Can I be a Human AND a Professional?

The fire danced, flames strong and healthy against the night.  It its glow, people rested in a loose circle, sitting on chairs and benches and whatever else they could find.  Behind them, more people stood, and further out, on a courtyard of gravel and dust, a dance party shifted and ebbed.  People moved in singles and pairs, or just stood on the outskirts, sipping beers or taking turns with the tequila that wandered from hand to hand. 

It was a warm night, and I didn’t need the fire—but I was in a mellow mood, more into thinking than dancing, and this was a good place to reflect.  It was hard to believe that the year would be over in a few minutes.  A lot had happened in 2022, to the world—and to me.  There’d been slow, uneven improvement in my mental health, as I’d recovered from intense trauma the year before.  There’d been my first climbing season in six years, a halting, cautious progression as I’d learned what my new, post-surgery body could do on the rock.  There’d been triumphs and mistakes and anxiety and peace, a million little currents of thought that had swirled and eddied as I’d sat on a bus or jogged in a forest.

Finally, there’d been the weeks since I’d arrived in Mexico, when I’d had the bittersweet realization that I was aging out of being a climbing-bum.  Seven years earlier, Potrero Chico had been one of my favorite places on Earth, and in the 10 weeks I’d stayed, it had felt like home.  When I’d come again, two weeks before New Years, I’d been excited to climb, and jealous of the people on the road long-term.  But as time went on, I’d started to miss my closest friends back home.  I wanted conversations about more than climbing, where I could share my insights and suffering with people who could do the same.  I’d realized that I was not unready to go back.  I was okay returning to the work and rain in Vancouver, if it meant regaining my community.

As I contemplated home, I realized that in a few days I would be a different person.  Instead of torn, dusty shorts, I would wear clean pants and a buttoned shirt.  Instead of sitting by a fire, I would stand in front of students.  Instead of contemplating life, I would explain the economy.  Well—I would explain my knowledge of the economy, passing on what I’d grasped imperfectly from mentors who didn’t fully understand themselves.  But my students would think I was an expert, someone smart who didn’t have doubts.  More, they would see me as an authority, someone with power over their lives. 

Could they imagine me at a New Years party?  Could they see me sitting around a fire, wearing clothes so trashed I wouldn’t even give them away?  Probably not.  When I’d been a student, I’d rarely realized my teachers had lives.  It’s something I would have known was true, intellectually—but not something I really thought about.  I starred at the flames and wondered what would happen if my students could know the real me.  What if they could be here, drinking tequila and pondering life? 

We’d connect so much deeper than we could at school.  Maybe they would speak of their struggles in a new country, far from family and friends, making community from scratch.  Maybe I’d share my own thoughts on connection.  Maybe I’d say how vulnerability can accelerate bonding, how I wished I’d been more open when I was younger.  Maybe I’d think aloud about what to do with my life, and maybe they’d share their goals.  Maybe I’d have guidance to offer—or maybe I’d have something to learn.  Why not?  Younger people can have their own wisdom.  Sometimes they see things clearer, without complications that don’t really matter.

I thought of my students around the fire, and suddenly I felt sad that these connections would never happen.  I felt sad that we could never really know each-other, that a difference in status and power would keep us apart.  Of course, I didn’t know if there was a better way.  There’s good reasons I can’t be friends with my students.  Part of my job is giving them grades they don’t want, if that’s what they earn.  Part of my job is deciding if they’ve learned enough to pass, or if they need to spend a lot of time and money re-taking the course.  It would be harder to do that job fairly, as a friend.  But as I sat around the fire, it seemed…sad, that not everyone could just be people together.  It seemed sad that we had to be professionals instead of being humans.

Was there a way to be both?  Could I be a human and a professional?  Maybe not fully—but I realized I could change the little things.  It’s not unprofessional to start the semester by asking if people had fun over the break, and then saying I went rock-climbing in Mexico.  It’s okay to spend the first minute of the first class this way, giving sanitized but truthful glimpses of my life.

And I realized that when I dealt with authority figures, I could remember that they, too, were more than their uniforms and their jobs.  Maybe the border guard had also drank around a fire in slovenly clothes, smiling as he contemplated life.  Maybe the cop also had a Tinder date that went awkward as soon as it started, nursing her beer as she wondered how to put the meeting out of its misery.  Maybe my bosses had left a long day at work to change diapers and coax toddlers into bed, and then sat on the couch, exhausted, and popped open beers as they anticipated sleeping six hours and doing it all again.  Maybe the politicians I hated were trying to do what they thought was right, putting in brutal hours and then squeezing in food and sex and Netflix in the few moments of their own time.

I gazed into the fire and smiled, hoping that the airport security staff I would see in a few days were having a good New Years Eve.  I thought of the students I would meet in a few days, and I hoped they were having fun, whatever that meant to them.  And then I stood up from the heat and moved toward the dance party.  I would have to be a professional soon enough.  Tonight, I would get to be me. 

2 Replies to “Can I be a Human AND a Professional?”

  1. Sam, this post shows phenomenal balance between propriety and being totally at ease. I love the way you write, the way you see the world and the way you view yourself in it. I have felt all of those paradoxical yearnings, but really it’s amazing that even as you’re growing and evolving, you still know your goals and aspirations and you so eloquently share them here. Thank you for this!

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