Making the decision to return to college last year was monumental for me, but that was the easy part. It was going to be even more of an effort to get out of my house and drag this body to a campus where I would be out of my comfort zone in many ways. This new adventure would require me to become more organized than before, to submit my life experiences to those instructors who would likely be younger than me in order to learn what they had to share, much of which I have learned in life through experience. I would be sitting among young people who were the same age as my children, and learning how to utilize the latest technological devices, from submitting assignments online or doing homework online. There were just some of the few differences that I would be experiencing today than those I experienced when first attending college 37 years ago.
After completing my first semester, though, it was not quite as traumatic as I thought it would be, and by the time I had a couple of semesters under my belt, I began to have a good idea of what to expect at the beginning of the semester and at the end as well.
Through it all, today I now find amusing to reflect back on the first day of class and of that which I was anxious. The moments leading up to 2:00 p.m. on that first Monday of the semester were a little stressful because of my own uncertainty, but I found that I was not alone and for good reason. The first day of class is usually the day where every chair is filled, surrounded by students lining up the walls in a standing-room-only situation, as students try to add on a class for which they should have signed up for months earlier. It is a moment of high anxiety for those lucky few who covet that little paper that is bestowed upon them by the instructor, allowing them the permission to grace the doorway twice a week for about eighteen weeks, and receive the pearls of wisdom imparted by their teacher in the hopes of transforming them into great students and, ultimately, fine productive citizens of their communities.
For these anxious few, the add-on slip is like the golden ticket that young Charlie Bucket sought for coveted tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Once the papers are handed down to the lucky few who are standing around, little do they know that they would now have the opportunity to learn from the great mind of Ms. Steele Smith over the next eighteen weeks! However, like everything else, they would need to participate according to rules of the class which, like in the chocolate factory, were rather simple to follow.
Although the story line does not emphasize it, one can ascertain that the rules at the Wonka Chocolate Factory were simple: Show up on time, listen to Mr. Wonka and do all that is required by Mr. Wonka, and do not touch anything that was not supposed to be touched. For the English 1A class in room LA-106, the rules were equally simple: Show up daily and on time, listen to Ms. Steele Smith and do all that is required by Ms. Steele Smith, although we did not have to worry about refraining from touching anything (or anyone) that should not be touched.
For me, like the others who had the privilege of planning ahead by having a preferable registration time period, the anxiety began with the uncertainty of how Ms. Steele Smith was going to instruct us. I knew very little about her; thus, questions loomed: Will she be a right-wing conservative to the right of Rush Limbaugh, or a left-wing liberal to the left of Rachel Maddow? Will she be warm as a fresh-baked apple pie, or be as cold as the diabetic foot of a person who ate too much of that pie? Will she be objective or will she be subjective?
Many of those and other questions (including why the classroom was so hot) clouded my thinking as I made my way to class that first day, but mostly wondering if (due to my size) if there would be a desk that sat about ten inches higher than the standard desk with a disability glyph affixed to it. To my relief, there was one available, but it was already claimed by a healthy-appearing young man. I took what authority I had to lay claim to the desk and kindly asked him to move. On what basis did I have the authority? It was over a hundred degrees outside and I was sweating like a race horse, having walked across campus to make it on time, giving him the impression that I was going to collapse on top of him. By virtue of that glyph on that desk, Ms. Steele Smith made it tolerable for me by organizing workshop groups around me so I did not have to struggle to fit myself in one of the many 1970’s styles desk that were built for people who attended before the Great Obesity Epidemic of the late 20th century, which continues on through the 2010’s.
I sat down (comfortably, I might add) and looked toward the front of the room and saw Ms. Steele Smith, already greeting the class with a smile on her face that made me realize that she would not be like that cold diabetic foot I mentioned earlier. In fact, she had a disposition that sent me into a state of relief, knowing that I would not be dealing with a crazy instructor, although I wondered for a second when she claimed to be an old hippie who did not have a problem using the “S” and the “F” words on occasion, along with having clear views of what she believed to the way things ought to be.
Nevertheless, it was very clear that she was truly in her element as she discussed the topic of English, which was the literature itself, the meanings behind the story, the personality of the writer and how it transcended through their writing, the technical things required when analyzing these writers, and knowing how to convey it to our audience when composing our analyses.
Subjects such as Aristotelian Triad (or rhetorical triangle) that discussed the balanced of persuasive elements, which were the logos, pathos, and ethos components, were covered along with understanding the need for citing sources and utilizing the proper formatting style (in this case, MLA formatting, which is the style that we use for writing papers). Inline citations and proper setting of the works cited page were important to my instructor, as her desire for us to learn this correctly was tantamount in our becoming good writers for our college experience. Other areas of technical knowledge required were subjects such as reading prompts, contextual analysis, critical analysis, prospectuses, and author’s notes, and as we got deeper into the semester, having learned much of the technical subjects, we began to examine our two novels.
I became more aware of the black experience through Zora Hurston and her writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, once again learning how gifted many African-Americans were in the early 20th century and how for many years, the young people of this country were not able to sit down and read a great novel of a young black woman coming of age in a time when there was little to no hope for people of color. Through this writing, I learned that there was nothing that a writer includes in their writings without purpose, and that it tends to make a statement of social issues that exist at the time of these writings. I wish I knew Zora myself because she had a kindred spirit that came out in her work, someone who exhibited an understanding of overcoming so much and yet having passion in encouraging others to overcome.
I learned about the quiet strength of women through the writings of Mary Shelley in her novel “Frankenstein,” which illustrated the difference between male and female privilege in the era when she wrote her novel, and how the entitlement to young men in that time had its consequences; not in the novel, but in real life. Again, understanding that nothing is written without a specific purpose in mind, the book was an accurate reflection of what still goes on today in the mindset of many young people who have their problems solved for them by their parents, and how it affects the esteem needs of those young people, if not dealt with appropriately. I did not identify as well with Shelly, mainly due to the privilege that she was born into, which I cannot relate to myself, but what people fail to understand about those in privilege is that they are able to look at social issues in a less restrictive manner, not having to worry about the day-to-day things that the “common person” deals with (such as paying the electricity bill and worry about having enough money). This freedom does allow for creativity to flow, and for that reason, she changed the literary world and created a new genre of literature that writers are still publishing today.
From this class, I was able to see that I was doing quite well with my writing skills, having developed my own skills over the course of thirty years working as writer in the medical field in spite of any formal training. I drafted and published documents that required much care in detailed technical and clinical knowledge, while maintaining medical and legal boundaries that were required. But one is only as good as they think they are, and to regard myself as one who needs no additional education would be rather arrogant. In my experience, I have learned that I become smarter when I realize how stupid I really am.
Regardless of my intelligence or stupidity or experience, my time in this class was a great investment in understanding not only what I’m reading but how to compose my analyses in order to achieve the persuasive results I’m looking for when reaching out to my audience. There is always room to learn something new, and this class enabled me to do so.
I end this semester looking back with a smile wondering why I was so anxious on the first day, perhaps like the others looking for their version of that golden ticket. Through our workshops, the other students and I were able to get to know one another better, and I have made good friendships with more students in that class than I have in any other class. Sometimes our workshops were spent talking about each other and what we were doing (instead of critiquing the essays at times) but even when we critiqued, we had fun (one person got ribbed for writing the words “pea tree dish” for “petri dish” and “burned at the steak” for “burned at the stake,” and that became the running gag for the remaining part of the semester. Humor helps us to remember our errors though, and we all had a few zingers to help us remember.
On this last day, I realize that I have my own golden ticket in hand, having had the opportunity to learn how the world can be a better place through literature, knowing that I am a better person with new friends for having taken this class, and understanding that an excellent teacher makes all the difference in creating the best learning environment possible. For that, I am truly blessed.