"The Building That Built Me"
By Sue McCammon, College of Lake County
Honorable Mention, 2003 Paul Simon Student Essay
It was another tedious day at work and the mud had a suction-cup hold on both legs, rendering me immobile.
Caked on my hardhat, my clothes, my skin, like layers of discontent, it weighed me down once again.
As a construction laborer working on the Performing Arts Building at the College of Lake County,
I stared back at the parking lot and watched students, clean and determined, rush to classes at
hourly intervals. It was at such moments, I would toss my head back to the guys and whine,
"I should have gone to college."
I thought that getting a degree, changing careers and accomplishing something tangible would fill the
void and make me whole. I thought I would find my answer in textbooks and a piece of paper I could
tack on the wall or mention in a resume. I enrolled. What I found instead, was a redefinition of self,
wrought from moments of clarity and confusion.
Bursting into the classroom, she turned my life upside down. On the first day, I had to define my worldview.
She was relentlessBprovoking me into discussion, challenging my assumptions, throwing in politics for good
measure. She was a name-dropper too. Names like Gandhi and King. I wondered what any of this had to do with
English. I had signed up for nouns and adverbs. Overwhelmed, I eyed the door. Sensing my terror at writing
the first paper, she flagged me down in the hall after class before I could engage in a full-throttled
sprint. What she, this English teacher of mine, offered, was as foreign as the new world I had encountered.
She offered encouragement. She gave me significance. With her assistance, I found a squeaky voice I
gradually recognized as my own.
He was a quiet man with great humility. In his creative writing class, I learned to accept advice and value
my fledgling voice. It was not easy. When asked to read my poem aloud, I, the mature student, responded by
crumbling it into a ball on my desk. A patient man, he persisted, so I hurled it at him and said, "You read it."
Unflustered, he made an elaborate show of ironing it out on the edge of the desk. He treated it with respect.
I found that interesting. After reading it, he suggested publication. I found that absurd. But in a
historic departure from the past, I considered. I took a chance. It was published.
Learning is a process of discovering the power we have inside; a reflection of ourselves in each other,
it means nothing alone. It is within the context of community, of connection, of awareness that we have
gifts to offer, gifts to receive. At my college, I found gifts in the teacher turned friend, in the banker
turned teacher, and in the postman and electrician who found themselves through teaching. Day by day,
they chiseled away carefully laid walls, laboring to help me transcend self-limiting beliefs.
I think I'll teach.
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