Welcome aboard, students and friends, yes welcome to
The Train of the Perfect Semester. I’m your Engineer,
Conductor, Coal Shoveler, and the Happy Waving Guy
In the bright red caboose. See the circus animals?
I clean up after them and feed them. (And unlike
SOME professors, no, I don’t think my students
Are animals. Or vice versa.) See the tracks
Below us, flying past? Learning outcomes
Set by the department. Or wait, no,
The learning outcomes are our destination.
Yes, that’s right. So those rails, well, they must be
The syllabus. (I thought the train might be the syllabus,
One car per week, but that doesn’t work.
Why would you move through a moving train like that?
And I need the lounge car more than just one week.)
I’m in constant contact with other trains,
Most are far ahead of us, a few behind,
And we are all converging on the station,
The depot with its train-font, “Finals Week,”
Where you will disembark and I’ll post grades
And tend to the train for a month or so until
We load her up again in Spring and head for May.
Except, oh Christ, it doesn’t work that way for me.
It never has. And even there, in that happy stanza,
I fucked it up—the destination was “Learning Outcomes,”
Not “Finals Week.” The hardest thing for me
In everything is how to keep things straight.
So yes, it would be lovely if you’d climbed
The folding step and taken your seat and toured
Each depot along the way in an orderly fashion
Set up by me, “Here is the town of Paraphrase,”
Imagine my having said, “Next stop, Quotation Sandwich.”
Only those stops required, in order,
With me as your energetic tour guide.
(Oh great—engineer, conductor, shoveler, happy guy
animal wrangler and tour guide. I needed more work.)
And I guess your ticket for each stop would be a quiz
Or an essay. Your luggage is all your prior learning….
How much grit did you pack? You’ll need a fair bit.
Let’s talk about those circus animals.
They’re well treated, of course. They’re escapees
From other circuses, if you really want to know.
I thought you might enjoy them. I thought you might
Even learn a little from them, but no,
They aren’t exactly on the syllabus.
So here’s the thing. I lied when I gave you the schedule
For the semester. I should have told you then
“Here’s where we’re starting out, the first few weeks,
and then here’s a list of everywhere else we’ll go,
but no, I’m not committing to exactly when.
I promise we will get to the destination. On time.
And we will stop at all the absolutely necessary stops.”
Beyond that, I should have told you, who knows?
Will I ever be brave enough to say that?
Will I ever be brave enough to say that
If I see a pond I’ve never noticed before
And it occurs to me we could go fishing there
For topic ideas or movie reviews that bring up
What we’re reading from the 19th century,
We’re stopping. We’re always going to stop.
We might even abandon the train. Don’t freak—
I promise we’ll get where we’re going. We always do.
But I will not promise by what conveyance.
If you’re the sort of student who needs the train
To run on time above all else, my class will make you nuts.
But if you’re focused on the destination,
(I will give repeated updates about how close we are),
and able to be a traveler, not a tourist,
and able to enjoy the scenery and the side trips,
I can promise you a punched ticket in 16 weeks.
You might even get the opportunity to shovel coal!
Or animal shit! I’ll even let you wave from the caboose.
Also there might be small robots or sushi or kazoos.
Here at the Sunday morning gathering of Zen Baptists at my house (Today’s Attendance…1), the reading was from St. Anne (Lamott) about the prayer of “Help.”
I came away thinking–why do I persist in seeing my semester as a mess when the weekly schedule I set up becomes something fictional? Why not work on making sure we hit the necessary stops but otherwise just say to students, why not say TO MYSELF, “Sure it’s a mess. But it’s a GLORIOUS mess.”
Because that’s what life is. At least that’s what my life is.
(And yes, I was thinking of those leaders who were praised with “at least the trains ran on time.” It isn’t logical, of course, to equate an on-time train with evil, but it’s also not logical to equate a meandering journey with educational malpractice, which is what those EXEMPLARY PROFESSOR CRITICS in my head say to me. I’m telling them hush. I’m telling them, enjoy the freaking ride, and here’s some herbal insect repellant. “For what?” say the EXEMPLARY PROFESSOR CRITICS. “For the bugs up your collective butt,” I say.)