But at the end of each semester, I’m exhausted—then terrified. Because now, I am a writer again. I am alone with myself. There are no students hungry for what I have to say. There are no weekly posts to read and respond to. I have to get their voices out of my head before I can do my own creative work. It’s hard.
The fact that I could write this blog while teaching still amazes me. I have never been able to do anything other than teach when I’m teaching. When the semester ends, I have to cross a bridge. From the “work world” where everything is fixed and highly structured, and into the “dream world,” where all is fluid and unknown. This is one of the most difficult parts of being a writer for me. I never know if I’ll make it over safely and find my voice. This is a grave matter. My life depends on safe passage. Sometimes it takes me a month to fully let go of my students. I have to mourn their absence from my life. I am in this grieving process now. It’s taken many years for me to understand how to reclaim myself when I finish teaching. This year, as soon as school was out, I got sick and stayed in bed for two days. I now understand—finally—that I have two passions. One is writing (and reading), and the other is teaching. I need them both.
I have fought this awareness for most of my teaching career, thinking that I’m teaching only to earn a living (even though I am seriously underpaid, having never received tenure). I am working on accepting these two sides of me, the extrovert/teacher and the introvert/writer. What’s left is not to fear crossing the bridge or being caught half way and have to turn back. All artists/writers dare to cross over. There are times we don’t make it and have to try again. Although the crossing is different for everyone, there’s always the tension between moving from one world to another. For some, the movement may be daily, as in getting up early in the morning to write before going to “work,” or writing late into the night when the children are sleeping. Find the worlds you travel through. Name them. Embrace them. Dare to cross the bridge.