Sixty pairs of eyes follow me for four months. Then another 60, for another four. Then — at last — summer, when I am free from those staring eyes, the eyes half closed by sleep, even the eyes that are illuminated with sudden understanding — all those eyes that squint as they fill out student evaluation forms, the empty bubbles steadily becoming the dark cannonballs that determine my fate.
The system by which we are evaluated is Byzantine in its complexity and medieval in its outcome. The teachers in my program have to meet certain thresholds for certain questions, the number varying but always high. If we fail to meet these thresholds we fail to keep our jobs. So for eight months of the year, I have these numbers pressed into my brain like a brand. They steam and smoke and blacken there, waiting for me to make or miss them.
But then one summer I walked out of my last day of class and left almost immediately for a writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
I drove south on Route 29 with all the windows open; I didn’t speed (like I usually do) but instead I looked out the window, noted each county I passed through, considered what it would be like to live in Culpepper, wondered how to pronounce “Fauquier;” I let all the cares of the semester shear off and blow away in the rush of wind. I drove to the middle of the state and then took a winding single-lane road up a grassy field. I found an envelope with my name on it that gave me the number of the room I would sleep in and the key to the studio I would write in. I followed its directions and walked away from the residence, past a gazebo and a row of unopened peonies, along a fence that marked a cow pasture and then came to the studio barn. The barn was shaped like a U and my studio was in the right arm of it. Its one door was on the cove side, and its four windows looked out onto woods. To the right was an overgrown field that had a faint path curving away into the unknown. Later I would look at that path and think, that’s what writing is like.