Opinion » John Rember

Same As It Ever Was

And the semester begins

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The leaves on the dwarf dogwood bushes in the yard are turning red. Yesterday morning there was frost on the deck. Most of the skinny little planted fish in the river have been caught by people who could have bought several hundred pounds of fresh Copper River salmon for what they spent on fishing gear. Giant motorhomes have begun heading south to their breeding grounds in Arizona. The families thronging the beaches of Redfish have disappeared, lost to back-to-school sales and mandatory team meetings.

Sure signs, all of them, of another summer shot to hell. It's time to fix fences, cut and stack cords of firewood, put away the barbeque, drain the sprinkler system, watch the days getting shorter, and pick up where we left off with Dr. Who last spring.

Time, as well, for the old teaching nightmares to rise up from the depths. Last night I dreamed it was the first day of classes and I couldn't find the building I was supposed to teach in. Then I realized I couldn't remember what it was I was supposed to teach. Classes started. Students gazed at me in expectant blanktitude. I woke up screaming, reaching for my grade book.

Circular time is one of teaching's many occupational hazards. It's been 10 years since Julie and I left our classrooms for Sawtooth Valley, but we still measure our lives in fall and spring semesters and summer and Christmas vacations. These are the four seasons for us, year after year after year. It takes a deliberate look in the mirror to realize that time has a linear aspect at all.

I miss teaching, now that I'm safely distant from it, now that I'm not exhausted by it, now that I can discern the successes from the abject failures, the Aha! moments from the deadly tedium of faculty meetings. I remember--selectively remember--improving the world, giving people value for their tuition money, showing them how writing could be more joy than chore, a source of confidence rather than humiliation.

After they completed my classes, anyway.

As a rule, I was better for people's writing skills than I was for their GPA. They liked me far better at the end of their college careers than after their first midterm grade, far better a decade graduated than on graduation day.

While teaching, I thought I would forever be a teacher. I'd teach semester after semester until one day, shuffling to the lectern, I'd die of old age. The college would take me to a taxidermist, have me stuffed and prop me in the corner during Faculty Development Committee meetings, as the tangible--if inert--product of 40 years of dedicated teaching and intense faculty development.

I take my development more seriously now. I make do without an alarm clock, valuing those morning dreams for their wisdom, however unpleasant. I read more and write more and learn more than if I were still teaching. Every time I visit erstwhile colleagues they tell me they're thinking of retiring too, if and when they can afford it, so they can read and write and learn more than teaching allows.

"Not being able to afford it didn't stop me," I say.

What would have stopped me was the idea of time, at least if I'd understood it then the way I understand it now. When time is a circle, it's hard to think of next year as different from last year. The past is now and forever. Change is upsetting, because it interferes with the smooth progression of the registrar's schedule, the slow cadence of sabbaticals, the quick regular percussion of midterm grades.

Even now I don't understand how I escaped being taxidermied alive.

Julie doesn't miss teaching. For six years she taught high-school drama, enjoying every minute of it. She taught her students to love the theater. She brought a lot of people to excellence on the stage. But six years is about how long high-school teachers last in the profession these days, due to the long hours and low wages and a lack of respect toward teachers in general.

After six years she was ready to do something else, and she did, becoming an editor and writer. The people she works with respect her and her work. They send her the really hard jobs because she can handle them. She makes more money in less time than she did teaching.

Up until a few summers ago, she tells me, she also had late-August teaching nightmares. Then she had one where she walked into her classroom on the first day of school and the place was chaos. Students were screaming obscenities, chasing each other around the room, hanging off the light fixtures, jumping out of the windows, smoking cigarettes. She told them all to sit down and they ignored her.

"In my dream, I told myself I didn't have to put up with this," she says. "I walked down to the principal's office and said, 'I quit.'" She hasn't had a teaching nightmare since.

Every fall I tell former colleagues they should stay in the profession even when they can make more money elsewhere. "You're saving lives," I say. "Nobody can do what you're doing. It's right livelihood. It's a noble calling. What happens to those kids if you leave?"

"Nothing," they say, and they're right. Nothing good, anyway. And those former colleagues go back for another year, leaving me to wonder what sort of guiltless psychopathy allowed Julie and me to leave our classrooms and go to this place, with its empty highways, starlit nights, shelves of books-to-be-read, warm wood stove, hot tea and Netflix subscription--another noisy summer gone, another quiet autumn on the way.