“You must take up your oar and go on a journey.”
—Tiresias to Odysseus
The quiet, but fidgety Chinese-American student who sits next to the classroom wall sneaking a peak at his cell phone now and then, chooses the subject of Donald Trump for his final research paper in the freshman writing course I’m teaching. His first draft is full of name-calling, like an eager bombast. “Tony,” I say with my instructional smile. “Tony, you can’t do this. This is a rant, not a conversation.” He freezes his eyes on me like he’s expecting an unwanted lecture on the one hand, and desiring direction on the other hand. “An academic paper,” I continue, “is above all else a dialogue, not a tirade. It’s a journey in which you explore the subject and move it forward. He listens and smiles his 18-year-old smile as I keep talking. “Get away from yes-no natter.”
“Ok,” he agrees as he collects his backpack to leave. “I’ll try.”
After several drafts, peer workshops and feedback from me, after they have all handed in a final paper, each student gives a short talk about his or her research exploration. The rest of the class asks questions afterward.
When queried by a peer why Donald Trump was his selected topic, Tony turns to the class and points to himself. “Look at me,” he begins as he jabs his finger into his chest with each phrase. “I’m Chinese, I’m an immigrant, and I’m gay.”
He has our attention.
“I’m like those Mexicans Trump’s trying to keep out with his wall,” Tony continues. As the students ask further questions, an inquisitive interest fills the room.
This moment of honesty and investigation is what I’m going for five days a week at a technical university where I teach writing. It’s an enormous leap from “yeah, I’ll do a research paper, whatever,” to some personal connection that leaves students amazed with a desire to understand more. The change of purpose demands their participation in a conversation the world needs.
When asked what I do at the university, I often answer: “I’m a missionary.” I say it jokingly but it’s the truth of sorts, though I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything. My goal is not to turn technology majors into liberal arts majors, or engineers into artists. I am trying, rather, to pull students both inward and then outward toward the world. I’m trying to marry technology to the questions of humanity. At the same time what I’m really trying to do is broaden their understanding and comfort with complexities—to get away from a bi-polar understanding of the world—it’s this or that, black or white—and in doing so hopefully, expand their acceptance of self and other. I’m trying to get them to see that as educated people, they must be a part of these larger, complicated conversations.
I love to teach. I love all its details, all its results. I knew early on that teaching would be my life’s work. As a child I often played school, with me always the teacher insisting my students learn. On the army bases where I grew up, our teachers were civilians, and I thought they were gods. I wanted to be like them. I have been teaching since I left college. But little did I know that I would also fall in love with writing some day, and that part of me would grow and blossom. I did not yet understand my strong yearning to shape experiences into coherent thought, nor did I take into account my artistic nature.
Emerson wrote that God comes to us without a bell. And lately without a sound, a growing desire for this other half of my sky—the writer in me—has emerged with a force and feels in conflict with the time needed to do a good job at the university. In the fifteen years I’ve been in academia, the demands have increased with closer assessments, bigger teaching loads and more administrative demands. It’s a kind of grit in my shoe. The tension of such a schedule eats away at me. I consider leaving.
I watch the ink on this paper leave its mark across the page, and for a moment it all feels like magic: the pen, these words, the tide I’m watching come in and slowly return to shore. I ponder what I ask my students to do, which is to keep the emphasis on the grand experiment we call life. Right now I ask myself, as I ask them when they begin to write, to imagine a journey without knowing the outcome.
As friends and family die, time has become more and more precious. Just this morning I found out that the author of Dispatches, Michael Herr—an author I greatly admired—has died at the age of 76. Once, I spoke to him on the phone about his powerful book on Viet Nam, and he told me that after many accolades for his publications and movie scripts, he left that behind for work and study at a Buddhist temple. In his coarse New York accent, he explained as best he could about walking away from one world and into another. “I got off my high horse,” he simply said. By which I thought he meant he stopped clinging to his ego.
I think about this as I consider giving up the recognition and security I receive at the university. With anguish about leaving academia sooner than I had planned, a battle rages inside my head with shame for letting people down, and terror of the unknown. It is easier to stay with the familiar task of semesters than to make a leap of faith. Easier to cling to the shore for security rather than risk letting the river carry me down stream to unknown destinations. Some days as I contemplate my decision, my chest feels like a fist resides in my sternum.
How many times have I asked my students to be curious about what’s next? “Make room for what you do not yet understand,” I’ve said with tender concern for their wellbeing. When they begin their research papers, I tell them, they will have little idea where it might lead and that they must give up insisting they know ahead of time. It takes an entire semester for this to happen. Just as importantly, it takes time for them to believe again that they have permission to ask questions and to change midstream. I show them that the writing exploration is not just a utilitarian skill, but offers tools for critical reflection. As the poet Richard Hugo once wrote, “Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”
As I consider leaving, I feel like a stranger entering the once-forbidden land of self on the myriad of army bases where I grew up. There the mission came first, and as a soldier’s daughter I was not to have my own desires. Now, I find a sticky attachment to this story of safety within the fortress, be it an army base or a university campus. When I press against these invisible forces of my past, I feel an enormous resistance. What comes up in its own somatic silent way feels like a kind of control from an establishment pushing against my artistic imaginings. In this liminal space between the past and the future, I am in need of trust and confidence.
In a coffee shop on the last day before I must sign my academic contract for the upcoming school year, or not, I feel the urge to hold on to a familiar place. The narrative arc of semesters holds me there as my pen pauses and my body fills with run-away anxiety. I do my best to pat the nervous concerns like I might a swaddled infant. Around me other writers type at their computers while people talk across tables as if trying to solve the world’s problems. I pause and look up, then back to this paper, then out the window into the distance. Am I refusing the promises of the next season? I wonder.
Later as I am talking with a friend about my intense fretful apprehensions, the acronym AWOL (absent without leave) comes to mind. And when I say it out loud, I burst into tears. “I have abandoned the mission,” I say with a force that surprises us both. A seam has burst and goes straight to the heart of the continued struggle to leave the university or not. The past spills out in front of me. I can hear my long-gone soldier-father telling me to never abandon the mission. Powerful words for a young girl learning to please.
My friend asks me if soldiers ever get missions that end, only to begin new ones. As I let that concept enter my consciousness, my body begins to relax. The sensations around my heart loosen for the first time in months. It is only with this exchange that I realize my new purpose. I want to write with the same cogency I brought to the university. I want to go on teaching in new ways, to pay a different kind of attention to the world now. This is the journey I send my students on: to discover what is not yet known. “Sometimes, “ I tell them, “you don’t know why you have chosen a particular subject. Time and patience will help you unearth those answers.” They stare at me with uncertainty.
The truth is that I gave my all to the university. I went every day with as much grace as I could find even when it was difficult. I found creative ways to understand and teach as I led my students on new paths. Now, inside life’s ambiguities, I am rowing through a stream of new questions without knowing what I’ll find as I turn the bend. I am connecting with what doesn’t die before I die.
By evening I will have written the resignation letter and said what I was once sure would be impossible to say: I’m not coming back. The letter will only hint at the powerful undercurrents in this emotional, personal decision. As I said to Tony about his work, in the end each inquiry is a journey. My conversation here has turned into a meditation on change and desire, nothing I planned in advance.
When I look back to what I was asking Tony to do, I see that I wanted him to trust his own intellect and then to let his questions guide him through what he found in his complex research. I was asking him to reach beyond what he thought he knew—a difficult, sometimes impossible, human leap—and above all else, to keep his mind open.
Eventually when I return to my office to box up a big stack of books and folders, and to go through the remnants of a daily teaching life, I will stand next to my desk weeping. It will look like I’ve made the wrong decision. And maybe I have, but maybe not. That is the ongoing question my life must speak in its own way. I know already that I won’t miss meetings, agendas and merit reviews. I won’t miss the early morning hours sacrificed for others, the late afternoons at my desk. I won’t miss surrendering my own writing, coming home exhausted. But September will be difficult with muscle memory that feels compelled to prepare syllabi, to memorize new names, to ask questions and to wait for answers. When I hear the news on the radio or read something new, I will, out of habit, be framing an assignment.
When my friends bring their enthusiasm for the word “retirement,” I wince at the term. I find myself shooing this casual term away like an unwanted mosquito. I explain that no, it’s not an actual retirement in the language of Human Resources. I’m simply leaving this particular job. My friends can see the visible existential dread on my face, and are not sure what to say next other than to repeat, “Oh, you will love retirement.”
This morning at my computer, I am alone and feeling it. I sit and stare out the window through a purple orchid on the windowsill. I hear in the distance the traffic going down the street, and when that calms, I hear birds in their early morning feedings on the giant oak along the fence. I feel a warm breeze come through the open window and then gently down from the ceiling fan. I am thinking back to Tony when I asked him what it was he wanted to explore. “What bewilders you?”
I hope he heard me say, “This is your moment. Go for it.”
Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter (University of Iowa Press) and poetry chapbook The Tug (Finishing Line Press). Her essays and poetry have been widely published and anthologized. She is a teacher and editor living in upstate New York. She taught at Rochester Institute of Technology for 15 years and holds an MFA from Bennington College.