College professors are completely surrounded by but also excluded from the drinking-est demographic there is, college students. Professors see students with hangovers every day, or they see the empty seats that represent hangovers. There are students who will attend class after a long night of drinking, the worst versions of themselves: dazed, apathetic, out of touch, or after a few minutes of trying to hold it together, dozing off. In a college town there are discount liquor stores and drink specials. There’s tailgating and the hazing of Greek pledges. There are cliques of underage dormers who wander the sidewalks at night in search of a kegger. A professor can remain young in spirit by working with students, but the body ages, and once the professor is more than twice their age, the students become harder to relate to and they need something the professor may have run out of. Then the teacher lacks definition, in a daily limbo that includes night drinking, and the teacher is mentally exhausted though they maintain the charade perfectly, hoping to go to bed early for a change, but staying up for a nightcap. At a bar near campus several of the teacher’s students are getting wasted, and the teacher has no thought of them. The teacher falls asleep on the couch, drink in hand. This is not the existence the teacher had sought.
I taught for a year at a high school in rural Mississippi. I needed a job, I was fresh out of graduate school, and they were hiring. I was one of two Ph.Ds. at the high school, the other a divorced father and retired NASA scientist whose son attended a nearby school for the blind. The retired NASA scientist took the job for the insurance benefits that would cover his son. As new hires and as outsiders, there was a kinship between us. One morning, when I’d woken up with a broken blood vessel in my eye, I dreaded going to the school because I looked like I’d been in a fight and I was going to have to answer to nosy students. When the retired NASA scientist asked what had happened, I said I didn’t know. I woke up with my eye that way. Could that happen? He said it couldn’t and he asked if I’d been drinking. I said I hadn’t, which I really believed, but then as I remembered better, I had been. And so I said, “Yes, come to think of it, yes.” But what did that have to do with anything?
He said, “Did you bump into something?”
And that was it. That was exactly it. I didn’t remember drinking because I’d been drinking every night. It was so ordinary I didn’t think about it. And in the fog of alcohol, I must have, probably did, bump into something. Mystery solved, and as mundane and pathetic as it was, I probably did deserve to face the next few days with a red eye.
Teachers drink. The daily psychological pressure of having to perform for young people can be released with a couple of beers, or a tall glass of wine. There’s untold monotony in going over the same lessons, of grading the same papers (sometimes literally; thank you, plagiarism!) and of dealing with the needs of each new set of students, caught at the same age and social development as the class before. And then in the summer there’s near-absolute freedom, with no responsibilities, so that every day is like the weekend, and teachers can slip into an accelerated haze of drinking. We drink because we have too much to do, we are sick of ourselves, and too many people depend on us. Then, with the grades handed in, we drink because we have too little to do and hardly anyone depends on us.
What the retired NASA scientist recognized in me, and what I’d hardly come to terms with yet, was that I was a functioning alcoholic, no longer a teacher who drank, but a drinker who taught. You might expect this all to spiral down into sick days, assignments ungraded, or napping in the teacher’s lounge during the prep period, but as a grad student I’d been drinking through an impossible schedule for quite a while. It was a matter of knowing what tasks could be put off, what could be accomplished while drinking, and when necessary, putting off the drinking until the work was done, then hitting the bottle hard for what remained of the night to make up for it. I had the ability to wake up early in the morning pretty much no matter what. On top of that, because I had to be at the school every weekday and had to grade and work on lesson plans every weeknight, I wasn’t doing any writing, which was hard to face since it was the reason I’d endured the impossible schedule of graduate school in the first place. It wasn’t the drinking that nixed my writing, by the way, but the daily routine. There was no time to write in the morning, I was too exhausted to write at night, and I needed weekends to rest and recharge. Teaching took my writing from me and drinking kept me from thinking too much about it. I didn’t go to bars. I didn’t go anywhere. I would have a drink with my spouse at dinner and then drink in front of the TV. I didn’t particularly want to watch TV, or to drink, but I did this pretty much every night and when I did I felt most at ease. Teachers are solitary in this way, even the majority who aren’t drinkers, but the need to unwind can easily transition into this habit.
That was seventeen years ago and I’m not going to say I’m sober, or that I condemn drinking. I still have days that lead to nights of drinking and watching TV. I teach at a college now, for the time being anyway. I’m on a temporary contract that will end this semester. I’ve applied for writing instructor jobs at several universities, but these jobs are so competitive I feel like hiring committees will see right through me. I will look suspicious, since I’m too old not to have landed a permanent position, though there are far more of us teaching at colleges who don’t have job security than those who do. Each night as I think about my impending unemployment I can’t help but feel cheated. I’ve worked very hard and have given a lot of myself, with very little to show for it. Who will want to hire an ex-teacher pushing fifty when there are so many other energetic multi-faceted worker bees? Writing and teaching are skills we laud but that corporate America isn’t really willing to pay for. As universities become more like corporations, that’s doubly true.
Evening passes into night, a beer to calm the nerves. I relax on the couch with nowhere to go, browsing TV channels, a glass of whiskey, a plate of crackers to buffer the stomach, no particular show worth watching. There have been so many nights spent reading, so many mornings spent at the computer clacking out sentences. I’ve never been able to write while drinking, the activities mutually exclusive for me. Drinking was for when the mind needed to go quiet. Writing required concentration: one had to listen to whatever was inside and find a rhythm to set it to, the nearly imperceptible prosody of the everyday. I imagine it must be easier to go about life without the desire to do that, and then at night drinking would only be drinking, not the conscious effort to extinguish intellect.