It's the first day of school here at Pasadena City College. Though my first class doesn't meet until 10:25, I got up just after five this morning, having had a restless night. A quick pre-dawn run settled my nerves temporarily, as did playtime with Matty the chinchilla. But here it is, not yet 9:00AM, and for the umpteenth year in a row, I have butterflies in my stomach about the first day of school.
I'll be the first to admit, if academia is not the "real world", then I don't know what the "real world" is. I began my educational career about 1970 at Santa Barbara's Humpty-Dumpty Nursery School, and for the past 34 years, each autumn has seen me go off to school with my nerves a-flutter. (Yes, I went straight from high school to college to grad school to teaching full-time -- that makes me both fortunate and relatively unusual among my colleagues).
The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It's not stagefright -- public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It's not new material, at least not this year -- all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It's not fear that my students won't like me -- though I do struggle with vanity, it's not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can't believe they pay me to do it.
Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me "We're sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else." Though I can assure my readers (all 12 of you) that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I "got away with something" when I was hired for this job.
I've talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for almost forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling "the suspicion of one's own fraudulence". That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say "Really? That's how I feel too!" (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn't some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt and the drive to prove one's self. Actually, that's silly -- I don't wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!
But I am happy to say that at this stage of my career, "suspicions of my own fraudulence" are less intense than they were a decade or so ago. The nervous jitters this morning are, in fact, quite pleasant. They're more like the nerves one gets before a first date, or before taking an exciting trip to an exotic country. Every class I've ever taught is different, as the chemistry created by a certain mix of unique people can never be precisely duplicated. One never knows what's coming, and thus the anticipation is nothing short of delicious.
Anyhow, I promise to blog about other things later this week, but with this chaotic first week, it may be a bit lighter than last week...
UPDATE: Check out what Jenell says so beautifully on a similar subject this morning.