John Donne was wrong. I am an island
I read all of John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee novels more than 40 years ago. Magee describes life as an island in a river. People are born on the downstream end of the island. As the baby grows, the river erodes the upstream end and builds up the downstream end. This has the effect of moving the baby from the downstream end to being an adult in the middle of the island.
As the island erodes, people at the edges fall into the river and are washed out of the life of the baby, the child or the man.
Ultimately an old man stands at the point of the upstream end. When the river wears away the upstream end, the old man falls into the river and is carried away.
Magee’s explanation caught my imagination and stuck with me. I have returned to it when trying to understand some aspect of life that’s bothering me. It has become especially pertinent since I started teaching at Mansfield University.
I taught high school for five years and left to go to grad school. After finishing grad school in Utah, I moved to Virginia. I taught high school theater arts for three years and then got a temporary job teaching journalism at Lynchburg College. I filled in for three semesters while they searched for someone with a Ph.D. I went from there to Central Virginia Community College, where I taught “Developmental” English as a full-time adjunct.
I moved around a lot. Every three to five years I either went back to school or changed jobs and locations. When I got to Mansfield University, I knew I had found a home for the rest of my life. I was happy. I had terrific colleagues in my department and around campus. I taught exciting and excited students. I advised the Flashlight, the student-owned, student-run newspaper. I have had good staffs and great staffs, but they are always an exciting, dynamic group of students who make a difference.
I am finishing my 17th year at Mansfield University. As I was starting my 8th year, I was starting to feel uncomfortably comfortable. I couldn’t put my finger on my dissatisfaction. I was seeking something different to read to get my mind off my troubles. Digging through a box of books, I ran across an old Travis Magee novel and read it in a day. I was reminded of Magee’s island metaphor for life and thought I had identified the source of my ennui.
I was an island. I was the island. I was a rock in a river. My students were the river. They came into my classroom for a semester or a year or four years if I was lucky. Some came to the Flashlight office and I got to work with them in a less formal though more intense atmosphere for one, two, three or four years. After four years, they were washed from my life. I was the one standing still and they were flowing downstream to jobs with newspapers or public relations companies or television or radio stations.
I didn’t like the image of being a rock in their stream. I didn’t want to feel like an obstruction. It took me several years, but I have modified Magee’s metaphor.
Anyone who knows me will tell you what an athletic supporter I am, so it’s not unusual for me to pick a sports metaphor.
I am not an island in a stream of students. I am part pit crew and part cheerleader. When students come into my class, I help them learn what they will need to know when they graduate. For four years I help them pick the right tires, adjust their fan belts, buckle their seat belts and fine tune their pistons. At the end of four years I can hear their motors roaring as they get ready to leave my life.
That’s when I pick up my pompoms and put on my pleated skirt. Actually, I put on an academic robe and a mortarboard. I walk solemnly into the gym, though what I want to do is dance on the furniture and scream, “Go! GO! GO!”
I don’t mind eating the dust. The lion’s share of my job is done. I may write a letter of reference or answer an emailed question, but they are doing what I helped them learn how to do. I keep track of some of them. Some of them keep in touch.
I am a teacher. My students are the change I make in the world.