In around 1990, I had a dream, not the kind that Martin Luther King, Jr. had, but the kind you have when you are sound asleep. In the dream, I was at work, at Brigham Young University where I taught writing as part-time faculty. I was climbing the stairs in the old Jessie Knight Building Annex, my arms full of papers to grade. At the bottom of the stairs were the classrooms where I and the other part-timers taught writing classes. Our offices were down there, too. My office was literally a former closet, an airless, narrow space shared with four other teachers, with two desks crammed along the wall and barely space to walk past them.
In the dream, I was walking up the stairs toward the third floor, where the Real Faculty Offices were. In real life, up there, on the third floor were roomy offices with bookcases and actual windows. Also on the third floor, in real life, was the English Department Office, where all the decisions that affected me were made—when and what and whether I would teach. My contract was always for only a semester at a time, and there were no real guarantees that it would be continued for the next semester.
Perhaps even more difficult, again in real life, on the third floor I felt invisible. Full-time faculty would pass me in the halls without a greeting or a nod. If they recognized me at all, they knew I was one of the part-timers and did not feel a need to get acquainted. Who could blame them? After all, I may not even be around next semester. Certainly, they knew that as a part-timer I would have no input on any departmental committees or decisions. Why bother forming even a working relationship?
In my classroom, of course, I felt like a real teacher. I planned my syllabus, chose my texts, created lesson plans, and designed writing assignments. I cared deeply about my students’ success in the course, and kept trying new ways to improve their learning. I did not see my work as temporary or ancillary. I loved my work and I wanted to learn more about it. And when I found something that helped my students, I wanted to share it with others. But I did not see a path to doing this. After all, I was only part-time. More than that, I had no PhD, that all-important academic credential.
So, in real life, I was worried about my position as a teacher, about my career, about my future.
Now, let’s go back to the dream where I found myself scaling the stairs from the basement to the third floor, my arms filled with papers and books. I climbed a short flight of stairs, turned on the landing, and climbed another short flight to the second floor, and then another short flight. I turned on the landing and…I froze.
There were no stairs. That last flight of stairs to the third floor were missing. Nothing led from the landing upward—just thin air through which I could see all the way down the staircase to the basement. I looked up—above the empty space was the third-floor lobby, looking just as it always did, with the display case showcasing faculty books, the directory board with office numbers of the faculty, and teachers walking to and fro, completely unaware of the strange problem with the staircase.
I didn’t know what to do. I stood there and considered. I couldn’t stay on the landing forever. I could just turn around and head back to the basement, to my closet office and continue as usual. But I didn’t want to.
Then I heard the voice. It was clear, unambiguous, and definitely from outside myself. It said, “Just put your foot out into the air. Climb the stairs as though they were there.”
And that is what I did. I stepped out with my right foot, a little way up, and, though still invisible, the surface held. I put my weight on that invisible step, and then moved my left foot up a little way up. It held too. Step by invisible step, I climbed the staircase that should have been there until I found myself standing solidly on the third floor.
When I woke up, I knew this was a true dream. I thought, how do I climb the invisible stairs? How can I become a contributing, full-time member of my discipline and my department?
What if I started acting like I already was?
I started by doing scholarly research in my field, learning the conversation of my discipline by reading scholarly journals. Then I thought of personal research projects I could conduct on teaching, which I completed. I proposed sharing those projects at national conferences, and I was accepted. I asked for and received funding for travel to the national conferences, where I shared ideas and experiences with scholars from all over the country and the world. I found I had things to say in these conversations, and I gained confidence.
Back in my department, I volunteered to serve on committees and to help with designing courses. I presented at departmental conferences. I co-authored with a faculty member.
Then, when a 3-year full-time appointment became available for non-PhDs, I applied. And I didn’t get it.
No problem. The next year, I applied again.
Wait a minute. That’s a lie. Not the part where I applied again, but the part where I said, “No problem.”
It was definitely a problem when I didn’t get the position. I was devastated. I knew—I thought I knew–I was the most qualified. I couldn’t imagine why I wasn’t chosen. I felt betrayed by the hiring committee–colleagues whom I had felt were my friends, who I had assumed would appreciate my hard work and clearly want to choose me. I’m pretty sure I went home and pulled the covers over my head. I wanted to just give up.
The lie I want to correct was the impression I may be tempted to give that the journey up the invisible stairs was easy. It wasn’t.
It wasn’t easy to try to figure out a professional discipline without classes or professors to help me along.
It wasn’t easy when my proposals to present papers at conferences were rejected. Nor when I sent articles to journals for publication and they weren’t accepted. I didn’t understand what was wrong. I felt like I didn’t know the rules, but I was trying to play the game anyway.
It was not easy to take over a tutoring program and make changes that were not totally popular with the tutors. It was not easy to deal with budget cuts and unhappy teachers and ineffective tutors. It was not easy to keep reading and learning and researching. It was not easy to create workshops that were initially poorly attended. It was hard work.
Just like every worthwhile thing anybody has ever accomplished. It’s hard to be a mom. It’s hard to be a good friend. It’s hard to go to school. It’s hard to become an accountant or a doctor or a mechanic. It’s hard to do stuff that matters and makes the world a better place.
But as in in all hard things, there are joys.
When I applied again for the three-year appointment, I was offered the job. Then, after three years of full-time responsibility, including serving as a section head, I was back to part-time. But people knew me, and when a position became available directing a university-wide tutoring program, I was offered that job. That job led to becoming the Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator for the entire university, a full-time position. Along the way, I wrote a couple of books, one with national distribution, created a university-wide newsletter, and started a series of university training programs that continue to this day.
For me, in each difficulty, I found support and encouragement to get through. I had mentors to help me, generous colleagues. I had students and tutors who believed in me. I had a wonderful family: my husband and children helped me with my work, were patient when I couldn’t complete home responsibilities, and, especially, comforted me when I was discouraged. With all this help, I kept trying and learning, and there were many more times of joy than sorrow. Along the way, I found friendships and experiences that I would never trade.
So that is how my dream came true. I shouldn’t have been able to do it, but because I just pretended I could, I did.
Just like all of you, as you have climbed your own invisible staircases. Climbing that staircase is hard, but it is worth it. The invisible steps hold.
The moral of the story is this: If you want to do something, do it. Nothing need stop you. Not even thin air.
Beth Finch Hedengren taught English Composition at BYU for over forty years before retiring to enjoy grandmothering fulltime. She is thankful she was able to teach part-time while her children were little, which maintained her sanity while still allowing her to be home with the kids when they needed her. She is also thankful that, as the children became more independent, she was able to transition to full-time work in a career she loved. She is wife to the very patient, kind, and smart Paul Hedengren, mother to five fantastic adults, and grandmother to seven wonderful children.
A version of this essay originally appeared on Beth’s blog, Beth’s Line Upon Line.