It’s that time of year when universities around the country are swamped with kids trying to figure out where to go study. I say kids, but many of them are not much younger than I was when I started teaching in Maastricht, almost ten years ago.
I don’t say that to show off. In fact, at 23, I was a relatively old graduate by Australian standards. Start a degree right out of school and you’ll be done by 21. In the Netherlands, students are often just warming up at that age. The bachelor-master system may have been partly introduced to discourage students from loitering around for the better part of a decade, but the old system died a slow death, at least in people’s minds. Since the old degree amounted, in today’s terms, to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, a bachelor’s alone counts in the Dutch collective psyche as just over half a degree.
I was an unhappy teacher, and not only because I was monumentally unqualified. There were two problems. First, teaching involves a considerable amount of interaction with the other human beings. Second, it is unpleasantly dependent on both students and teacher showing up in the same place at the same time. It didn’t bother me if the students wanted to congregate somewhere; the fact that I had to be there too was the real thorn in my side.
Don’t get me wrong: I love work. Adore it. My problem is with things being locked in: dentist appointments, meetings, events of any kind. The fact that I must make myself respectable and enter the world is only part of it. It’s the psychological aspect of obligation that bothers me; the prospect of a fixed agenda item looming on the horizon, no matter how innocent. Friday afternoon coffee with a friend, say. ‘I literally can’t breathe’, I’ll tell Rutger-Jan, waving my diary in his face. ‘I can’t even.’ Even a Sunday afternoon Skype date to watch my one-year-old nephew rub peas on his face is enough to give me heart palpitations – although at least I don’t have to get out of my pyjamas for that.