Picking Up the Chalk Again

K. A. Laity

Autumn brings its usual ambivalence.  As a perpetual student, fall means the excitement of new
classes.  As a lifetime Northerner teaching in the South, it still brings the anticipation of fall colors
— now relegated to a flurry of tiny fake autumn leaves spread across my keyboard, a gift from a
friend back in New England.  But as a college professor, this time of year also brings the dread of
picking up the chalk again for a new semester, even though the chalk is largely figurative in my
case because I have dry erase boards.

Don¹t get me wrong.  I love to teach.  I rather wish I didn’t have four full classes in which to
practice the art, but that’s the reality of the liberal arts job market.  No, the real problem isn’t the
students.  It¹s the realization that the long summer of possibilities has escaped again, with never
enough accomplished, never enough fun.

We who teach know well the dismissive envy of others who caw “You’re so lucky, you have three
months off every summer!”  Somehow the lure of those three months isn’t enough to make the
person take up the low pay and long hours of teaching, however.  Not to mention the lack of pay
during those three months, although it is usually possible to spread your meager checks out for the
whole twelve months.  Of course one can make more money by continuing to teach in the
summer, but I have found in recent years that time is more important than money when it comes
to my summers.

My students are always shocked to find that we look forward to summer with the same
enthusiasm they do.  In our offices we repeat their hallways scenes, high fiving one another with
enthusiastic shouts of “I’m done!”  We also savor the exquisite joy of throwing our books
haphazardly into a pile on the shelf, to be dealt with a lifetime later when the distant fall rings in.
We are also likely to submerge ourselves in an orgy of non-intellectual activities like reading trashy
novels and playing video games.

Unfortunately, that respite is short lived.  Summer means writing.  Teaching four courses each
semester does not leave a lot of time for the research and writing that will keep me in my job, so
this “leisure” time means the leisure of a lot of hard work.  While my students are romping on
beaches (I like to think), I am haunting the usually shadowy domains of research libraries.  As a
medievalist, I find our small undergraduate library insufficient for my specialized needs, so this
means trekking across town to the big university libraries to wander through the dusty stacks.

I spend a lot of time in my office, too, because my academic books are all there. So the books and
folders I tossed carelessly on the shelves after my last final glare at me until I restore some order.
And book orders for the fall must be turned in before the end of the spring semester, so my new
books for the fall also appeal mutely to be picked up and read, so I can work out the syllabus.
Sometimes, summer hardly feels like a break at all.

I do get to sleep late.

So why is it so hard to give up?  Why, on my last day of freedom, do I feel the need to do anything
but make sure I am ready for tomorrow¹s classes? Why do I desperately long to run away to the
beach when I usually avoid the sun as much as possible?

I think in large part it is the student who is always alive in the teacher, the child who remembers
when summers did really stretch as far as taffy, when days lasted longer and I could run a lot
faster.  After all, I spent a lot more years as a student than I have as a teacher.  Those early lessons
are the ones that stay with us.  The academic year is ingrained in me; I suspect it is less so for
people who have jobs in “real life” where the world does not stop for summer.  Everybody in
academia looks forward to summer, even the administrative staff who, after all, find life easier
once the students and faculty depart.  When I lived in Boston for many years, a city that seems
completely academic in ambience, you could feel the breath of relief when summer came and
students left.  Suddenly the waits for lines and tables were shorter in that golden period before the
tourists came to fill the void the students had left.

Summer in Houston doesn’t have that feel; the product here is energy not education.  But as long
as I am in academia, I will still get that thrill of summer that I had as a kid back in Michigan.  And
while I may not climb trees much anymore, I can still wring the freedom out of every last minute
of this glorious season, and pretend that the first day of school will not come.

There are still hours to go!