Tag Archives: teaching

Three Words for a New Semester

Believe

I struggled my first semester teaching. Frat boys sat in the back, whispered to each other while I spoke. They didn’t have the decency to hide what they were doing by passing notes or texting. One of these boys would walk into my office with a cell-phone pressed to his ear. His high school English teacher was on the other end of the line, refuting something I’d said in class. I’ve forgotten all the boys’ names but his.

One day a female student approached while I was writing something boring on the board.

“I’ve got my period,” she whispered. “I’ve got to go.”

She backed out the door and disappeared down a hallway. I never saw her again. I thought I’d done something to drive her away. I never suspected the boys in the back, who looked strange when she left –– too giggly. Had they done something while my back was turned?

Back then, I knew so little about teaching. I let her go. I blamed myself. Now I think about her all the time. I think about each student who leaves.

I did the same as a first-generation university student, dropping a class the moment it challenged me. After I graduated, I’d said “no” to a stellar graduate program in creative writing. At 23, I rationalized my choice: I wanted to work in a genre not offered by the program.

I made a list of reasons why I shouldn’t say “yes,” starting with the suspicion that I’d never feel entirely at home in the country where I’d lived, and where I’d have to return to complete the degree. I was homesick; I missed my sister. I hadn’t mourned my mother.

These challenges were not untrue. They were also not unworkable.

The larger truth was harder to face: I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe I had anything worth saying. If I could go back to the scared girl I was, I’d say: Believe.

Believe.

Believe the voice that calls you toward your dreams. This voice is inner truth, wisdom, consciousness. It’s your heart speaking. This voice will tell you to do things you think you can’t do. Do them. It’s the only way forward.

Stay

Don’t leave the minute a professor asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Like writing a thesis statement or brainstorming ideas for an assignment. Getting started is the hardest part. It’s the moment when it’s easiest to check Snapchat or text or go to the bathroom just because.

Stay in your chair, in the room, in your mind, in your body.

Whatever your professor has asked you to do is something you can do. It probably won’t take more then ten minutes. If you have a professor like me, she’ll want to help you. She’ll want to see you do what you didn’t think you could do. That’s why she’s here. Raise your hand. Ask for what you need.

Each time you leave a classroom or yourself, you miss an opportunity. You miss the chance to grow.

Stay. Stay even if you’re scared or doubting or consumed by the desire to run.

You belong here. Be present to your longing. Claim an education.

 Wonder 

Do you remember being a kid? Were you the kind of kid who wished on falling stars, believed in magic, your ability to fly? I bet you felt disappointed when you discovered those things weren’t “real.” No matter how loud you clapped during “Peter Pan,” Tinker Bell wouldn’t appear in your living room.  Maybe a sense of wonder left you. What was the point of believing in something you couldn’t see?

But what if magic is real in the way all true, unseen things are real? Love. Hope. Power.  What if you believed in your own ability to be transformed? What if you embraced the wonder of being in charge of who you become?

We can’t control everything. Other people will not see us the way we see ourselves. For example, I’ll always have to deal with men who ask, “Where’s the professor?” when they see me standing outside a classroom door.

I’ll wonder “What’s up with that?” each time, and that’s good. That’s a question I want all my students to ask.

What’s up with that?

 Don’t accept prejudice or platitudes or status quo. Suspect everything. Verify facts, evidence. Question your own beliefs. Where do they come from? Why do you hold them? Who would you be if you didn’t cling so hard?

Wonder. Wonder. Wonder.

Be curious and confused. Open to a thousand possibilities you never saw coming.

At the end of the semester you’ll be the same person who started and you’ll be different. Transformed by what you’ve learned and done. Maybe no one but you will see what’s changed. That’s true magic. Beautiful and sparkling as any falling star.

To My Creative Writing Students Now and Always

No one in my family wrote. That is, if you count “writing” as the kind of writing that gets validated in academic settings: journalism, opinion pieces, blogs, essays, book reviews, literary criticism, short stories, and poetry. E-mail wasn’t even a word when I was growing up. My mother wrote shopping lists. Notes to my teachers. Sometimes she wrote the occasional letter or card or college essay when she went back to school for her associate degree.

My parents never told me to write, or not to write. I just wrote. At the end of each school year, for example, I jotted down how I had changed from the year before, everything I could do differently: Write cursive. Multiply. Walk to the bus top alone.

But what possessed me to take a pen to paper and move it across a page? Who encouraged me to write?

A cousin put my first journal in my hand. I was nine, and the journal was baby breath’s pink. Its cover featured a kitten chasing a ball of twine. My cousin wrote an inscription inside the front cover. She told me to record my dreams and thoughts and ambitions. Until that moment, no one but me seemed to care about what went on inside a little girl’s head. Yet, the journal’s inscription bore a symbolic message that informs my work as a writer to this day: My writing and what I have to say are a necessary contribution to the world. It’s the same message I impart to you, my students.

Your writing and what you have to say are a necessary contribution to the world.

I initially started writing diary entries to get acquainted with my voice and to record moments of my life I wanted to remember. I write today to interrupt silences and to make meaning out of my failures or losses. I write to understand the other, the margins. I write to ask, not to answer.

What did it mean that my mother was chronically disabled for so many years?

How did I, as an adolescent and young adult, define myself against her illness?

What was I thinking at 21, when I boarded a plane for Glasgow, Scotland, to work in a country I could barely find on a map?

And then, two years later, why did I leave Scotland for another foreign country – the Louisiana Delta – to write about religion among people whose faith I did not share? What was I running away from? What was I running toward?

In each essay or book chapter or poem I create, I am writing toward and through such questions.

Like Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I write to seek, never to find.

Writing has, in turn, given me a life I never could have envisioned when I was nine and first writing in a baby’s breath pink journal with a cat on the cover.

Writing took me overseas and into parts of the United States I initially feared –– the Deep South, for example. Writing introduced me to my husband. Writing made me a teacher. Writing gave me permission to find myself, to be myself, to live with less guilt and shame or a need for approval.

I can find a thousand reasons to write, and a thousand reasons not to write. I chose to listen to the thousand voices that tell me to write, and I want all of you to do the same. Right now. Tune out every single voice that says you’re not good enough –- or too good –– to be here.

Write when you’re tired, sad, angry, hungry, guilty, ashamed, sick, scared, happy, anxious, wide awake.

There will never be a perfect time to write. The perfect time is now.

Remake the world with your writing. Rebuild yourself. In the words of Wendell Berry, “Practice resurrection.”

Show up in this room. Show up on each page you read, each page you create.

Be who you are when everyone can see you. Be who you are when no one can see you.

Listen. Seek. Question.

Get serious. Own your words. Make them sharp or shiny or beautiful. Make them everything that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What We Carry

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t. Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.” — Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

For years, I taught Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” My veteran students sat up straighter when we read from this story. Their voices rang out more sharply in class discussion.  These students understood the to-the-bone uncertainty of war. They knew how a pleasantry once taken for granted could become a refuge. They understood how love conflates with hope, and how both feed our will to survive. They knew grief as a burden we never set down, no matter what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written.

I loved teaching O’Brien’s story. I loved seeing how people who did not think of themselves as readers dove deep into a text and met themselves for the first time, saw their yet untold stories shimmering back at them through art. I don’t believe in healing as an aspiration. I don’t believe in closure or happily ever after. I believe in integration. I believe sorrow has something important to say. I believe we wear our losses the same way we wear our scars. Sometimes out in the open. Sometimes hidden. Sometimes the burden of what we carry is only visible to us. Sometimes we need to hear: I see you. You are not alone.

 O’Brien’s writing acknowledges life altering experiences so many learn to hide in order to fit in, to keep the peace, to pass. He tells stories we learn not to tell. Stories about grief, shame, vulnerability, and failure. If I only do one thing right in my job, it is to affirm people who believe they do not have a story worth telling. It is to help them find words to tell that story, to say I see you. You are not alone.

The first book that ever said, “I see you. You are no alone,” to me is Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, which my first MFA mentor assigned during my first semester in a non-traditional MFA program. I entered that program unsure I had a story worth telling, only sure I did not want to be a traditional academic. I had recently completed an M.A. in literature program that felt toxic to me, particularly in how male academics related to power, related to women, related to anyone whose ideas threatened their sense of power.

My MFA mentor founded a women’s studies program at a state university. She left her traditional academic path to build her life as an artist. She gave me Allison’s writing, which told me “I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama’s death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself.” Before I encountered those words, I actually thought no one would care about the story I wanted to tell, a story about a mother and a daughter, a story about what love looks like before and after loss, a story about what happens after the worst thing happens.

I am still writing that story. Today that story looks closer to a book than it has ever looked. It will become a book, and I hope you’ll read it! Lately, my book is being shaped by new ideas about how trauma and loss influence who we become, how we relate to ourselves, to others. I have been thinking of Allison’s words, “two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.” I am beyond fortunate to have found beauty in so many unexpected places. I work at a community college where people are so frequently beautiful to each other that I am daily moved to tears.

Recently, a colleague in another department shared Adverse Childhood Experiences research and articles with me. I read them at night, before I fall asleep. This might not be the best practice, because I find myself waking more frequently in the middle of the night, and going back to the research, which does not help my sleep. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this research, but I know it is feeding something nascent in me right now. I am hungering for what my students hungered for when they read O’Brien. Perhaps I want to understand my own experience against the experiences of others. I want to know if there’s more to thriving than simple luck.

My ACE scores are high. So too are my resilience scores. Even so, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and my responses to perceived threats are probably similar to those of my veteran students. In traditional academia, I experienced profound silencing of people (and particularly women) who survived abuse. I experienced a culture that privileges thinking over feeling, a culture of negativity and hyper criticism and perfectionism. Now, I have learned how to recognize how beauty coexists with toxicity, how two or three opposing things can be true at the same time.

I have learned how to set boundaries, how to say no, and how to resist pressures to carry what is not mine to carry. And yet, I am still learning how to hold on, how to let go, how to find beauty in the grasping and the release.

On Living with Anxiety

My first semester in college, I came back from Thanksgiving break terrified that I would fail my developmental math class. No one called it developmental math back then. But I received no credit for this class, which met in an ivy covered Carnegie library.

I do not remember the value of X for any equation. I do not remember anything we did in that drafty classroom. I do not remember the students who sat around me.

I remember that my professor had a fang. I remember I rarely received a grade higher than a “C” on anything he marked. Sometimes I see and write numbers backward. I found it easier to skip my few required math classes than attend them. I was so afraid.

When I called my mother to tell her that I might get a D in math –– I was hoping for a D –– she told me I could come home if I wanted to. I could live with her and re-evaluate my goals.

I had so much anxiety I could only eat small salads with tofu in my dormitory’s dining hall. I did not sleep more than a few hours a night. I longed for the safety net of my mother’s house, a place where all the pressure I felt would collapse. But I knew going home was not the answer. I knew that if I left my dream school, I’d always regret it. I’d leave other places, jobs, or relationships, when they felt too hard.

I told her I’d stick it out. I studied fanatically for my final exam. I did extra credit. I hoped for a D.

Grades came in the mail back then. And my hands actually shook as I opened the envelope when it arrived. I screamed when I saw a B- next to the course.

I do not know how I earned that grade. My mother always thought it was because I was smart, but underestimated my abilities.

She was probably right.

­­________

I still have performance anxiety. I work in academia, so everyone I know is super smart. But a good number of my colleagues have backgrounds like mine. We have parents who did not go to college, or parents who had associate degrees, or parents who attended state schools. But I still sometimes feel like I don’t belong. Like I’m not smart enough to be here.

This week, the first week of my teaching semester, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Each morning, I woke up wide awake somewhere around 3 a.m. I said the metta prayer. I counted my breaths. I took melatonin. But I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

I thought about my classrooms, about the students who are potentially as afraid as I once was. I worried about their worry, and whether I could get them through.

Like me, they might be the first people in their immediate families to go to college. I know how easy it can be to give up when you can’t see a model of what’s possible or when a family crisis erupts. My mother died toward the end of my junior year of college. To this day, I don’t know how I finished my degree on time. I do know it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

After my parent’s divorce, my mother attended community college. But she had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She failed two classes and didn’t try again for ten more years. She was so afraid.

Today, her associate degree hangs in my office, to the right of my desk. I have three degrees. But my mother’s is the only degree I’ve ever hung for anyone to see.

She never knew me as a college graduate, much less a professor. But I try to carry her sprit with me into all my classrooms. I try to be the person she was for me.

This does not mean I mother my students –– because I don’t. But, if they need it, I want to be the one person who believes they are smarter than they think they are. I want to be the one person who does not underestimate their abilities.

Still, I can’t erase the anxiety they carry. Just as I cannot erase my own.

________

It saddens me that I cannot call my mother at the end of the day to tell her about everything that happened. If I’m worried, I cannot call her. In my entire professional life, I have never been able to call my mother.

My insomnia started the night she died. That was the first night of my life when I did not get a single second of sleep. I lost my safety net. I lost the belief that things would be okay. I’d seen the other side, the worst case scenario that came to fruition.

One of my friends who also struggles with anxiety told me he thinks anxious people have higher degrees of intelligence. We don’t fool ourselves about the world or probability. We look our fears in the face.

To a certain extent, I agree with him. But I also know other factors, such as hormones and genetics, play a large role in my anxiety.

I have accepted anxiety as part of my nature, and I work with it in my meditation practice. When I awaken at 3 a.m., I imagine my anxiety as a version of myself. I bow to her.

What are you here to teach me?  I ask.

I breathe. I remember I am capable and smart. I try to see myself the way my mother once saw me.