I find myself, at 41, back in a college classroom for the first time in a couple of decades. The “what for” is an education degree. The “how come” is a long story about the divergent directions TV news and I were taking. I’m still working on the “why not?”
My first time in college, I studied journalism, and was not all that engaged in the academics of it all. Rather, I was literally *engaged*, and then *un-engaged*, and then *engaged again*, and then married. Studying was not the priority.
I worked on the school paper, and won some contests, and had some flashes of brilliance here and there. But mostly, I frustrated my professors with my unapplied potential. (yes, “Hello, Dr. Bacon.”)
But at 41, there is no time for the luxury of unapplied potential. I am obsessing over grades, striving for over-achievement, trying to prove I can do this.
This semester, I signed up for a children’s literature class with a professor who has been teaching it forever. The syllabus detailed every criteria. Expectations were clear. I was buckled in and ready to go.
But the professor fell ill. And in her place waltzed a silver-haired pixie in gypsy skirts who tossed out half the plans, played the Beatles as background music, told us we needed to to take notes in all the colors of the rainbow, and eschewed grading criteria in favor of “embracing the creative process.”
Out went the research paper. In came a read-aloud of a favorite children’s book with 25 percent of the grade on costuming and setting the stage, another 25 on including the audience.
I did not, I admit, see the point.
But she wanted us to embrace the process? Fine. I would embrace it and squeeze until its eyes bugged out.
I readied to read Armadillo Tattletale.
I dressed in a cowgirl outfit. I made glittery cowboy hats for my classmates and a headband with armadillo ears for the professor.
I told them about how authors used a device of repeating things three times in three different ways when they really want to emphasize something, and explained they were going to notice that every time the armadillo really got in trouble, the other animals gave him the three-pronged attack of the “What For”, the “How Come,” and the “Why Not.”
You chose a purple hat? Your group is going to yell “What For?”
Red Hat? “How Come?”
Orange? “Why Not?”
Everyone played along. We threw hissy fits and stomped our feet. The armadillo professor cried on cue and promised not to tell tales. I pulled out acting skills not seen since high school drama club.
By the time it was over, “the process” had not just been embraced, it needed a cigarette.
I felt, I admit, a little smug at my ability to pull it off. Still, not sure of the point. Still, wrestling with the “what am I supposed to be learning here?” question.
Then tonight, an answer.
A young woman in the class, one who has struggled with assignments as she juggles a full-time job and parenting a young child alongside her classwork, spoke up softly as we were discussing books we had found in the class.
“Oh I bought that tall tale book about the armadillo,” she said. “I brought it up to school and told my co-teacher, ‘I can’t read it like the girl in my class did, but I am going to keep practicing.’ ”
I felt warmed and stung by her words all at once. Honored by the value she had found in the reading, humbled by the realization that I have spent the class searching for a “what for,” and a “how come” that is all about what I can come away with with. And in the process, I have totally missed the suggestion to “why not” make it about what I can bring to the table.
Slow-learning armadillos have nothing on me.
But I do know this. When we finish that class this week, I will tell that girl she is going to be a great teacher. I’ll thank her for teaching me something. And “why not?” Perhaps I will even hug the Beatles-playing professor that I thought was a little crazy.