Labels, Career-Related or Otherwise

Today marks my 16th year of teaching.

I began teaching in 1998, when I worked as a Teaching Assistant for a full professor in my Master’s program.  I walked into my own classroom in 1999, and have taught in some form or another every year that followed.  I’ve taught at-risk moderate to severe middle- and high-school boys at a private orphanage, graduate independent studies, introduction to composition courses, single-author courses on Elizabeth Gaskell, co-taught courses, summer programs to super-genius 12-16 year olds.  I’ve taught every age between 12-80, in private tutoring, community college, high school, traditional college, and summer camp.

I wasn’t supposed to go into teaching.  I was supposed to become a lawyer.  Those of you who know me personally are most likely laughing at this moment, because I would have made a terrible lawyer.  But sometime after interning at a law firm and taking my first college English course, I switched majors and never looked back.  I love what I do.  Not everyone is so lucky, I know, and I’m grateful, every day, for the opportunities afforded me.

Let me sum up: I get paid to read books for a living, to talk about said books for a living, to write about said books for a living.  This is my career.  I am a professor, and I love, absolutely love what I do.

And I love that label: Professor.  It sounds so… professorial.  Intelligent.  It makes me feel respected during a time in which reading books and talking about them for a living is considered rather useless by a large swath of the American population.

There was a bone of contention between my mother and myself about my labels.  She would introduce me as her daughter, the “school teacher.”  God, I hated that, and I would correct her: “Mom, I’m not a ‘school teacher.’  I’m a ‘professor.'”  To which she would go, “Right, right, sorry, and roll her eyes at my seriousness.”  I used to take this personally, as daughters do so take everything done to them by mothers personally, but I’ve thought a lot about this as the Fall semester has approached.

Why did she call me a school teacher?  Perhaps it’s because she herself only had a brief time in college, and never fully understood what it is professors do?  But my father, who never even finished high school the traditional way, and certainly never went to college, always makes sure to call me “Professor.”  So what, then, is the reason?

I honestly don’t know.  But I know this: I cannot believe she was belittling me.  Rather, she was explaining my job to people in a way they could understand it.  Not everyone knows what professors do, especially those outside of academia.  I’ve recently been asked on two or three separate occasions, by two or three separate people, what it is I do all day.  When I explain I work 60-70 hours a week, they ask, “How?  Doing what?”

“School teacher,” on the other hand, is understood to be a difficult profession, full of work and no need of explanation.  Or perhaps, just perhaps, I remember once my mother saying, “I wanted to be a school teacher.”

This year’s for you, Mom.  And I’m going to teach the hell out of it.

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