The Problem with Expectation

This week, I started my 22nd year as a writing teacher, my fourteenth full time at George Fox University.

Given my first day’s performance in 1992, no one could have predicted I might last this long. I began that morning by marching into a University of Missouri-St. Louis classroom slick with sweat (from the humidity and fear); I arrived far too early, paced in front of the chalkboard, began class before the right time. On the verge of tears, I handed out the syllabi, shaking so fiercely students must have wondered just who they had standing in front of them. I definitely felt like an imposture, someone too stupid and too shy to be teaching college students.

I was beyond scared.

But only a little less so than when I started college six years earlier, my parents making the one-hour drive with me to my new home, where we unloaded my meager belongings and made the fear-filled trek up the dorm stairs to my second-story room.

My roommate had already claimed her side of the room and unpacked her stuff: an interesting array of kitty posters and pictures of balloons and rainbows. A floral-patterned spread covered her bed; she was wearing a t-shirt with a giant heart on it.  I imagine a Sandi Patty cassette was playing in the background, but this is one memory I don’t fully trust. Sandi Patty was always playing in our room, so surely she was singing Jesus’ praise on the first day, too.

Anyone who knows me—or has any inkling of my tastes—knows that I had reasons to fear my roommate. I endeavored to be game, though, since I’d already been told that I should be excited about college, that it would be the best years of my life!  So, I hugged my parents a fast goodbye, akin to peeling a Band Aid off quickly to avoid any pain. Holding back tears, I began unpacking my own décor: running posters, pictures of high school teammates, several athletic awards.

This was not going to be a match made in heaven, and I didn’t really think I belonged there, anyway. I felt like an imposture then, too, not really interested in college even though I was somehow supposed to be excited about studying and about living with a stranger who was, it seemed to me, also quite strange.

As I embark on another school year, I’ve been thinking of these two selves, and of the nearly all-consuming fear that characterized those new beginnings. That fear was fueled in great part by the unknown. On my first day of college, I wondered what it would be like. How would it feel to live with a complete stranger—and a kitty-loving one at that? How would I survive without my family, without my high school friends? How could I ever succeed in college, when high school was so much of a struggle?

Later, when I began teaching, I again wondered what it would be like. What kind of students would I be facing? How would I answer their questions? Would I be capable of managing a classroom of first-year students, hostile to writing? (I have similar questions even now, 22 years into my teaching endeavor.)

To be honest, though, expectations placed on me by myself and by others also stoked me fears. I’d never been much of a student before college, preferring sports to studies, television to books. My SAT scores were abysmal; I struggled to complete assignments through middle and high school. The middle school principal and I were fast company, in great part because I spent so much time in her office on detention. Though I fared a little better behavior-wise in high school, I wasn’t coming to college as a stellar student, and was certain the life of the mind—whatever that was—could not be for me.

Although I became a successful student in college, and decided to pursue an advanced degree in English, those same uncertainties also dogged me when I began teaching, concurrent to my graduate school classes. I obviously wasn’t the brightest graduate student on campus, couldn’t quote lines of Yeats (who I called “Yeets” for the first year of studies, a definite taboo) and consistently spelled grammar wrong (grammer) in my first graduate school paper. How could I ever, ever teach, when everyone else seemed more committed to that life of the mind than did I? At heart, I was still a dumb jock, posing as an English graduate student.

So here’s the thing about expectations, even those that are self-imposed: they can keep you in a box, limiting your potential, making it almost impossible to be all God created you to be. But thank God for people who refused to see those boxes, and who challenged me to move beyond those expectations:

  • A high school English teacher who saw me as more than a struggling student, and who encouraged my writing; her kindness allowed me to begin seeing myself as capable, at least a little bit.
  • A college professor who believed me as more than “just an athlete,” and whose encouragement allowed me to begin seeing myself as an academic, not just a dumb jock whose studies didn’t matter.
  • A graduate school advisor who saw me as more than an incapable teacher, stuttering through her first classes; her support and guidance sustained me successfully through my first year of teaching, reminding me that I belonged in the classroom, that I wasn’t the imposture I believed myself to be.

Sometimes it’s easy to force people into the boxes we’ve built, compelling them to play the roles we’ve defined for them. As Kendra and I have written often in the last few years, we see clearly—over and over again—the ways that women are crammed into small spaces labeled “biblical womanhood” and “godly woman.” I’ve bristled against those expectations as well, knowing that I could not be the presumably “godly” woman defined by Christian culture, and that when I did act in that way, I felt like a fake.

As we start yet another year, I’m thinking again about the ways expectations can be problematic, how they complicate our journeys toward becoming all God intends for us to be. And I’m thinking about those folks who did not compel me to be something I could not be, but inspired me to be more than I thought I could be. Such people still exist in my life, and I am grateful for those who don’t tie me to any expectations about what it means to be a college professor, or a middle-aged woman, or a mother of boys, or a million other things.

One week into another year of teaching—and of feeling grateful for this amazing vocation I’ve been given—I think of those people most, those who saw me as different than I even saw myself, and who helped me become who I am.  My hope is that this year, I can be especially mindful of the boxes I create for others, and also, aware that those boxes can limit others—and myself—from being what God created us to be.