On Being a TA: Equal Parts Therapist, Tutor, Friend, Diplomat, Translator and Disciplinarian
Truth: Being a TA is one of the most fun positions I’ve ever held.
It’s like being backstage on a TV show and seeing how many things go into a course before it’s ready for public viewing. It’s also like watching a blooper reel and seeing how even when it’s supposed to be serious (foreign body in the eye!!), no one can stop laughing at the Jello inside the Dixie Cup.
I’ve had the good fortune to TA for several first and second year courses this year. If you have even the slightest desire, I’d recommend it. Not only is it a great review for that tiny test we all have to take, it’s fun to watch how the labs go down from the other side.
My first lab practical was Entrance Testing. I was young, naive, and innocent. Okay, I was never innocent, but I was younger. There is something about wearing your ironed white coat for the first time and sitting in those plastic chairs on the third floor that makes your blood pressure spike. I think there is also less oxygen in those exam rooms, because it is unreal how delusional I get the second I walk in there.
I remember being panicked that I didn’t have a second to spare to wait for my PD ruler to dry from the alcohol swab, so I started shaking it in the air, as I screamed “Okay, I’m just going to clean the ruler before we get started!” To my horror (and I’m sure my proctor’s amusement), I shook it so hard it flung out of my hands. Me, my patient, and the proctor all watched that ruler fly in slow-motion and land on the floor–now needing to be cleaned again. I stared at it for what felt like 2 minutes. And then I screamed, “Okay, I’m just going to clean that again!”
And look at me now! I don’t even use my PD ruler anymore!
Being a TA is like being a therapist, a tutor, a friend, a diplomat, a translator, and a disciplinarian. It’s being a benevolent colleague to those who need it, and a ruthless dictator to those other punks (you know who you are).
It’s re-learning the right way to do things, since you do it all wrong in clinic now–like confrontation visual fields. What once started as, “Looking at my nose, do you see all the parts of my face? Is anything distorted, missing, or unclear?” followed by some jazz hand brightness has been truncated to “Do you notice my fingers moving? Okay, cool.”
It’s pretending like you know how to palpate the thyroid gland like a boss, even though the last time you did it was 12 months ago.
It’s assigning people to eat candy, sleep on their tummies, or ride a stationary bicycle for an hour to see how their intraocular pressure changes.
It’s pointing things out on a histo slide of the juxtaglomerular complex and pretending you like looking at a histo slide of the juxtaglomerular complex.
It’s grading papers in class.
It’s creepily knowing people’s names and box numbers that you haven’t met before, and secretly admiring their handwriting.
It’s gently pushing people to slam that tonometry probe against the cornea. No one’s got time for hovering.
It’s finally learning what a trope looks like on a cover test, and not just saying “ortho!” and moving on.
It’s remembering why keratometry is important, but trying to get out of doing it anyways.
It’s owning a red Sharpie and busting it out like a weapon, but then putting “Excellent job!” on every homework.
It’s trying to keep a straight face when someone forgets to switch eyes for direct and plants an accidental smooch on their patient.
It’s not being able to keep a straight face when someone says “cervix” instead of “cervical chain” while palpating for lymph nodes.
It’s practicing a new type of yoga as you bend and writhe in every which direction to look through the teaching mirror while someone is doing dynamic BIO.
It’s forgetting you aren’t there to socialize, even though that’s more fun than explaining Von Herrick angles.
It’s unbridled frustration when someone takes 10 minutes to scan every single lash on the lower lid margin and announce “Lashes are clear!”–and then feeling humbled when I remember it took me 20 minutes, and I was out of focus.
It’s getting to access the locked cupboards in the lab. I’ve said too much.
It’s the sadistic glow of watching your peers wait in those plastic chairs outside the exam lanes. It does wonders to your skin.
It’s being the voice of reason, because you’ve been through it already.
It’s getting to hold the timer and scream “START” and “STOP” with unrestrained glee because you know someone just dropped their PD ruler on the ground.
It’s the terror that your little baby geese won’t do well.
It’s the joy when they all make it through, unscathed.
Ultimately, it’s the recognition of how much you’ve learned in two years. To think we started doing retinoscopy without looking through the retinoscope! We used to be terrified at the thought of gonio, lest our corneas get suctioned off, and dynamic BIO gave everyone NVD.
Now, at the end of the road, you realize it’s just like dropping your PD ruler on the ground. At first it knocks the wind out of you—but at the end of the day, you get back on the saddle and do it right the second time.
Be a TA if you get the chance–if only to see what’s in those locked cupboards.