Today I go back to work. Since last October, I've been on sabbatical, so I haven't stood in a classroom for almost a year. It has been wonderful, my focus only on writing. Teaching takes up a huge amount of time, and time is one of the writer's most valued tools. Still, I feel excited to return, to be with the students, to give of myself in that way. When I was in my early twenties, before I started teaching, I remember wanting so much to find a way to be of use in the world. This is also before I read Marge Piercy's marvelous poem, "To Be of Use." Being a writer, of course, accomplishes this as well, but teaching brings out a different usefulness. The truth is I'm naturally inclined to stay alone within the four walls of my writing room. When I first started teaching, I'd get out of bed in dread, then stand in the shower wanting to throw-up. Oh, God, did I really have to go do this awful thing again? I didn't have anything to teach anyone. Well, maybe I could show them how to use a semi-colon. I was twenty-five and looked sixteen. My first teaching position was one section of Freshman Comp at the university where I was getting my graduate degree. Vietnam veterans sat in the back of the class smoking. And smirking at me. I didn't blame them. What was this teenager doing, standing up there by the chalkboard with her hair in a bun, wearing a pair of fake glasses? Yes, I had bought myself fake glasses so I would look older. I wore a suit and pumps and I was scared out of my mind every second. But a miracle happened. IT worked! What I mean by IT: simply being with the students and making something happen in a classroom that was exciting and, yes, voila! educational. And having FUN. Joy. Laughing. We laughed a lot. I tried to be a teacher, but it didn't work. What worked was being myself and sharing my love of writing, language, words, literature. What worked the most was getting the students to do everything, all hands-on stuff. Here is one of my favorite quotes about the profession: The teacher and the taught create the teaching together. I recently read this quote and don't recall where it's from. But this is what I was learning how to do, through trial and error, as a young teacher all those years ago. I had passion galore, too. The poet John Berryman said, Passion is genius. This was the key, the fire, the genius, and sometimes in the classroom all of us glowed with it.
I can be so high after a class, it takes a few hours to get back to earth. Still. After almost thirty years of teaching. So this job was meant for me, but I can still dread it, too. I have had big belly-flops of days in the classroom. Mornings when I wanted to drive right on by the college parking lot and keep going to Baja, pitch a tent on the beach, and never return. I've had practically every kind of experience imaginable in the classroom: a student wanted to kill me because I reminded him of his lover who dumped him; another student went into hysterics every time he CAME to the word COME in whatever we were reading out loud. His laughter was not fun. It bordered on pathological. COME, and he would totally fall apart yukking it up. We couldn't get through the story or essay. There can be a plethora of COMES in a piece of writing, COME to think of it. Oh, Lord have mercy. Then there are the excuses. I can't stand them anymore. Now I tell my students my excuse-dance-card is full. There have just been way too many dead grandfathers. Sometimes they die twice during the semester.
I love this one: "Ms. Browne, I have to go to Hong Kong for nine weeks because my grandfather died. Will I miss anything?"
Or this: "My dog ate my paper."
But this is my favorite:
Ms. Browne: "Andrew, why didn't you read the assignment?"
Andrew: "I forgot."
So the next day I said, "Class, I forgot to do a lesson plan." Then I sat down at my desk and took out a nail file and some polish and started on a manicure. "And by the way, I forgot your grades. I left them in a bar downtown, but I forget where it is."
The worst thing about teaching is grades. I hate them. But they are necessary because of the way we've set up the rotten system. I will not go on about grades here; they are obscene.
I won't talk about meetings, either. It's not good for my health.
As a teacher, I have met hundreds of great human beings. When I think I've completely lost my faith in humanity, students give it back to me. I've been humbled and awed so many times in the classroom by the courage and wonder of some of my students' life stories. They have helped me grow up and given me the opportunity to parent them a little now and then. With a few students, I've made friends for life.
On a dull, sad day when existence feels like sawdust, I walk into the classroom and face curious, sparkling eyes. It's as if God blows through me then. I would do anything at that moment to make their lives better, to help them find their particular way to joy. It is the alchemy of the classroom. I'm all spirit, and it feels so good.
Here is my partial list for the new teacher, if you want advice. But really, no one can teach you how to teach. It's in the doing:
Before you do anything, read J. Krishnamurti's Freedom from the Known.
Each person is an important piece of a magnificent puzzle and not precious.
Plummet into that mystery if you want to know more.
Why are so many people unhappy? Start there.
Doubt allows God to live.
The world is water and light. A slide show through which the spirit glides.
Reason is the weapon of oppression. Reason versus Person.
Reason without other values becomes evil.
We are the infinite disposition for wanting good.
Show your students a photo of yourself when you were three or four.
Where did you go wrong? Show them that.
And that all hope depends on possibility and facing the nose on your face.
The personal, the private, always all of it. What you can't bear or stand. What you love beyond all reason.
Without love, the world will go to disaster.
We are in disaster. Suggestions?
Cultivate an innocent mind in a corrupt world. How?
I have no idea how to teach. I am done with it.
Put your shoe on your head.
"Hey, Ms. Browne, what are we going to do today?"
Teach me, I say.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society