I wish I could say "once or twice," but that would be dishonest. It happens all the time. In fact, there are plenty of times when I realize it as the words are leaving my mouth, and sometimes even then I don't correct myself or check to see if I've misled anyone. Sometimes I adopt an air of condescension, implying that it's just too difficult to really explain to such as them. Sometimes I plow on, rationalizing that no one was probably listening anyway. But oh, how awful to behave that way toward vulnerable human beings who depend on me for their education!
Where does this come from, this facade of impenetrable knowledge? I could never put my finger on it until I read the following from the late and gifted writer David Foster Wallace. (Long quote, but hang in there. Emphasis added.)
In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you . . . Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
When I read those words, I was halted in my tracks. I copied them onto a little index card that sits propped up in front of my computer, reminding me of how selfish an attitude that really is. Did I become a teacher so everyone would think I was smart? No; when I dig deeply and honestly, I know that I became a teacher so that I could help people. But after six years of teaching privately and another four in the classroom, I am still waiting for someone to expose me as an impostor -- to stand up in the middle of the lesson or the lecture and say, index finger melodramatically flung in my direction, "You don't know anything! What do you think you're doing up there?!" And I will sit down, cheeks burning in shame, as another teacher -- a real teacher -- takes my place. I am so sure this will happen someday. And until I am able to shed my pridefully didactic shell, to admit my mistakes and shortcomings publicly, I will continue to anticipate it with dread.