You’re in front of the classroom. First day of school. You’re late for class, and then – suddenly – you realize you’re the teacher, not the student. Who the hell made that decision? And – oh, ooooops! – you’re teaching calculus.
Calculus!?! Which you passed with a shining A! Back in 1982!
Somehow, inexplicably, you’re outside the classroom again. You’ve got four hours to prepare. Then two. Oddly, the hours glide by as you bicycle up endless hills, ride circles on public transit, do anything to avoid cracking a book.
Finally, you arrive at the classroom. Thirty fresh-scrubbed faces turn to you, waiting for you to initiate them into the mysteries of the derivative.
You think: X axis. Y axis. You gulp.
Did I mention: you’re buck naked?
Every teacher has experienced some variant of this dream. Maybe you have, too, even if you don’t officially “teach.” Maybe your kids catch you out. Or maybe, like my mom, you’re years retired (in her case, from a career in teaching English), and you dream you still haven’t learned your lines for the play. Maybe in your nightmares you’re giving a major presentation to to the muckety-mucks at work – unprepared and, naturally, wearing your birthday suit.
Way back in February I started dreaming about the first day of class for the Nazi Germany history course I was scheduled to teach in the spring. Dreaming? Oh, no. These were wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares. Yes, German history was my major field in grad school, but I’ve taught women’s and gender studies unabated since 2002. I love WGS. I love being a historian, and I’ll forever think like one. But could I still teach history? And where did I leave my clothes, anyway?
The scenario repeated with variations: I’d stumble into the classroom, utterly unprepared. (That part never varied.) I’d start ad-libbing my worst impression of a cartoon women’s studies instructor: “So, how do you feel about Hitler?” “Certainly some aspect of your experience might resonate with women in the Third Reich! Can you imagine a sisterhood with them?”
Flash forward a few weeks, and it’s the first day of class. The wretched projector does not work. I am planning to show some maps, insurance that I will not start to mimic a demented group therapy leader. The maps will not project.
My clothes are on. They appear to be staying on. I call classroom services (cursing my colleagues who didn’t bother to fix this earlier in the day). Ted the tech guru shows up, the same Ted who knows a remarkable amount about the Albigensian heresy. I know Ted from my stress management class. I think “what would the Buddha do?” I breathe. The Buddha remains remote. But in my head, my instructor Bonnie says calmly, “This is just how things are right now.” I breathe. Ted tinkers. He breathes the projector back to life.
Jump to the end of the first week. The students appear to be developing carpal tunnel – all 150 of them. I get the hint. I start to slow down.
Oh, the irony! I know too much! I’m trying to say too much! I’m amazed at how much I recall from 20 years ago. When I don’t know it, I know where to look. I’m thrilled at how much I’m learning along the way.
I’m not quite fully dressed after all, because the classroom tops out at 98 Fahrenheit the second week. My skirts are thin and rumpled. They’re suboptimally professional (but then again, my preferred look is nouveau hippie anyway). The main thing is: I’m not naked. And I realize I really know this stuff: the fatal conservative resentments of modernity, the violence of the SA men, the brutal logic of racial “science.”
Now I just need to hit my stride and hold a pace that works for everyone. I need to hold it even though I’ve been sick most of the quarter and my kids have soccer four night a week. I need to keep it up even when I occasionally burst into unscheduled tears while preparing a lecture. If you teach about the Nazis and never feel your soul split in two, you need to either cultivate compassion – or consider a career at Halliburton.
This class, this history of Nazi Germany, is a work in progress. So too am I. I spend a little too much eating marzipan at 1 a.m. while tinkering with my next lecture. Imposter syndrome lurks around every corner. But momentarily, at least, I really have conquered fear. I know I can do this. I know I know enough. I’ve delivered 18 lectures, with just 11 to go. And that will have to be enough – even if one day I appear in class and discover I’m utterly naked, after all.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s had to climb the cliffs of self-doubt. If you’re willing to share you similar story (naked dreams and all) I’d love to hear it.