I went back to school this week. (that’s not me in the picture. I took the picture.)
If our lives are like balloons,
being blown up bigger and bigger over time, all those moments of consciousness filling the balloon with more and more complexity, depth, experience, dare we say, “wisdom,” sometimes that balloon is deflated suddenly, back to being a flat piece of latex. Or maybe our balloon just shrinks 10 years, or 20…50? We are smaller balloons than we were yesterday, or smaller than what we were a few minutes before now. Time collapses.
I know this metaphor is reductive; I’ll write again and again about Time’s mystery, Time’s allusive dimensionality, Time dancing. I’ll write about her again and again, and never really capture her.
But it’s a start for today’s report.
Yesterday, I went to the big university in the city for the first day of class. I’m taking a class as part of my sabbatical this year. I’m obligated to my college to enroll in a class in order for me to learn about what kind of curriculum and pedagogy is being used “these days” so that I can refresh my own work in those areas, blah blah blah…what I’m taking and what I’m teaching is not salient at the moment, though you’re sure to hear a lot about both as I continue to share my thoughts with you in the future.
Time. My balloon—fllloushwhooossssshhhwshwhshw… The air is released quickly, almost imperceptibly.
I am not the seasoned professor walking the campus to my next class, nodding at students and colleagues, eager to teach my students, or perhaps dragging my heels to (yet another) day in the classroom. I am not the seasoned professional who has served on umpteen committees and college/state consortia, discussing and impacting policy and mission and vision, etc… I am not the seasoned artist who is struggling to be more creative, more inventive, more alive and spontaneous in my professional endeavors. I am not the cynical and snarky colleague who has almost given up her optimism about the life-changing opportunities of higher education (note the “almost” in the sentence above). I am not familiar with the same old routine—look at the roster, read the syllabus, try to figure out pretty fast whether this is an inspired and inspiring group of young minds. I am not an old-school teacher, bombarded by the technical upgrades of smart classrooms, pressured to use online tools in and outside the room, I am not a student with the ability to navigate admissions and fees from the palms of my hands in seconds flat. I am not someone who can predict the next few weeks, or the next few hours for that matter. No, I am none of these.
I’m looking for a table in the student union, one that has plenty of light, no glare, and most important, a plug for my laptop.
I am walking around with a Star Wars backpack (an old one from my kids’ younger days), looking for my class location, trying to find the just the right spot to park myself in the student union with my Odwalla and laptop. I am looking out my eyes, seeing so many beautiful people, their abundant optimism going through my pores, the age spots on my skin fading by the minute. I make eye contact and nod hello to a few folks, bundled in their college gear, many in athletic shorts, revealing their glowing sinews, their smooth, creamy thighs. This café is filled with noise. Sure, some people are on their computers or staring at phones, but I swear, these are few and far between at this place. This café is not the quiet workplace that so many of my cafes have turned into. People seem to want to connect to other live human beings around here. They smile a lot. They laugh. They hug. I see and hear all of this, but not with the eyes that circled by wrinkles and sagging skin. I am completely unaware of being older than most of their moms and dads. I am completely unaware that I am a professor at a college…I am not one, at that moment. I’m a co-ed, seeing revered, “old” professor-types in their tweed jackets (still, can you believe it?) and flowing skirts and neck scarves for the women (still, can you believe it?). Sure, there are younger, hipster profs, many of whom are dressed to kill on the streets of Manhattan; some look rather androgynous, perky and confident. But most of the crowd is the same as it was 30 years ago.
I am not nearly 60 years old. I am 20. I soak in everything around me, especially the excitement about learning something new. I look around for romance, for sex even, for someone with whom to go to a concert maybe, a poetry reading, maybe a movie on campus (do they have those anymore?).
I make sure I know where my classroom is, measuring how much time it take to walk there from the center of campus, so as not to even a minute late. I get there early. Not too early, because I can’t be caught in the hall without looking busy and engaged. I sit in the middle, to the side, to be seen but not focused on… When I plop my backpack on the seat, suddenly a fork and some pens fly out and crash to the ground with enough noise to draw people’s attention. Augh! I am trying so hard to be anonymous, but shit, I can’t seem to go anywhere without re-arranging the energy in the room. I often re-arrange the furniture right away, disrupting the stale air, the deadening atmosphere of predictability.
The class starts.
Then things take a turn for the worse.
My balloon, filling up the room, larger and larger. I’m at least 45, and aging fast. All my opinions and experience come flying at me in force…fuck! I have an opinion about this professor; I am suddenly critical of the way she is conducting business, reading from her computer, her eyes glued to the screen. She doesn’t seem to want to look at us at all. I don’t want this opinion! I try to pop the balloon and collapse time again. I return to reading the syllabus, trying to get excited about the reading list. It works, a little. But the prof decides to show us a clip from Youtube: two black men in a 1940s Charlie Chan movie, minor characters, porters or butlers of course, talking in “code.” Okay, I get it…when we’re deeply familiar with someone, we tend to use shorthand, “codes” to communicate. Blah blah blah. But this teacher doesn’t give us the names of the actors, the name of the movie, the context of the scene, and most notably, she does not check herself on the fact that the very first thing she shows us, on the very first day of class is an image of 2 black men, speaking with heavy southern, “black” servant accents, almost clown-like; this is a damaging image – scenes like this from Hollywood have done way more harm than good for our culture at large, perpetuating stereotypes and diminishing the contribution of the black actors at the time of this film. Shit! My balloon…it’s taking up a lot of space in this room. The other students sit silently for the class. A few people mutter a few responses to her questions after being called upon, but no one is offering up any participation. In fact, I would say that this particular instructor is working against the confidence of the students, intimidating them, keeping them far far away from her, from the material, from the optimism and energy that was so alive over burritos and lattes in the student union. Fuck! The balloon takes over the space.… Time expands again…the wrinkles of experience, the sags of gravity at work, the seasoned professor filling my shoes and stockings.
I try to hold my tongue. I manage to do this – for those of you readers who know me, you know this is a huge accomplishment for me.
The class ends. I gather my homework and shove into Darth Vader. I try to talk to the instructor about my auditing the class, since we had exchanged several emails already and I wanted to have a moment of face time… she scowled at me, asking for my official paperwork, of which I had none.
I leave the room and trudge up the hill to the MUNI. My feet are heavy, my legs a bit tired. The balloon of time is not only huge again, it is heavy too, a weight I pull up the hill.
Students surround me. Oh, they’re all so young…sweet-faced and enthusiastic. I’m just tired, cranky, and need my afternoon nap.
But for a few moments today, Time collapsed. For a few hours, my balloon was flat, and my eyes…my eyes…fresh and open. I am grateful for this.
Within moments, time expands again. My balloon is large and heavy. But I tilt my head
and see it in a new light.
My balloon becomes beautiful, round and sensuous, ready to fly into the sky perhaps…float.
I went back to school today. Time collapses. It’s full of balloons. A party really.
August 31, 2018