Twenty years ago on this date was my last formal class as a formal student, a grad course at Carnegie Mellon with Kate Lynch on Comparative Urban History. I spent that evening of my last day of classes polishing up a twenty-five page research essay that compared the development of public housing practices in Toronto, Berlin and Chicago. It was too ambitious a paper, especially given that I did all the research for it in the final four weeks of that semester, after spending a week at AERA (American Educational Research Association) in New Orleans presenting on a panel and networking, and two days meeting the Gill side of my extended family for the first time. I just wanted to get it done, though.
I made my final edits to my introduction and argument and to a few of my citations and references just before 9:30 pm that second Monday in May ’94. I was working in a computer lab in Wean Hall, using one of the rare PCs on campus. Rare because Carnegie Mellon had made a ridiculous deal with Apple back in ’83 to be a Macintosh campus — a terrible move if you were using Macs in the 1990s.
Normally I wrote my papers on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, as my alumnus status gave me access to computers and Hillman Library. Plus, it took Pitt almost a year to shut down my grad school accounts, allowing me to make thousands of copies of materials that I would’ve needed a month’s worth of my stipend to make at Carnegie Mellon’s Hunt Library. And, even after a year of torture and courses, nearly all of my friends and interests remained across the bridge connecting Oakland and Pitt with Schenley Park and the southern end of Carnegie Mellon’s campus.
Once I completed my paper, I walked over to Baker Hall, went up to the second floor, and dropped it off for Lynch to review and grade. It was all over but the dissertation overview defense and the dissertation itself. I was happy, but I was more relieved than happy. The last year of transferring to and doing coursework at Carnegie Mellon had taken a toll on me. For the first time ever, I found myself actually hating classes and school in general. Sure, there were individual teachers and professors I despised. Dr. Demontravel. David Wolf. Estelle Abel. Dick Ostreicher. But not the formal process of classroom learning itself. It took a year of redundant courses at CMU at the insistence of the powers that were to steal that immutable joy of learning from me. At least, temporarily.
I thought about it the next day. My first day of kindergarten was September 8, ’74, which meant that I had experienced twenty school years between the ages of four and twenty-four. For virtually all of my life, I’d been a student, from kindergarten to PhD, between Presidents Nixon and Ford and Bill Clinton. I had done several thousand assignments, hundreds of exams, and dozens of papers and essays. Combining undergrad and grad school, I’d taken fifty-eight (58) courses. It’s a wonder I hadn’t tired of listening to mercurial professors any sooner.
I spent the next few days doing something I normally didn’t have time for. I slept in late, took lots of naps, and watched my Knicks play and struggle with the Jordan-less Bulls in the NBA’s second round of playoffs. It would be the most rest I’d have for the rest of ’94.
Two decades later, and I’ve taught nearly as many courses as I took to earn my bachelors, masters and doctorate. I do like the view of a classroom — in-person or virtual — from the instructor’s perspective. But I learned so much about being a teacher, too, from what to do and what not to do, long before my final semesters at Carnegie Mellon. Ms. Griffin, Mrs. Shannon, Mrs. O’Daniel, Mrs. Bryant, Harold Meltzer were great counterbalances to the teachers/professors who were as inspiring as watching paint dry in a desert.