“Pshaw. We’re going up to Denver for you to take an aptitude test at the VA.”
“They won’t pay for your college if you aren’t going in a direction that makes sense according to their test.”
“What? Those tests are bogus.” (Actually they are not but at 18 I knew more than anyone else had ever known anywhere at any time.)
Drive, drive, drive. Park. Go in. Sit down. Take multiple choice “test”. Wait for scores. Scores come out. Lowest, office work and food service. Highest, forest ranger. Semi-high — in order — creative work, news reporter, writer, lawyer, newscaster, teacher.
“Miss Kennedy,” says the counselor, “you have a lot of possibilities. You need to find the right direction. The VA will pay for any of these majors.” The list says “Journalism, English, education.”
Nowhere does it say Forest Ranger.
Over the years I sent a lot of students to get that vey same aptitude test — the Strong Interest Inventory. I usually sent them when they confided to me they didn’t want to major in business or engineering or something that their parents had set them on. Sometimes they were REALLY in the wrong major. Sometimes they needed confirmation they were in the right major. Sometimes they said the test was like a horoscope. For a while I argued with them, then I just said, “You’re right. You fill in hundreds of questions about what you like and do not like in order to get your zodiac sign.”
But what no one, no counselor, aptitude test, mom or dad can tell anyone is what lies ahead in life, where the turning points are, or that life is a lot more than whatever your job turns out to be. The best aptitude to have is one for patience combined with a sense of humor. There’s no test for that, as far as I know, other than life itself.
Out of the thousands of slides my ex and I took while we were in China, only about 400 remain, and out of those, 300 were scannable. As I went through them, doing the tedious mechanical business of trying to get them centered in the frame, then uploaded, then (somewhat) refined with the photo software on my lap top, I expected to have a more intense emotional reaction. My year as a Foreign Expert in English was the experience of a lifetime. But I often thought, looking at a scene, “There are better photos of that on the Internet.”
In 1983, photos of the Forbidden City were unusual. Now?
In 1989 I was living in San Diego. When there were protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and people were killed, my Aunt Martha called me from Denver and said, “Are you happy with what you’ve done?” I laughed, but soon I realized she wasn’t kidding. I could imagine her all in a lather, her right forefinger raised in the air, prepared to deliver one of her incomparable stentorian remonstrances.
“I just taught English, Aunt Martha.”
“But look at what’s happening in Peking!!! You should have left China alone!”
I loved my aunt for thinking the little person that I am had that kind of power.
I thought of my little anthology of American literature and its possibilities as a subversive text. I thought of arguments I’d had with graduate students over the individualism (selfishness) expressed Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” I thought of the city-wide lecture I’d given on the lost generation. “We’re a lost generation, teacher,” said one of my graduate students. “All of us.” When I asked them what they meant they explained that they were going to university only to have to return to their villages. Neither they nor I could know that by the time they were my age NOW (they were my age then) China would have launched stuff into space or that Guangzhou would have hosted the Asian Games. Their villages (most were in Guangdong) would be filled with skyscrapers. Electricity wouldn’t be “iffy” there would be consumer goods for everyone. None of them knew that some would come to America to live forever. Others would come to study and they would return to China. They couldn’t know that their one child would probably study abroad.
While my Aunt Martha overestimated the power of my classroom lectures, she was right in a way. During Mao’s “reign” China remained closed. When it opened to more foreigners, China changed and could never go back. That the young people took to the streets to protest China’s economic policies, only to learn that the iron fist remained clenched, was sad, but, to me, not surprising. Neither Rome nor Modern China could be built in a day.
Last night I woke up realizing that the slides are just a “shard” of a huge adventure that isn’t bound by time and that in a very small way, I became part of the history of China, far more than I am a part of the history of my own country.
* The featured photo is a shard of Anasazi pottery a friend of mine picked up near her home in Arizona. She left it for me, a small gift. I found it on my desk at San Diego State atop a stack of papers-to-grade. Once upon a time, this shard was a shallow bowl, I think, from the way the painted surface is concave and the top edge is finished. Someone took a lot of time to dig the clay, prepare the clay, mold the pot, grind the pigment and paint it onto the surface before firing it.
In Guangzhou, on those long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the apartment I shared with my ex and Tex the indomitable cockroach, it was not unusual for a group of students to stop by for “coaching.”
I don’t think it was about “coaching.” I think it was about long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the dormitory (or as they said with their British accents, “dormitree”.) Our apartment had a couple of advantages, mostly space. But we had a television and it was amazing how stressed students could become about their studies when there was a soccer game televised or a Shao Lin movie. TVs were somewhat rare throughout China at the time and so were films, especially foreign films.
So, when the night was extremely long, dark, rainy and cold, my students would sometimes say, “Tell us a film, teacher.” I “told” them as many films as I could remember. They learned a lot about Monty Python. By the end of winter, my students could act out this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and they knew why it was funny 🙂 )
Every time I “told” a film I remembered the Foreign Service Test (that I failed) where the first question was, “What film would you show in the People’s Republic of China?”
I actually learned that answer to that question IN the People’s Republic of China. One night we were invited to the American Consulate to watch an American movie. It was Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty. We went. It was a stupid movie and, I thought, a stupid choice because Heaven, as it’s depicted in that film, is pretty alien to China, as is American football, never mind the LA Rams but OH WELL.
But…we never knew when a movie was going to pop up. One evening we were riding our bicycles home from Guangzhou. We had various routes, and one we liked was through a relatively unpopulated, tree filled agricultural area near what is now the Inner Ring Road. That evening we saw, in a clearing, dozens of People’s Liberation Army soldiers placing benches in rows. A couple of others were hanging a giant canvas on a rope between two trees. Afraid we’d strayed into another forbidden area, we stopped.
“Ni hao!!” said one of the soldiers coming to where we stood with our bikes. “We have Engrish movie! You join us?”
That NEVER happened. We leaned our bikes against a tree and sat down on the bench we were told to sit on. The projector was turned on and the film rolled on both sides of the hanging canvas. The music came up.
It was Roman Polanski’s 1979 film, Tess. A far better choice for China than Heaven Can Wait. The problem (for us) was that it had been dubbed into Guangzhouhua (Cantonese) A beautiful young female voice in Guangzhou is NOT the same as a beautiful young female voice in the English speaking world by a long shot. Tess spoke to us in a Guangzhou opera voice, shrill, high-pitched, and nasal, with exaggerated (even for Cantonese) inflection. We wanted to — but didn’t — laugh.
We sat through the whole film. Afterward there was much “Thank you for sharing our film,” and hand-shaking. As we turned our bikes toward home in the moonlight, China seemed to me a beautiful place filled with sweet and incomprehensible surprises.
Being a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University was my first teaching job. I was thirty. I’d gotten my MA three years earlier and, after five years in the clerical jungle, I wanted badly to be in the classroom. However, I wasn’t going after a PhD and I was not the greatest student in my masters program (I was essentially thrown out) so what was I to do? Someone said, “Become a Foreign Expert in English in a Chinese University.”
To get this coveted position, all I had to do was send letters to Chinese universities. I started with the major ones — Beijing University on the top of my list. I got no response and essentially forgot about it, moving on with my life, then, two or so years later, I got a letter from South China Teachers University inviting me to come. One of my letters to some Chinese university had found its way to Guangzhou.
There is a lot to say on this subject, but most of it is teacherly stuff, and all of it would make a book. I don’t want to write a book here and now, so…
Classrooms were large and comfortable with windows on both sides. Guangzhou is on the Tropic of Cancer and air circulation is an issue much of the year. The teacher stood on a podium and most teachers lectured. I am not a lecturer and that was the biggest change for my students. For months they couldn’t figure me out, but as all of them were training to become English teachers themselves, they got a lesson in one of their training classes describing the “direct method.” They were very excited to come to class and explain to me that they understood now.
My biggest challenges were the radically different learning tradition they had grown up with, the indoctrination my students had experienced all their lives, and my own inexperience. I taught three classes of seniors American literature. Three classes of juniors, composition. I taught a graduate seminar in American literature and I coached anyone who came to me needing help.
My students had been in the same class with the same classmates for their entire time in college. Each class had a “head” and the nature of each class reflected that student’s personality. One of my classes was almost always silent because the “head” was a passionate Young Pioneer and a Party Member. The other two were more liberal.
A day came when I couldn’t stand the silence of the silent class any more and I yelled at them. “I’m just talking at you like you’re a bunch of empty jars I’m supposed to fill up!”
That comment made it all around the campus. The next day the “head” stood up and apologized, saying, “They’ve been silent for four years now. You can’t expect them to start talking all at once.”
“You could all try,” I said. From then on, having been criticized, they began to venture their ideas, but they were still a very reticent group.
From then on, though, it was kind of a rueful joke throughout my department; my students were empty jars. But I didn’t know — and they didn’t know — how quickly China would change and their being empty jars would be a problem for them when (and they couldn’t have expected it) they went overseas to study. At that time, almost NO ONE left China; few people ever left their village.
After reading my students’ first essay assignment, I discovered that the Soviets had written Communist literary commentary on most works in the USIA textbook I was using. An example of this kind of commentary is, “Rip Van Winkle is the story of how the bourgeois revolution did nothing to help poor peasants like Rip.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening shows the hard life of the peasant while the rich man is warm in his house.”
In combination with Communism, Confucian philosophy isn’t conducive to original thought A good scholar is humble and repeats what the experts have said. You see how it was… When I read their first essay, 2/3 of them said the same thing. Half of the remaining third said some of that. Five out of the 75 essays offered me unique student readings.
I decided that I would write my own textbook for my literature classes. I typed it on ditto masters, sitting in the office of the Foreign Language Department secretarial pool. It was a small anthology compiled of work that wasn’t in any of the American literature books in the college library or the USIA textbook.
Chinese generally love poetry, and it’s a big part of their tradition. I love it too, so that made classes fun for all of us. I’d read a bit of Chinese poetry and sometimes dared to bring it into the discussion, not very successfully because the Chinese truly believe (believed?) that other nationalities and cultures are inferior and cannot truly understand anything Chinese.
Maybe they’re right, but American literature did not prove to be so inscrutable. 😉
One of the most beautiful and memorable teaching moments of my 35+ year career was teaching Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life.” Maoist propaganda was all about inspirational BS, but none of it looked at the struggles of an individual against personal despair (all despair would end when they reached Communism). That doesn’t mean that personal despair wasn’t part of being Chinese. Non-Maoist Chinese literature is full of it. It was that in the collectivist world view, personal anything is at odds with “serve the people.” I believe that serving the people is a good mission. But you need to be healthy yourself, and life demands the individual courage Longfellow writes about. Plus, I knew the poem by heart.
So I taught it, all over the chalkboard, pictures to illustrate the journey of the poet. I used a piece of marble as a metaphor for a person’s life, something we, ourselves make. One of my students suddenly said, “Teacher, you mean Rongferrow says we must carve our stone, even when it is very hard, to make our life as beautiful as possible so others will be inspired.”
Their first, non-Soviet mediated moment with American thought, American literature. My “empty jars” were learning to engage directly with ideas on a page. I have tears in my eyes thinking of that moment, the moment my class — for those students — became an adventure.
And “Rongferrow” became forever my secret name for a poet I love very much. In Cantonese, R and L are difficult sounds. More than once, on a picnic, a student asked to borrow my “life” meaning my Swiss Army Life. ❤
I was always happy in my classrooms. Life in a place like China (as if there were another place like China) was a dream come true for me. I loved teaching. You can imagine that I was deeply, deeply happy. I went to class every day smiling.
Then came a time when I learned the difference between a smile of happiness in Colorado and in my Chinese classroom.
“Teacher, why are you always smiling? Do you think we are funny? Our English is funny?”
“You’re English is good. And no, you’re not funny. I’m smiling because I’m happy.”
“Why are you happy?”
“I’m in China. I’m teaching. I love both those things.”
My students were amazed. They were all going to be teachers, but they hadn’t chosen it. The government had compelled them to become teachers. One boy asked, “You love China?”
“Yes. I love China very much.”
“Do you love America?”
“Yes. I love America.”
“How can you love both countries? Don’t you miss your family?”
“Yes, I miss my family.” I didn’t but I thought of the Rocky Mountains as my family. “I miss the mountains. I miss a lot of things, but in China I get to be a teacher and I love teaching. And, I love you all. I love everything I learn every day here. It’s beautiful.”
My students were stunned. That was the end of that class. There was no where to go from there. They’d asked a question, expecting to be humiliated and got that instead. The “head” got up and addressed his classmates in Cantonese (they’d figured out I might understand if they spoke Mandarin). When he finished, my students collected their things, and he said, “Come on, teacher. We’re going to show you something.”
They took me to see some of the future of my village, Shipai. A new park was being made out of a blasted out slum. The grounds of a large garden had been laid out. Some had been built and planted. There was a brand new moon gate through which the little mountain behind the college was framed. Above the arch of the moon gate were four characters. “Sky, wind, clouds, mountain.”
“Can you read it, teacher?”
“Yes but what does it mean?”
“It’s a famous poem.” Some Chinese poetry is like that. Very, very spare, part of its beauty comes from the characters and the scene. I looked through the arch. All that was missing was “wind.”
A Psalm of Life BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream! For the soul is dead that slumbers, And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way; But to act, that each to-morrow Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums, are beating Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! Let the dead Past bury its dead! Act,— act in the living Present! Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.
P.S. The sign in the featured image is funny. It should say, ‘Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan” but “h” and “n” do kind of look alike. Chinglish was one of the best thing about daily life in China. But I made mistakes, too, all the time. Communication was a huge source of laughter for all of us.
P.P.S. South China Normal University now has three campuses and is a prestigious university with more than a thousand international students. It looks NOTHING like it did when I was there.
Yesterday my friend and I went to hear Christmas music performed by the Valley Community Chorus and accompanied by the San Luis Valley Community Band. The event was held at Sacred Heart Church in Alamosa, a beautiful hybrid between Romanesque and Gothic in style, patterned on the prevailing style of mission churches in this part of the West. It has wonderful acoustics. The community to which the chorus sang and the band played — and from which they draw for members — is as a big as Connecticut with a population around 60,000. There’s a lot of driving involved for some of them.
My friend and I are both retired teachers. It’s pretty obvious, I think. Strangers have said, “You must be retired teachers.” I don’t know how they knew that (I think I’m a punk rocker, yes I am) but as I looked around me yesterday, at the listeners and the performers, I reached the same conclusion. A lot of retired teachers. One giveaway was the prevalence of Christmas sweaters of a certain style.
At one point in the concert, the director (who, I assume, is also a teacher) asked, “How many of our choir and band developed their love of music in public school?”
Most of the participants raised their hands. I started to clap loudly, and there followed a ripple then a roar of applause. I might never want to teach anyone anything again as long as I live and regret that I didn’t stay with Head Ski, get free skis and do marketing, but damn. Without schools? We would all miss out on what matters most in life — and that’s not our job. It’s what the band leader referred to as our “avocations.”
The high school in my town takes its band very seriously and the band wins prizes. There’s a big sign on the east end of town listing all the times the band won best in state. Since the high school is two blocks from my house, I get to hear them practice marching for parades. I love it. I’m proud of them. I get goosebumps when I see them going up and down the streets trying to keep in time and walk simultaneously. It’s the teacher in me. I look at youth in the act of aspiring and I’m moved.
Yesterday I looked at the retired teachers all around me, and I thought, “We never fully drop that torch. We always believe in it,” and I was moved.
I’ve been cleaning out files on my computer (nothing to write at the moment) I found this little essay I wrote in 2012 or so. Cracked me up and also reminded me how I got to Monte Vista. It took a couple of years but…
Sitting in an empty classroom waiting for my class to start, writing in a blog no one reads but me (that’s OK) Driving into school today I thought about how hard it is to teach anyone anything and how much has to be caught up before the students of today are ready to take the ball forward. It’s really too much. It’s all I can do with some of my English class students not to write, simply, “Stupid.”
The problem remains the selling of higher education and the absolute abyss that is secondary education plus the influx of international students whose English ability is poor. Students go to university so they can get jobs afterwards doing things like managing fast food restaurants and rental car agencies. These are skills no one should need university — or even college — to learn.
It’s not my fault they haven’t been taught or that they chose not to learn. This is a fact and yet I’ve taken it upon myself to rectify that. My bosses expect that of me, too. I’m relied upon to hold up my end of the bargain even though it is getting more and more difficult all the time. Students can’t even tell when they are reading something that should be taken literally and something that should be — obviously — a joke. Part of it is that for many (more all the time) English is not their first language, but as all languages have jokes, irony, hyperbole, metaphor they should be able to imagine that English would, too.
And, there’s the Internet. On the Internet — even and/or especially the news — people “choose” the reality they want to inform themselves about. They “choose” the point of view and they “read” with their mouths open, waiting to say their thing. They do not read to find out what other people think. They do not read to learn what the opposing view has as evidence or to learn anything about the argument. They read to “react” to “rant” to “like.” That I will attempt to teach them to read a short essay by someone and find out what the WRITER has to say, discuss WHAT CHOICES the writer made in organizing the essay or the language in which it’s written, none of that has as much currency compared to the students’ “like” “agree” “disagree.” These fuckers will like, agree and disagree without even knowing what the person says. That’s what I contended with today. Some stupid fucking housewife very openly “disagreed” with something she had read with 100% bias and 0% curiosity. When I asked her what she disagreed with, she said, “Everything.”
I followed this with, “What does the essay SAY?” she responded with, “I didn’t read it. I know what writers like that think and I disagree.”
As I attempted to show the class how to write an essay to a writing prompt, by showing how I would write the essay, the woman didn’t like MY perspective either (though the prompt is all about the individual writer’s perspective). She interrupted me and challenged me not from a position of enlightened awareness, but from the same abyss of ignorance that leads people to vote for Sarah Palin because she’s a hockey mom and knocks people like me because we’re educated.
Then I have to argue with a student about an essay (as I’m offering her one-on-one help because she failed a writing assessment necessary for graduation). Finally I say, “Here’s the thing. I’m not your teacher. I’m ‘Random Reader’ and this does not make any sense to me at all. As Random Reader, I’ll stop reading right here.” She was shocked. Imagine! A TEACHER (the martyr of the world) saying, “If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t read it.”
Late homework. “Here’s my homework.”
“I don’t accept late homework. The syllabus is very clear on this point.”
“But I typed it.” (And how, I wonder, in this day and age, is THAT anything exceptional? You want to be taken seriously by a teacher, fucking TYPE your work and, guess what? It’s saved on your computer so it won’t be LOST, stupid.)
“Well, here’s the deal. That was supposed to be posted on Blackboard four days ago. I don’t read late work. I have 200 students and I must organize my life so I can teach all of them.”
“That isn’t fair.”
I think, “No, cunt, what’s NOT fair is you thinking your late work is important to ME. Your work should be so important to YOU that you turn it in EARLY, get help from me, revise it and get an A.”
Not having Internet for an online class. “Professor, I haven’t done any homework because I don’t have Internet at my house.”
“Well, you know this is an online class. You need to get to the library or a school computer lab.”
“I can’t do that. I have a job. How am I supposed to do that?”
“I guess you’re going to fail,” I say, “unless you figure that out.”
Signing up for a class does not equal taking a class.
The other day, as I drove to school I thought of just teaching to the quizzes and not trying to teach in any more profound sense than that. “Here are the answers. Go take the quiz.” It would be much less tiring OR I can do like some colleagues do and say, “Here is the exam. Ooops! Fooled you! You all fail but OK I’ll curve your grades up to C.”
So I don’t know. I’m not in love with this any more. I was in love with it for a long time, but now I need to stop. I don’t know how I can. One more semester after this one if I don’t self-destruct. I remember Dr. Richardson back in 1984 at my and Jim’s house for dinner. A student called me. I talked with the student for a few minutes. Afterwards I said, “Students are great.” Dr. Richardson said, “Students are awful.” I said, “Seriously?” He said, “You’ll find out. Teach long enough and you’ll get there.” Sad to say, I have found out. I taught long enough.
At the top of the third flight of stairs was an office looking out on the campus. An arched window faced west. The floor was piled high with neatly stacked punch cards and books. In front of a big desk, also piled high but this time with papers, books and a pair of large Wellington clad feet sat a lanky red-haired man with a very British/Nordic face (kind of like the real Lawrence of Arabia), a large nose and very blue eyes. He looked to be in his twenties — but to me at 18, he was a GROWN UP a PROFESSOR, a little scary, even. I’d never sought out or spoken to a professor. Hell, I’d only be at college two days.
“Excuse me. Are you Mr. Preston?”
“Yes. How can I help you?”
“I want to take your class, Middle English Verse Romances, but I don’t have the prerequisites. I’m just a freshman and I haven’t taken Intro to British Literature.”
Already at 18 I had a resistance to survey courses…
“Do you have your paper?” He swung his feet off the desk and turned around in his creaky old swivel chair.
“Yeah.” I handed it to him.
“Why do you want to take this class?” he asked as he signed it.
“I’m interested in Middle English Verse Romances.”
No I wasn’t. I wanted to take the class because I didn’t think I needed any freshman courses. I was the shit. I was smart and advanced and perceptive and a great writer and I didn’t need to jump the hoops. I could take a senior level English class my first semester of college and ace it.
“OK,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading. So who are you?”
“I’m Martha Kennedy,” I stuck out my hand to shake. He took it in his giant paw.
“All right, Martha Kennedy. You’re in the class. Go turn this in.”
Thinking back on that moment now, I also think of the innumerable students who walked into my classes over the years. I remember uncountable first days. I remember the shining eyes, the undaunted expressions, the certainty that they’d ace my class and go on to the next thing NO PROBLEM. I don’t know how many times I warned them, “Don’t set your sights on an A. Set your sights on learning something. You have no idea what’s going to happen during the semester. I do. Some of you are going to lose interest — you’re sophomores and there’s a verified phenomenon known as ‘sophomore slump.’ Some of you are going to have skate-boarding accidents and break something. Some of you are going to fall in love and some of you are going to be dumped by your lovers. Some of you will have family problems. Some of you will get mono or something.” I know somewhere inside I was remembering my first and second (and third and fourth) years of college and university.
I didn’t know how I would be my first time away from home. I didn’t know I’d miss my family, that dysfunctional assemblage that I had been so eager to escape. I didn’t know I’d get a very dangerous case of bronchitis and need to be in the health center hospital for almost a month. I didn’t know that my heart was still broken from the summer before. I didn’t know that rebelling against everything was stupid. I didn’t know I’d have horrible roommates (I did). I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know…
Mr. Preston was always there, in that office with the afternoon light, the books on the floor and the computer punch cards. He was in the process of making the first ever computer generated index to a literary work — he was compiling a concordance to Chaucer.
At a certain point in the semester, realizing I was lost, I started following him around and he let me. When I was in health services, he was alerted to the fact that I was missing class because I was desperately ill. It was he who was there when I was discharged and took me for coffee, sitting and talking with me about my life and my family. That afternoon — blustery and Novembery — I went with him to the biology lab where he picked up a dozen pullets that he’d be taking to his farm between Longmont and Boulder. His black jeans were always covered with cat hair and feathers and now I understood why.
We carried the chickens to his car and he said something useful to me that I no longer remember, but it had something to do with ignoring everything that didn’t really matter. What might that have been? I’d just been in a play and gotten the only mention in the local paper for the role I played. I’d declared an art major, but wasn’t doing very well in that area, in fact, my first sculpture project had ended in my being pulled into the president’s office to give an explanation. I’d taken on an immense project for anthropology, one I couldn’t possibly do. I was always trying to find marijuana because I was determined to be a hippy. I wanted a boyfriend, but didn’t want to sleep with anyone. I yearned and yearned and yearned in vague and inchoate yearning, but? I was pushing the envelope as hard as I could without knowing why. If I had seen myself as the teacher I became, I’d have been Mr. Preston, too. In fact, I can think of several students to whom I was “Mr. Preston.”
Mr. Preston was somewhat like my father. He was brilliant, individualistic and iconoclastic. He respected things done well. He was too alive to be called an intellectual, but he definitely had an intellect. He taught class sitting on the back of a chair, his feet on the seat, a cup of coffee sloshing as he gestured. I thought he was wonderful.
I couldn’t really read Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight or anything else assigned in the class, but I managed to write a decent final paper and Mr. Preston let me take his next senior class, Restoration Drama. Second semester was somewhat better. Going home for Christmas helped; not smoking pot helped. I was a more sober and focused girl than I’d been in fall, but I was also sad and scared. My dad (who had MS) wasn’t doing well. My brother was not at home much, even though he was only sixteen. My mom? All I can say is we fought constantly and viciously.
My dorm mother (who’d decided I was anti-social, depressed and insane) had the college send me to see the school psychologist. He was a nice man and he asked me concrete questions about my life and my family. At the end of the session he said, “I don’t think you need to come back. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your family has some real problems. I think you’re scared for the future and sad for your dad. I think you’re worried about your little brother and you’ve been carrying a big load on your shoulders. You need to take advantage of being here and not at home. You have an opportunity here to learn and you should use it. Come back any time you want to talk.”
He was right, of course. I immediately went to see Mr. Preston and told him about it. He nodded in agreement through my whole recitation. He said, “Your dorm mother thinks that because you’re young you can’t have any real problems. But you have some real problems. Next year, find another dorm.” I did find another dorm, but I also remembered that being young doesn’t mean “trouble free.” That right there made me a better teacher when my turn came.
I discovered that at my school (Colorado Women’s College RIP) I could take any class I wanted. All I had to do was find one other student who wanted it and a professor qualified to teach it. I wanted to learn Greek so I could read Homer in the original language. I found another girl who wanted it and I went to Mr. Preston who said he’d teach it.
Back then, photocopies DID exist but they were expensive and the machines were few and far between. He had his text from the Jesuit school he’d gone to as a boy, and had three copies made.
“I can only do this at 8 am.”
“OK,” I said. He knew I slept until noon.
“You’ll have to be there because it’s going to mean I have to get up at 4 to take care of the animals before driving in from Boulder.”
“I can do it,” I said.
“XXX (the other girl) said that works for her. All right. We’ll meet Mondays through Thursday mornings at 8 am.”
Looking back, I know Mr. Preston was — among other things — trying to get me to learn self-discipline, to put learning something above staying up all night and sleeping half the day. I also know, now, that that those habits seem to be a common among post-adolescents. Most of the kids I taught over the years thought a 1 pm class was a morning class…
Fall semester rolled around and I moved into a new dorm, which I loved, had my own room, which I loved. Other things had happened over the summer and I was a more settled girl, more focused on learning something, more focused on the future that was becoming clearer — my dad was now in a nursing home and that meant that however much longer he lived, it would not be long. MS is not a deadly disease, but it does weaken the body and the immune system as organs and muscles stop functioning as well as they should. My mom no longer had a burden heavier than she could carry. I could only hope she’d begin to build a life of her own because she’d need one soon.
Greek was great — though very difficult. We read the Odyssey. We didn’t study grammar or vocabulary, we just read Homer. It was a good way to learn. It was the way Mr. Preston had learned. Every day I went back to my room and translated Homer. I liked my classes that semester, I made friends, and moved quickly along toward that vaunted goal of graduation. By the end of my second year, I was classified as a second semester Junior.
My father died in February of that school year. After the funeral I kept to myself. I studied a lot. I spent time with Mr. Preston and quietly digested these events that most people at age 20 have not experienced. I don’t remember anything Mr. Preston said to me, I only remember having lunch in the cafeteria with him and other teachers and some of my friends, of listening to them debate ideas and laugh, of following him to his office and sitting in a comfy chair and trying to read Greek.
He was my mentor, but he did his mentoring by being himself and never closing the door to me. I am sure he gave me good advice and useful life lessons. I’m sure I used them for my own well-being and later for the well-being of the students who came my way, equally fucked up, confused and scared. The one thing I can say for sure is that his presence in my life during those troubled years was a beacon of light flashing the words, “Be yourself” against the uncertain firmament of my dark sky.
This blog post was originally published some 3 years ago. A person only has so many mentors. I’ve had three actual living people as mentors along with various and sundry dead people. There’s a difference between mentor and hero, but the line is kind of fuzzy, especially with dead mentors.
When I graduated from the University of Colorado in 1974 with a BA in English, I had the idea that the world had been waiting just for that moment, and all I had to do was walk into the local newspaper office — the Daily Camera — and say, “I’m here, the reporter of your dreams.”
I’d worked on college papers, been the editorial editor of one (a column in that paper got me thrown out of that school but a good journalist doesn’t retract a valid opinion, right?), had articles published in the university paper, had even had a letter published in a national magazine. I was obviously awesome.
“Can you type?” they asked me at the Daily Camera.
What did that have to do with being a reporter?
“Before we talk to you, you have to take a typing test.” The bar was low, 35 wpm, but I failed.
“Sorry, sweet cheeks,” they said and sent me packing. I think the door might have hit my butt on the way out.
But I needed a job. I was married to a student, and half our income vanished when I graduated. I got a job on the line at the Head Ski factory in Boulder. It paid $5.85/hour and we were (obviously) rolling in it.
Time passed. My husband graduated. We moved to Denver. He got a good job. I decided to go to grad school. I was lost, and I had a good project for a thesis so why not? But until school started, I was learning the meaning of “ennui.”
I responded to an ad in The Denver Post for volunteer tutors at a new program — The Adult Education Tutorial Program — that had been started by a nun and was held in an old red, sandstone church a few blocks away from my house, in the Highland Park area of Denver that was — back then — considered a semi-slum.
I’d never taught anybody anything. I had a lingering dislike for teachers and teaching was for losers, not incipient famous writers such as myself. Still, it was something to do until school started.
I walked to the church, went down the stairs, opened the door and took a deep breath. My palms were sweaty and my heart was pounding. What was I doing?
“Martha? I’m Sister Mary Augustine. Thank you so much for joining us. The program is new, but we think for some adults who want to go back to school but are afraid, tutoring just might work. Here’s some paperwork for you to fill out. Your student will be here at 10:30. Our sessions are an hour long.”
I met my student, a Hispanic man in his thirties named Ramón Hurtado. He lived all the way out in Fort Lupton, back then an agricultural community. I spoke a little Spanish and he spoke a high level of survival English. I asked him why he’d come to tutoring. He explained that his little girl was now in second grade, and she knew that when he read her bedtime stories, he wasn’t reading the words on the page. He was ashamed. “I didn’t go to school much,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I liked working with my family in the fields.” They had been migrant workers. “I could make money, too, and that was good.” He smiled. “But now I wish I went to school.”
We had to start at the alphabet.
We met twice a week and Ramón learned fast. He had that magical quality — internal motivation — and he had a sense of humor about himself. After three months, he was reading at a third-grade level, a little ahead of his daughter. I thought a good way to end our “class” would be for us to go to the library six blocks away and get him a library card. He was so excited to have a library card! He checked out two books to read to his little girl. He hadn’t told her he couldn’t read or that he was going to school. It was his secret.
When we met for our last class meeting, he was ecstatic. He’d read her both stories.
Nothing in my life had ever made me so deeply and completely happy. My experience with Ramón showed me that I was a teacher, not a newspaper reporter. When I started grad school, I was most excited about my job as a Teaching Assistant, and I continued volunteering at the Adult Education Tutorial program. It was the beginning of my career in teaching, a career that made me happy for more than thirty-five years.
“Panoply” makes my teeth itch. It’s an English teacher word (not its fault; I’m not blaming it), one of those that kids learn in high school as they develop their vocabulary so they can write longer more descriptive essays. Unfortunately, as a college writing teacher, it was my job to unteach them and it wasn’t always easy. Lots of students felt betrayed. “But my high school English teacher said…” I tried to explain it as the way a giant amorphous gaseous unfocused section of the universe could collapse into a singularity of immense gravity and power, smaller and more intense.
“Panoply” goes along with “plethora.” Back in the day, when I saw either of these words little worms crawled under the skin on my arm. I knew what was ahead of me.
So who were these kids? Mostly they were kids who thought using big words (that they never heard in real life) would impress their teacher. In their mind, “English teachers like these words. If I use these words, she will like me and I will get a better grade.” That smarmy, unctuous little creature didn’t get it.
“Why didn’t I get an A? I always got A’s on my English papers in high school.”
“Well, Lamont, you didn’t follow directions. This isn’t supposed to be an argumentative essay. It’s supposed to be an observation of a place in nature. I gave you a handout. All you had to do was fill it in as you looked around.”
“You never said that.”
“OK, that’s not a conversation I’m having, Lamont. If you look at this panoply of papers here, done by your classmates, you’ll see that everyone did the assignment except you. You tell me what that means, ‘K?”
“Lamont, you want a chance to do this assignment right? You don’t deserve it, but I’ll give it to you.” I didn’t say, “Because I’m the all-powerful deity in charge of this room for one hour three times a week and from my high promontory, I can make all things new again.” It was a PR stunt. A kid like this didn’t deserve a second chance, but if I gave it to him, it would speak well of me. It might (often did) turn into a teaching opportunity for a skill more important than writing. He might learn that his homework is for HIM not for ME.
“Yeah, really. I know you know what the assignment is. It’s on the syllabus, it’s on the handout I gave you.”
“Uh, I never got the handout.”
“How’d that happen?”
“Uh, I wasn’t here.”
“Awright. Here you go. Bring your paper Monday. You’ll lose a few points, but if you don’t do this project, a lot of the stuff in class won’t make sense, OK?”
I had an immense panoply of these kids. An entire plethora.
This time of year, I have dream after dream about school starting. I would be going back tomorrow if I were still teaching. Many students would be absent because of Burning Man and they would come back really pissed off that school didn’t start AFTER Labor Day. The air conditioner in my west-facing classroom might have gone on the fritz during summer (and no one knew) and the poor students might be sitting in 103 degree temps, their back against a passive solar panel (windows).
I always thought the first day of school was a joke anyway. Take roll, go over the syllabus (which, as time went on, got longer and more detailed) Here it is if you’re interested. It’s 9 pages long but it literally had EVERYTHING my students needed to get an A. They didn’t read it. (Note: I can’t believe I “Googled” my own syllabus or that it’s still there…) I’d deal with students hoping to add the class, (“Please professor”) always saying “No” and explaining the lottery system the college of business used at the time.
And in these dreams people from the past show up behaving very like themselves and then some, and I might be (appearing?) in one of the WORST of the numerous teaching situations throughout my career. It’s awful.
I was (for most of the 38 years) a teacher well-loved by students and despised by colleagues. Waking up yesterday from a VERY disturbing teaching dream, I decided to see what the wimmin of the American Language Institute (when I taught) were doing today. These vampiric entities had featured prominently in the nightmare of the wee hours of the morning.
As I searched, I had a few of those attacks of envy they say destroy our self-esteem if we use social media. Pout, pout. Then, out of nowhere, I thought of Desiderata, one section,
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Max Ehrmann
That’s wisdom. It made me think that rather than worrying about what THEY’VE been doing, I should think about what I had achieved in my career, my life. I mentally listed my little victories and my losses and thought, “Well, that was dumb. I’ve lived my life, they’ve lived theirs. Now if they would just stay out of my dreams! Especially since I haven’t seen them since the 90s!”