I’m now five or so weeks into my teaching semester, and my own kids even longer into their elementary school year. Simon, our five year old, boarded the school bus for the first time in August. I’d thought I might feel at least some little twinge: our younger child off to school, no more babies for real now. But I felt no particular emotion (aside from the sense of freedom that came with his getting on that bus). When I tell people that, many of them appear a little unnerved, as if it indicates an overall lack of sensitivity to the passage of time, or to the bittersweet nature of kids growing up. As to that last, so far, it’s really only been sweet since I genuinely disliked caring for babies and toddlers. From here on, I suspect it may get harder.
With our elder son, we focused on the firsts. With our younger, the lasts. It’s a typical pattern, and one probably partly responsible for the defining personality characteristics of birth order. I am attuned to all the lasts in my second child like I never was with my first son. A couple months ago, Simon said, “Wow, now I can have gum like a big boy,” and it must have been that he’s gradually stopped using the phrase “big boy” or I wouldn’t have noticed it this time. But he doesn’t usually talk like that anymore, and he hasn’t used the term since. I was, at that moment, I think, listening to him describe himself as a big boy for the last time, and as he stopped calling himself one, he became one.
Kids aren’t good at understanding these subtle and slow sorts of shifts. They like the grand gestures, the clear delineations. One day, when Simon was much younger, I was carrying him down the stairs and reciting a poem to him. “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful, or in agony all the time?” and before I could give the next line, Simon blurted, “in agony all the time.” It had to be one or the other, and I suppose he heard more music in that one.
This fall, I started a new job on the science faculty at my local community college. I moved into my office, set up my science books and my posters of marine life, and settled into my schedule teaching chemistry. Settling down to something has never been my strong suit. After my undergraduate degree in English literature, I went off to veterinary school for a general sense of how animals are put together, and how they fall apart. After that, teaching biology, animal science, and now chemistry. Unlike my colleagues with PhDs, my knowledge has never delved very deep, but has stretched very wide, my interests ever broadening. I couldn’t settle to one thing, drill down the way they needed to, become immersed in an exclusive subject. This job though, has an air of permanence. I’ve signed the pension papers with every expectation that I will be here no less than ten years, and hopefully far longer. I have stepped onto the tenure track. If all goes well, I will still be teaching here in thirty years.
Some people, when they hear about my educational trajectory, assume I got my English degree and then came to my senses and found something more practical, more marketable. But I have been veering like this all my life. I have a notebook from when I was 11 and assiduously recorded everything I heard on a PBS special about neuroscience. By high school, I had vague ideas about being a writer instead. At the end of college, I thought maybe a poem-writing veterinarian– the animal doctor version of William Carlos Williams, but I could find fewer and fewer people who said anything aside from “pick one.” The English background was a benefit of course (“We need more scientists who can write,” one professor told me) but it was meant to be only background. Whatever I settled to for my graduate degree would be who I really was intellectually.
My office is on the third floor of the science building, but our hallway shares space with the art department. Our big corner classroom is a studio, and the bulletin boards outside are a revolving gallery. This week, it was figure drawings, skeletons in charcoal, and paintings of some large, bovine skull. Some of my colleagues find it irritating that so much of our hallway is consumed by art, but I love it. I’ve spent this first fifteen years or so of my adult life deflecting off one thing and veering into another. The longer I stay in this job, and the greater the proportion of my life I devote to science, the more I wonder what happens to that humanities part of me. The English major part that was not, despite what anyone thinks, a frivolity, or a luxury I indulged in before I got down to serious, marketable work. I am fortunate that I also love science, since the gods right now are smiling down on science education. Blessed be the STEM instructors. But I will always have my secret affinities, however many years of science teaching may encase them. Science is what I do, it’s what I teach, and I love it. But the humanities are who I am. And when I wonder if that true self can survive this commitment to a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, I suppose I know it will. It’s not a choice after all. Things grade into things. Little boys become big boys, a writer teaches science, and what we call everything is not always by its true name.