They watch my belly every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:15 to 12:05. As I lecture about active voice, clarity, and persuasion in prose, I can feel their eyes squinting, searching my middle for signs. I am three, four, five, and, finally, six months pregnant at semester’s end, and I know that some of them don’t believe it. Though I can feel the hard knot of my enlarging uterus pushing ever upward and outward, and can occasionally see my child’s limbs poking through my skin at odd intervals and angles, I am, so far, slow to publicly show.
Sometimes I catch their stare and they blush, returning their attention to the overhead on memo writing or resume layout and design. Sometimes the stare irritates me and I contemplate reprimand; it’s no different, is it, than reading the newspaper or text messaging during class? Other times I feel myself blush beneath it, enjoying what could be admiration. Then, too, it makes me feel paranoid: I imagine them suspicious, wondering if I told the class I was expecting just so they would be nice to me, just so they would leave their eye rolls and slump-shouldered shrugs in their dorm rooms. I have yet to meet a college senior who was not resentful at being required to take Business Writing.
That first day of the spring semester, one month into my second trimester, still nauseated and nervous about teaching in the midst of this bodily chaos, I made a decision to out myself right then. After my usual read-through of the syllabus and the policies sheet, I hopped up on the desk, took off my glasses, looked out at the group and said, “Okay, now I need to let you all know that I am pregnant. This should not affect our semester in any major way, but I’m asking that you have patience with me and good humor all the same.”
The applause was immediate, enthusiastic, and stunning. There were
hoots and hollers, and I swear I heard a “Rock on!” I couldn’t have imagined it. This class, mostly young men, looked as elated for me, their brand – new teacher of a perennially hated class, as my best girlfriends had been upon hearing my news. And that was just the first day.
I have been teaching college English for eight years, three as a graduate student, and five now as an adjunct lecturer for the same university from which I graduated. I’m a good teacher. I know how to make grammar and syntax palatable, how to drum up enthusiasm for and dedication to the resume-writing process; how to help students develop a preference for vibrant, active language. I love writing and I know how to translate my love into practice with my students.
I am the “mom” teacher, the one students describe as “nurturing,” the one about whom they write in their course evaluations, “she really cares about us as people.” I emphasize the idea of community in all of my classes. A sentence in one of my recent syllabi reads, “I expect we will all fall in love with each other and become a weird little family.” During the semester, they come to my office hours to ask questions about their papers and end up telling me that they party too much because they miss their families back home on small Pennsylvania sheep farms. They tell me stories about how painful it was to come out to their parents, but how good it feels to finally feel self-acceptance. They hug me on the last day of class, and I hug them back hard, blurring the professional boundaries that many of my colleagues adhere to so carefully. I love my students openly and know that this—not my aptitude with language—is my true pedagogical strength.
But I admit that when I was first scheduled to teach Business Writing, and told that my classrooms would be populated predominantly by young men, I felt a mixture of dread and resentment. My mother was born to a family of three girls and eight boys. Her mother, my grandmother, was never shy to share her belief that “girls are sneaky and deceitful,” a philosophy I admit colored my growing-up years so much that before my late twenties, I never had strong female friendships. I grew up female in the same world we all do: the one that says boys are better, stronger, and preferable in most every way. Boys had destroyed me in grammar school, picking me last for teams and chanting cruel taunts as I took a lousy swing at the softball during gym class. Boys had followed me to middle school where they circled me like a pack of drooling wolves and threatened, though I am certain that they had no idea what this really meant, to “gang bang” me right there on the playground. Boys became young men and left me in the high school band room on our three-month anniversary, giving me a key chain that said, “Never regret the things you have done; only regret the things you have never tried.” One boy masqueraded as a grown man and married me in all my poufy white finery in front of family and friends, only to leave two years later so he could spend more time perfecting his dance moves and his goatee, so he could experiment with drugs and other women. The boy who finally granted our divorce was dressed like a judge when he came out of chambers to berate me in the hallway of the courtroom about how marriage is a serious matter and young people take it too lightly these days and how old was I and where was my husband anyway?
I was not, at that point, too very happy with boys.
It’s fully winter now, and the trek to, from, and around campus is wearing on me, even with the welcome gift of second-trimester energy. I arrive at class bundled and sweating, out of breath. I unwrap myself like a present in front of my students. Every day I make some change to the schedule: a due date pushed back, an assignment retooled, an individual project turned into a collaborative one. I have scaled back the class requirements substantially in order to make the pacing and grading more manageable for me, and every day I feel the guilt of this. I worry that my department will reprimand me for diluting their class. I worry that my students will feel cheated, as if they are not being well prepared for a life in corporate America; that their parents will complain they are not getting their money’s worth out of this Big State University. I worry that I am undoing myself as a teacher, that once I actually have this baby, I will never again be able to put my fullest self into my job.
But I really can’t keep up, can’t care too much about comma splices and newsletter production when I am up in the middle of the night most nights, my hands on my belly, panicking that I have not felt my baby move in x many minutes. Can’t care when I am overwhelmed by feelings of terror and anticipation, when I worry every day that somehow, despite my love for and ease with other people’s children, despite my great desire to have this child, I will not feel connected, will not love it when it is born.
The campus is slick with ice. I arrive at class, holding my teaching shoes in a plastic bag and some days not even bothering to change into them. I wear long skirts that are soft around my hard belly, and my chunky fleece snow boots. I drink bottled water, screwing and unscrewing the white plastic cap as I flounder in front of my four girls and twenty boys.
“Ms. S.,” says one boy, “you look tired. We wouldn’t mind if you cancelled class today. You and the baby should rest.”
The class chuckles. I am tired and I’m sure I look it.
“Yeah, why not take the whole week off? Then you wouldn’t have to come out in this cold. That can’t be good for the baby.”
I expect this kind of banter. These are seniors in their final semester; they would give their right arms to be out of the classroom and on to the celebratory bar tour. Still, behind the cunning smirk that delivers the suggestions, beneath the veneer of self-interest and irony, there is something tender and sincere.
“See you Friday, Ms. S.,” another boy calls as I pack up after lecture. “Hey, be careful out on the ice.”
We’re having a boy. The ultrasound technician, a woman who wears blue eye shadow and hot pink lipstick with startling aplomb, tells us in her thick Russian accent, “Is boy. See here?” She points at the white phantom floating on the screen. Our son.
“Yes. Is penis. I am sure.”
We’re having a boy and for a moment I panic, imagining football injuries and fraternity parties; binge drinking and too-fast driving; sexism and insensitivity—all the terrible stereotypes, all the ugly memories.
In the classroom that week, Chris, a tall, handsome boy with Mr. Magoo glasses asks me if I know what I am having. His Japanese mother has taught him to be respectful and considerate, and his American father taught him, apparently, to mix it up with a little mischief. He is funny and smart and so consistently cheerful that when he told me during office hours earlier that week that his father had just passed away in January, I was so taken aback that I just stared at him, unable to say anything comforting or supportive. Now that I am pregnant, I can no longer bear to think of death of any kind, but to think of parentless children is especially paralyzing.
“Well,” I tell him, “it appears I am going to have one of your kind.”
“Woohoo!” comes the class cry. “Awesome!” “Do you have a name picked out?”
In fact, I do have a name picked out, but my husband and I have decided not to share it with the larger world just yet.
“Nope. Got any suggestions?”
“Adam! Justin! Marty! Sean! Mike! Joe!”
They shout their own names at me, each of them becoming my son for just a moment, and I am completely charmed, completely moved.
“Wait,” says David, “I have the perfect name: Beowulf!”
Perfect indeed. I am a student of literature and a poet. Perfect and also perfectly ridiculous. We laugh, and I can barely contain my joy in that moment, the affection I feel for the boy growing inside of me and for these grown boys giggling in front of me. I look out at their faces and suddenly realize two things: first, that they have learned from me this semester— they have figured out how to read and accommodate their audience; and second, that I am, in fact, inordinately fond of boys.