I walked into the classroom hopped up on caffeine and adrenaline. I’d gotten to the room early—a drab box on the second floor of of our largest academic building—with the intent of staking out my territory well in advance of the freshmen, but a few of them had already beaten me. Looks like I wasn’t the only one who wanted to get a jumpstart on the first day of class.
Impressed at their early arrival, I looked at the clock on the wall only to discover that no clocks hung on any of the walls. Over the chalkboard hung a Franciscan crucifix—a Cross of San Damiano—and that was all.
“They don’t care if you know what time it is,” I said to the few students in the room, “but they sure want us to know that Christ died for our sins, I guess.”
One of the students—a non-traditional student by the looks of him, and an international student, to boot—grinned politely at my wise-ass comment. Brother Mario, his named turned out to be, was from Peru. He was a Franciscan friar, dressed in plainclothes instead of his brown robes. So much for my smart-ass remark about crucifixes.
Another of the students who had arrived early sat almost in the back, two rows away from the large windows that overlooked the main part of campus. The warm morning sun of late August spilled in generously, but the girl looked pallid and queasy. I asked her her name and if she was okay. She wasn’t. “I’m really homesick,” she told me. I thought she was going to hyperventilate. “I’m not going to be able to do this.”
I tried to offer words of reassurance, but what the hell did I know? After all, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do this. As it would turn out, the girl would be gone by the end of the week.
I took a seat on a front corner of the narrow metal table at the front of the room as more students filed in. I wanted them all to see my Cat in the Hat tie, my blue jeans, my one-liter bottle of Diet Mountain Dew. I wanted those things to challenge their expectations right away. I wanted those things to let the students know I was human. I even underscored that in my syllabus, which explicitly said on page one, “Call me Chris.”
Everyone generally looked chipper for 8:30 in the morning. It hadn’t been too long ago, as high schoolers, that they’d been starting school even earlier, so an 8:30 class must’ve almost been like sleeping in. It wouldn’t be until later in the semester, or maybe even next semester, before the odd-houred daily schedule of a real college student would hit them and they’d suddenly see anything before ten a.m. as being far too early in the day for doing schoolwork. The bad habits hadn’t set in yet.
A genial looking kid sat in the front-row seat closest to the door. His name was Matt, he said, and he was from New Jersey. He’d come to St. Bonaventure to major in history. Later that week, he would write an essay about how lucky he was to have the best girlfriend in the world waiting for him back home and how they were going to be together forever. They’d actually make it until mid-October; she’d break up with him over midterm break. Matt would eventually end up gaining about thirty or forty pounds by the time he graduated. By that time, he’d be a journalism major and I’d be his adviser, and we’d have a lot of inside jokes and I’d call him “The General.”
My Composition & Critical Thinking class consisted of students from a variety of majors on campus. It would be the only semester I would teach students unaffiliated with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Later in the year, my colleagues and I would decide to have all JMC freshmen take Comp & Crit only from JMC profs, which meant the registrar would populate my sections with only JMC majors. I’d be able to treat Comp & Crit like “writing bootcamp” for our students, which would become great fun.
For now, I was eager to teach basic composition and critical thinking skills to this wide cross-section of students. I had a second section, too, scheduled for 1:30 that afternoon—with kids named Chris Broadhead and Melissa Rasey and Annie Tulley and others. I’d have a lot of fun with those kids. I would keep in touch with them throughout school and even a little bit after they graduated, but I eventually lost touch with all of them—the first of many students whose company I enjoyed but who would eventually fade out of my life. Loss, I would come to learn, is an ever-present part of a professor’s life as he lets go of his children and sends them out into the world. It would be one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, and it came from those first Comp & Crit kids, four years after they first walked into my classroom.
Between my two sections of Comp & Crit, I had two sections of Intro to the Mass Media at 9:30 and 10:30. By the second section of Intro, I found myself saying things and wondering if was inadvertently repeating myself or if I was just experiencing déjà vu from the first section. The back-to-back-to-back sections would keep my adrenaline pumped, but afterward I would deflate a little and have to struggle to get my mojo back for 1:30. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, with no classes, I’d be able to decompress.
All this lay ahead of me, though, as I sat there, perched on the metal table, surveying the students who trickled in. I had twenty or so. I hoped they were as excited as I was.
I’d taught college classes before, as an adjunct at the University of Pittsburgh during the previous five years while I worked there in the P.R. office—a couple sections of freshman composition, a class on newspaper feature writing, a class on short fiction. Then a call came, out of the blue, from the dean of the journalism school at St. Bonaventure, offering me a full-time job as a professor.
And now I was here, teaching Composition and Critical Thinking on the morning of Monday, August 28, 2000.
I checked my watch: 8:30. Time.
I took a final swig of my Diet Mountain Dew. “So,” I asked as I screwed the lid back onto my soda, “for how many of you is this the first college class you’ve ever taken?”
All of their hands went into the air, some with enthusiasm, some with trepidation. That same mixture was playing out inside my very gut.
“Well,” I said, “let me apologize to you right up front that you’ve ended up with me as your very first college professor.” The smile on my face let them know it was okay to laugh. “Hey, I have a Dr. Seuss tie on—I can’t be all that bad, right?”
Welcome to the first day of the rest of my life.
Or so I hoped.