A Rock and a Hard Place
One year, a friend and I attended the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Conference, in Albuquerque. We often met at conferences, since she lives in Chicago, and I live in Texas, and as always, we made plans to explore the areas we visited. That year, we decided to visit the Petroglyph National Monument, just on the edge of town. The rugged terrain of volcanic stones intrigued us and we looked forward to seeing the petroglyphs. At the visitor’s center, we inquired about the trails and we given somewhat vague instructions about the rise in elevations for each trail and the points of interest on each short walk. We decided on the self-guided tours at Boca Negra Canyon and started on the Mesa Point trail. We were inappropriately dressed, in dresses and casual flats, but were unwarned, misunderstanding the trail’s change in elevation mentioned by the visitor’s center guide. The trail started to rise slowly enough and though the temperature was cooling, we were fascinated by the petroglyphs along the way.
Halfway up the mounded pile of volcanic rock, the walk turned into more of a climb, but it was far too late to turn back. Turning around meant walking down a very steep incline better suited to going up. Irked, but determined, we tenaciously kept going as the clouds began to drop soggy flakes of snow onto our clothes and each petroglyph began to melt back into its black canvas. By the time we reached the topmost Point of Interest, the whole point of the entire walk, there was, in fact, no point at all, just matte black rocks that held their secrets close. We were left with a view of the valley, the incoming clouds and the virga sweeping across the barren landscape toward the city.
We made it back down the more gently sloping trail to our car and moved on to the next walking trail, a mere ten yard walk from trailhead, almost parallel to the parking lot. The rain stopped, and though we enjoyed the petroglyph macaw that graced the side of the sheer rock wall, our annoyance remained with us, our sense of having been poorly guided, perhaps intentionally misdirected, to take the more laborious route in treacherous weather. We held onto our ire but comforted ourselves with the knowledge that despite our misdirection, we had, indeed, made the climb even if the snowy rain had obscured the petroglyphs we may have seen. From the top of the trail, we had seen what we would not have without the climb.
I think of that experience often, particularly the way that trail, rocky and steep, looped gently back to the main road, which also looped around the park, and back to the entrance. Like so many park trails, it was not designed to lead visitors straight through to the other side and out, but instead to keep travelers on a gentle loop, meandering through the scenery, allowing visitors to absorb more fully what the park had to offer.
The year after I climbed that trail, I found myself teaching at my undergraduate alma mater as a part-time assistant professor in the English Department. It was, in many ways, the pinnacle of my part-time career, and a personal dream come true. The small liberal arts university had fueled my own pursuit of graduate degrees, and my ultimate professional goal of teaching in a liberal arts setting. Though the “part-time” aspect hadn’t been included in the end goal, this was a dream-come-true, and even the part-time status didn’t really change my feelings about teaching there.
I had learned, over the course of several visiting professorships, to take what I could from each position, to develop my teaching according to the needs of each set of students, and to conform my dreams to the setting in which I found myself. At one university, I had taught a course in women’s autobiography; at another, I had taught a class in 19th-century women novelists, and an advanced composition course in the personal essay that resulted, surprisingly, in some of the finest student essays I have ever read. When I thought of my former students, I could name more than a few who I thought had benefited from my presence, and I similarly understand their contribution to my own growth as a teacher. I had learned a great deal about what I was good at, and also a great deal about what I wasn’t.
There were triumphs in each location, silver linings to the larger clouds, blessings in and out of disguise, and reasons for being wherever I was. Now, I was teaching in a place I had dreamed of teaching, and if it lasted only while, I could always say that I had done it, just as I could say that I’d climbed that peak in Albuquerque, in the snowy rain, only to find the anticipated revelation evaporating. What I might find after this climb might also have to be of my own making.
I returned to my alma mater almost 20 years after I originally entered as a first-year student in 1983. The campus had changed in many ways, but had also remained eerily similar, and as I watched the first-year students entering their matriculation convocation, it was impossible not to consider who I had been those 20 years before, as well as who I had become in the years since. As I rounded this looping trail, I found myself coming back to the original path from which I’d wandered very far, the main trail I’d only thought I’d left. I discovered I’d turned the last corner on the way back to the desires that had triggered my academic journey in the first place.
I had learned the necessary splitting of undergraduate from graduate self, and then had crossed that cavernous abyss that yawns between the graduate student self, and the terminally degreed. By the time I completed the scarification rituals of “professionalization”, my original desires seemed only a blur, perhaps a naïve goal of the uninitiated. I had replaced those with others as I narrowed my field of vision to suit the requirements of the profession.
Twenty years is a long time, and my undergraduate self seemed like a fading echo of something shouted too far away to make anything other than the faintest sound against the rocks. And yet these students, the ones I would teach over the next two and a half years, caught that faint echo and like a parabola sent it reverberating back to me full strength. It would be these students who challenged me to take the risks I needed to take, not only for my own life, but also for theirs.
The first-year students I taught were on the cusp of great change themselves, relieved to be moving out of identities they’d adopted during high school, pleased and frightened by their entrance into the university. Because I had been where they were, they expected of me an authenticity I felt compelled to give. They wanted hope that their lives might be of their own choosing, that the dreams they hoped to fulfill were not foolish, that the fear that gripped them might loosen. They needed faith to follow their own paths, instead of choosing what others set before them.
They asked a lot of questions about what I had been like as a first-year student, what I had wanted out of my life, whether I had achieved what I had set out to do, whether it had been “right”? I could answer all of them, except for the last one. I had been a mess as a first-year, freaked out and panicky, depressed and isolated, but falling in love with learning at the same time. I hadn’t known exactly what I wanted, but I loved writing and English was my natural choice for a major. I had wanted to earn a Ph.D. because I wanted to know as much as I could about writing and writers. I thought that was a recognizable way to become the writer I dreamed of being.
Had it been right? Had it been right? I didn’t really know. It was like climbing that trail and finding only that black rock at the top. Looking at my own disappointments, the bitter Gollum of my consciousness, I could tell them truthfully, perhaps brutally, no, it had not been right. I had, in many ways, allowed fear to darken my choices. I had learned to think too narrowly. I settled for being nearby the thing I most wanted to do, a recognized career instead of the less secure one. I had spent a lot of money, time, and energy, and I would never accomplish the ultimate end goal of the profession I had, perhaps unwisely, entered.
And yet, with equal honesty, I could say yes, it had been right, as right as is possible to predict at the outset of each moment of choice. I had studied what I wanted, I had pursued my dream, I had learned as much as I could learn about writing and writers, I had completed a monumental task, vanquishing a sense of fraudulence that would never return. I could turn away from that vanished petroglyph to see the landscape stretching far beyond the rocky steps of my misguided path. From that vantage point, I could see where my primary trail still waited my return. While my trail wasn’t linear, nor did it follow a hierarchy of careful steps to a foretold end, I hadn’t missed the right path at all. I had just taken one route that got me where I wanted to be.
Had it been right? They were not asking if it had been easy or smooth, but right. I could answer them with “yes” though I was sure there were different paths, and possibly better ones. I couldn’t really recommend the path I’d followed, aware of the dangerous pitfalls along the way. But neither could I tell them not to go, and certainly not to try. Because I had myself often betrayed the “yes” of my memory, and listened instead to the “no”, I answered my students truthfully, honestly, hopefully, with “yes."
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