I always have. Loved my students, I mean. N.B.: it’s not that unusual. It’s what teachers do. Daily. They enter their classes full of the girl who wasn’t picked for play yesterday, and the boy whose dad beat the tar out of him last night, and the girl whose brother died five years ago and who still grieves and the boy who wonders how he never noticed his brother was gay, and the girl whose mother tells her daily what a loser she is. Or the child whose parents are gone, one in prison, one just gone. Now s/he lives with an exhausted grandmother. Each of these needy, broken children is in multiple classes. And almost certainly, s/he has a teacher who LOVES. Classes are brimming with these students, and underpaid, overworked teachers who♥️♥️♥️.
It’s what they do. Each day. Exhausted as they are, every teacher I know loves. Daily. Hourly. Loves the slightly crazy, very needy girl in the front row who is a not-quite-recovering cutter. Loves the very needy boy in the back who wonders if he will ever be enough. And those who teach little bitties? They wipe noses, blot tears, kiss scrapes, tousle heads, reassure, listen listen listen. And LOVE.
It’s the job. And it’s HARD. But it’s also what makes teaching the calling it is for most of us. It’s at the heart of that calling, and why it’s soooo hard to evaluate — this recognition of the love at the heart of each teacher. It’s why teachers cover their children’s bodies w/ their own in a shooting (Sandy Hook) or a tornado (Moore, OK). It’s why they put up with the scorn of other professionals, the relentless paperwork, and the crappy pay. L-O-V-E.
I think of teaching — the decades I did it, at least — as almost a Buddhist practice, or a Christian offer of blessing. A Jewish mitzvah, a gift of compassionate love, sometimes even tough love. And yes: teaching is (obviously) also a means of helping students — of all ages — learn. But as I used to tell my own students, sometimes what you are learning isn’t the book, or even the content. It’s not how to write a research paper, but how to figure out a way to access the pain that wells up when you consider the things you care about, & might want to write about. For a Russian orphan, it may be foreign adoption. For the recovering cutter, it may be wrist-cutting syndrome. For the boy who is coming to terms w/his brother’s homosexuality, it may be how family can support gays.
A good teacher listens, and is, as Frost said, a gentle prod forward, along the path of self-knowledge & learning. Not ‘quail shot’! And even the teachers who may not be Pulitzer winners, or brilliant physicists, or theoretical research chemists? They know more than most folks ever will about how to love. And how it is love — old-fashioned love — that opens students minds. The way to the mind, good teachers know, is through the heart. A good teacher is, as Frost also notes, not simply a ‘teachers,’ but an ‘awakener.’ Smart man, that Frost. But then, he knew much about love.
And teachers deserve a LOT of ours.
When I was a little girl — about 8 years old? — I remember thinking all I was very good at was love. It sounds more profound now than it was then. Mostly I just wished there were jobs for lovers (the legal kind ????). I loved everything, passionately: my grandmother, my great-aunt. My sisters, my teddy bear, my dog. The trees I climbed, the room I slept in. The way the wind lifted my hair when I held my head out the window of the old blue Buick. The fragrance of rain on hot grass. I swam in love, like a fish breathing water.
As I’ve grown older, I believe even more firmly that my assets aren’t material, although I can cook. And garden. And ‘m good w/ most animals and small children. Parrots and snakes love me. So do bees.
But none of the above ~ or even reading & writing, both of which I’m also pretty good at ~ bring in bucks. If you’re fortunate (and I have been), you can make a modest living. Nor are such talents easily ‘quantifiable.’ Look at the huge hoopla over how to evaluate teachers! We pay lip service to how valuable the non-material things in life are, but as Doc & Steinbeck note in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Log from the Sea of Cortez:
We have definitions of good qualities and of bad …. [a]nd yet … the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man … while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. (p 80, SoC)
It doesn’t matter to most Americans how ‘good’ you are if you make $$. This is just the cultural mindset, identified decades ago by a scientist and a writer. The recent controversial ad from Wells Fargo is an example of this attitudet: actors & ballerinas are inferior to botanists & engineers, it implies not very subtly. Even though (kudos to @DLChamplin for pointing this out) the highest paid actor in 2016 made $64 million, and the highest paid botanist only $165,000-ish. But there we go again, reducing things to $$ and ¢¢. Who is to say what is more important, ultimately? Some days I want botany — the names of flowers & trees, details on what to grow where. Other days? I want refuge for my weary mind: a farce, a comedy, two hours away from now, in the hands of master craftsmen. But I will confess: most days? I want ART. I want beauty, even if it terrifies; writing that may break my heart; dance that makes me catch my breath. Still — I can’t live w/out engineering ~ the structural soundness of my deck enables me to watch the birds that bring me such joy. The botany explicit in the successful farming of the CSA I buy my tomatoes from is why they taste so very fine. The water that sluices from my shower is the result of advanced schooling, to make it all work.
In other words — like most of life, binaries are pretty damn reductive. Which leads me back to love… We say we respect it, admire it, wish to emulate it. But one of our candidates for president belittles it, rolls his eyes at the idea of political respect for other nations & backgrounds, and foments the very opposite of love. Or even respect. And millions of American admire & follow this man. Because he’s ‘successful,’ he says. And because you cannot measure good, or kindness, or love. You certainly can feel them, but it’s like trying to count the wind, or hold sunlight in a bottle. You can tell how fast the wind blows, but you can’t really count IT. You can tell how hot the air is, but you can’t hold sunlight in your hands. Money? That you can count. Success in material goods? Those you can measure (but not realistically, if you don’t include the ‘collateral damages’ of unfair practices, theft, cheating…). And those you can aspire to. There is, we believe, no ‘luck’ about them. They are achievable by all.
Except, of course, they’re not. More on that another time. Suffice to say that the deck is loaded against many Americans.
When the world breaks your heart — as it does mine at least twice a day, chipping away at the my thin candy shell — you have two choices. Love or removal. A temporary bridge into love for me is anger — I am quick to anger. Because of love, paradoxically. All I can do when I don’t know how to take the next breath is try to return to love. And while I”m still good at the easy kind of love ~ the sturdy delicacy of a fly landing on my page as I write outside, laughing as the dogs chase each other ~ the ‘returning to’ part of it, coming back from the incandescent rage I feel at injustice? That’s verrry hard! Still, I believe in it, love. Fiercely. The child of a mother who believed, literally, in the power of love. If you just love enough, she would say. Love can do anything. And so it can, I still believe, as my mother did before me. I just have to practice, that lovely Buddhist word that says I can keep trying; it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, there is only the expectation of continuing, not perfection. So I just have to learn how to return to love, to employ it even when the objects of the exercise are sooo very unloveable!
I don’t know why we teach literature. Not the most politic of statements by a writer and teacher of lit ????, I realise. But honestly? Can you teach a love for language, so that Mary Oliver’s poetry becomes a love affair for the image-besotted among us? Can we cultivate a passion for the way Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley reproduces the circular pattern of his journeys? Does any of this really matter when all the world seems to think that the only important ‘thing’ is a good job? Meaning: one that pays WELL. Teaching doesn’t count. Nursing is borderline. Plumbing, trash disposal, retail, and most service jobs? All ‘don’t count’: they aren’t prestigious and/or don’t pay well.
When I went away to college so many years ago, I had to settle for the college my father would pay for. Which wasn’t my first choice (that would have been Antioch, where they had what would now be called a ‘service learning component’ — working in your field, or another, doing good; a very Buddhist idea). Or my second — that would have been Stanford, where I was wait-listed, but might have been been able to get in after scholarships were decided.
No, I went where my father sent me. Where my extended family could ‘keep an eye on me,’ and where he thought I would be ‘safe.’ Meaning: away from radical ideas, and whatever. That worked out much like many decisions in my life, less than what I hoped for, more than I had any right too expect. But I still had dreams: an idea that somehow, I would grow. I would sit up late talking about how to change the world, and that at college I might even learn ways to do just that.
I didn’t, by the way. At least not at college.
But I didn’t know that. I went off w/ all the best intentions of learning, not thinking about a job. I started out on a history scholarship, for cryin’ out loud! What ‘job’ (other than the one I still have, and love — teaching) would that make possible?
And I did learn. I changed majors 14 times (conservative estimate, honest) over the course of the 10 years it took me to matriculate. I immediately changed from history to anthropology, one of my ongoing loves, and then to English lit, next rhetoric, then to French, on to geology, to biology (that lasted about as long as it took me to figure out that I never would understand how to work a microscope — long enough to fail cellular!), a short flirtation w/ comparative lit, comparative religions, and back again to several of them. So, depending on how you count, somewhere between 14 and 18 times… Truth. I wanted to know everything. But mostly, I wanted to read. In any discipline, about almost anything. I wanted ideas, and intelligent conversation. And literature was the best of places to find them.
Still, I learned about rocks (geology was sooo cool!), and about ecosystems, and about cells, and how to dig clay from the earth & pulverise it myself & make it into a really ugly pot. I learned about logical fallacies, and French diphthongs & English etymology. Not to mention cellular structure, genetics 101, and sooo much more. Mostly, I learned how to think: how to oh so painfully! construct an argument. And find sources to back it up. And how to lay it out w/out rancour, hopefully.
When I taught youngers, my students would tell me they didn’t like literature. Or even reading. I believed them — who would make such a thing up?? They had no idea what a knife it is, for a book idolator, to hear that anyone wouldn’t love reading. But I’m not certain that their disdain for ‘literature’ isn’t really even worse, in some ways. What they associated w/ English lit classes wasn’t the reading, or even the discussion. It wasn’t the exchange of ideas I soaked in like the air I breathe. It was writing. And they hated it. My beloved conversations about text, and writing? They hated all of it.
When I was a very small girl — possibly as young as 3, certainly no older than 5 — I ‘wrote’ poems and stories on a small magnetic chalkboard of my grandmother’s. She’d been a teacher before marrying, and had a lot of ‘educational’ toys around. I didn’t know they were educational. I just liked them.
I made small books, scribbling in them before I even knew my alphabet. And then I made maps in the books, as if somehow that would see me somewhere safe. I wrote letters to my old ladies when we lived overseas, and thank-you notes for the presents they chose carefully. I wrote in locking diaries w/ tiny keys, and French cahiers blotted by leaky fountain pens, and on stationery in pastel colours. Writing wasn’t something I thought about — it was what I did. Now, it’s who I am. I write. It’s a rare day I don’t write.
Certainly reading & writing haven’t made me rich, or famous. But I’m pretty sure that they have made me a better person. They’ve helped me process and record my thoughts so that I can figure a way out of the tangled skeins of everyday experiences. They’ve allowed me to insert my voice, my own experiences & thoughts, into public conversations, and back up what I think with ‘evidence,’ with the support of far wiser men & women. Sometimes they have even made me happy. I can’t convince most folks of this (certainly not students!), so I rarely try these days. It’s enough if every so often, someone cracks open a new book, or tries to put words on paper or a brightly lit screen, and shares.
Perhaps that’s the whole struggle: just to begin. Just to conquer the fear of blankness — blank screen, blank notebook, unopened book. Certainly it’s a major reason I write — to think aloud, often about what I’ve just read. Most readers subvocalise: they read aloud in their heads. You can even pick this up on sensitive recording apparatus. Writing isn’t reading, but it’s very close. Reading what I wrote 20 years ago when my sons were young…before my doctoral studies is a way to have a conversation w/ that woman, to share experiences that may as well have happened to someone else...long ago & far away.
I’m lucky in that I’ve always been able to teach what I’m interested in, or what I want to learn. Which has also meant I’ve mostly read what I wanted — a pretty varied library. Right now? I’m gearing up to teach a seminar on the mystery (my favourite genre fiction), a workshop on writing & place, and a couple of presentations on specific books I like. Whether I’m able to communicate my own passions for these topics remains to be seen. But at least I know that anyone studying w/ me now is there because s/he wants to be. And that they read. For fun. That’s more than half the field gained!
When I was still teaching at university, a student – let’s call her Amy – told me she wanted to start a blog. Amy is a recovering cutter: for a long time she has laddered her arms and legs with razor cuts, as a way of coping with an overwhelming world.
The first day of class that semester, Amy had come to me in tears after class. She couldn’t do our (mandatory) class listserv, she said. She’d been told by her educational technology professor that she was incapable of learning technology, and she believed it. How could she do my class w/ this requirement?
I gave her a hug while she cried. I walked her through email (she’d never really done email — and yes, there are thousands of kids like Amy). I sat with her and listened. And for the past two months, Amy has posted the required 3-4 entries to the class list.
She also shared, in one of our daily quickwrites, that she is a recovering cutter. Her research project was on cutting, the causes, the treatment, and her own recovery process. It was a strong essay, like the strong young woman who produced it.
Here’s the thing: I learned to ‘speak digital’ at National Writing Project. At first I had to do it the hard way (no technology where I worked): manually networking computers was the only way to get the kids talking to each other. But in addition to the technology, I also learned the research on why it’s important to give our students opportunities to write and learn digitally. And I’ve just been increasing that knowledge since I began, 20 years ago.
Without the training & support I received from NWP, Amy, for instance, would never have had a teacher who has learned (the hard way — through experiencing the learning curve myself!) how to think and read and write digitally. As Marc Prensky notes, this generation (and the one coming up behind it) speak digital fairly fluently. Or at least most of them do (there are still thousands of students like Amy, however). Teachers? Not so much. So when a student like Amy comes along — who was home-schooled for a while, and then in small rural schools w/out access to digital literacy education — how will s/he (the teacher) defuse that fear?
Amy ended up emailing all over the place. And she eventually shared her amazing recovery story on a blog, possibly a precursor to a memoir. Yes — a blog. Which intimidates even many digital natives. But Amy jumped in, before the end of the semesty. Because her teacher had a blog, and was able to discuss it and teach it w/ familiarity. Digital (& blogging) was — for Amy — literally ‘heart medicine.’ Her hard road to recovery may well help others, as well — Just as it has enabled her to move from shame, pain, & guilt to healing.
Far too many non-teaching ‘education experts’ dismiss digital writing — technology in general — as just ‘business’ training. But for so many of us, it can literally be what comforts us. Don’t ever be afraid to put your voice out there. Someone needs to hear your story. Someone needs to know what you’ve learned.