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As a Professor, Sometimes I’m Pretty Stupid…

Marcos Villatoro grades the last papers of the spring semester.

I was worried the past few days. I was getting sick–again. The manic depression that had hurled me into a psychotic attack in December nearly did me in. My family and I got through it, but it was a dangerous time.

Bipolar is a progressive, organic brain disease. And it’s a killer. The brain deteriorates more quickly than the minds of the general population. As you get older, it gets worse. You must avoid as many breakdowns as possible.

So on Monday, when I awoke from a night of nightmares that are my own, I could not stop crying. I wept for over an hour, called my wife at work then wrestled with the ghosts for two days.

I had just finished grading the final batch of papers. As a creative writing professor, I read my students’ lives in their poetry, fiction, nonfiction. I also write a page-long response to each work.

I was exhausted, more than usual. Was the illness catching up with me? Did I not have the same energy to get through grading? I’m getting weaker. And age–I’ve dealt with the disease all my life. But, I’m fifty-six now, and don’t have the same mettle as before.

I was afraid.

My son David called. We caught up with our days. As I told him about my health worries, things suddenly made sense:

Usually, my students write four-page essays. I teach two classes of fifteen students each, that’s thirty students and one-hundred-twenty pages. I said to my son, “Of course, this semester was a wee bit different. . .” and said that, this spring, my students got way out of hand.

My one class, “Literature and Contemporary Issues,” wrote the regular four-page essays. But I also taught a creative writing workshop. Seven students. And they all wrote memoirs, averaging fifty-pages long.

Then I said to David, “And one student wrote a novel. It’s really good, and big–381 pages!”

That’s when it hit me: instead of the usual 120 pages of grading, I had read, and graded, and commented upon, 791 pages in four days. 

That’s the problem when your students do incredible, triumphant things.

David said something like, “Maybe, you think, that’s why you’re tired?” He was kind not to call me obtuse.

I’m still tired, and a little brittle around the edges. But now, I see that no–I’m not weak. Older, yes, with not the same stamina as before. But weak? 791 pages of lives, ones that I had the privilege of reading. I did that.

In such moments, poets come to mind. In Rilke’s “The Panther,” he speaks of a Mighty Will.

I’m sick. I’m weary. I have a Mighty Will.


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