Teaching

“when any heat at all rises,/ and becomes a visible thing”

When I was 24, my car broke down in Cherokee, Oklahoma, about 60 miles from my parents’ home, one week before I hopped on a plane that would take me to Fairbanks, Alaska. In Fairbanks, I would meet the poet Derick Burleson, who was born and raised in Cherokee, Oklahoma. There aren’t many people who have lived Oklahoma prairie and Alaska boreal forest. Derick lived this. He also lived Texas and Montana and Kansas and Rwanda and many other places. There aren’t many people who have lived a life as varied and rich as Derick Burleson’s, even though that life ended too early, at the age of 53, just a few nights ago.

I last saw Derick at AWP in 2014. I heard his laugh first, big and a little cracked. I followed the sound until I saw his beard, and then the rest of him. Like his facial hair, the man was bold and brilliant and slightly wild. He brokered no small talk, immediately moving to the horrors happening at UAF, and from that to championing the poetry of Marick Press, and of Alaska poets, and of Oklahoma poets, and of any other poets he could manage to champion in our short chat. We said we would try to catch one another later that week for a drink, perhaps while seeing Eddie Kim, whose poetry we were both so happy to see getting support and recognition at Kundiman.

We didn’t catch one another that week. And, aside from a few scattered emails over the last nine years, we didn’t really catch each other at all. I won’t pretend he and I were terribly close personally, because we weren’t. I was not, and am not a poet, and when I was in Alaska, and to a lesser degree now, I was/am a judgmental shithead, and he quite rightly didn’t really want to hang. He was very close to many others, though, and the outpouring of love for him across social media has been a heartening thing to see.

I did take a class with him, Forms of Poetry, and before the semester began, I met with him in his office and told him I was taking it so I could better teach an undergraduate Intro class, but that I had no delusions as to my poetic ability—I was not, and would never be a ‘real’ poet. He squinted at me until I finished talking, let me sit in a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, then told me that everything I had said was bullshit. I needed to celebrate taking that course. I needed to take that time to be a ‘real’ poet. That being a ‘real’ poet was about a way of seeing, a way of living. How privileged was I to be given the chance to spend time as a poet in this life?

That’s my paraphrase of our conversation, anyway, filtered through time and memory. But I do remember specifically that he used the word privileged.

Derick taught English in Rwanda from 1991-1993.  His first book, Ejo, bears witness to the community experienced before the genocide, the lives of those murdered, and the lives of those who survived. Most remarkable, I think, is his ability to celebrate and mourn with equal vigor, to see the joy and humor and sadness and horror and articulate it all. He brings this same honest eye to his books Never Night and Melt, which also celebrate the beauty and joy in life even amid its horrors, whether those horrors be enacted by the intimate violence of child abuse or by the global violence of climate change. Through all three books—throughout his life—Burleson kept his eye vigilant and steady, and he rendered, beautifully, what he saw with words and with paint.

I believe real harm is done by flinching away from life. Flinching happens in several ways. Sometimes it is the refusal to see life as it is at all, to close our eyes and make our own realities. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the joy. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the horror. But to do any of this—to flinch—is to bear false witness. Art of any meaningful kind cannot flinch.

On election night this past year, like so many, I sent this poem to friends (pardon the GIGANTIC screenshot font, there is not a great deal of editing going into this post):

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-2-22-06-pm

 

I wasn’t as surprised by the election results as others. I grew up among the stone throwers. I have lived among them elsewhere, as well. But even within places where the stones fall in hailstorms, I have found people building shields, mending wings, working to help the people taking aim question why they do so.

In this poem, whether there are good bones or whether this is solely a sales tactic is not explicit. In the weeks following the election, I found myself waffling over whether America has good bones or if social progress is simply a sales tactic of capitalism. I still do this waffling at times. I won’t pretend otherwise.

Right now, I think America does have good bones. There are also some shitty old pipes and entire walls that need to be demolished, and a helluvalot more work to be done as well, but the popular vote count has helped to reassure me that there are good bones, meaning, of course, that there are enough good people to get the work done.

Progress is not a solid, forever forward-moving process anymore than a house, once built, is forever sound. Both require diligent, vigilant, difficult work. The damage sets in, I think, when we flinch.

My adult New Year’s Eve tradition (barring the few times I have been persuaded out into the world, which have mostly ranged from disappointing to disastrous) is to light some candles, make several pots of tea, or pour several glasses of wine, or tip several measures of whiskey (usually all of the above), and write and read until I absolutely can no longer do so.

And while New Year’s Day belongs to writing and reading fiction (and eating black-eyed peas, which is a thing, I promise), New Year’s Eve night belongs to poetry. There is something more contemplative, for me, about the form, and I am at my most contemplative on this night, a natural enough response, I guess, to a communal marking of the passage of time.

I read again Heaney’s “Beowulf.” I read again the poems I favored in childhood, like Noyes’ “The Highwayman” and Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and certain Shakespearean monologues like Edmund’s bastard speech. I dig back into Richard Hugo’s letters. I go honky-tonking with Carrie Jerrell and head into Katrina with Natasha Threthewey. I let Claudia Rankine school me on my white privilege and fragility. I mosey back to Oklahoma with Joy Harjo and Jeanetta Calhoun Mish and John Berryman and B.H. Fairchild. I find poems from old friends on ancient computer files and read Jacob Robert Stephens, Brooke Sheridan, Lisa Janout, James Raines, Eddie Kim, Damien Cowger, and so many more. I pick-up books by newer friends like Melissa Range and Anne Barngrover. I spend some time just trawling the Poetry Foundation’s website with words I love—myopic, cleave, scurry, hollow, etc…

This year. This night. I will be reading Derick Burleson. A few poems of his—“Ejo” and “Never Night” (from which I pulled the title of this post)—are part of the yearly refrain, but this time I’m going to sink into all I have with all I have. Through child abuse, alongside genocide, beside melting glaciers, and more, Burleson looked at life and saw the good bones amid the real shithole. He saw it and he did what I hope to do this coming year and all my coming years. He kept a steady eye. He did not flinch.

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Complicit Complacent

This is the most uncomfortable post I’ve ever written. (Why not come out of hibernation with a bang, right?) I’m going to make some mistakes with this thing. I’m not even proofreading it before I publish it for fear that I will put it in a drawer. But in the wake of something that occurred in my office this week, amid so many other events that are occurring across the country, here goes.

Over the past month, led by students at the University of Missouri, black students at colleges and universities around the country have begun demanding their institutions recognize and rectify the racial inequality inscribed in and on their ivory towers. This past week, a KU professor was put on leave after saying n***** in her class. Or at least this is the soundbite that is being used. Read the open letter. The accusations against this instructor are actually far more substantial and wide-ranging than an isolated use of a single word. Of course, the people outraged at the Instructor’s dismissal, those calling these students fascist and spoiled and everything else that has been thrown at them, won’t read the open letter. And I’m not entirely certain doing so would help, as those people probably don’t think colleges and universities participate in institutionalized racism. But let’s step out of the hypothetical. Let’s talk about what happened in my office.

It was morning. I sat down at my desk and a colleague, obviously upset, asked if I had heard that a professor was being asked to resign after using “the n-word.” When I shook my head, the colleague immediately threw hands in the air and cried “free speech!”

I asked for the context, which this colleague did not have. A 2nd colleague stopped by. Colleague 1 repeated the story, then said, in dooms-day tone, “if this is successful, this is the end of academic freedom.” I responded with something along the lines of, “no, this is the beginning of universities being forced to admit and grapple with the systemic racism on their campuses.” Colleague 2 also wanted the context. Colleague 1 pulled up what the KU instructor had said, though from what source this was pulled was not clear and the actual letter asking for the dismissal of the instructor was not pulled. Colleague 2 stated that if the professor had said this word in response to students expressing the experiences they had with racism on campus, then she should obviously be fired. No matter what, it wasn’t wise, but if there was a discussion about the word, or if there was some other context, well, in short, Colleague 2 needed to know more.

I tried to make an analogy. I tried to say that if the KU professor was reporting something that had happened, that if it were, say, the word kike written on a wall, and she had said, “the word kike was painted on a wall”….and then I stopped talking because I recognized even as I was talking that this was not an effective analogy. I also began to recognize that I was doing a helluva lot of rhetorical and intellectual gymnastics not to call the KU professor a racist who deserved to be fired and not to call Colleague 1 the same.

We were interrupted by something or someone. Colleague 2 left. Colleague 1 and I avoided eye contact for a little while and then began talking about, I kid you not, puppies.

Then another colleague, Colleague 3, popped a head into the office and said, “well, I guess we can’t say n***** anymore.” In my silence, Colleagues 1 and 3 both began saying “academic freedom” and “free speech.” Colleague 3 also called for end times, citing an instance when a faculty member had been asked to clean-up his language when he said something was a “fuck-up.” I was in the corner of the office. Colleague 3 was blocking the doorway. I felt trapped. I was working pretty hard not to scream. I directed everyone’s attention to the puppies. After everyone left, I texted my friends on campus who I knew would be as outraged as I. I took comfort in their responses. I started student conferences.

Okay, so let’s talk about what happened. Or at least as much of it as I, with my limited ability, can talk about what happened. And don’t worry, after the obvious shock and censor of Colleagues 1 and 3, I’m going to get to my own terrible self.

I mean, there’s the shock that an instructor at a college actually said, “I guess we can’t use n***** anymore.” That shock and outrage doesn’t need explanation.

And there’s the bizarrely false analogy of someone being told not to say “fuck” as the same as not using n*****. That doesn’t warrant a response.

And there is the bizarre reaction of “free speech” and “academic freedom.” Jelani Cobb has already written eloquently of this idiocy. On this blog, I’m going to get into my own response in this situation because, well, my experience is the one to which I can speak.

Like how all of the people involved in this conversation, including myself, were white, and yet all of the people in this conversation, including myself, felt absolutely empowered and justified in our opinions about the use of a racial slur. We all felt perfectly comfortable having this conversation in a room filled only with white people. At no point did anyone in that room say at least this much, “maybe as a group of all white people, we can’t have the right conversation about this.”

Let me begin by saying, having had other bizarre and, quite frankly, abusive and irrational experiences with Colleague 3, I have no idea if Colleague 3 would have said n***** had there been black people in the room. I do know Colleague 3 assumed saying that word was just fine because it was a room of white people. And that Colleague 3 assumed that our institution is one where this speech is not questioned. What this also tells me is that I have not clearly signaled to my colleagues that I do not welcome this. I have not signaled that I am a black ally. For all that I cannot change about the campus, this is on me.

It’s also on me that I changed the conversation. I let it go. I diverted. I talked about puppies, for fuck’s sake. It’s a shame I will forever carry. And let’s be clear that this is not the first time I have been a passive racist. There are too many times to count. And, in fact, in my rural, white youth, I was sometimes actively racist.

When I was about 16 or 17 I gave a speech in front of a class about how rap music was responsible for spreading gang violence to areas where it had previously not existed. I am not kidding. This was something I had heard from (white) people in authority, and with my limited reasoning skills and lack of any real contact with people of color, I parroted. There was not even a twinge of a realization that what I was saying was idiotic, much less racist. And I promise I was a kid who would have adamantly claimed to not be racist based on such incredible evidence as knowing the KKK was bad. I don’t want to have ever been the worst of white folk. But I was (and still am) an ignorant white girl. And back then, no matter what I did or said, everyone around me told me I was smart.

Because I was smart. Here’s the thing we sometimes forget when we talk about intelligence: it is not equivalent to wisdom. Smart people can be ignorant. The smartest people in our country can be ignorant. The most lauded professors at the most elite college campuses can be ignorant. Oftentimes these people are ignorant of the experiences of Black Americans. Sometimes, because they have been told their entire lives that they are smart, they do not know they are ignorant. And because so much of their self-identity and worth, because their very livelihood, is built on being smart, having someone highlight their ignorance feels to them like a personal attack. Rather than responding to an observation of their ignorance with vulnerability and humility and apology and willingness to learn, most academics get defensive. On the topic of their own ignorance, academics are quite reactionary. They need no peer-reviewed sources to support the idea that they are infallible. The ratio of “actually” to “I don’t know” in any academic’s life has got to be about a billion to one.

So let’s return to a room of ignorant white academics throwing our ideas around without any real knowledge of that of which we spoke. Let’s talk about how my initial reaction was to ask for more context. This was a ridiculous response. Why was I waiting around for the context in this situation? It’s an important response in certain times, sure, and as a sometimes embattled educator, I usually want to know more about a student/instructor tension. But in this case? In this case my desire to gain the context in which this instructor operated was me enacting the very systemic racism I was at the same time decrying. There is no acceptable context here. Rather than have me talk about how this word in particular means this instructor was in the wrong, no matter the context, go read this and this and this and this and this.

Now, anytime I find myself in a contentious situation, my instinct is to rely on analogy. Like when I wanted to discuss the casual way people discuss rape. It’s a rhetorical tool that allows people to agree with you for a little while. It keeps the conversation open. So I tried to make an analogy, but realized as I spoke that this rhetorical strategy fails when it comes to this word. This wasn’t my first time realizing n***** has no analogous word, just the first time I had ever found myself embodying through rhetoric the idea that it did. It was really weird. It was like an argument switch had been flipped in my brain to the exclusion of the actual content of the argument being made. I was listening to the system of racism come out of my own mouth even as I was trying to fight it. Then I tried to find some other way of approaching this subject that did not involve me attacking or running away from the colleagues in my office.

I pointed towards puppies. I derailed. I still am the worst of white folks.

Why did I derail? Cowardice. It’s that simple. I am afraid that by doing so I will lose my job. I work at a place that implicitly, and at times explicitly, supports racism. I have no hope that a confrontation between myself and tenured colleagues over racism would go my way.

In a class this summer, someone brought-up the flying of the confederate flag. There was one black student in the room. There were no black teachers. The teachers and everyone else in the room cited the flying of the flag as an act of free speech. The removal of the flag was an attack on free speech. The black kid never spoke. The black kid was brought to tears. No one, especially the teachers in the room, gave a shit about that black kid or the hostile learning environment they were creating for him.

Or how about the “training” that was part of my faculty development this summer, one where they brought the (white) school lawyer in to discuss race. The conversation did not center on creating safe learning environments for marginalized students or ways to recognize our own enactment of the racist policies or procedures embedded in academia. The entire conversation was about protecting racist white students from legal action and making certain racist white students can get jobs in the future by understanding that their racist language isn’t “professional.” At the break I said I wasn’t actually all that dedicated to making certain racists get jobs, that I am, in fact, perfectly okay with racists being excluded from the workforce entirely. This comment was not met with approval.

I’m afraid if I say anything about the racism of my colleagues, I will lose my job. Writing this, in fact, probably guarantees that I will. But writing this is also my way of trying to make certain my greatest fear isn’t realized.

What I fear more than losing my job is that I am going to put my head down and get through the last few weeks of class by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll keep my head down and get through the next semester by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll get through the next thirty years by staring at the floor in silence.

So I wrote this. I published this. This is me holding myself publicly accountable. This is me maybe losing my job.

This is me doing my best to lift my head.

 

 

Image by Suzanne Viktor

Penknife

Maybe some people were born into a world that has always loved and accepted them just as they are. Maybe there are people whose families, schools, neighborhoods, religions, books, television, movies, and so forth, told them that everything about them was just fine.

I doubt these people exist, but I guess it is possible. I think it is more likely, however, that all of us have run into someone, or several someones, or entire cultural forces that told us we were not wonderful. If we wanted to be wonderful, to be loved and accepted, we needed to change. We needed to change weight or skin or hair or height or accent or gender or sexuality or talent or interests or intelligence, the list, unfortunately, goes on….

One way many of us are told we need to change is in the way we write. We must change our syntax, change our style, change our perspective, change our tense, change our word choice, change our rhythm, change our references….

But this process isn’t “just” about language. It’s not “just” syntax or word choice or structure or rhythm. Language is how we make sense of the world. When we express ourselves through language, we are creating the version of the world most true to us. We are our words. When people force us to write like someone else, just like when they force us to look like someone else, or act like someone else, or in any way be like someone else in order to be accepted, it is a violent act. And this act leaves scars.

Which is why I struggle teaching Composition and Developmental Writing (Well, this is one of many reasons). I explain and reinforce that what I teach is not “good” or “bad” writing. There is no “good” or “bad” in writing. There is, instead, a spectrum of possibility in language, just as there are many different writing audiences and many different writing goals. When it comes to the grammar and usage rules of Standard American English (SAE), I talk about the social and economic and historic forces that have gone into creating SAE, and how, in most ways, it is a tool of exclusion and repression. It wants everyone to sound and act in one way. It punishes those who do not. And that one way? That one way mirrors a specific portion of the population, and that population is more than likely not my students.

This is all so admirable. Oh, pat-me-on-the-back, aren’t I just such a clever and dedicated teacher?

Except I am absolutely scaring my students. No matter how much I explain all of this, no matter how much I talk about the SAE system as a game of power that they can learn to play, rather than be crushed under, in the end, I give grades. There are good grades and there are bad grades. These good and bad grades carry heavy consequences, and I am very much the person wielding that weight.

Because of this, there are times I am tempted to take cues from past colleagues and just not bother with SAE at all. If the ideas are sound, if I can understand what is being said, then why does it matter that someone throws commas around like dollar bills in a strip club? (Don’t worry, in the classroom I use a pepper shaker analogy.)

But I always come back to this: I can understand my students because I know them. I care about them because I know them. I can hear their voices when I read their writing and a comma splice or a verb tense shift doesn’t make me stop reading because I know them and care about them.

But others will stop reading. The people who have long been safe in the power of SAE will stop caring about what my students have to say if they do not prove that they can speak this language. It is a tool of exclusion. There are many people waiting eagerly to use this tool against others, and those people aren’t just grammar trolls on Facebook. Those people hold very real power in the world. SAE can make the difference between financial security and the lack of it. Financial security can affect everything from personal health to interpersonal relationships to mental health.

So don’t I have a responsibility to make certain my students are not excluded? Isn’t it my job to give them the tools they need to be included and safe and prosperous?

How can I do this without embodying those who would hurt them? How do I do this without excluding them myself? How do I get them to understand grades are a measure of how prepared they are to face those who would seek to ignore them because of what they sound like, not how intelligent they are, or how good of a person they are?

We are our words. In many ways, my job is to teach students to edit themselves to sound like someone they are not. I am creating scars.

They are scars I myself carry. As a woman born to parents raised in Ozark foothill poverty, who herself grew up working class in nowhere Oklahoma, I had to edit myself. The editing required to get me to SAE was not as ferocious as it is for many. My scars are not as deep as others. But they do exist.

And I can say that I am both grateful for these scars and resentful of them. I am grateful that these scars have allowed me to become part of the crowd with expendable cash and vacation time and community resources and a voice not easily dismissed by authority. I resent that I ever had to change to fit a system that told me I wasn’t good enough.

I also resent that this crowd to which I now belong will never include or accept certain people I love. Most of this crowd has never questioned their own privileged language. They’ve never had to do so. For most of them, the system works. For many, it has worked for generations. In their minds, therefore, it is not the system, it is the individual. Some people simply aren’t clever enough to learn it. Or, and this one gets to me more than any other, they are too lazy to try.

Ya know what? Maybe some people see the system, understand its rules, and want no part of it because they are just fine with who they are. Maybe some people want to be edited, but they already have so many scars that the language ones don’t have anywhere clean to land and each edit opens an artery. Maybe some people save themselves by stepping out of the system.

Others, I know, are working to change the system altogether, which is what should happen. The ivory tower doesn’t need defending, and it sure doesn’t need any more victims.

But how does this work from my end? How do I balance trying to change an educational system of which I am part? Is that even possible? Or does my position in this system mean I am one who must perpetuate it?

I don’t know y’all. I really don’t. I guess what I can do is keep being honest with my students about this system. I can keep insisting that they investigate and question it.

But I don’t know that anything I say can prepare them for the pain.

Leaving

One of the better compliments of my life was this: You know when to leave a room.

Now, whether I am particularly adept at how I leave a room is a whole other issue, but I like that someone thinks the above of me.

A few years ago, however, I was beginning to think that me leaving was really just me quitting in a slightly more eloquent disguise.

This feeling that I had become a life-long quitter all came down on top of me in a shitty hotel room in Temple, Texas. I was there because I had an interview for a full-time instructor position at a community college—

—Well, I was there because for the past year I’d been living below the poverty line as an Adjunct in Oklahoma, and the wear of that life was taking its toll on me.

Oh, and I was in Oklahoma because I had been living on the margins of poverty as an Adjunct in Texas.

And I was an Adjunct in Texas because, after receiving my MFA, Adjunct work in the Texas Panhandle was the best college teaching gig I could find.

In short, I was moving from part-time job to part-time job, hoping that one of them might stick, hoping to be given the chance to show people what I great teacher I am, and what idiots they would have to be not to hire me full-time.

I genuinely, truly believed that this would happen.

Instead, for 2-3 years, I found myself living like some kind of Roving English Instructor, dispensing structure and content advice from the back of an RV (I didn’t actually have an RV, though in retrospect I should have). I was experienced. I was hard-working. I could be had for less than 25% the cost of a real employee, and—BONUS—I didn’t require insurance or any other outside investment from the colleges at which I worked.

But while I thought I could fashion a full-time job for myself through talent and effort, at each school I ran into a wall. They all praised my teaching performance and my work ethic. They all wished dearly that they could hire me on full-time. But there just wasn’t any money with which to do so. The departments, and sometimes the entire campus, were under hiring freezes that showed no sign of relenting. When lines did open-up, due to retirement or departure, the school took the lines away altogether, rather than replace the outgoing faculty. And the holes that were left? Why, they filled them with the inexpensive and readily available labor of Adjuncts.

It wasn’t me, it was them.

And, to be clear, by them I do not mean the lovely people in the English Departments in which I served. I owe a great deal to all of those kind folks. No, by them, I mean the Administrators at nearly every college in America who have decided that the people who teach American College Students are not worth the investment.

Adjunct Percentage

The Adjunct Issue is one that many people are now (finally) discussing, and I will probably say more about it later, but for right now I’ll stick to that moment in Texas when looking for somewhere else to land began to feel like an internal character defect, rather than a rational choice.

I remembered that feeling from when I quit the basketball team my sophomore year of high school. Everyone around me, including myself, considered basketball to be an inalienable part of my life. My mother had been all-state. My sisters had received similar honors. I had played organized ball from the age of five.

And yet, I was pretty terrible at it. I am short. I am slow. I lacked that streak of mean that makes a person truly competitive. And my ineptitude was taking its toll. By the age of fifteen I had blown-out both ankles and broken three fingers, my nose, and my tailbone.

And then we got a new coach. A coach who did not allow people to treat the game as casual fun to be had with friends. She wanted talented champions fully dedicated to the sport. When she demanded that I choose between the Speech Team and the Basketball Team, I made my choice.

That this choice warranted even the slightest comment from anyone at all sounds silly now, but it did. Understand that I went to a small school (most graduating classes sat about 20 people; I think mine was about 35), and I was one of the girls who played basketball. No matter that I wasn’t particularly good at it, it was part of my identity.

And I had quit. Such a dirty word. A word for losers. I felt that word divide me from the people who played. The friend with whom I’d grown-up playing ball? She felt betrayed, and she I never were that close again.

So I sat in my shitty hotel room in Temple, Texas, feeling much as I had in the weeks leading-up to when I’d turned-in my high school jersey, because I was beginning to fear that I was walking away from things, not because the things themselves were not satisfactory, but because I was simply the kind of person to whom quitting had become a habit.

Why couldn’t I just stay in one place? Work hard? See it through? Surely, surely something would turn-up at my current school if I just persevered through a few hard years.

Instead, there I was, leaving again. Quitting again.

At some shitty chain restaurant next to the hotel, I received the phone call letting me know I did not get the Temple job. That night I drove the eight hours back to Oklahoma in silence, refusing to allow myself even the small escape of music. Had I become a life-long quitter? Was my constant searching for something better not ambition, but a sign that I was some horrible malcontent?

Even eight hours of silence on Oklahoma back roads didn’t answer those questions. But luckily, one of the full-time gigs did come through, so I was given a small reprieve from their consideration.

A reprieve that ended this past year, as I am once again leaving.

For the past two years, in the position I received that summer, I have been given a livable wage and decent insurance. I met some amazing people, both colleagues and students. I made some great friends. This job has been everything I’d been seeking since I’d begun circling in Adjunct Hell.

And yet, I am leaving.

And so I’ve spent the past few months once gain battling the daemons (some in my own head and some flesh-and-bone) who think my leaving is really just me quitting. Again.

But as I pack-up my life in Missouri—as I scrounge liquor stores for free boxes and delve-out my condiments to friends and once again curse myself for owning so many books—I know that those daemons are full of shit.

My decision to quit basketball? My feet were slow, but my brain was not. And that competitive streak I lacked on the court came roaring into the forefront when it came to the mental arena. I excelled, and I was recognized for this excellence, all without breaking a single bone. I was far, far happier than I had ever been on the basketball court.

And my decision to quit my adjunct schools and seek full-time employment? Well, sticking around a college as an Adjunct rarely merges into a full-time position. It does happen, but I could name friends who have been waiting for nearly a decade. There are countless stories of people who have been waiting even longer.

And my decision to quit my current job? The administration at my current school does not value its faculty. At all. I could give several examples of how this is enacted in their policies and rhetoric, but this one, I think, is enough. On more than one occasion, high level administrators have actually uttered or emailed some version of the words “faculty aren’t what’s important.”

I don’t need eight hours of silent Oklahoma back roads to face-down the daemons that call me a quitter this time. I am no longer some nervous teenage girl standing in the musty coach’s office with my jersey clenched in my hands. I am no longer the desperate and dispirited Adjunct in a shitty hotel room hoping to live above the poverty line. I am no longer the underpaid faculty member at a school that openly dismisses my efforts.

I no longer see striving for a better life as quitting; I know my talents and my worth.

And I know when to leave a room.

 

 

End Note:

I realize I have called myself a good teacher several times in this blog, and I know there are those (particularly MidWesterners and Southern Ladies) who will read this and squirm uncomfortably at my naked self-trumpeting.

I am no longer ashamed of being good at my work and of letting people know that I am. I am a good teacher. I have personal testimonies and impersonal numbers to back this up. I strive to be even better, but I am good.

And here’s the thing, there is a ton of stuff at which I am absolute crap. I can’t swim, remember? I mean, Jesus, there are toddlers who can swim. And my running is the kind of wheezing, old-woman shuffle that real runners find laughable as they lap me on the trail.

My romantic relationships are doomed. My apartment is rarely tidy. I have no idea how to dress myself.

I mean, I could go-on, but it’s starting to get embarrassing for everyone.

So, yeah, I’ve got some teaching swag. I don’t apologize for it.

 

Image Found Here

The Letting Go

I can’t swim. I mean, if you threw me into a pool or a pond or some other mostly still water, I would not sink. I would even make some sort of motion that looks similar to swimming. I would be horizontal to the earth and I would kick my legs and my arms would reach over my head.

But to call what I do swimming would be akin to calling what Dan Brown does writing (easy shot there, I know). All the main elements are there. A person might not at first even notice the difference between the real thing and the facsimile. But the minute a passerby actually examines my movements, that passerby will notice that this is not the real thing. And, should I be asked to swim any distance longer than say, fifty yards, I would drown.

I should maybe tell you that I’m not Black. This is a running joke, I guess, that Black people don’t know how to swim. I know this from listening to stand-up comedians. It’s supposed to be because Black people grow-up without access to water, pools or lakes or otherwise. Okay. I guess that’s a joke.

Anyway, the kind of swimming I can manage is entirely based on me watching other people and then trying to do what they do. This is why, at first glance, it may well appear that I am swimming.

Just like when I first started teaching College Composition, at the grand old age of 24, it probably looked like I was teaching. A passerby might have seen me in front of my class, gesturing wildly and scrawling across the board, and assumed that I was teaching. I assure you, I was not. I was performing. I was entertaining (sometimes, and mostly by accident). I was lecturing.

I was not teaching.

All of the above can be pieces of teaching, and I think they are the most effective means of teaching certain kinds of classes. But to really teach Composition, to effectively convey how to successfully compose, requires a lot less of me talking at my students and a lot more of my students doing the work.

If a person wanted to learn more about Jazz, they could take a lecture course on Jazz and learn more about it. But could a person who wanted to play Jazz sit in a lecture course and walk away sounding like Miles Davis?

How absurd would it be to hold basketball practices where no one every picked-up a ball?

These are, in many ways, faulty analogies, but there is something to be said about learning-by-doing, especially when the end goal is creation, rather than recitation.

I guess what I’m getting at is that if my students are to be the ones trying to execute the song or the play, then maybe I need to spend a little less time playing for them, and give them a little more time to play on their own.

But I don’t like losing control. Uncertainty makes me incredibly anxious. Ask any of my friends (or former boyfriends).

Uncertainty is also what I hate most about being in water. In the water, a person must allow for drift. A person must be okay with imprecise placement. A person must hand themselves over to the elements, even if in some small way.

The more I understand about teaching, the more I understand that those who allow students more control, those who drift, are the ones who reach greatness.

I don’t want to be a good teacher. I want to be a great one. I think my need for control holds me back.

The last time I entered any form of water, despite being encased in as many floatation devices as possible, I spent pretty much the entire time holding onto a boat deck.

After a full hour of lecturing during my first semester of teaching, I remember walking back to my cubicle, throwing my feet up onto my desk, and declaring that I had just “rocked that class.”

But of course, I shouldn’t have been the one who rocked—my students should have been.

For them to do this, I will have to learn to drift. To drift, I will have to let go.