The Last Best Good Story
Not Your Father's Generation
Hooked On Teaching
C'est Missoula Vie
AROUND THE OVAL
About the Montanan
by Jocelyn Siler
When I was nineteen, I never imagined I'd wind up teaching. I was in a New York City college with a major in philosophy and a plan to go to law school. I saw my future self as an edgy prosecuter, talking tough at press conferences on the steps of the courthouse behind New York's City Hallthe same steps Sam Waterston and his district attorney colleagues frequent these days on Law and Order. Teaching just didn't occur to me as a possible profession. It wasn't freighted with the proper glamour.
But the adventure of real life has a way of rearranging our imaginings, and in the late summer of my twenty-second year I found myself driving south through the humid warmth of a dark Georgia night. I had recently graduated from college, and I was on my way to a junior high school teaching job in southern Alabama, following a beautiful boy a couple of years older than I. It was 1969, the year the federal government sent marshals to enforce the school integration that the Supreme Court had made law fifteen years before. (I might bend truth and suggest my journey south was motivated by idealism, but at that time in my life I went where the excitement was; I chose endeavors mainly by their romantic content.)
I was hired sight unseen by the Enterprise School Board to fill the place of a teacher who'd precipitously resigned in response to integration. My reception in the teachers' lounge wasn't particularly warm. Mary Taylor, a tiny, fierce, blond English teacher, greeted me hotly with the words, "I hate Yankees."
I walked into my first class just as the bell was ringing, and I was surprised, first, by the huge difference in perspective between sitting comfortably at a desk as part of a group of students, and standing up in front of the room as the lone teacher: I felt stretched, light-headed, way too tall. The second thing that surprised me was that the principal was sitting in the front rowDave Turner, very large former star halfback for the Crimson Tide, Vietnam vetsitting there with his arms folded across his chest.
I remember the acute feeling of instability and my response to it: the overwhelming desire to find something to hold on to. The blackboard was right next to me. I reached out and picked up a piece of chalk. And I began to teach.
The rush I felt was completely unexpected, the fine, wobbly mixture of terror and excitement. It was the same feeling I'd had when I was three and had pushed away from my father in the deep end of a swimming pool. I stood there with the chalk in my hand, and right then I knewthe classroom was where I was supposed to be. I had to keep doing this.
Sometimes I wonder how things might have gone if I hadn't made what I thought at the time was a temporary detour to that junior high school in southern Alabama. Would I have gone on to law school? Perhaps. However, I believe that somehow I would have found my way into the classroom. I didn't choose teaching; teaching chose me, and it has remained as exciting as it was in those first few moments.
I direct the freshman composition program at the University; I supervise the instructors who staff the freshman writing classes, and I teach those classes myself. I teach students new to UM how to read critically and how to express their ideas in writing.
I love teaching freshmen. In terms of excitement, teaching freshmen just delivers more bang for the buck. What's most exciting about it is I get to be a fire-starter. I introduce students to their own minds and stand back and watch them figure out what it is they think. It's a privilege to witness their awakenings. I never tire of it.
I'm hooked for life.
Jocelyn Siler, '77 MFA, has authored several books on English composition. She is an associate professor of English at UM.
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