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Julie Odell

As family lore has it, Julie Odell, was born with a book (a soft one) in her hands. Not really, but reading has always been an integral part of this writer's life; as solace, inspiration and life anchor. Odell is working on a second novel and her stories are regularly published in literary magazines. In this essay, she talks about how her passion for literature and language is most vividly evident in the classroom.





I believe in the human spirit. That drive that pushes us to find the best within ourselves, the best within each other. My belief is fierce because for a long time I didn't have it at all.


I spent most of my twenties working in bars and nightclubs, from dark, exclusive New York lounges to loud, brassy tourist joints in New Orleans. These were jobs that paid the bills handsomely, but did little to enhance a positive world view.


I saw people at their worst: drunk, conspiring, ugly in their motives. I was at my worst as well, smugly cynical, and I judged my customers as lacking in conviction when I had none of it myself. Slinging a drink across the bar, I'd grab the money without so much as a smile and feel the night wear me down, until I believed I had the worst job in the world.


What still connected me to the me I'd been before the bars , to the me I'd always be, was my love of books. And of writing. So my nights after the bar often ended at home, the blinds shut tight against morning, reading until noon or working on a short story. Applying to grad school wasn't just the next logical step for someone like me with literary leanings. It was a way up and out, into the big, wide word outside of the bar.


In grad school, I taught freshman comp at a major state university, and my well-educated, middle class students sat way back in their seats, arms crossed, eyes glazed over. Well, get on with it, their expressions said. We have places to go. And so they did. Regardless of how well or how poorly I taught, they would graduate.


After grad school, I landed a job at a community college. And suddenly, I saw the human spirit shine.


At community college, higher education is so often not my students' birthright, not what their high schools prepared them for, nor what their neighborhoods encouraged. Community college is hard and confusing, and passionate teaching is essential for their success.


At first I thought I'd just teach here for a few years, gather my bearings and then head off to a PhD. After all, that was my birthright, wasn't it? But seventeen years later, I'm still here. This is where I belong. While I can't teach my students a willingness to learn or the desire to find answers, I can create the place where these things can flourish. From thoughtful book selection to some artful assignments, this is my chance to sling something besides a drink.


The intellectual curiosity I see in my students 'eyes, that beautiful glow of newborn confidence, delicate and tender yet tenacious as it grows, past failed quizzes and disappointments to hard-fought success - that is the human spirit.


I see the human spirit in Ricardo, an older student who always wanted to go to college and finally came. He sat in the back of the room and scowled with skepticism, irritation even, as I went over the basics of a solid academic essay, until he wrote enough essays to see that he actually enjoyed turning a phrase, and was quite good at it. And I see it in Tameka, a young woman who wasn't quite sure why she came to college, just that no one in her family ever had. She knew little about Russian history and cared even less, until she read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and saw the parallel between the life of prisoners in a gulag with her own brother's time at Graterford. She wondered what else history could teach her.


To me, community college is the great populist dream, to get it right this time, to move in a new direction, away from poor choices, dead-end jobs, a sense that things will always be the same. It does this for my students. And it did it for me.


While this job will never fill my wallet quite the way the bar life did, I leave work filled with the spirit, knowing that my students and I push each other to find our best.


I believe I have the best job in the world.