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19 January 2011

Why I Love Mondays

Age is mostly just a number, not a terribly good gauge to tell much, if anything, about a person; certain realities do, however, make themselves known with passing years. When I scan my cell phone contacts to find several people who are no longer living, I do get a slightly different view of mortality than I did when I was much younger. I think Buddhists call it practicing death, more of a meditation or focus on the transient nature of everything about our existence on earth.

Recently I’ve become much more aware of the many blessings in my life, and I have a great deal more gratitude, especially for the little things, aspects of everyday life I formerly took for granted or hardly noticed. Just simple things like having heat or hot water in the winter time, a nutritious meal, a quiet place to sleep at night, the love of a pet, and the many great people in my life from co-workers to friends to family.

My job is perhaps my greatest blessing. In these days of widespread unemployment and under-employment, I say can I honestly look forward to work. My profession continues to be one of the most gratifying aspects of my life. I went through many difficult years of struggle, searching for the right position, and, oddly, I never made money a priority, but rather that the work was meaningful and important and somehow making people’s lives better, my own included.

I knew I loved teaching writing, and I really only wanted to teach at Brookdale Community College. I actually turned down a few tenure-track positions at other colleges with the hope that I’d eventually get something at Brookdale, and I worked as an adjunct instructor for many years. I say that only to add that any rational assessment of the situation would have demanded a career change or accepting one of the other positions, something to allow for enough income to put food on the table and some sort of life for lack of a better word to emerge. But much of my life has been a series of non-linear and not always well-thought decisions.

Not too many people would have been able to hang in there as long as I did, for almost ten years back in the nineties I lived with a non-living wage, zero benefits and no promise of a future employment beyond the current semester, knowing only in some vague, intuitive way that I felt I belonged at Brookdale, so I kept coming back. At one point, I decided to let go of all attachment and expectation, to allow for nothing other than being completely present in each class I taught, while performing a mantra of sorts in which I kept telling myself just to be thankful for what I had, realizing that if I were paid a million dollars a day or a hundred, my job satisfaction and the nature of my teaching really wouldn’t have changed one bit. I decided to pretend I was being paid a million dollars a day.

In a very short time everything changed, and formally closed doors began magically opening. There was one former college Vice President named Johanna Kobrun who seriously went out of her way to help me, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for her kindness and vision. Somehow I got that elusive tenure track position in the fall of 2002. When I think of where I am now -- an Associate Professor of English at Brookdale Community College -- I can only say how incredibly fortunate and blessed I am.

An educational institution is first and foremost about people and the environment they create by their collective thoughts and actions in the course of the days, weeks, years, decades, and even lifetimes they spend shaping the character of the institution with their work.

Tuesday January 18, 2011 was our Spring Semester Faculty Day -- a day for meetings and programs, and a day when most of the department eventually gathers together in the afternoon. As I looked around at the faces of my colleagues, I was again struck by how lucky I am to be working with these people. Being late for the meeting, as I always am, I paused for one second outside the door and thought to myself, how cool is this? I get to walk into this room and sit down with all these amazing people. And somehow I belong here.

I have a great deal of academic freedom and much help along the way from everyone I work with, including my colleagues, our Dean, our administrative personnel, and even our amazing tech support person. How many teachers at any level have such a friendly and generally supportive work environment where, within reason, most anything and everything we want and need, we have?

Perhaps I'm exaggerating a little, especially in the wake of the economic crash of 2008. We have indeed had important classes cut and experienced many other harsh aspects of the economic reality of the world today. But in the grand scheme of things, we all have it pretty good, no doubt due in large part to the individual and collective efforts of my colleagues as they are continually seek to implement better ways to do things. They don’t rest on their laurels. The people I see on a daily basis are incredibly talented and innovative, and they're in education for all the right reasons. I feel humbled that I get to work with them.

I appreciate these people and know they won't (and I won't) be here forever. What I wanted to say at the meeting (amid the effects of the doom and gloom of the financial climate of the state of New Jersey) was to tell them to take a moment to reflect on all the good things they have done for students, that they too have been blessed in that they get to do something meaningful and important, to change lives for the better and to provide so many opportunities to individuals from all ages and walks of life.

I know I'm often told years later by students I run into of the impact (often without realizing it) I've had on them, so think of that result multiplied exponentially over decades for thousands and thousands of students, and you get the point of the net impact on the universe of the Brookdale faculty. Maybe that's why the place is so special; it's like John Lennon's theory of “instant karma”, not in the future or next life, but now. We've all created and shaped this space, consciously and unconsciously with our thoughts, intentions, and deeds over the years. I sound a bit corny I know, but I really treasure these colleagues. Their presence in my life is like a precious gift.

At the meeting our Dean Carl Calendar made a reference to the fact that he's well aware he won't be here forever. I'm a bit biased when it comes to Carl as he's one of the main reasons I wanted to teach at Brookdale in the first place. I used to listen to Carl and former Brookdale Professor Kevin Hayter lecture back in the 90’s; we had open classrooms, only partitions, no immediate ceiling, so you could hear everything your neighbor was doing. Listening to those two discuss literature was quite an experience.

Both Carl and Kevin were legendary in the excitement they created and the following they had among their students; not only did I want to be like them, I wanted to be in their class! I mention Carl now because he had stroke back in the summer and has been away from his position as Dean until recently.

It is hard to express in words, but I can tell you the energy and personal power he brings to the job everyday were sorely missed while he was away. In a very real way Carl has spent his life fighting for the best interests of the students and for his colleagues' freedom to teach as we see fit. There are an awful lot of strange edicts that come from the minds of administrators from time to time, and it is really impossible to imagine what Brookdale would be like if Carl had never worked here.

One's academic freedom and integrity cannot survive unless certain people speak truth to power and do it frequently; problem is that job is never popular or sought out – the position much like being Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner! Who wants to get beat up for a living so others can shine? But Carl has always been that kind of fighter.

Thankfully, his recovery is going very well, but when you think of how we all almost lost him forever – well, all I can say is there was a palpable and dramatic sense of void during his absence – think of the scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life" where Clarence shows George Bailey what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born – Pottersville, baby!

The truth is I have many colleagues of a similar stature regarding their wisdom, experience, and innovation; they often inspire me and sometimes challenge me, but I'm a better educator and a better person for having known them. I could write pages and pages about each one of them, but I could probably sum up the collective impact of their work by saying they've done a lot always to put people first and the welfare of others above their own. That spirit has a tendency to spread, and most of the time the students really appreciate it.

Besides the pedagogy and academic goals, our careers are really all about helping students to see themselves in new ways, to dream bigger dreams, to move into and get comfortable in a world where previously veiled possibilities make themselves known and available. There is no cookie-cutter mentality here. We’re all encouraged and supported to bring our own unique passions and methods to the process. Not a bad way to spend your life, really. How did I ever get so lucky?

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