A Story for the First Day of Class

Tomorrow is the first day of Autumn Quarter classes at Ohio State, where I teach. I’m starting my 30th year as a teacher, eleven of them here at OSU, and each year, when it’s time to think about walking into that classroom the next day, I recall a story from some years back, when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska. At the annual department meeting the day before classes began, our chair told a story about one year, the evening before the first day of classes, he found a young man in Andrews Hall, home of the English Department, standing in the doorway to a classroom, just looking in. Our chair asked the young man if he could help him with something. The young man, with wonder in his voice said, “My Freshman Composition class meets in this room tomorrow. I just wanted to see it.”

I’ve never forgotten that story. I’ve never forgotten the tale of that young man, about to embark on his college career, in awe of a classroom where he would soon sit, where he would write essays and talk about language and literature, where he would be a college student. For those of us who have taught for a long time, it’s good to remember our own feelings of excitement and anticipation when we were students walking into into our college classrooms for the first time. A feeling not so different from the way we felt when we taught our first classes. I remember how over-prepared I was for the first meeting of  the composition course I taught. I didn’t get through a third of what I’d planned. When that first class was over, though, I felt elated. I felt that I’d finally ended up in the place where I belonged. Thirty years later, I’m still there, and as much as I sometimes grumble over the energy that teaching takes from my own writing, I still have that feeling of elation when I teach a class. I still feel I’m doing what I was meant to do. For those about to teach for the first time, I hope you feel that same elation, that same sense of accomplishment. Despite the frustrations you’re sure to experience along the way, may you always know the excitement and worth of teaching. May we all remember that teachers and students alike are privileged to be where they are. That freshman at the University of Nebraska looked into his composition classroom as if it were a holy place. In many ways it is, as is any place of learning.  Sometimes I come close to forgetting that, but, when I do, I remember the story of that young man. In some ways, I think I’ve been teaching toward him all my life.


  1. Theresa Williams on September 20, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Good story, Lee. Our semester started back at the end of August. All together I have nearly 25 years, though not all of them “count” toward retirement. Do you know Theodore Roethke’s comments about teaching? In one story a friend of his tells, Roethke ate a huge breakfast that morning and then threw it up beside a tree, just before entering the building in which he taught. When asked about it, Roethke said, “What, you don’t toss your cookies before you teach a class?” I love that story because it speaks to the nervousness I always feel when a new semester begins. By the way, I bet you are a great teacher, and I’d like to be a fly on the wall of one of your classes.

    • Lee Martin on September 23, 2011 at 4:35 pm

      Thanks, Theresa. I hadn’t heard that Roethke story, but I love it! Have a great semester!

  2. Ray Marsocci on September 21, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Lee, a moment ago I had filled this space with reaction to your piece, and how once more you have managed touch me with a mingling of your writing’s energy with your energy as a teacher. I still want to comment in long, but all I might say diminishes in reflection of this story. Maybe I might say instead that, Monday, on the way home from the small university campus where I have begun back as a graduate student, I listened to the Red Sox game on radio, and their commentator, deflecting from Boston’s recent swoon, talked on how his grandson, or grand-nephew, or some such relation had left for Columbus, where he would begin in attendance at “The Ohio State University,” emphasizing “The” because that is the school’s official name. And I thought of you, Lee. And I wished I could be putting my own energies into another of your classes.

    Thank you, again.

    • Lee Martin on September 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm

      Thanks so much, Ray. I sometimes think it’s impossible to say THE Ohio State University without a touch of irony. Good luck with your graduate studies.

  3. Richard Gilbert on September 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    So poignant. I can remember being that boy. And, before that, being the kid who threw up every day at school on the first day.

    Of course, having worked a long time at Ohio University, and now being even closer to the shadow of the gorilla here at Otterbein, my dislike for THE ohio state simmers. My pride hates its pride, a nice irony. Especially since I got a master’s there, met my wife there, got my life started there. And I envy the mindless hordes of Buckeye Nation even as I disdain them.

    As someone said, It’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart . . .

    • Lee Martin on September 23, 2011 at 4:32 pm

      Richard, it’s so true about the contradictions of the human heart. That’s what keeps the writers in business.

  4. Byron Edgington on September 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    And alas, I have the perhaps unenviable other side of the story, of finding a draft notice in my mailbox, and being forced to leave that classroom for many years. I assure you it is glorious indeed to see it for the second time. And to experience the energy and passion of, ahem, certain teachers, well… Sacred it is, no hyperbole about it. It doesn’t get any better than this.
    Thanks Lee. See you Monday.

    • Lee Martin on September 24, 2011 at 1:26 pm

      Hey, Byron. I’m so glad you’re getting this second chance. See you on Monday, ready to practice the liar’s art.

  5. Sophfronia on September 24, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Hi Lee,

    Feeling that same excitement about getting into the classroom because last week I learned I’ve been accepted into the creative writing program at VCFA! Not sure yet if I’m starting this winter or next summer, but I hope to get to meet you at one of the residencies. I’m so excited that I keep re-reading the VCFA pamphlets and stuff on their website. I also keep re-reading my acceptance letter. Thought I was being crazy until I read your post here. Thank you!

    By the way, enjoying “The Least You Need to Know” book and looking forward to “Break the Skin”. Have a good semester!


    • Lee Martin on September 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

      Congratulations, Sophronia! What a wonderful feeling you must have. VCFA is such a fine low-residency program. I hope you thrive and thrive within it. I’ve only been teaching summers in the postgraduate workshop, and I’ve loved it. Thanks for your kind words about THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW. Take care.

  6. Evonne on October 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Lee, I found your blog through Glimmer Train. I wish you lived in Idaho! Your example reminds me of m–every day. I’m glad I’m not alone. Do you have a newsletter?
    The young man, with wonder in his voice said, “My Freshman Composition class meets in this room tomorrow. I just wanted to see it.”

    • Lee Martin on October 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment, Evonne. I hope things are lovely for you in Idaho. That’s a part of the country I’ve never had the opportunity to experience. No, I don’t have a newsletter, only this blog and a fan group on Facebook. That’s how I try to keep folks up on the latest and greatest. I hope you’ll come back and read my blog again. All best wishes.

  7. Sally Rainey on March 19, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    You may not see this comment b/c this is such an old blog post. But . . . years and years ago, I was a teaching assistant in French at the University of Minnesota while I worked on my graduate degree. I was young and I looked younger. I taught French 101. I was so nervous the first day. I arrived early and didn’t want to wait in front of the class while they stared at me. Instead, I sat down in the first row of seats and then jumped up when the bell went off. I spoke in rapid fire French for about five minutes so the students would believe I knew what I was talking about.

    • Lee Martin on March 19, 2017 at 8:06 pm

      Hi, Sally. Thanks so much for sharing your story about your early teaching experience. I bet those students sure were surprised!

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