Friday, September 24, 2010

It used to be that the strangers who looked at me were women, and they did so—what few did so—because they found me worth a lingering glance, perhaps a smile and a hello. Like most men in their early twenties, I completely ate it up. This began to change when I first started graduate school ten years ago. The reasons are partially having to do with meeting the other contributor to this blog. But even my interest in her reflects, in part, a shift I began undergoing as I was first meeting her.

In truth, the waning attentions of young women (and the value I placed upon it) were also caused by weight gain and general disregard for my personal health and appearance, a graduate school-induced downturn which reached its nadir just as I was submitting my insufficient fiction for a drubbing at the conclusion of my MFA. Literally and figuratively, I had taken on baggage.

The shift also had to do with taking on young women as students. The student-teacher relationship was new and strange territory for me in 2000, in terms of being the teacher in that equation. I knew very little about it except for what I gleaned from a crash-course pro-seminar in composition theory and teaching. Still, I understood instinctually that the dynamics I shared with that first group of 26, young men and women alike, were different than anything I had experienced before. I possessed some measure of authority, and I didn’t want to use that authority in petty ways or for personal glory. I recognized this as a generosity in myself that I didn’t know I possessed until I stood before students. I began to think about what I wanted from my interactions with students. It’s like entering graduate school was like going into a giant cement mixer; I emerged, fat and exhausted and confused, four years later. I survived it, lost weight, took better care, read and wrote to tried to right what had become a bewildering pursuit for competency as a writer of fiction. Then I went to Egypt. Four years passed. I think I handled those four years so well in part because of the hardship and confusion of graduate school. I also had time in Egypt to hone my teaching persona and think more about the type of relationships I wanted to have with students. There are many AUC students for whom I feel a genuine warmth and hope for the future, a personable interest in their well-being, their education, their futures. I hope very much that those who wish to pursue writing will continue to do so despite the inevitable disappointments to come. And I want to do nothing to violate what I see as a special relationship between a student and his or her teacher, especially one, like me, with an interest in mentoring.

The reason why I write this now is that, in the two months I have been back home, I have recognized that I crossed some age-related threshold while I was away. To the undergraduates at UCSB, who do not know me as a teacher, I am invisible. I am happy about this, by the way, even as invisibility feels so conspicuous after life in Egypt, where my fair skin and green eyes were the cause of countless stares. Another group of humans stare at me now: older men. I’ve felt them watching me when, as I did today, I walk along a path that runs alongside a dog park. A man sat in the shade and watched at me. In his eyes I saw bewilderment, confusion, memory—where had the time gone? I have seen this expression a lot lately. They were once my age—in the full glow of prime adulthood. This all transpired while I was away, as if in secret. Quite suddenly I find myself not the “mere child” that a dear AUC colleague liked to call me, but a man careening toward middle age.

I had difficulty remembering that time kept passing while I was in Egypt; I didn’t believe the calendar. I believed I was still 30. But it seems that the time passed, after all. A transformation instigated by my entrance into graduate school in 2000 feels, if not complete, then at the end of an act.