I've been a teacher for thirty-three years. My first teaching job was a Freshman Comp class when I was a graduate student in English. Twenty-four, I looked twelve. So I pinned up my hair and wore fake glasses and my best clothes, which consisted of one dress. I wore pumps. Taller, my hair in a bun--hopefully that would do it. I was a teacher!
Some of my students were Vietnam veterans. They sat by the door, smoking and trying not to roll their eyes at this infant going on about the comma splice.
Before class every morning, I stood in the shower, saying, "I can't do it, I can't do it." One time I vomited, I was so afraid. What was I afraid of? People. And I didn't know how to teach.
But I went to class and figured out how. After thirty-three years of teaching college English, I know what I'm doing. Sort of. Teaching has so many different kinds of problems, as unique as the students. And just as many joys.
I've fallen in love with lots of students. The personalities are incredible. And the excuses. What amazing fiction! I fell in love with the serious, contrite boy who had this very original excuse:
Short, sweet, true.
I have so many memories of great and awful times in the classroom. I team-taught for five years with a colleague, Clark McKowen. They were, without a doubt, the best teaching years of my career.
Clark was famous at Diablo Valley College. His classes were closed before they opened. For three decades he was one of the most popular teachers on the campus. When I first got my job at DVC, I sat in on his classes. Clark could create a fascinating and educational conversation by just taking off one of his burgundy Bass Weejun loafers and putting it on the table in the front of the room. His classes were a constant surprise, the students and their discoveries at the center. Clark led without leading. It seemed like the students controlled the conversation, but Clark always managed to bring out the necessary connections for what he had in mind for the day's lesson. "Everything is connected," was one of his maxims, and in his classes this was proven again and again in unpredictable ways.
Clark took a personal approach. He carefully built the classroom environment. The students got to know each other from the first day. One of Clark's introductory activities was Show and Tell. The students brought in an object related to a story about their lives. This object could be considered a metaphor for whatever story the student shared with the class.
This activity was rich in story-telling, metaphors, themes, as well as connections to narrative structure, taking a closer look at language, and at one's self, others, society, the entire human adventure. Clark established an environment of trust and intimacy. He worked with whatever came from his dialogue with the students, so his teaching was always fresh, spontaneous, alive.
In another activity, Clark brought in three oil paintings. He had the students look at each painting objectively and try to see what was simply there, patterns, colors, space, symmetry. Then he opened up the discussion to more emotional and psychological responses to the painting, possible themes, and then on to inferences about the artist's life. After the discussion, Clark would surprise the class by asking the artist to stand up and introduce herself. The artist turned out to be our teaching assistant, Carol. She talked about her art and her life. Clark connected this activity to the reading of literature, the artistry of words, sentences, lines of poetry, the making of meaning, and the life of the artist/author and her art.
I couldn't wait to go to our classes, to be part of this world of learning.
I was Clark's apprentice, but I brought my own gifts to our team-teaching, and my major contribution was a knowledge of poetry. I wrote poetry. I shared with our students the passion of being a writer, the commitment and challenge. I also introduced Clark to the poetry of Rumi, which connected to everything in his courses, especially his Critical Thinking course. In our syllabus, we quoted a Rumi poem as part of the goals and objectives:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other'
doesn't make any sense.
When we first started teaching together, Clark was fifty-six and I was thirty-one. The students had a multi-faceted team in us: the older, conservative-looking man, and the younger, not-at-all-conservative-looking woman. He was the philosopher, I was the poet. We worked together effortlessly, and this was mainly because of our respect for and joy in each other, and also because Clark could make whatever happened in the classroom work. He was well-seasoned in his teaching by then, but I think he was probably great from the start. He focused on the students, on being human, on teaching human beings. Our students became the teachers, too, getting up in front of the class, doing presentations, poetry and prose readings, debates, plays. Each day, we opened our classes with a meditation, along with music on the boom box, usually classical or jazz. I favored Miles Davis. Clark liked to play Mozart, and after a resounding concerto, Clark would say, "Oh, that was just a little something I dreamed up this morning."
Clark and I had a magical connection. When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors assigned the book, Image, Reflections On Language, by an author named Clark McKowen. I loved this book.
Thirteen years later, I began my first full-time teaching job at Diablo Valley College, and I met a colleague named Clark McKowen. In my new office, I showed him the tattered copy of his book. The next semester, we were team-teaching together.
When I returned to work after my mother's death, Clark gave me a present. After class was over, we walked out to the parking lot and stood by his van. He opened the car door, reached in, and handed me a brown paper bag with a sparkly ribbon.
"A gift?" I asked. "What for?"
"Open it and see."
Inside was a small, white statue of the laughing Buddha. His big round belly protruded from his robe, and his hands were raised, palms up. Getting a laughing Buddha after my mother died seemed like a strange gift, but not from Clark. That was twenty years ago, and the Buddha still sits on my windowsill by my bed.
Another time with Clark:
In a class, we were discussing the novel Dad by William Wharton. A student was upset by the description of a car accident that killed a family of five. Wharton had done his job as a writer. It was an appalling scene. The student was angry, asking why he should have to read this "garbage." Electrified, I wondered how Clark would handle this one. I figured he'd say something soothing, something intellectual about fiction. I actually had no idea what he would tell the student. A heated discussion began, the class exploring why the author wrote this scene and wrote it exactly this way. At some point in the conversation, Clark said, "Everything will happen to us."
The classroom was instantly quiet. We sat at the big rectangular table, staring at each other, all of the everything that could or would happen, suddenly there with us.
Everything will happen to us.
I admired the way Clark took the risk to say what he really felt and thought as a human being, not just what he was supposed to say as the teacher.
I know this now: teaching with Clark was the greatest gift I ever received in my life.
We taught our classes in the science museum. In spring, we'd spill out into the courtyard and have poetry readings. Someone always played the guitar or the flute. Someone always sang. Our classes were more like performances. We got to know each other so well because our semester was nine weeks instead of eighteen, and we saw each other every day, the immersion method of teaching, which I prefer. But the semester didn't last long enough! I always missed the students.
It was May, one of our last days together, the end of the school year. Clark sat in a chair in the courtyard, staring at a blossoming cherry tree. His eyes looked watery, and I realized he was crying. I walked over to him. He said, "This will never be again."
Today, September 2, a wing of autumn flashes, the ephemeral casting its red and gold shadow. In a few years, I'll retire and my back-to-school days will be over.
This will never be again.
It was a gift.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society