The biggest choices we make in life often come down to the smallest of moments and the most innocuous of events. A reflection on a love of teaching and turning down a long-awaited chance to do it again.
Reading back the last chapter of my dissertation, I was admitting to myself that the qualification lost its lustre long ago. It no longers fits. My day job involves working in a Victorian townhouse with young apprentices who like to mock that I’m from another planet. Invariably, I seek acceptance from them rather than the other way around.
This doctoral thesis has been a journey (if we can overlook the melodrama attached to that label for a moment). My work has spanned three universities and two countries. I’ve lived abroad, then with friends, then alone. I’ve gone from a position where I wouldn’t leave my apartment for five consecutive days each week to one where I’m out working at least six days in every seven. I’ve had exposure to the very kinds of polar extremes that characterise my work.
Reviewing it back, it feels like I’ve developed into a sensitive character actor for whom Marvell’s works reflect a specific kind of story. The problem is: I’ve got no idea what that means, or what it’s worth. And this obstinate lack of conviction, which never seems to go away, will ensure that I never get anywhere in the academy.
The sheer number of hours I put in finally made me yield this week, and I rather meekly gave up what will probably be my last opportunity to teach. I’ve been waiting for the chance for years, and rejecting that is the bitterest pill to swallow.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
Teaching has always seemed like a natural vocation, and one to which my personality has lent itself well. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and engage. I believe in people as my equals, and I’m interested in everything they have to say. I’d hesitate in calling it a skill – that’s not for me to say – but it’s always been an asset.
Teaching undergraduates was certainly the fondest memory I have of life abroad. It’s humbling to recall how those for whom English was a second or even third language took to such a loaded period of English history with such purpose.
Even when the assessments were only pass or fail, the effort that went into some of the work is astounding. One description of political allegory in the work of Richard Lovelace as ‘a watermark beneath the poems’ was beautiful, and a measure of how multilingual minds can interpret things so creatively in English.
One of my past students has become a close friend over the years, and she has always been overwhelmingly generous in her appraisals. It’s things like that which have kept hope alive that I have something to offer to higher education.
But this is ridiculous. I’ve always imparted to my charges about the value of reward for effort. I’m not feeling that any more. My days are so long, and my quality of life so thin, that skirting around the edges and squeezing in the odd undergraduate course as a casual employee of the university is only going to prolong that even further.
Marvell has become a hobby – a very valuable, humbling, and challenging one – and it’s only the many long hours that have got me to the point of readying a script for submission.
The irony is not lost on me that had I not won a Graduate Teaching Assistant role in Geneva, I would never have contemplated pursuing the PhD any other way. Life could have been so very different. Instead, at times, it’s been torture.
I don’t forget the old Prufrock mantra: that to live the past over again wouldn’t necessarily change anything. But sometimes, you do like to think that you have the capacity to have been somebody different. I’m far behind where I need to be, and the last few years have proven – as Marvell himself anguished over a great deal – that this isn’t the solution to betterment.