I loved teaching while in grad school. The biggest reason I didn’t pursue teaching immediately after was because I knew that, without a book, my options were limited when it came to teaching at the college level and making a living wage. So in the years prior to publishing my first collection of stories, I opted for more stable jobs that paid better than adjuncting and that—despite their regular hours (in fact, because of their regularity)—left me with more time and energy to write.
Also, I’d heard stories from writer friends with credentials far more stunning than mine about how impossible it was to land a tenure-track position as a creative writer, so I figured, why even try? That was another big hurdle to pursuing a teaching position: this idea that it was impossible, that my work wasn’t good enough to get me past even the first round of a search committee’s screening.
I am a first-generation college student, and the idea of becoming a professor—one of those people who seemed to emanate brilliance and poise, the people who made knowledge!—felt like too big of a leap for me, as someone who comes from a working-class family of electricians. Add to this the fact that the majority of my professors were white, and that most of them were male, and that most of the books they taught and deemed important enough to be covered in survey courses were written by straight white men, and you can see how a Cuban girl from Miami could come to think academia wasn’t the place for her.
When it came to having the privilege of choosing a career path, I did what people who’ve internalized systemic oppression sometimes do: I aimed for something different that felt more appropriate, more attainable. I decided I’d make a good high-school English teacher. I’d still get to talk about books and teach people to love and value the act of writing. And I’d have summers to work on all the novels and short stories I wanted to write.
Then something happened that very subtly set me on a different path. What happened was that I stayed up too late one night in my dorm, and I went in on pizza with some girls on my floor, and we got to talking about what we hoped to do with our lives. Of the four other women in the room, three of them had at least one parent who was a lawyer. I was searching my brain for what they would consider the right answer, which I somehow intuited was not high-school English teacher. When they asked me, I blurted out what I thought was an appropriately upgraded version of my dream: “I want to be an English professor.” And the minute I said it, I knew it could be true.
I genuinely did not think I was smart enough to be a professor. Even today, when I think of a professor, the image that comes to my mind is of a specific white man, James Adams, a scholar of Victorian literature who wore a for-real tweed jacket—with the elbow patches and everything—and who was so freaky smart and accomplished that I remember tracing my fingers over the written comments he’d add at the end of my papers, hoping his brilliance would somehow transfer to me that way. But I knew when the sentence came out of my mouth that I wanted to be someone who made knowledge, who got to live in books and in theories about books, who got to spend her life writing while teaching future generations of writers how to pick apart the books they loved and discover how they were built.