WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.This coming fall marks writer and teacher Robert Hughes’ 34th year of teaching freshman composition to foreign students at Truman College in Chicago. The first day of class will be his 408th first day of class, give or take a dozen. Here’s what he says about that…
When I mentioned this to a much younger colleague, he looked shocked and said something about our careers being “Sisyphean.”
Thinking he’d sneezed, I nearly said, “Gesundheit,” before my 61-year-old brain registered that he was referring to the myth of Sisyphus. And I had to agree.
You remember Sisyphus, the old guy condemned to pushing a rock up a mountain and watching it roll back down for eternity. Sure, I thought, my job can appear to be a version of that.
Exceptâ€”I wanted to tell my colleagueâ€”except that it’s not.
Sisyphus never got to sit in one place and be introduced to some of the most fascinating people in the world. He didn’t read an essay by Dung from Vietnam who told of secretly scribbling the definitions of 5,000 English words on scraps of paper in a prison camp to prepare for the day he would come to America.
Sisyphus didn’t fight back tears as Edita from Bosnia read her paper to the class describing the day she was separated from her father and brother in Srebrenica.
He didn’t get to laugh as Jihad from Morocco told of his conversion from fanatical soccer worship to fanatical Bears worship on moving to Chicago.
He didn’t sit, amazed, in his office, listening to Hani—a Christian from Iraq forced to fight for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf Warâ€”tell of reading his New Testament by flashlight hunkered down in his tank at night in the desert.
When I hear and read about their experiences, I know I have no crisis of meaning. I’m lucky: I get to help them express themselves clearly and convincingly to America. When— at the beginning of the Jimmy Carter administration— I had my actual first day of class, I thought teaching would be mainly a perpetual challenge to keep the material fresh so that a.) the students would learn and b.) I wouldn’t lose my mind. Of course this has been partly true. It’s tricky to keep the daily uphill hike lively. And now and then locating my mind hasn’t always been easy.
But I hadn’t counted on the students themselves, how they would bring the world to me and to each other, how I would be privileged to share in the surprise of their stories. This is a significant, rollicking trek up and down my personal mountain of work.
This fall begins my 34th year of teaching freshman composition. I can’t wait.
Music Button: The Chemical Brothers, “Saturate”, from the CD We Are The Night, (AstralWerks)