Outta My Yard

by Elizabeth Peavey
by Elizabeth Peavey

Class, dismissed

On December 16, at 8:20 p.m., I stood alone in a classroom on the fifth floor of the Science building on the University of Southern Maine campus. My fingers rested on the bank of light switches. Just one last look before I go, I thought. It wasn’t because I had any fondness for the room, a dingy box with crooked blinds on the rear windows. My lectern sat atop a fixed lab table, replete with a sink and running water. The filthy blackboard surely dated back to Gorham Normal School[1] days. It generated so much chalk dust during my lectures that I feared I looked like Miss Havisham[2] by the end of class. To reach this room each week, I mounted the five flights of stairs (I rode the rickety, shuddering elevator just once, and that was plenty for me, thank you very much) and passed by yellow caution tape and boarded-up windows. It made me feel like I was teaching at the University of Sarajevo[3].

Just moments before, 13 near-graduates of THE170, my public-speaking course, had filed out. Sometimes at the end of the semester, students flee, but these dallied. A couple of them stopped to thank me. One insisted on shaking my hand, and despite my cootie issues, I assented. Another told me I was a great teacher. The kid who had been having trouble all semester but nailed his final speech made brief eye contact with me. For us pros skilled in nonverbal communication, that look said: If I never have to get up in front of an audience again that will be too soon for me, but if I do have to — which, I now know from this class, is likely — I will at least be prepared, all thanks to the work of this magnificent instructor. (Although chances are equally good it was just an I am so relieved this frigging class is over look.) One of my two ESL students, a lovely young woman from China, insisted on hugging me. I had to tell her it was against University policy, but when she persisted, I said, “Oh, what the hell. What are they going to do? Fire me?” and leaned in.

You see, after 20 years as an adjunct at USM, I have been given my walking papers. Because of budget cuts, my class was, as the Brits say, made redundant as of last May. Owing to a glitch, I did not find this out until the week before fall classes were scheduled to start. Mine was not the only unit cut, but I couldn’t help but take it personally. In a fury, I called the registrar’s office and demanded to speak to him directly. How could this institution do this to me? After 20 years of nothing but glowing reviews, endless uncompensated hours of student counseling and hand-holding, perfect attendance (I only missed one class, and that was to get married), lack of title (since I am not officially a professor, I’d just stare at my students when they asked what they should call me), arranging all my travel in order to accommodate my teaching schedule, quietly accepting my paltry pauper’s salary and working with a contract that protects only the institution, not the employee[4]— this is the thanks I get? Fortunately, he was in a meeting, and the woman I was speaking with explained that this decision had come from within my own department, not from the registrar. I paused, thanked her for the information, and sheepishly hung up the phone, feeling a little like Emily Litella [5].

The class was gone, and it was clear that no amount of raging was going to bring it back. At least on my part.

As it turned out, enough students and advisors complained about the cut (public speaking is a requirement for many majors) that a last-minute decision was made to add one unit, through the Continuing Education Department[6], which was then offered to me. Same curriculum, same credits, same students, but instead of my usual, civilized, 4:10 to 6:40 time slot, this class would take place from 5:40 to 8:10, during what is otherwise known in our household as the cocktail hour. I have to say I hesitated. One of the greatest pleasures of having been liberated from the restaurant business lo these 20 years ago has been not having to go to work at night, when most of the world was heading for the recliner and the remote — or, in my case, a tub and the New Yorker. The prospect of having to pack my briefcase after working at home all day held about as much appeal as my course does for most students. I still said yes, and I’m not sorry I did. But when I was offered the same class for the spring semester, I declined. Teaching at night, even just once a week, is not for me. It felt like I was being punished.

As I said in an earlier column[7], I never in a million years thought I would end up defining myself as an educator. I accepted this teaching position on a whim in 1993 for what I thought might be a semester or two; instead, I hung on like a gargoyle. Sure, since that time I’ve traded in my Doc Martens for clogs, and my hair is a little[8] grayer, but my passion for the classroom hasn’t changed. It has been an honor helping people find their voices and tell their stories.

So, as I stood there, fingers hovering over the light switch, I felt the need to reflect. Perhaps USM will get its financial house in order and maybe I’ll be offered my civilized class schedule again. But who knows when or if that will happen? And who knows where I might be? Teaching this class turned out to be a happy 20-year accident — a love affair, really — and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I turned off the lights and, in a cloud of chalk dust, clomped out into the uncertain night.

Elizabeth Peavey congratulates her Fall 2013 class for ending the semester with energy and authority[9]. Thanks for the great sendoff.

[1] Gorham Normal School, which was established on the Gorham campus in 1878 as a female seminary, was a precursor to University of Southern Maine.

[2] Miss Havisham is the character in Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations, who was left at the altar by her betrothed and lived out her days in her ruined mansion in her decaying wedding gown surrounded by cobwebs and covered in dust.

[3] Actually, I have no idea what it would be like teaching there, but, according to the University’s web site, the campus has been in a constant state of renewal since the “atrocious devastation of facilities” of 1993 – 1996, which makes it sound kind of inviting to someone looking for teaching work like me.

[4] My contract states “Courses may be retracted at any time by the appropriate administrator, or may not be offered to a unit member due to lack of work or enrollment or budgetary or programmatic consideration.” The use of institutional argot like “programmatic consideration” is one of the reasons I never pursued a career in academia. Oh yes, that and I didn’t want to go back to school.

[5] Emily Litella is a character created by Gilda Radner for Saturday Night Live, in which she did fake editorials on the show’s “Weekend Update,” based on a malapropism. For example, she’d opine, “What’s wrong with violins on TV, anyway?” and go on a rant about the issue, until anchorwoman Jane Curtain would interrupt her, saying it violence on TV. Litella would then look into the camera, shrug and say “Never mind.”

[6] Ha, ha. Made you look.

[7] “Making the grade,” May 2013. OK, so I’m writing about teaching again. You try coming up with a new topic every month.

[8] OK, a lot grayer.

[9] According to Professor Peavey – hey, I feel free to call myself that now; what are they going to do? Fire me? – speakers need to end their sentences and speeches with said energy and authority. If you don’t breathe properly, you’ll run out of breathe at the end of your sentences and your listeners will lose what you’re saying. If you don’t have a firmly planted conclusion and close, your speeches will just trail off into the….

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