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The Semester of the Rooster

Pope John Paul II—or as I have long and lovingly called him, The Deuce—was once a college professor.  He loved the young, so I forked over an entire class period to a discussion of All Things Pope upon his death. My students, most of whom were not Catholic, had seen the Notre Dame flag in my office, which apparently made me The Defender Of the Faith.

“So the guy who just died, he was Pope John Paul the Second, right?” one asked.

“Yes,” I said, and drew a big Roman numeral two on the chalkboard.

There was a pause.

“So… was his dad a Pope, too?”

I expect the Pontiff would have loved these youths, too, although for one day in August and January they terrify me in their ballcaps and silences. On my first day as a college teacher at a small liberal arts college, I arrived on campus an hour early, but wished to present an air of authority and sweep in the door at the exact moment the class was to begin, but I didn’t have anywhere to wait, so I did the grown-up and professional thing and hid in my car.  Perhaps I should have stayed in there, because what has followed is of such conversations as the following:

ME: We’re going to watch a DVD of some political speeches. Think about what we discussed in class today, and take notes on what you’re noticing about effective public speaking techniques.

STUDENT: We’re supposed to take notes?

ME: Yes.

STUDENT: So…you want us to… actually write stuff down

When I came to a larger aeronautical college, the terror escalated, because these people had access to military-grade weaponry. “I do not sleep well at night,” a friend emailed me, “knowing that you are at least partially responsible for the education of the person who will eventually be in charge of the 747 ferrying me from Atlanta to Salt Lake at an altitude of 80,000 feet.”

As this school was a major artery into the armed forces, expect to see the quality of the military decline now that I am a part of it. We should be a fourth-world power by Tuesday. 

I have since surpassed the childish first-day need to hide from my students in my car, for while waiting for my initial class meeting, I hid in the bathroom, which I will never do again because I accidentally walked past one of my students, the same student, both going into and coming out of the bathroom, and let us just say that while I was in there I took my time, hoisting pantyhose and fluffing hair and applying for a bank loan and basically everything men think we do in there that takes so damn long, and I think you'll agree that initial contact in an extended bathroom context is far, far worse than standing at the podium attempting to pretend that 27 people aren't out there staring and judging and pre-hating and all. Next semester I will hide in the copier.

A graduate of a women’s college, I suddenly found myself with a testosterone overage, and sent a lot of time noticing the male students regarding me with very serious expressions, because I was The Teacher and I Was In Charge.  Also I was a girl.

The school was a high-tech sort of place, and there was no chalk, only gigantic wipe-off boards and the dashboard of the International Space Station installed at the podium. I had a laser pointer attached to the wall and a big flat monitor screen. This is a slight contrast to my most recent teaching appointment, where we had one piece of chalk per floor and an Atari console in the faculty lounge.

They actually had to bring in somebody from IT to train me in use of my classroom, because if it were possible to attain hyperspace I wished to know this before the class started filing in.

To a person who grew up in a German Catholic school system, where we watched filmstrips hosted by this dynamic new reporter named David Brinkley and formed an understanding of fine arts by constructing mosaics out of scraps of leftover construction paper, this is indeed an unfamiliar universe.

Names were a problem; I often refer to my own baby nephew as “the short pooping one over there,” so you can just imagine how well things went with nearly seventy-five students, eighty percent of which are all wearing exactly the same baseball cap.

There is one name that never gave me any trouble.

“Myron?” I said as I called the roll on the first day.

Myron raised his hand.

“Did I pronounce your last name properly?”

He nodded.

“Are there any nicknames you’d prefer that I use?”

He nodded.

“And what is that?”



Writing is scary and difficult even when the speaker is not simultaneously hung over and high, so I do my best to encourage, since I know full well that someday a big scary person is going to force my students into a dark alley, hold a gun to their heads, and demand that they reconcile subject-verb agreement.  This meant a great deal of writing on rough drafts  things like, “The ‘e’s in this font are very nice” and “I am so very proud of you for not spontaneously combusting as you walked from your dorm room to class today!”  This clearly not my fault, not me, the person who once announced to a roomful of students that, quote, “Passive voice should never be used by a writer.”

What the students don’t know is that I need them just as much as they dread me.  I came to teaching by way of NASA education, and one day at the Kennedy Space Center I held a model of a space shuttle in the air, and the next day the real thing rained to earth in starry streaks of lava.

“Who cares?” one of my students asked me when I handed back a paper covered in red ink. “Who cares if I have an adjective in the wrong place?”

“The astronaut,” I said, “who puts the wrong wingnut in the wrong place during a spacewalk because you used the wrong adjective in the assembly directions.” He was discovering, as I was, that the tacked-up patches of Challenger and Columbia’s final crews were beyond decor.

The day before this summer’s launch of Discovery, I looked out at my class, my elbows bent against me. They had been wrangling commas for the past hour and a half. It showed.

I spread my arms. "Tomorrow, we are going flying."

The entire university stood on the quad that day, climbed on top of cars, leaned over balconies. I swayed back and forth in high heels in the faculty parking lot, further away from a launch than I had ever been since I first moved to Florida for the sole purpose of watching them.

We listened to the narration from Mission Control on my beat-up radio.  At first I heard nothing. I saw nothing. I cupped a hand over my sunglasses, scanning, then found an audacious fire trail arcing over the building housing my classroom. Whole, and healthy, and climbing-- the jealous yelling from the student pilots pushing from below.

We poured into the classroom a stream of electrons, bouncing on the carpet, whirling through the rows of desks. I stood at the door, high-fiving each entering student. One of them found a television feed, and we put it on perpetual replay--the towering steam, the blue flame of the engines. I patted the screen and talked about the spacewalks to come.

They looked. I memorized their faces, the ballcaps, the names, the silence. 

Thus I exited the Semester of the Rooster, which the Chinese astrologers I hang around with predicted would be marked by psychological moroseness, economic hardship, and difficulty restoring balance. Or, you know, actually writing things down.

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