On bifurcating paths

How do we end up where we are? The other day a visiting student asked why I became a college professor, and I was at a loss for words. The bifurcating paths of my own life seem chaotic, capricious, and strange. How does one pick a major? Deciding a path of studies is simple for many, but how did a boy from the prairie of southern Minnesota decide to study a language to which he no ties, neither genetic nor tradition? I had no family in Spain. None of my family had ever been a Spanish teacher or a professor of literature. My people are farmers who tilled the ground, raised chickens and pigs, milked cowes, bailed hay, and picked corn. Nobody had ever conjugated a verb in Spanish, no one had ever read the Cid or Don Quixote, no one had ever worked in a university, written a scholarly paper, or published a book. So an economics professor who didn’t know me put me in a Spanish class when I was a freshmen, but only because I had already studied Spanish for five years in junior high and high school. I had done that because my mother and the Spanish teacher were best friends who had met in the League of Women Voters. So what happens if the Spanish teacher’s husband doesn’t get a job in the local college that brings him (and his Spanish teaching wife) to my home town? What would have happened if I hadn’t had a politically active mother who was interested in social justice for women? Where do the bifurcating paths begin? Does it matter that my father had a terrible job in another town that motivated him to search for better work in the town where I grew up? The paths have been splitting over and over again for decades and continue to split even as I write this. So I majored in Spanish at an American-Lutheran-Swedish school whose specialty was really pre-med majors and Lutheran pastors. After I graduated I couldn’t get a decent job, but I was motivated to go back to school by a random comment by a favorite History professor–“What about Middlebury?” he said. After I graduated from Middlebury I decided I wanted to live in Europe for awhile, so I did that. Six years earlier, in 1980, walking past a bulletin board at St. Louis University in Madrid I saw an advertisement for the graduate program in Spanish at the University of Minnesota. I applied in 1985, they loved me, I loved them, and I graduated with my PhD in medieval Spanish literature in 1993. The combination of happenstance, historical caprice (Franco was dead), luck, coincidence, serendipitous causalities, and unnatural timing have carried me through the vortex of the space-time continuum to this place called Waco. If the dominoes had not fallen in a very specific way, I might be someone completely different, but even knowing that, I wouldn’t change anything, and I say that as if I had any control over any of that chain of choices and happenings. I am the most unlikely person doing a most unlikely job given my history, family and circumstances. How does this happen?