Jenny flounced into my office and threw herself in a chair. She was crying before I had even managed to say hello. She gripped a cloth handkerchief in her hand as tightly as my daughter held Blue-Blue Blankie at home, drawing it rather brutally across her eyes to wipe away the tears. She seemed to be willing herself to stop sobbing.
“What can I do for you?” I asked, unsure how to respond to this display of emotion from a student. When my two-year-old cried I usually knew how to comfort her. I’d take her in my arms, or nurse her, maybe distract her with a silly joke, or tell her a story about Chica Persona, a made-up misbehaver whose antics often mirrored my daughter’s. But what was I supposed to do with Jenny, a grown woman and my student? Should I hug her? Offer her Kleenex though she already had a handkerchief? Crack stupid jokes?
I sat listening to the faulty radiator backfiring in my dingy gray basement office and waited for Jenny to pull herself together. After a few minutes she stopped crying and started hiccupping.
“I. Just. Don’t,” she began. “Understand. Why. I. Got. An A-. And not an A. (Hiccup.) On. This. Paper.” She thrust the essay under my nose.
Her paper, about diabolic images in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, had a grammatical error in the first sentence. And the second. And the third. After three years in one of the top colleges in the United States, Jenny, an English major, could barely write a sentence without making a mistake.
I’ve. Never,” she continued, still sniffling, “gotten anything but a. . . a. . . an A on a paper before.”
I rubbed my belly. I was almost seven months pregnant with my second child. What was I doing in this dim office with this spoiled student? Why wasn’t I home playing with my toddler? I had originally wanted to become a professor because I loved to teach; more specifically I wanted to teach people who wanted to learn. Teaching at anything but the college level didn’t appeal to me because I did not want to be a disciplinarian. I wanted to help open young minds, learn as much from my students as I taught them, engage in debates that would move the world forward. But Jenny wasn’t interested in talking about the cogency of her argument, the misplacement of her apostrophes, or even the larger issues of good and evil, conformity and socialization that were raised in Hawthorne’s text. She couldn’t care less about either logic or grammar. She was only interested in her grade. And the grade, an A-, was not something she earned or merited; it was something I had done to her. If I learned anything from the students at the all-female, elite college where I was a visiting assistant professor, it was that I didn’t want my daughter to grow up to be anything like them.
I received three job offers my first year out of graduate school: a tenure-track offer from an upstate school in the State University of New York system, a lectureship at Michigan State University, and a visiting professorship at a top women’s college. I felt an instant intellectual affinity with the chair at the SUNY school who was courting me, and the idea of working at a university that catered to regular kids, most of whom were first generation college – goers, appealed to me. But when I went to visit the school the faculty seemed so unhappy. They didn’t understand the dean’s system for merit raises, they felt overwhelmed by the number of students enrolled in the courses they taught. The people who would become my colleagues seemed stuck. The dean talked enthusiastically about moving my tenure clock forward since I had already published a book in graduate school, but when I asked him for a higher starting salary and money for moving expenses, he turned cold.
“One doesn’t refuse a tenure-track offer,” the chair of Graduate Studies at Emory University, where I had earned my PhD, said when I went to talk to him about the campus visit. He was restless, rearranging books on his desk. He placed a hardcover edition of The Scarlet Letter on top of a paperback Gulliver’s Travels.
“But I’ve got another one, at a school that’s on the map. It’s not tenure track but they’re offering me over five thousand dollars a year more.”
“One doesn’t refuse a tenure-track offer,” the chair intoned.
I thought of a brilliant colleague who had moved to Nevada for a tenure – track position, and was miserable. And another who worked at a big research university in the middle of Ohio who was also struggling to find her way. I thought of a professor at Emory who never wanted to be in Atlanta, who hadn’t bought a house or an apartment because she felt like her time there was just temporary. Ten years later, tenured, she was still in Atlanta. Instead of living her life, she was waiting to leave. She hadn’t married or had children. My husband, James, and I talked about our options for hours: we decided that we weren’t willing to move somewhere we didn’t want to live just for a job. We made the decision that we would make over and over again: our family, our children, and our quality of life all came ahead of academic success. It was a decision that would soon catapult me out of academia and into a more flexible, child-friendly, and risky career.
“What university are you affiliated with in America?” a professor from the English Department at L’Universite Abdou Moumouni, Niger’s only university, asked me, years later, as I handed him a business card.
“I’m not,” I said.
“You don’t work for a university in the States?”
“No,” I explained. “I’m a recovering academic.”
I had turned down the tenure-track offer and taken the job at the women’s college, happy to be back in the Northeast and thrilled with the prospect of teaching motivated students. It was there, in faculty housing, that our second daughter, Athena, was born at home. She emerged from my womb whooping her war cry, gray eyes flashing. James and I wanted to have our children close in age, so we planned for Athena and her older sister, Hesperus, to be only nineteen months apart. For us, going from no children to one (an easily comforted, smiley baby) was much easier than going from one to two (Athena was a lusty baby who was very vocal about her needs just as Hesperus morphed into a terribly trying toddler). I found myself completely overwhelmed by the needs of my children and the needs of my students. To my surprise, the school where I chose to work was far from idyllic. Instead of having lively discussions about literature over tea (isn’t that how professors at elite New England colleges nestled in the mountains spend at least some of their time?), I found myself in a competitive, unsupportive department where the professors were more interested in their evaluations than in academic standards and where the students, like Jenny, seemed to care stridently about their grades but feel nonchalant about the quality of their education. Worse, when I told the chair I was pregnant and due in the spring, he cringed visibly. “You can take a week off,” he said, sounding like he thought he was being generous. “We’ll get someone to cover your classes.” Something had to give.
“What would your ideal job be?” I asked James one day while we were visiting my mom. Hesperus had found a pair of scissors and was cutting the fibers of my mother’s dining room carpeting. Newborn Athena was nursing.
“To be paid to write,” he said without hesitating.
“Paid to write?” The idea was so novel I had to ponder it. Most young academics are so desperate to get published in scholarly journals that they rarely even consider remuneration. The first royalty check I received for the academic book I published in grad school—a classroom edition of a little-known eighteenth-century play that I coedited with a colleague because I didn’t have the confidence to do it myself—was for $31.22. I was so delighted I skipped all the way to the bank to deposit the check. But it’s not like those royalties would pay the rent.
“Paid to write, like how?”
“Like, you know, long articles for the Atlantic Monthly.”
“They pay you for that?”
It was such a good idea! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Writing for a living. What could be more perfect?!
The idea seemed even better when I found out just how much some magazines and newspapers would pay. I wrote to FamilyFun Magazine for their writer’s guidelines. They came back on a page that had been Xeroxed so many times they were barely legible. But the information contained in that fading type was hard to believe.
“A dollar a word!” I told James. “A dollar a word?! They pay you a dollar for one word. ‘The,’” I said, holding out my hand. “Give me a dollar!” I ran around the house, changing Athena’s diaper and picking up Hesperus’s toys, humming to myself. I need only write the word the and I would make a dollar.
“So you’re not teaching in America?” my Nigerian colleague asked again.
“Not anymore,” I explained. “In the States I make a living as a writer.”
The problem with becoming a writer when you have an academic background is that you have to undo a lot of what you’re taught in academia. Academics write obscurely, intentionally limiting their readership by masking their ideas behind abstruse prose. In fact, unless you’re Henry Louis Gates, Jr., if your work is too popular your colleagues become suspicious.
At tenure reviews they don’t necessarily want to see that you’ve published in Ms. Magazine and the New York Times but in journals with names like the Journal of Andrology and the Ontology of Semiology.
Though establishing a career as a writer wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it’d be when I went dancing around the house, it was a relief to make my own schedule and escape the classroom. I missed the summers off and the overseas conferences, but I didn’t miss teaching or the cold shoulders I got from my colleagues. After all, being a parent was as much of a performance as teaching, it involved as much energy, as much social interaction, and as much hand-holding. By the time our third child was born, on a clear October night in our little red farmhouse in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I had found my voice as a parenting writer and journalist and had established a consulting business to help other writers (many also trying to undo their academic training) polish their prose and publish.
A year later a writer friend (a mother of four boys who had become a successful writer even though she never finished college) forwarded a call from the Fulbright Program folks saying they were looking for applicants. I’d lived in West Africa in the 1990s and always planned to go back. But life and work and baby making had gotten in the way.
I didn’t know that as a professional writer I was eligible for a Fulbright, but I was. A year after I learned I could apply (it’s a long process), I found myself in front of a classroom again for the first time in six years. I was awarded the Fulbright to return to Niger, the landlocked Sahelian country where I had worked thirteen years before. I would teach my specialty— nineteenth-century American literature—in a country where only 15 percent of the population is literate. I knew a little about the university, as I had taught English as a Second Language there before. The University of Abdou Moumouni, named after a famous Nigerien physicist, was once the jewel of West Africa. Students from Mali to the West and Chad to the East, as well as those from neighboring Benin, Togo, and other Francophone countries, would come to study there. But I also knew that the current government was openly opposed to education, and that over the past ten years the university had steadily declined. The president of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, had actually said in a televised address that people in Niger don’t need education, they need to grow millet and sorghum. Army men, in full riot gear, are dropped off by the truckload on campus every morning to “keep the peace.” But even though I was prepared, theoretically, for difficult teaching conditions, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I had eighty-four second-year English students packed into one small room, with three squeaky ceiling fans and a very dusty chalkboard. The students in the back were so far from the blackboard they had to stand up to see what was written at the bottom.
This was a far cry from Emory’s tree-lined campus, where marigolds, tulips, and daffodils bloomed on every walkway, where most of the classrooms were equipped with PowerPoint projectors, podiums, pull-down screens, and world maps, not to mention clean chalkboards, working outlets, doors that close, and brand-new desks. For the past three years Niger has been classified as the poorest country in the world by the United Nations. Instead of teaching some of the most privileged people in the world, I would now be teaching some of the most disenfranchised.
But after my family and I arrived in Niamey and settled in (a process which took months longer than I expected) it became unclear whether I would actually get to teach. During the first months of the semester we endured what the American Embassy called “seasonal striking,” students protesting government policies and commemorating the deaths of their comrades in past protests. The two months of sometimes violent striking included large protests blocking traffic for hours, angry students burning tires and torching cars with foreign plates, and gendarmes dispersing crowds with tear gas, which (I found out one day while I was trying to hold a class, despite the political difficulties, about slave narratives) sounds like a bomb explosion when it’s fired outside one’s classroom. Just when I was despairing of ever getting to teach, the political situation finally settled down, and my students and I dove gratefully into the nineteenth-century American literary tradition.
The peace lasted for exactly three weeks. Then, at eight o’clock one morning, I heard someone call “Madame!” A large man filled the doorframe of my classroom. “You are in my room!”
“I beg your pardon?” I had been writing the day’s lesson plan and homework on the board. I walked to the door where the man was waiting, bringing my chalk with me. It was the only piece I had, the only piece I had access to. If I left it in the chalkboard well, it would disappear.
“This,” he said grandiosely, “is my room. Tell your students to leave at once!”
I looked at him in disbelief, sure there was some mistake. Nigeriens are known for their graciousness and hospitality and I was flabbergasted that the professor was talking to me this way. “I’ve been using this room since the beginning of the semester,” I protested, moving away from the door so
my students wouldn’t hear me arguing in French. “I was assigned this room by the English Dep—”
“The English Department has no jurisdiction over rooms!” he interrupted. “Assigning rooms is the responsibility of the Registrar’s Office. And if you follow me, you will see that YOU ARE IN MY ROOM.”
The professor swept away, his white robes hovering about him like a ghost in one of the Edgar Allan Poe stories we were reading. I followed him past a bathroom where one sink was ripped out and the other was leaking, making a drip drip sound as the water spilled to the floor. The air in the hallway was thick with the stench of backed-up sewage.
The clerk in the office simpered as we came in. He swayed when he greeted us, slurring his words. I had been in this office verifying classroom assignments with the English Department chair just two days before. But now the professor pointed triumphantly to the room assignments, handwritten on a huge piece of white paper tacked onto the wall. My name had been crudely blotted out and his name written over mine in ink.
“Get your students out of my classroom,” the professor said.
“Where should we go?” I asked.
“Je m’en fous [I don’t give a f—],” he answered. “You’re wasting my time, Madame. I just came back from Mecca and I have no time to waste.”
The clerk suggested the conference room, so my eighty-four students and I piled into a classroom with enough space to accommodate thirty. Squeezed elbow to elbow, knee to knee, we started class. There was no blackboard, so I wrote on the door. Half the class couldn’t see the door so I broke my coveted piece of chalk in half and asked a student to copy what I wrote on a metal window shutter in the other corner.
“Oh, Mommy,” my three-year-old son said the next morning when he saw me putting on work clothes. “You going to work again?” My daughters were attending an international school and left the house a few minutes before I did but my son was at home most mornings, either with my husband or our housekeeper. He sounded disappointed. “I miss you when you is gone,” he said, encircling my legs in his arms and hugging me for a long time.
“I have to teach my class, honey,” I told him.
“Why?” he asked, looking sad. “You is not a teacher. You is a mommy.”
I pulled my son into my arms and kissed his cheek. “You’re right,” I told him. “I miss you when I’m gone, too. I’m a mommy first. And I love being your mommy. But I’m a teacher sometimes, so I can help people learn.”
I hugged my son for a long time, feeling his heart beat against my breast. James, finishing a book we were cowriting, would be home with him this morning, but I still felt bad about leaving. Unlike at the elite New England college where I had last taught, my Nigerien students were anything but spoiled. They were engaged with their studies, fascinated by the window I was opening for them onto American culture and history, and grateful for the presence of a native English speaker with an interactive teaching style among their Nigerien professors. I was eager to teach but my heart was still heavy. I gave my son one last kiss and went to class.
That day I brought a slide projector and slides to class to show my African students scenes from a 1799 book, sold by subscription, of early Philadelphia. The book, which Thomas Jefferson owned, showcased the triumphs of the new nation’s capital, with its tree-lined streets and mansions under construction. Alongside those images I projected slides of an artist’s rendition of Poe’s stories: gruesome black-and-white images of the ancient house of Usher falling into the tarn and of a man’s back being eaten by a seagull, his head nodding in death. I was using the slides to illustrate Toni Morrison’s argument in her book about nineteenth-century American literature, Playing in the Dark, that much of our nation’s early literature is antithetical to the American Dream. This was a theme that we explored all semester as my students and I saw how the rhetoric of America often contrasted with the imagination of early America in the literature of some of our most talented writers: Poe’s grotesque rendition of the human psyche, Hawthorne’s exposure of hidden sin and human depravity, Frederick Douglass’s exploration of how slavery dehumanizes the slaveholder.
But the woodwork around the only outlet in the classroom had been so eaten by termites that it no longer conducted electricity. Several students assisted me, and the janitor helped us run a long extension cord down the hall and into another room, so we managed, finally, to turn the projector on. Sun streamed in through the curtainless, west-facing windows. The images were projected onto a yellow wall and my students, sweating as profusely as I while we all baked in the packed room, could barely see the slides.
I thought of Jenny. I thought of another of my American students, who complained all the way up to the dean because, after missing 80 percent of the semester, he got an F for class participation (he overslept, he told me unself-consciously, even though class started at 10:00 a. m.). And I thought of the parents who called the chair to defend their daughter’s actions after she was found guilty of plagiarism (she purchased a term paper off the Internet).
“Good morning, sir,” one of my students greeted me a week later as I walked through thick sand, blown all the way from the Sahara by a fierce wind called the Harmattan, to our newly assigned room. On the day’s schedule was a discussion of how Frederick Douglass surreptitiously taught himself to read when teaching literacy to slaves was illegal in many Southern states.
“Sir?!” I cried, turning around in an elaborate pantomime to see whom she was greeting. She apologized profusely and we laughed, walking the rest of the way to class together. I realized then that I was always doing what I had longed to do: teaching people who wanted to learn, exchanging ideas with students who had as much to give to me as I to them, exposing expanding minds to new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Despite the unbearable heat, the gendarmes on campus, the tear gas that interrupted our class time, the inedible food served in the cafeteria, and the fact that four to six students were sharing dorm rooms that accommodate two, my students were doing everything they could to learn. I was still glad that this wasn’t my full-time job, but at the same time I realized that what I was doing in Niger complemented my parenting instead of replicating it. Maybe, I decided as I took some chalk out of my backpack and wrote the day’s agenda on the dusty blackboard, I wasn’t really a recovering academic. Maybe I had recovered so fully that I could fall off the wagon and come back into the classroom from time to time.