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August 29, 2006

The Flipped Lid: Professor Tempest

Sitting in room 120 of U of L’s Bingham Humanities building during Sena Naslund’s graduate creative writing seminar, I mused on teaching — its power, its importance. This was my first class of the semester, and a gentle way to enter into what will become dark, cold weeks. With strong feminine grace and a touch of Southern gentility, Sena explained the profundity of what she hoped to impart to us, her students.

I felt blessed to be there with her, a New York Times best-selling author, Kentucky’s poet laureate and, among other honors, the Louisville Review’s editor and co-founder. She also directs Spalding University’s Master of Fine Arts creative writing program. Based on these endeavors, I’d wager that Sena probably does not need to teach for pecuniary reasons. Yet, there she sat, in all her successful, humble grandeur, serving hopeful student writers.

Amazed at her continued (seemingly selfless) tenure with the University of Louisville, considering recent commercial success, I recalled other giving teachers. Two decades ago, Mr. Hay, a Pleasure Ridge Park high school English teacher, gave me a fancy writing journal. I hadn’t even been a student in his English class. At Jefferson Community College in a beginning writing course, Lee Pennington’s comments on my weekly oddball poems and stories encouraged, yet suggested, improvements without flat-out expressing how much my writing sucked. Bless his soul. And as a U of L undergrad, professors Jeff Skinner and Paul Griner patiently read very bad memoir pieces about my years as a Déjà Vu stripper, and still pushed me toward pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing; this mentoring occurred despite bravado and an inflated case of being full of myself. Sena, too, back in my undergraduate days, allowed me into a graduate class with her. Believe me, these teachers gave to that 20-something-year-old piss-and-vinegar-wannabe-writer that I was with great patience and hope for my potential.

A decade later, I have been teaching writing for six years. I have written letters of reference. I have helped write scholarship letters. I have counseled crying students. I have graded for hours on Saturdays and Sundays, and have purchased many a half-caf, skim cappuccino toward class deadlines. In short, I have tried to give, as well as happily work my ex-stripping ass off. In the process, I like to imagine that I have helped a dozen or so students become different, better human beings. Yet, I’m sure the following tidbit of information will be news to no one — most teachers earn dog crap money. So, as I admired and felt grateful for Sena during my Monday night seminar, I thought about how little financial compensation most of us get for what we do.

I then thought about stripping, as I often have, and how stripping offered much more money than teaching, team facilitation or camp counseling ever would. (All jobs I’ve worked for little money and great personal reward.) Odd that my stripping career brought into naked focus the inequities between work that facilitates nurturing, growth and learning, and work that facilitates hard-ons. On an average Saturday night in the late ’90s, as “Tempest,” a Déjà Vu showgirl, I earned no less than $300 and usually upwards of $500. These amounts broke down to about $50 an hour, net. If I only worked weekend nights, then, earning a grand a weekend, I could have earned 52K yearly. As a graduate teaching assistant for a reputable and competitive Comp/Rhet PhD program, I earn about a quarter of that a year. In fact, as a starting tenure-track professor, I will likely earn significantly less than that for several years, if not for a decade or more.

What do I think of the fact that I earned more stripping than I do teaching? Maybe I should flip upside down on brass poles topless again. Because, apparently, what I think about this imbalance is that teachers should earn $50 an hour or more, and not only if they’re stripping nude to “Hot For Teacher.” I also conclude that a decent looking, half-naked woman can earn more for telling a guy he’s wearing a nice shirt, then asking him if he wants to see her naked (“Would you like to buy a table dance?”), than she can for teaching his 18-year-old son that writing can develop thinking, and thinking can lead to conclusions like these. God forbid I earn $50 an hour for that.

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