Not long ago at the pool, Scott and I were moaning to our friends/neighbors about how summer was drawing to a close, and we would be heading back to work this week. One friend actually rolled his eyes at us--it was unmistakable, that eye-rolling.
"I know, I know," I said. "I know you don't have any sympathy for us."
Our friend put his thumb and forefinger together and made a big, fat zero in the air.
I know that to many people who work 9-5 five days/week with two weeks off each year, our plight doesn't summon up any sympathy. But while some people imagine that college teachers lead cushy lives, lecturing a couple times a week during the semesters and enjoying long summers in Europe where they can write fervently for weeks on end in a flurry of creativity inspired by gourmet food and lots of coffee, and long mornings under an arbor of roses somewhere in the south of France, college professors today in the REAL world can only dream of those things.
The myth that college teachers get entire summers off to travel to exotic places and write books while the rest of the world goes to work is myth #1 about the profession. Because college teaching pays so little, most teachers I know spend almost their entire summers a) teaching summer school b) working retail c) freelancing AND working retail d) delivering pizzas (this is true--one of my colleagues spent his summer doing just that and made a tremendous amount of money) e) delivering pizzas, working retail, and freelancing. It's not fun to lose your income for a few months out of the year or, as in our case, have your 10-month income spread over 12 months, resulting in a much lower monthly take-home pay. Exhausting though the juggling act was with the kids this summer--the days of passing them off like batons while Scott and I rushed off to teach our summer classes, or headed into our offices to meet some critical deadlines-- it ended up worth it in measurable and unmeasurable ways--as it always does. So while other people may have little sympathy for our mourning the loss of our flexible summer days, we'll miss them--difficult, sleep-deprived, insane, spread-too-thin moments and all.
I always tell my students that life is all about the choices they make, going back to those early formative years in elementary school. If you think about it, it's the choices that govern how and where we end up, and choices have a way of building on each other, sort of like bricks in a building, or puzzle pieces. Most of the time we only have a shadowy, half-formed impression of where we want to end up, but we plug away anyway, surprised in good ways (hopefully) to see the bigger picture of our lives taking shape. When my students write, as they will tomorrow on the first day of class, about where they see themselves in five or ten years, they will have very detailed and often highly ambitious goals (record contracts, NBA contracts, Super Bowl rings). The hard part for them--and for all of us--is getting to the end and having the ability to focus, in the here and now, on how every choice can impact that final picture.
This time of the year I always sit back and take stock of my career, weighing inside how I feel about returning to the semester. I perform a sort of litmus test on myself--how do I feel when I walk to my building? So far, every August, I feel the same thrill I always have at the thought of a new semester of new faces--kids with big dreams, and the thought that maybe I can help them, even if in the littlest way, with reaching their goals. So while I may not have had a summer in Europe, or written the great American novel this past summer, I did have lots of popsicles by the pool with my kids, and I am happy to be back, and happy with the choices we made.