Without fail at the end of every academic break, the panic begins, like a crocheted scarf wrapping slowly around my throat.
The mild anxiety creeps into my subconscious the weekend before classes resume, as the cars start to fill the parking lot at Warren Wilson College, where I work and live with my two daughters.
"They're back," I state flatly, as if a monotone voice might deflect an alien force.
"That's right, Mommy," replies my 15-year-old daughter Maya, rolling her eyes. "You love your job, remember?"
She's clearly not the right target audience for my unease, even if she is right that I love my job teaching at this small liberal arts college in Western North Carolina.
Indeed I live on campus in a 900-square foot rental house that has more square feet than our college has undergraduates. In essence, I get to teach and live in a small mountain town with a disproportionate number of babysitters for my 8-year old daughter.
If it's all good, as the students say, why do I experience recurring anxiety, as predictable as the academic calendar? I recognize the gift of having a full-time teaching job, one that allows me to write during breaks between semesters.
But after 15 years of teaching, I still feel like a rookie with each new class, semester and semester, year after year. It's like learning to swim again at the start of every summer.
The energy of teaching and engaging with students, consumes me in a different way than the more introspective research and writing at my kitchen table during breaks. Even as an extrovert, I have to play mind games to switch my internal rhythm from constructing paragraphs on the page to facilitating students in service-learning projects.
With each new class, I get a cohort of new colleagues: 100 percent staff turnover every semester. As I call out their names on the first day of class, I look around the room and wonder: Who will challenge me more than I can predict? Who will undergo a personal crisis too complex for me to understand? (Who will hate the Taylor Swift music I play during small group activities?)
Some days, I think teaching is like marriage to a capricious spouse, with required renewal of vows every quarter or semester. For example, classes that I have taught with stellar evaluations for more than a decade sometimes fall apart for reasons I don't completely comprehend, even though I have memorized the student comments from evaluations.
But I try again, tweaking, adjusting and revamping.
Last year, I began a new class after spring break, and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Our class was scheduled to visit low-income housing for senior citizens to collect oral histories. That morning, snow fell on the mountains, so the community partner and I spent time on the phone debating if the residents would come to the event given the weather.
We proceeded with our plans, and the senior citizens showed up for the students to begin the interviews. Looking around the room, I saw students deep in conversation with their elders, exchanging smiles, nodding in affirmation.
Then I noticed one of my students on the verge of tears. She was paired with Neva, an energetic woman in her late sixties with no front teeth, wiry salt-and-pepper hair, and a tendency to drink a tad too much. (In the past, she came to our events only for the home-baked goodies.)
With furrowed brow and wringing hands, my student looked like she might have a panic attack, as Neva derailed the agenda for the interview. Guiding this student to another group, I then promised Neva unlimited oatmeal cookies at the end of our event.
"You know, Mallory," Neva said. "The Lord has blessed me every single day." I nodded in agreement. "And I'll tell you my secret," she said. "Just a tad of vodka in my morning coffee for better circulation!" Choking on my cookie, I laughed out loud and poured us both another cup of iced tea.
The interviews continued: An experienced activist with a bright purple streak in her grey hair, Claire explained that she was protesting the dedication of the George Bush presidential library at Southern Methodist University. In another group, Neill, a former actor, with a baseball cap and a white mustache, shared a tender story about the unrequited love of his life.
"You know this is good for us, and it's good for you all," said Barbara, a vibrant woman with snowy white hair and impeccable dress. She was right. While sometimes nerve-wracking and unpredictable, teaching and learning in a community connects us together. We show up for each other, again and again. In those moments, it really is all good.