College Dreams

I’m fortunate to know the outgoing president of Adelphi University, Robert “Bob” Scott, via his wife, Carole Artigiani. Carole is a good friend and former employer. I was her office assistant in the early days of Global Kids (www.globalkids.org), the fantastic youth empowerment organization she founded in 1989 and which has recently and joyously celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Thanks to this friendship, I have been invited to various events at Adelphi that I might not have considered to be in my wheelhouse, including a piano recital and presentations by poets and authors. (I joke with Carole that I am having “culture” foisted upon me, but I very much appreciate it!) Last weekend, in conjunction with a reception for President Scott’s retirement, we were treated to a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The eponymous troupe is split into two factions, and the “Paul Taylor 2” group had done a residency at Adelphi during the past school year.

For a novice like me, I found the dance program very intriguing. It was comprised of three parts, with brief intermissions in between during which preparations were going on behind the curtain while in front of the curtain folks said nice things about the evening’s honoree. (President Scott is a delightful and interesting man. I hope I can get to know him better now that he is in semi-retirement, although he will be traveling, writing, and giving guest lectures, and seemingly being just as busy – if not more so – than he was as a full-time, very hands-on university president.)

The first dance, which featured members of Paul Taylor 2, was called “Diggity” and had something to do with dogs. I think the dancers were supposed to actually BE dogs, and there were little doggie cutouts placed around the stage that the dancers had to navigate. The ladies’ costumes were blinding white and almost sheer; I frankly found their protruding nipples somewhat distracting. There was one female dancer who randomly appeared in silky pale pink underwear, although I couldn’t figure out why there was a distinction, unless she had just forgotten her costume. It embarrasses me to admit, but that one was utterly beyond me. (Damn you, dance ignorance!)

The second piece, “Company B”, was choreographed by Paul Taylor but performed by Adelphi students to the music of the Andrews Sisters. I was thoroughly impressed!! There was one very handsome, very talented lad who caught my attention every time he was on the stage. When I saw him later at the post-performance reception, I told him how much I had enjoyed the piece and that I had been “riveted”. He got all verklempt, clutched his hands to his chest and said, “That means a lot to me!” He was even more beautiful up close.

The last piece, “Promethean Fire”, was more like what I imagined a dance performance to be. Performed to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the men and women dancers wore sleek black body-hugging costumes with gold chevron stripes, and the performance was extremely visually engaging. The group as a whole made a series of fluid geometric formations, and then there were break-off soloists and duos in between. The thing that I found most impressive about all of the dancing – and all of the dancers – was the physicality. Their bodies, though some were tall and some short, were uniformly muscular and lithe, without an ounce of fat, as they flung themselves around the stage with precision and strength. What incredible athletes they are!

* * *

As I was leaving the Olmstead Theater at the Adelphi University Performing Arts Center, I took notice of the students’ artwork displayed on the Center’s walls, and the whole evening combined to strike a familiar nerve of joy and regret in me.

I confess – I am a school-a-holic. With considerable gaps in between, I devoted four years of my life to undergraduate college (B.A. English/Literary Writing), two to graduate school (Masters in Bilingual Elementary Education) and three to law school (your basic J.D.). If I could figure out how to afford it (and, more importantly, what I wanted to study), I’d go back again to get a Ph.D.!  As you may have noticed, I do have a degree in education. At one point in my life I strongly considered a career in academia, but I made the mistake of starting at the wrong end. My initial – and brief – teaching experience was limited to an elementary school and a junior high. While I appreciated many aspects of teaching kids that age (and admired many of the teachers with whom I was fortunate to work and from whom I was grateful to learn), what I really should have done – had I not lacked the requisite courage and confidence – was pursue the path of a college professor.

Not long ago I read a poll by CareerCast.com of the least stressful careers in America, and what do you think was on top, the least stressful of professions? College professor. Of course, as with any broad-brush statement, there was clearly some debate on the issue, but generally speaking, tenured professors at colleges and universities are the most content people in America. It certainly jibes with MY belief!

As exemplified by my recent visits to Adelphi, college campuses are, to me, some of the most fascinating places on earth. So much intellectual energy and cultural diversity!  I love the idea – and the reality – of university life. I thoroughly enjoyed going on college visits with my daughter. We didn’t do enough of them, as far as I was concerned: just a few schools south of New York (including the University of Delaware) and a few up in New England (the “U’s”: UConn, UNH, UMass and URI), and then a couple in upstate New York (SUNY Oswego, Syracuse). We didn’t make it as far west as SUNY Buffalo, which is where she actually ended up going for her sophomore year, although she has now transferred to West Virginia University for the fall semester and beyond. (We haven’t visited there yet and I’m definitely looking forward to it!)  Without a doubt, being on those campuses, and learning about all the amazing academic, cultural and activism opportunities and sports and friendships and fun that XYZ University had to offer, probably excited me as much as – if not more than – it did my daughter. And although she may have been initially skeptical, the kid finally figured out on her own (after listening to me go on and on about it) how exceptional college is now that she has finished her first year away. She’s been commiserating with her school friends over the phone about how miserable they are to be home.

I have many friends and family members who have pursued careers in education, including my college roommate, who is a teacher in a very high-end high school in Washington, D.C. She’s been there for decades, and even had Chelsea Clinton as a student. (Imagine her parent conferences!) I am not-so-secretly jealous of the path she has taken; even her summers were devoted to the kinds of intellectual pursuits – like international travel and archeological digs, to name just two – that I think I would have really enjoyed. She speaks multiple languages and has friends all over the world. Other friends – like my buddy Nick Noble, Worcester (Mass.) Pulse’s DJ of the Year – stayed literally closer to home. He taught for many years and was even headmaster at Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts (also the home of St. Marks School, where he had been a student). One of my cousins is a tenured anthropology professor at Northern Arizona University; another has been teaching English all over the world, including in China.

Sadly, much as with my writing, I feel now (and have felt for some years) that the window on that career choice may have closed. I still wonder sometimes if I have the capacity to be an effective and influential instructor. In my view, a major obstacle to that is my distinct lack of marketable expertise of any kind.  So the ubiquitous negative self-talk around my becoming a college professor is this:  What do I have to offer?  What could I possibly teach that anyone would want to learn?

My doubts are somewhat based on prior experience.  During my third year of law school, I was one of the articles editors for the Hofstra Law Review. Given that I had a career in publishing for most of my adult life, I took great pride in my marked-up corrections of the junior editors’ work, but judging by their reactions I often felt as if I had gone overboard, like I was just making marks with my little red pen and not helping them develop useful skills. I’ve often felt the same as a senior associate at my law firm, where the ever-replenishing supply of junior associates look up to me as a mentor and teacher (thanks to experience AND age). I’m always afraid that I’m doing them a disservice because I’m not clear enough, or I make assumptions about what they actually know (or SHOULD know), or I might even be passing along faulty information. I mean, the instructions and explanations I give them are clear enough to ME but they often somehow lose something in the translation.

Being a college professor is clearly my dream job. But that’s just what it is: a dream. As with most of my recent career exploration, it’s largely a case of not knowing how to get there from here. Combine that with the lack of confidence in my ability to actually teach anyone anything, and you end up with Nan wondering what might have been if I had taken a different path at any number of forks in my life road.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few . . . ”

But allow me to end on a more positive note with a final word about teachers: I have the utmost respect for educators at all levels. It is a vital, and often underappreciated, job. Good teachers can – and do – have a chance to change the world, one student at a time. Thank you all.

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