Dressed up in the clothes of the woman whose flat she is staying in, the narrator of Tessa Hadley’s short story “Experience” feels she is in disguise, and this makes it easy for her to behave uncharacteristically. She is carefree and flirtatious, as if she were playing a part. Lee Chang-Dong’s point-of-view character in the short story “Snowy Day” has a similar experience. Whenever punishment follows an unfortunate run-in with a superior, he tells himself he is playing a role, and thus can go through the motions required of him, such as standing on his head in the snow. One afternoon this past winter, when I was preparing to leave for work and anxious about the five and a half hours of classroom time ahead of me, I wondered if I could free myself of my anxiety by pretending that instead of my classroom, the space I occupied was my living room, and that instead of students, the people who came were friends, acquaintances, or neighbors dropping in on me. “When it rains it pours!” I’d exclaim on finding a new set of visitors at my entrance when I opened the door to show out a set of earlier arrivals. “Come in! So nice to see you again. How are you? How have you been?”

If the game worked, it would be because the responsibility of making good use of the hours together was lifted from my shoulders and placed on the students’. They would have come to me, dropping in uninvited, after all, in my reimagining of our afternoon together. But I found that entertaining guests for all those hours seemed just as stressful as teaching students. I had no tea and cake to offer, no choice of comfortable chairs to steer them to. What would I talk about? In Alice Munro’s story “Differently,” a woman throwing a dinner party treats the whole evening as an impromptu play. “Brandy!” she says, “I knew there was something else you did at dinner parties. You drink brandy!” What could I say to my students-as-guests? “A story! I knew there was something else you did with visitors! You amuse with stories!”

I like all my students. Some I even like a lot, and I would be glad to spend time with them as friends, as equals, even the children. The Spanish custom of children using their teachers’ first names encourages the confusion that children and teachers are peers, and I have bought in and made treating my students as pals my teaching style. “We’re just all here together, let’s talk, let’s laugh.” So I already camouflage myself in the garb of chatty, affable neighbor. It is already a bit of fakery. How long before I get caught at it?

Fear of discovery as a fraud is apparently very common and even has a name: imposter syndrome. In a New Yorker article on the subject, the author, Leslie Jamison, reveals that she too has felt like an impostor, first as a PhD candidate and later, as a journalist. Not surprising: researchers have found that everyone suffers from feelings of inadequacy. The possibility that my students, too, feel like impostors doesn’t relieve me. Here’s some relief though: when mothers came to Pauline Clance, one of the psychologists behind the idea of the impostor phenomenon, and described their impostor feelings about parenting, her advice was to get more child care. Perhaps what I need is simply a teacher’s aide. In addition to the practical help of smoothing my way, having to fool a single helper, as opposed to several students, might reduce my stress. That helper would no doubt be trying to pull one over on me and the students while the students would have to worry about inadequacy in the eyes of both teacher and aide. Yes, the syndrome is that common. Rather than syndrome, the author suggests, a better word is phenomenon. “It names the gap that persists between the internal experiences of selfhood—multiple, contradictory, incoherent, striated with shame and desire—and the imperative to present a more coherent, composed, continuous self to the world.”

In other words, I’ve got to live with it. But next time I am desperate enough for a disguise, maybe it should be the role of schoolmarm I try on—stern and unsmiling. Won’t my students be in for a surprise if one day I pretend to be a real teacher!

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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