I was Born to Teach, But Never Should Have Been a Teacher: Mental Illness and Excellence
In a conversation on Facebook Messenger a few days ago, a former student opened with a compliment. I was one of the best and most inspiring professors she’d ever had. I had been a particularly charismatic lecturer and so forth. She soon shifted gears, telling me that it was a great pity that I hadn’t had more self-control, as my recklessness had robbed so many students of the chance to take my classes.
I have heard this sort of thing before. People feel comfortable telling me things, which I suppose is also a compliment.
I responded that the lectures she remembers so vividly were so compelling precisely because I was in the grip of something I could barely understand. “I assure you that the absence of self-control and mental illness were a huge part of what made me the wonderful teacher you so kindly remember. Give me a normal brain, take away my trauma, and I’m a whole helluva lot less memorable and compelling. I’d be dull as dishwater.”
My former student called that “bullshit,” and suggested that abusive but gifted men were always claiming that their madness and their talents were inextricably linked. She suggested that the #MeToo movement ought to bury the idea that some men “couldn’t help themselves.”
It is a dangerous thing for me to tell you that I was a very, very good teacher. It is hubris itself for me to claim that there were many days I could hold a classroom spellbound on a wide variety of topics. And yet, if you ask many of my former students, they will confirm for you that I had unusual ability as a lecturer. (Somewhere, I have piles of dog-eared old evaluations filled with praise; in my first year after I resigned my teaching job, I read them almost every night before bed, often weeping on to the pages.)
Maybe, you’ll just have to take my word for it: I was born to teach.
I rarely used notes when I lectured. Often, when a student would come to me in office hours and ask me what I had talked about the previous day, I’d be flummoxed – I could almost never remember. When I was at my best, I lectured in a trance, snatching words and stories out of the air and assembling them into coherent narratives that I forgot as soon as I had spoken them aloud.
In a period of comparative lucidity in the early 2000s, I chaired the committee that wrote the college policy banning consensual sexual relationships between faculty and students. I wrote it in part to handcuff myself: Ulysses lashing himself to the mast, Dr. Jekyll trying anything he can to prevent Mr. Hyde from taking over. I also wrote it knowing that someday, I would blow my whole life up, and I wanted to be able to say I did it on my own terms. What could be cooler than losing one’s own career for calculatedly violating a policy you yourself had written for just that purpose? Wanting to cast oneself in a minor, modern Greek tragedy is hubristic, sure, but it is also rational – if you know the end must come, because there’s no way that you can sustain success indefinitely, you might as well prepare an exit that you imagine will be of your own devise.
In the summer of 1998, after yet another suicide attempt, I was put on very heavy meds. They knocked down all the fantasies and delusions. It was a firm floor through which I could not fall, and a low ceiling through which I could not rise. My first week of the fall 1998 semester, I tried to lecture on those meds. I was subdued, and barely coherent. I realized I needed notes, which I never normally did. Five years into my career at Pasadena City College, it suddenly occurred to me I hated teaching. Worst of all, I saw the shock and dismay on the faces of the students who had heard me lecture the previous semester, unfettered. Screw this, I thought, I’ll cowboy through a little longer. I cut the meds, the gifts returned, and I kept the charade alive for a remarkable 15 additional years.
It is not a tragedy that I am no longer teaching. It is a miracle that I taught as long as I did. I made it 20 years, which given my indiscretions, was an extraordinary run of good luck. Chalk a lot of that survival up to white male and class privilege; I was adept at winning people over. As I’ve pointed out many times, my entire downfall came when I couldn’t keep my own secrets any longer. My own student lovers had kept their mouths shut, as they had neither desire nor reason to report me. I drove my own ship on to the rocks, hoping to either drown, or – if I survived – find myself on a new shore on which I could build a new life.
I’ve built that new life on that new shore.
I am still touched by fire. My mind is unquiet still. I take meds now; my family needs me to have the floor beneath my feet, even if I rage against the ceiling that blocks out my sky.
I’ve also cut myself off from the drug of affirmation. I don’t see my name in bylines, I don’t see students smiling encouragingly as I perform, and that helps me stay a little calmer, a little less grandiose, and a lot less reckless. I stock olive oil and bag frozen spinach and joke with the crew I have grown to love deeply. I’ve gained weight and I’ve aged, and I can barely remember the time when strangers and acquaintances looked at me with desire. For all these reasons, the illness stays relatively quiet – and I can notice and love Victoria and the children as they deserve.
In obscurity, I am safe as I never was before. My illness is always with me, but fame and an audience turn smoldering coals into a certain conflagration. For the sake of those who love and need me, it is why I will almost certainly spend the rest of my working life in a grocery store, and why I must be discouraged from seeking a publishing deal, much less some sort of return to the classroom.
I was a great teacher, I was born to teach, and I should never have been a teacher. If I tell myself that what made me great was also what destroyed me and caused so much pain to others, it helps me to put my fall in perspective.
To believe that my excellence and my madness were inextricably linked keeps me from longing to go back to my old life, and it lessens my own self-hatred. That makes it a very precious, and very necessary, story to tell myself.
Wish you would reconsider seeking a publishing deal. As you know, there are well-known authors who successfully avoided any appearances, such as J.D. Salinger and Carson McCullers. You're a fantastic writer (and I should know; I've been reading steadily since I was 4) and IMHO you have some very important, useful things to share that could help and entertain a wide range of people.