The mystery of the nighttime figure skater
And a letter from a panicked professor
This is Emily Writes Back, the advice column for brilliant people, by Emily Sanders Hopkins.
This morning, my Evil Yet Addictive Social Media (tm) feed reminded me of what I was doing this day two years ago. As was normal for me this time of year, I was preparing to teach a round of college courses for the Spring Semester. It was January, 2020. On my way to work I came so close to hitting a deer with my car that I’m sure I basically booped its butt with my bumper, and then maybe 10 minutes later down the road, I almost hit a squirrel. Shaken up quite a bit, when I got to work the heat in the circa-1807 building was out and so it was freezing, and there was mouse poop *all over* the keyboard of my office computer. It wasn’t good. But at the time, I laughed it off in the post and said, “this couldn’t be an omen for how the semester is going to go, could it?”
Little did I know then what I know now. Yeah, it kinda was an omen about how things were going to go. Lots of danger, some near misses, and pretty shitty. Roughly 6-7 weeks later, we were all in lockdown at the starting point of a global pandemic. Not a great semester.
So fast forward 2 years, and I haven’t taught in a physical classroom since then. I was lucky enough to be able to teach online instead. But this week, I jump back into the in-person teaching thing. And I am riddled with doubts about my own abilities. You know that feeling when you get back on ice skates for the first time since the previous winter, and half of you is like, “I know how to ice skate, this will be no problem!” and half of you is like, “I’m going to fall on my butt and seriously injure myself”? That’s where I’m at right now — poised on a knife’s edge between muscle memory and abject terror.
I would also not be quite as worried except that reports from everywhere keep coming in about how seriously traumatized the college students are right now. They, like all of the rest of us, are tired of <waves arms around wildly> this whole thing. Those freaked out humans are trusting me to help them through this, and to teach them something interesting, important, and useful in the process. That’s a heavy load for me and my wobbly ice skates.
So, dearest Emily, first of all, since I know you do this part SO well: what should I wear to coordinate with my lovely, pasty white 3M N95 Aura mask/respirator? And keep in mind, I haven’t worn heels in 2 years and I’m fairly sure I can’t walk in them anymore.
And second, how do you advise I regain my confidence so that I can do justice to my subject and help facilitate a good learning experience for my students? Or maybe more generally, what should we do when we lose faith in ourselves?
Dear Panicked Professor,
I know what you mean about losing faith in yourself. Last night, I went to a drinks thing at a friend’s house. It was three of my closest girlfriends and me around a kitchen island eating snacks and drinking cocktails filled with freshly squeezed orange and lime juice. Outside the snow fell. I felt awkward the whole time, as if I were a little deaf and also saying everything a little wrong. I felt self-conscious, which is my absolute least favorite feeling—a preoccupation with self and where I fit in the pecking order of a group—and I also felt that the topics of conversation I was somehow introducing or feeding were all tired old stories, things that are not even a true reflection of my real feelings or insights, but recycled badness. On top of that, I couldn’t stop eating the potato chips, and I felt too fat for my stool, which I was perched on like a panda perched on a peg.
Rustiness/self-consciousness + mild depression + tequila + change (I start a new job in March) can = unhappiness.
But then this morning, this text appeared on our group-text thread from one of the girlfriends at last night’s gathering: “I had a very long vivid dream of an archetype I’ve had since childhood last night,” my friend wrote. “In the usual version of the dream I’m alone. This time I had a squad of literal superheroes. In short, thanks for being amazing!”
It’s funny, Panicked Professor, that you chose ice skating as your muscle-memory activity.
For many years, I had recurring ice skating dreams. In the dreams, I would spin, do double and triple axels jumps, glide, and perform gorgeous improvised routines, expressing myself through the art of figure skating. Skating dreams were my new flying dreams.
I wasn’t perfect. I was a little rusty. But I had this innate talent on the ice, and the bravery to risk falling. When I’d awaken and remember my dream, I’d feel that I’d had an important revelation. It wasn’t just about skating, was it? Was it about my soul? Did the dreams mean I am an artist alone on a pond. Or did they mean I am not daring enough in waking? Skating is hard, and the difficulty and the aloneness (I was never skating for an audience, only for myself and the pure joy of it) was what made my dreamtime skating feel glorious.
Once, at a winter camp when I was a teen…
…after I’d had a semester of figure skating lessons, I did have the opportunity to skate alone on a frozen pond that was like the ponds in my dreams. To get to the pond, I had to climb down a steep hill behind our cabins. The ice was lumpy, wind-rippled, dusted with snow in places, glossy dark gray in others. At the pond’s edge, the ice was mottled by plant matter. I sat on a frozen mud knoll to change into the skates. It was cold enough outside—and had been for days— that I had zero worries of falling through the ice. As I skated over the humps and ridges, I thought for a while about Zambonis. Does anybody Zamboni their pond? I stretched my arms out and skated backwards fast, looking over my shoulder the whole time, resembling someone about to jump a triple axel. When you don’t actually have tons of skating skills, you can make up for it with facial expressions and a lot of arm movements. (Maybe try that this semester?) I knew I was completely alone. I felt magnificent.
Above is an ice skating cartoon of mine that appeared in the New Yorker magazine in around 2005. When I showed it off to my grandmother, she commented, “It should say, ‘May I borrow your truck.”
If you showed up to class in heels, with all this snow and subzero temps, that would be quite something. What a great way to say, “I have not been at home for two years curled up around a bowl of granola like some other professors. I’ve possibly been in a parallel dimension dashing to Rome for short holidays and attending gallery openings in New Zealand and gossiping at a very high level about and with my academic peers, publishing papers, advancing my field, landing zingers and building rapport. And I have been wearing heels regularly this whole time.”
But yes, why not dress beautifully. The “global pandemic” has nothing to do with fashion. Your idea to dress down and slink into the classroom in grays and browns (What, you didn’t say that?) is a reflection of your wounded psyche, not a nod to practicality at all. I recommend this outfit for your first day, but with white silk long underwear to cover your midriff:
From Casablanca’s 2022 Fall Ready-to-wear collection.
By the way, an old friend of mine, Matthew, spent years teaching English in Japan and then, over the past few years, back in the States, he has earned a second masters degree and certification to teach here. Yesterday he put up a wonderful website about his teaching experience and philosophy, which is that teaching should be student-centered and democratic, and I found it soothing and inspiring to read. Maybe you will too, as a reminder that the weight of your students’ education and recovery isn’t all on your shoulders.
Now, right now, we have all lived through this global pandemic and the accompanying wounding together (things shut down, “distance learning,” bad television, the rise and dominance of addictive and corrosive and banal social media, fear for health, worry over money, fear about our society, distrust and annoyance between strangers and relatives, etcetera), and yet we are alone with our wounds, self-conscious and full of bad scripts.
Bubbles and snow-globes are clear, but they keep us more alone than we realize. If you look out of your clear globe in which you are trapped and see others in identical globes doing exactly what you are doing, well THAT is depressing. If only you could look out of your clear globe and see others doing magnificent, strange, hard-to-understand things instead! Wouldn’t that make you more eager to break free of your prison?
That’s where you come in, Professor.
You have within you, because of your knowledge and training, some of the hard-to-understand, little-known things others crave right now, plus the ability to show others how to grow and trust themselves. You can help create a classroom experience that is the opposite of TikTok.
Yesterday’s Sunday Times features on its front page stories about the following: inflation, undeserving China hosting the Olympics, an Omicron spike, Ukranian troops in … Chernobyl, “Rural America Stretched Thin,” people who’ve been “canceled,” the death of André Leon Talley, whom the Times goes ahead and dubs “the last great fashion editor” as if the world is definitely winding down, and a profile of a January 6 insurrectionist pictured with a good haircut and wearing a nice blazer, his treasonous hands politely clasped in front of him. I mean, you couldn’t make up a more expected, depressing front page, could you? You and I probably could have invented that front page lineup off the top of our heads, without doing any reporting at all!
Go out on that lumpy frozen pond and stretch out your leg, straight behind you.
Will you fall and break your ankle? Unknown! Life is a mystery. Even if you do fall, you will be cloaked in the glory of having tried. Also, you DO have some muscle memory for teaching, so you can rest assured that you’ll convey some knowledge, touch some lives, make friends, and feel the wind on your face.
In this difficult first semester back, I think you should focus on the thrill of the unknown and relish the opportunity that you hold in your hand to surprise people, to introduce them to something actually fresh. But even more than that, there is something bigger and more mysterious than us, thank God, and we don’t have to produce all the content ourselves. We don’t have to make the pond, the skates, the talent, the ambition/calling, the sky, the dreams, the college, the students, or the conversations all by ourselves.
Break a leg, Prof!
P.S. Yes, people do make their own zambonis for resurfacing pond, lake and home rink ice. There are many instructional videos online on this topic.
Write to me at EmilyWritesBack@gmail.com.