So, just in case you guys think I spend my Iowa mornings coaching Karaoke to be a show kitty, or Cuisinarting things just for the hell of it, I should mention that I have a job.
I’m teaching three sections of rhetoric at a small liberal arts college on the border of Iowa and Illinois. I get up at 6am to be on campus for an 8:30am class. My “turn-the-car-around-freak-out” moment occurs right as I cross the Mississippi and pass the casino, when, since the coffee has yet to kick in and I’m terrified of public speaking, all I want to do is double down.
Education is its own gamble, I suppose. I love working with students. I love elucidating a concept, or provoking an opinion, or prodding a prejudice, or reading Auden’s “Funeral Blues” aloud to them for the first time.
What I don’t love is standing in front of a group. I mean I’m fine once I get past the first few minutes. Then I really get going. Then I can hold court confidently and articulately. But the initial throat clearing, the “Good morning!” introductory bit, never gets any easier.
I played violin from first grade through my senior year in high school. I learned the names of strings by food association. If I could identify the G string, I got a grape. The A, an apple. D was for dougnut. Needless to say, there was a lot of clamoring for songs written in the key of D string. That, or “Hot Cross Buns.” (We also got the occasion bun.)
Unfortunately, the time came to set aside snacks and introduce public performance, aka recital, aka Becca throws up day. I’m a shy person and I don’t know why. It isn’t because I’m an only child, or because I had a speech impediment growing up and pronounced “f” as “th.” Both of these are true (“Are we having thish for dinner? Thuck you!”) but irrelevant.
I got to be good at violin, which only worked to my disadvantage. The good people always performed last. My prowess meant up to an hour of hand-sweating, and knee twitching, and staring at my horse-hair bow in utter horror and disbelief. I would try and do meditation — this was way before I even knew what zen was — and separate the silky hairs with my eyes to somehow tame my heartbeat. Much like combing through sand with a mini rake, it never worked.
Being a nervous violin player is not ideal. If your hand shakes, then your bow shakes. And if your bow shakes, it stands to reason that Bach’s Concerto in E Major will sound like the only extant recording of Tennyson.
It’s confusing, especially as a kid, when you enjoy one element of something and dread another. How can you say, at thirteen, “I’d like to play violin in the basement, maybe lay down some tracks on my tape recorder,” but politely decline the invitation to perform in the anteroom of the school gym? I can still smell the faint trace of chlorine wafting off the pool, see the holes in the gaudy yellow shag carpet where the cellists waited with their endpins.
Yet despite my anxiety, I’m a good teacher. No — I’m a great teacher. I just had a girl sign up for my second period class because her friend said I’m “interesting.” Neither one has any clue that I was practice teaching to the bathroom mirror a minute before. Some anxieties are worth getting over.
My first morning of my first class, I found a pendant on the podium.
It wasn’t planted by Dan or by any of the faculty, but rather lost by a Victoria (so says the engraved back). Simply there: a corky
reminder that New York City is still with me, and that I was supposed to bring it to these kids.