Thursday, June 2, 2011

I'm Not Finished Yet

I just celebrated an anniversary of sorts. As of yesterday, I've now been teaching full-time at a technical college in Georgia for one year. My relationship with the school actually started in January of 2009. I was teaching at the Altoona campus of Penn State at the time (I was the Emerging Writer in Residence there for the 2008-2009 academic year). I had applied for a teaching position at the school in Georgia right before I moved to Pennsylvania (I lived in Georgia from 2003 - 2008 less than 30 minutes from the school I now teach at - life is definitely strange and circular), but I didn't hear back from them until after I was already settled in up north. As teaching full-time was no longer geographically possible, they offered me the opportunity to teach two classes on line, and I accepted.

Until June of last year, I had never been to campus, never met any of my students or colleagues in person. In fact, after finishing my residency at Penn State, I headed off to northern California, where I was the visiting artist at a theatre company for the year (all the while still teaching online classes). When a teaching position became available last spring, I applied, interviewed (by phone), and was soon welcomed as a new faculty member in the English program. I boarded a plane bound for Atlanta (with my dog Lucy in tow) and have been  back in The Peach State ever since.

Living in Georgia (especially suburban/rural Georgia where I live - not in a luxury condo in downtown Atlanta) takes some serious readjustments for a California native. No beach. Humidity from hell. Flying insects the size of birds. A completely new vernacular that includes "y'all" and "fixin' to". And a local cuisine that's usually deep fried (yum) and served with sweet tea (yuck).

Truthfully, the culture shock was almost too much for me to contend with. Not only did I feel "cut off", but a mild depression snuck itself into my life. More than once, I looked around and asked myself, "How did I end up here?" Clearly, my liberal lifestyle/beliefs made me an outsider from day one. After answering the constant-question "You're not from 'round here, are you?" more times than I care to count, I felt stuck. I was worlds away from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago - places I longed to be. Somehow, the universe had determined that this was where I was supposed to be. Living in a state that doesn't even recognize domestic the year 2011. Are you kidding me? (I will resist the temptation to delve into a political/human rights rant here, and move on...)

Two months ago I was offered a teaching position at a community college in Chicago. Initially, I jumped at the chance to make my way back to the Windy City (truly my favorite city in the U.S.). To say that I love Chicago is an understatement (read any of my novels if proof is required). I spent a few years living there as an undergraduate student and, since then, I've been trying to get back there. My ever-supportive partner agreed that the opportunity to leave Georgia might not come again and that we should go.

We were practically packed, when something really strange happened...I changed my mind.

I walked into the Dean's office the next morning, and - after a hour long conversation - I withdrew my resignation, and made the decision to stay.

It wasn't the peaches (I actually hate peaches). It wasn't the hot boiled peanuts (they're disgusting). It wasn't the weather (summer in Georgia is like living in Hell's backyard). And, it certainly wasn't the money (remember...I'm a teacher).

The reason why I decided to stay was simple: for my students.

In the last year, I've been fortunate enough (with a lot of support from colleagues and administration) to make a lot of "firsts" happen at the school I teach at, making history each step of the way. In addition to founding a literary/dramatic arts club for students, starting a writing group with some of my colleagues, and serving as one of the coaches for the first-ever cheerleading team, I launched a Visiting Writers Series, produced and directed the first stage production, and organized a student literary showcase.

Next year, we've already planned an ongoing Open Mic Night, a student written and directed festival of one-act plays, two mainstage productions, and the kick-off of an official literary publication. In addition, I will be teaching the first-ever theatre class.
So...the thought that kept plaguing me can I walk away now? In the last year, over a dozen students have come out to me, more than twenty of my students have gone on to four-year schools, three of my students are writing novels, and one of them just finished writing her first stage play.

Another teacher overheard me commiserating a day before I made the decision to stay. I was going on and on, rambling that there was a lack of liberal arts in our job-skill-building curriculum. She laughed and responded, "You are the liberal arts department at this school." With no disrespect to my colleagues, there's more than an ounce of truth in her words. I see my purpose. It is clear. Crystal.

So, Chicago will have to wait. I'm renewing my teaching contract for another year and we are staying in Georgia for now. Despite the peaches. And the bugs. And the God-awful humidity.

And I couldn't be happier with my decision, y'all!

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