I have some fear every time I get on my bicycle. I feel exposed, vulnerable, perched. I start pedaling anyhow. I feel the same way when I walk into a classroom. When my children ask me hard questions. When I look at my list of academic accomplishments. I am pedaling through my career with nothing much between me and the road.
I recall the trepidation about leaving home after college. “The chance you will live close to this area and to your family after grad school is about the same as your chance of winning big at the roulette wheel.” My college advisor was being honest about where an academic career would probably lead me – far from home.
I applied to universities far away – got into Michigan State (with money!) and left. I can recall with aching clarity watching my parents’ house recede; it felt like a layer of myself was peeled back and exposed. Scary.
Fast forward through several challenging, enervating, and damaging grad school years, and I was back in the Appalachian foothills, with a baby, without a PhD and with no job, no husband. I decided to check the local want ads, and there it was. King College was hiring a historian. They wanted an Americanist, but I thought, why not contact them and see if they would be interested in me? The worst they could say was no.
King was interested. I was invited to send in an application. Invited to come to an interview. And then to another. I somehow got the job. But I never intended it to be more than a temporary thing. I was home against all odds, but my graduate program is ranked third or second in the country. I wanted to research, write, run the high academic gauntlet.
I ended up running another kind of gauntlet than I anticipated. Family, career, place, faith, culture. Each piece pulling me a different direction, each responsibility interlaced with a different set of expectations. And the teaching. I had never thought too much about the education part. I was unprepared for the sheer hard work of it, for the process, for the energy it required. For the fear.
I once wanted to mostly sit in a quiet room and read interesting books and write interesting things – granted, to an audience that probably would have topped at about 100 people. Public intellectual – why be that? The idea of a Christian college – had never heard of it, or the liberal arts. Foregrounding and valuing teaching – had never been taught it.
My publication list is dismal. I have exhausted myself in other pursuits. It worries and saddens me sometimes. I fear I might be betraying some part of my abilities – or that I’ve never had them. I find I no longer have the stomach or interest in narrowly defined academic canyons. I want to reach a larger audience. Most of my grad school colleagues teach at Tier 1 universities with light teaching loads and tenure. Their vitaes are impressive. The other day when I typed vitae into my phone, it autocorrected it to “curse.”
Scarier to me still is the weight I carry when I step into the classroom. No matter how much I know about the subject, I feel underprepared. I keep waiting for a giant hook to come and drag me out one day. I have learned so much since I first began, but that only adds to my fear. Those eyes turned to me - expectant or bored or harried - are portals into a consciousness I am responsible for on some real level. I want to make them think, to be energized, motivated, to pursue justice, mercy, empathy. I teach dangerous things.
My world has been shaken and jarred and rearranged more than once because of ideas, because of education. And it has shaken and jarred me, down deep to the marrow. And now, I have an ethical onus to do this to students who are vulnerable, to those who are open. And it terrifies me.
I am haunted by visions of my own failure. I am not the best teacher at King. No teaching awards, no perfect evaluations. I have not published important monoliths that will enlighten minds. I have not come up with innovative theories. I have not provided clear and compelling leadership in any measurable way.
In the darker moments I fear I have missed my vocation; I am doing my students an injustice. I have written a 300 plus page dissertation using foreign language sources procured overseas after years of improbable study, and when do I ever use it? I have struggled to comprehend the world I find myself in, but discover only how much more I have to learn.
But the love of words, of knowledge, beauty, and yes, truth – even our post-post modern perception of it – still moves me. There are moments of sweetness in teaching that feel transcendent. Relationships with students and colleagues bring me into courage. I write to bring clarity to myself. I ride my bike to bring sanity. I don’t balance all the pieces, but I am grateful for them. I feel home.
I never meant to be where I am, in this particular narrative. But God, what a ride.