I was given every conceivable warning. I was told by what seemed like hundreds of people (though I’m sure it couldn’t have been that many) that I would NEVER achieve this goal. At first, I sincerely didn’t even know what I would teach! I just knew I wanted to be one of THOSE amazing, intelligent, knowledgeable, cool-as-hell, deep-as-hell people that filled my head with questions and opened up my world to things I never even knew existed.
Then, I took an introduction to poetry class with the smartest, quickest, most bad-ass woman I had ever met to date and she recited “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798” by William Wordsworth BY HEART. Did you hear me? BY. HEART. And if you think the title of that poem is long, you really need to have a look at the poem. I sat in awe as she recited the poem I had read with loathing just the night before. She made it come to life. A few weeks later, she invited those of us who wrote our own poetry to read out loud to the class. I had been writing poetry since I was 12 years old and this might’ve been the first real chance I had to share it with people that weren’t in my immediate family or friends. After I read some of my poetry out loud in her class, she suggested I meet with her during office hours. When I did, she told me that I should study poetry. Until that moment, I had no idea that was even possible. So, let me rephrase that previous sentence: She told me I COULD study poetry.
And then I knew EXACTLY what I was going to teach. I would be a Professor of English – specializing in Poetry. Holy Shit! You’d have thought I was telling people I wanted to be an Astronaut! I remember a couple of individuals I worked with even laughing out loud, to my face, when I told them what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” People don’t do that. First-generation college girls who grew up in houses without books and who have been working since they were 13 years old and fully supporting themselves since they were 17 years old JUST. DON’T. DO. THAT.
But I did.
Or, at least I almost did.
As I just mentioned, I have been supporting myself since I was 17 years old and working since I was 13. There isn’t much I know more about than making a buck, doing whatever it takes. So, during my grad school days when I had my graduate assistantship to teach two classes each semester – while I was taking full-time classes – I ALSO decided to teach classes at the local community college. It was a smart work-related move. I increased my value as an employee post-graduation by gaining this experience. I also loved it. I loved that the community college students I taught in Southern New Mexico were bad-ass, do-it-yourself-ers like I had been. I liked that I could relate to them and help them more than I felt like I could relate to or help the still-scrappy but a bit more spoiled University students I saw during my graduate assistantship.
Also, during my first graduate program in Southern New Mexico, I went through a difficult divorce and… well… sort of a complete unraveling. Through this experience, I decided to leave academia all together. I knew how to work. I went to work. For about six months. Then, I remembered my original goal: Poetry, becoming a Professor of Poetry. And I wanted it again – badly. So, I did what I do: I got a job --- across the country—in a lecturer position at a big University. AND… I applied for a second graduate program that would give me the MFA in Poetry I needed to at least begin to apply for “Professor of Poetry” jobs. So, while I was teaching full-time and part-time too at the local community college (I know how to WORK, remember?), I started my MFA. And, oh ya… I also met a guy and got pregnant. I was pregnant the first year of my MFA program and had an infant during the second.
It was during this second semester of my first year when I was HELLA pregnant, unmarried but partnered, teaching six classes, a full-time student, really had still JUST gone through a divorce and… well, fucking spent, when I found myself seated across an office from another woman that would change my life. This was my first advisor during my MFA program. I adored and respected her though, in retrospect, I don’t think the adoration or respect was remotely mutual. She was young (maybe 5-7 years older than me), no children, unmarried, widely published and recognized as an up-and-coming poet. She had completed the PhD program of my dreams – the one I was gearing up, at that moment, to apply to – and she had studied with the EXACT Professors (the keepers of the light and knowledge, you know) that I had wanted to study with. We began a conversation about this PhD program, and PhD programs in general. I was telling her the schools I was currently readying myself to apply to, with as much excitement as I could muster in my WAY overworked and thoroughly exhausted pregnant body – and she said the words that determined the course of my life from that moment until right now. “You shouldn’t do a PhD. You should teach at a Community College.”
Her logic was solid. I already had a fair amount of experience at Community Colleges. It was easier to get jobs at Community Colleges. PhD programs are expensive and while you’re going through them you live, essentially, in abject poverty – and was that what I wanted for my baby? Yes, she played that card too. Suddenly, sitting in that little office, I was a bad mother if I pursued my dream an inch farther. And by the time I left this meeting, I knew what I had to do in order to continue to take care of myself and my child: I had to keep working. And “working” meant, no PhD, no dream job of being a Professor of Poetry. According to her, the competition was simply too steep and I just didn’t have it in me.
I only realized the consequences this one meeting with my advisor had on my life within the last couple of years. Until then, I was dutifully fulfilling the assignment she had given me: go forth, get a job at a community college, make the best living you can for someone with as little talent as you obviously have. Every other time I’ve tried to write about this in the last couple of years, I’ve been too angry with her to make any real sense to anyone else. I’m not as angry as I was at first. I understand that she was speaking out of her own experience. She was also exhausted. She felt her University Professor job was “hard” and obviously she had enough expenses to have to take extra work to make ends meet because she was moonlighting at the school where I was completing my low-residency MFA. So, she was also overworked. And her PhD study was difficult and it had taken a long time and she had struggled through it – and she was looking at her current life thinking that getting her PhD wasn’t worth it. She was extraordinarily ungrateful for what she had and for what she was able to do with her life. And she had absolutely no idea what completing my PhD and being a University Professor of Poetry – or at least CONTINUING TO TRY – meant to ME.
There is, of course, no telling what my life would currently be like if: I had had the strength to withstand her bullshit “advice;” If I could have taken a deep breath and remembered who the fuck I was and where I had come from and how hard I had worked for so long; or if I could have known what I know now – that modeling a relentless pursuit of my dreams for my children is actually JUST as important as a steady paycheck. Who knows? That’s really not even a question I should be bothering myself with at this point.
I did become a Professor of Poetry, at a Community College which -- and this is the part my MFA advisor could NOT possibly have understood – meant that I really am a Teacher of Composition at a Vocational School who, for a little while, got to teach Poetry for funsies. I quit teaching Poetry at my Community College last year because it was no longer even remotely fun and all it did was add to my workload.
I don’t mind working as a Teacher of Composition at a Vocational School. It’s far better than most of the other jobs I’ve had since I was 13 years old. I am grateful for the many lessons I have learned in my current job. I am grateful for the many experiences I have been able to have in this current job. I am extremely grateful that I have been able to support my family well. But – and I am just beginning to really admit this and wonder what the hell I can possibly do about it – it was never my dream. Never.
Keep moving towards YOUR Dreams, Teamies!
And watch out for bullshit advice!