73: Taking a Chance on Me

73: Taking a Chance on Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

Taking a Chance on Me

Do one thing every day that scares you.

~Eleanor Roosevelt

I fell into teaching with a thud, landing on my feet and not quite knowing what hit me. As a writer accustomed to quiet, alone time, the idea of being in charge of a classroom filled with twenty-five students was at once daunting and exhilarating. When I was first asked to teach a full-credit college English course, I brushed it off with a resounding: “Teaching? Who me?”

Years before, when my husband Mort was alive, he had on numerous occasions suggested I give teaching a try. “You’ll love it,” he said. “Take a risk.”

Ensconced in my writing, with enough work to keep busy full time, the last thing I wanted was an intrusion on my silent literary life. Now, years later, his words still resonated in my head: “Take a risk.”

Shortly after Mort’s death, and mostly as a tribute to him, I interviewed for a teaching position at a local college. To my surprise, I was hired. I thanked the head of the department, secretly thinking she had made a terrible mistake. “Along with the necessary credentials, we also like our professors to have other interests,” she said. “The fact that you’re a writer will add a different dimension to the course.”

I was told I could design my own syllabus while using the textbook as a guide. Aside from following the standard requirements, I had free rein to be as creative as I wanted, the bait that ultimately lured me in. And so began my agonizing attempt at putting together a course curriculum based partly on my own ingenuity and partly on the textbook.

I became a stranger in a strange land, embarking on a surprising journey. Since that time, I have traveled hundreds of academic miles. I began as a novice and grew into the role, teaching myself how to teach, and expanding my knowledge with each passing semester.

But in the end, it was the students themselves who taught me. Bolstered by their enthusiasm and motivated by their trust in me, I took their lead. Slowly, without realizing it, I became the best version of myself in ways I had never known before.

The student body was diverse in terms of primary language, ethnicity, and lifestyle. I taught kids with emotional and academic problems, some with learning disabilities, and many who were on the verge of making bad decisions. Often, I was able to redirect their thinking. I taught ex-cons, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, a police officer, construction workers, an auto-body mechanic, nurses, a horse breeder, actors, an acrobat, a dancer, budding filmmakers, artists, floral arrangers and young mothers and dads who worked two jobs while simultaneously taking college courses. I had students who had flunked out of Ivy League colleges and for whom this course was a last chance to prove themselves. I administered harsh reality through fair grades, and I rewarded those who kept at it until the end.

The papers that were turned in became revelations on myriad subjects, and through their writing I became educated, too, and my consciousness was raised. Students from third-world countries wrote about their childhoods in distant lands. Those from homes where education was not readily available or encouraged walked away with diplomas — pioneers all — moving on to substantial jobs and solid futures so alien from their humble beginnings.

A Vietnamese student from my first class keeps in touch. He had struggled with English, but he managed, through hard work and extra tutoring, to graduate and move on to a career in accounting. Now he is married with three young children. On graduation day, I was invited to attend a Vietnamese banquet hosted by his family in his honor. They welcomed me into their home and introduced me to culinary delicacies I had never before tasted. We still remain friends.

I have received gifts from foreign students: a sari from an Indian girl, a silver goblet from China, a gold star from Russia, a shawl from Peru, homemade bread from a culinary arts major, a Japanese kimono, French perfume, a handbag from Haiti, a plaid Scottish tam, a French beret, a pencil drawing of me, a poem, and a photograph taken in Mali by a West African student. A girl from Dublin taught me the Irish jig. A dancer from Colombia gave me a pair of silver ballet slippers. Numerous trinkets of sentimental value adorn the shelves of my home — all artifacts of my students’ devotion and pride in jobs well done… for us all.

Through these years, I provided hugs, shook many hands, polished my sense of humor and went that extra mile for a kid who thought he wouldn’t make it, but who tackled the job head-on. He walked down the aisle at graduation, his shoulders high, en route to his diploma. I have seen skills develop and essays take shape from wobbly writers who suddenly had an epiphany and “got it.” And then there were those days when the job was overwhelming and beyond my grasp — days when my efforts went unappreciated and it all seemed so futile. It was on such an afternoon that a student handed in a paper that surprised me by its brilliance, and the cloud of hopelessness was lifted. It all came together once more, as one large, grand piece of tapestry, gnarled on the underside, but smoothly sewn together on the front so that all the pieces fit neatly into place.

And so, I heeded Mort’s advice: “Take a risk.” And in doing so, I continued to persevere and thrive. I write my humor column, now in its twenty-ninth year, and have published my second novel and am completing a third. I have watched my grandchildren, who bring magic into my life, grow from infants to teenagers. And, I became a Professor of English. One year, I was awarded Teacher of the Year, an honor bestowed upon me by the student body, with a plaque that reads: “For imparting wisdom with contagious enthusiasm.” It is, to date, my most treasured acquisition.

Above all, I took a chance on me. As a result, I grew as a person and as a teacher. I also like to think I made Mort proud.

~Judith Marks-White

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