Archive for October 2nd, 2017

Uncommon Valor

amywink October 2nd, 2017


Those who wake are the students.
Those who stay awake are the teachers.

How we take turns.

Mark Nepo, “Unearthed Again”

“I teach because I love learning” is the first line of my teaching philosophy, an understanding I came to after some years of teaching writing and literature and encountering students in and out of the classroom. I have kept that statement for a long time and continually remind myself of it when I feel lost in the wilderness. Those moments of learning, the moments the light comes on, are among the most powerful experiences educators can feel, that moment of complete connection and awakening. Everyone who is an educator (in any capacity) understands it. It is a challenge to explain to others. Though I hold a PhD in English and love poetry and literature and writing, I teach because I love learning.

Students often come to my college classroom afraid, as if some kind of measurement is about to be taking and they will be found wanting. I so often hear “I am not good at this. I am bad at writing. I am bad at literature.” When I ask them why they think that the answer is often a story of an encounter with some wicked witch of the text in their past experience. In other words, someone told them they were. More often than not, they remember exactly what happened, who said it, and how they learned they were not worthy or capable of learning. Sometimes it is horrifying, the brilliant African-American boy told he would never amount to anything so he should not even try (to his credit, he was in college anyway) or the young mother returning to college thinking that she is stupid because she is dyslexic. Often, as in these cases, I am apologizing for my people and gathering up the shattered pieces to tell my students how to start to learn something new. I now begin my classes by telling students they are in class to learn what I have to teach, that if they do not know how to do yet we what we are learning that they need to remember that they are just learning to do it and it is okay to not now how to do it. Why would they take a class if they already knew how to do what the class was about? They nod. . . . and still come to tell me they are not good at writing and I repeat, “You are just learning to do this. Let yourself learn to do this.”

One summer, I taught a 12-week American literature course in the evenings, my literary area of expertise (1865 to the present). Before the class started, I was already receiving emails from one student, a Hispanic veteran returning to school after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, worrying about his ability to complete the work. He’d not done well in English. He was worried about the readings. Worried about his abilities to understand literature and worried I would not allow his service dog in class, the dog that allowed him to reenter the classroom and stay with us. I knew I had some work to do in the weeks ahead but I assured him he would be all right, he was just learning how to do this, and I loved dogs (this is an understatement) and knew his dog would be perfectly fine in class (she was).

Of course, he was not the only student who came to me in a flurry of anxiety. One effervescent young woman appeared the first day fluttering with nervousness about her ability to understand the work, to read in English and to write about it too. English was not her first language and she was not sure she was smart enough (even though she spoke 2 other languages as well) but she had read about me online (no, I do not look at Rate My Professor) and wanted to take my class and be in my class and she hoped she would be okay. I asked her to breathe. I told her she would be all right and she was learning how to do this.

And of course, they were both fine. Both smarter than they thought, both insightful and engaged in class. Occasionally, in the silence after I asked a question, the service dog would shake her collar as if to answer and make us all laugh. By mid semester, both students were doing spectacularly well on their work and after we discussed A Streetcar Named Desire, the veteran returned from his weekend in New Orleans pleased to show me the photos of all the places he had see and tell me how happy it had made him to understand what those places meant in Tennessee Williams’ play. It is the kind of moment English teachers live for–the light came on and he took it with him into the world and came back to tell me about it.

Our last reading was Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (2001), a wonderfully innovative book about a literary culture misreading signs and slowly losing letters from the alphabet in homage to a fundamentalist misinterpretation of the letters falling off the founder’s statue, a dedication to the originator of the pangram: “The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog.” An astounding work of precision, Dunn writes his epistolary novel while deleting the individual letters of the alphabet as they all fall from the monument and the characters descend into a cultural conflict that is both humorous and horrifying. It is a book for the soul of an English Major about the important of language and communication. It is also about what happens in a culture that is divided by arbitrary and rigid interpretations and how people create community or destroy it. It is a light book that turns quite dark before it happily resolves.

My class, of course, loved it, and we talked about cultural issues and American character, how a key component of American character is resistance to oppression and the value of independent thinking. We talked about what it means to lose even a single letter from words, that the loss of “D” ultimately means you lose the past tense and therefore, the entire past. Of course, we also discussed what we might all do when faced with a dangerous choice as our fearless heroine Ella Minnow Pea, the last of the rebels, works to find the perfect pangram in Project 32 and save her precious island that has lost so much as the people turned against each other. And suddenly, there is what can only be described as a moment of illuminating grace as my effervescent student began to share her story.

She was Iraqi. She had helped the Americans when they arrived, translating. It was very dangerous and she had feared for her life. Other friends had been killed. But it was important work and she knew it was important and dangerous. Then she had received a bullet in the mail, a bullet marked with her entire family’s name. She had to flee. Her whole family had to flee. The American soldiers helped her escape. She can never go home. Her family can never go home.

I have never wanted to put my arms around a student as badly as I did at that moment.

There in that classroom, she had told us her story of her life being saved.

There in that classroom was a young man who very well may have saved her life.

There in that classroom, the wideness of world pulled close to the two lives sitting there that day. Here is the thing that matters, here is what we mean to each other.

Sometimes what I am teaching is not English, but humanity. Not how to write a paper or read a book, but how to be a human being in this beautifully difficult world.

Into the stunned silence of the classroom, I said “We are so glad you are here.”