The Heartbreak of Teaching

What we can’t know when we’re faced with a group of students is what will happen to those students once they leave our care.

Care. I’ve written that word unconsciously, but now, deliberately, I think about it.

I’ve written and thought about what it means to teach, what it means to face a new group of students each year. I’ve been doing this for thirty years now — that’s a LOT of students, and inevitably, I’ve lost a few. They have faced addictions, their own demons, illness and violence. And they’ve blossomed too, into interesting adults with productive lives.

We’d like to think that after spending a few years in our classrooms, our students might be equipped with all that is necessary to navigate this world, because even though we spend our days teaching them how to construct sentences, or how to solve equations or to paint or act or sing or build robots, what we’re really teaching them is how to be. Aren’t we?

How to be awake to this marvelous life, how to discover their own passions and pursue them doggedly; how to think, how to rely on their own, smart brains and not be controlled by media, the government, anyone; how to make good choices, how to know their own self-worth; how to feel capable and confident and loved.

How to feel worthy.

So when, inevitably, one of our former students struggles — sometimes in public and devastating ways — we feel it too. We wonder if we did enough while the student was in our care. (Did we care? Enough?). We look back and we wonder, as in all retrospective wonderings — could we have done something differently? If we had done that one thing…if we had said that one thing…?

Now we know, if we’re not parents ourselves, just a tiny bit what it feels like to be a parent. Except in teaching — those young people are not in our daily lives. They leave our care. They head out into the world, sent off after the formal ceremony of graduation when we tell them via our speeches, you’re ready now. We’ve done our best. We hope you’ll be safe. 

And sometimes, for a myriad of reasons beyond our control, they’re not.

I can’t imagine, then, the terror of parenting, of hoping, hoping that what you’ve done is enough.

But what they don’t tell you when you start teaching is this: you are going to care. You are going to hope with all your heart that these vibrant young people in front of you will turn out OK. And they don’t tell you what to do if that turns out not to be the case.

Back from Vermont —

bush w: birdI’m back from Rochester,Vermont, back from four days and three nights at When Words Count retreat, a lovely, restorative, inspiring place for writers, especially emerging writers who are looking to break through with their first book.

When Words Count is a restored inn, with comfortable, book-filled rooms, walls covered in photographs of writers and writing memorabilia, a fireplace –and while we were there — a roaring fire in the Gertrude Stein salon, not to mention a working chef whose delicious meals kept us happily fed the entire time. All of this is enough for any writer, emerging or well-established, and my time at When Words Count suggests that all types of writers do make use of this beautiful spot. Who doesn’t love having all their meals prepared, enjoying appetizers and a glass of wine in front of the fire before dinner, socializing and sharing work with a group of interesting people, all of whom are working on creative projects? Owner Steve Eisner and Writer- in-Residence Marie White Small both are passionate about finding new talent and inviting them to Pitch Week — an opportunity for writers to earn a book deal in an “American Idol” type competition — or otherwise encouraging them to take their work seriously. They listen intently during post-dinner “hash sessions” and offer serious feedback, tremendous gifts to all writers on retreat, whether they are interested in Pitch Week or not. I left my time there uplifted and inspired.

We enjoyed snowy days while we were there, and the Vermont landscape, pre-spring New England skies (Red Sox Home Opener is TOMORROW, vs. the Nats!). Sometimes, just a change of surroundings is enough to jump start the muse. I was working on book edits — and the new setting in addition to the hash session feedback led to some breakthroughs. My time in Vermont was time well-spent on this spring break from school. Today is the transition day back;  it was just so delightful to let time unfold slowly, to not be tied to school’s schedule. but at least this week I start teaching The Great Gatsby!


Vermont Writing Retreat!

WhenWords Count signI was lucky enough to win a stay at When Words Count Writing Retreat in Rochester, VT, so I’m here for three days to edit my novel. I look out onto snowy fields, geese chattering, squawking. It isn’t spring yet, not here; it’s mud season, a fact we quite literally stumbled onto — or should I say drove onto when we turned to head up the unpaved road, mud ruts deep and slippery. We didn’t get stuck, luckily, but the drive was harrowing. This morning, temperatures hover just below freezing — good news for those attempting to navigate the dirt road–and maybe good news, too, for those of us here to write. The tattered American flag blows steadily. Trees are barren, snow-capped mountains off in the distance. This is rugged New England beauty, the stark beginning of spring. I’m happy to look at it all from the coziness of the Dickinson room, comfortable with lovely views but not the premiere room: FScott room

Pictures of F Scott and Zelda abound:

F Scott and Zelda

And evidence of writers and writing everywhere — a view of the “Salon:”

Gertrude typewriter

Shortly after our arrival yesterday late afternoon, we were treated to wine and hors d’oeuvres in the salon, a roaring fire in the fireplace. We are well-fed: three meals a day prepared by the on-site chef. Who wouldn’t trust a chef whose kitchen is adorned with pictures such as these?


Time now to get to work! More later —

A Setting Exercise — and Why Setting Matters

As a writer, I have always been preoccupied by place and why it matters. What does it mean to be from somewhere, I ask my students, both my American lit students and my writers. In American lit, we are looking predominantly at what it means to be called an American writer–what, if anything, distinguishes AMERICAN literature?
Russell Banks says there are two things that separate American literature from all the rest: race and space.

I’m inclined to agree.

So as we take up our exploration of American literature, we think about those two concepts of race and space and see how they influence the writers and texts we study together.Pretty much immediately, the issue of race becomes clear — first, as a matter of omission –(In Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis,” Paine writes: “Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth…” My students are rightly indignant. How,they ask, can the colonists compare their situation to slavery? And how, they want to know, can Paine and others call for freedom when there are already enslaved Africans on American soil? — and later, as we read Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and then The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, race as a central theme in American literature is plainly evident.

Currently, we are reading Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. In this story of Alexandra Bergson and her family, homesteaders on the Nebraska plain, the part of land known in the novel as the Divide, the concept of space becomes clear. The land is as much a character as the humans who inhabit it, try to tame it, cultivate it. So for their journal assignment, I’m asking my students to consider their own relationship to place/space/land. What does it mean to be from someplace, I ask them? Where are you from? How does that influence who you are?

I ask them, what does it mean to be a Virginian (if, indeed, they are)? A Southerner?

To provoke them — I quote Scott Russell Sanders in his book Staying Put: Making Home in a Restless World:  “To become intimate with your home region, to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into the local life does not prevention you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places if you don’t have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.” I ask my students, what do you think of this? Do you agree w/ Sanders? Why or why not?

I am only coming to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sanders’ words as I grow older, and maybe also as I watch my students and other young people I know become less tuned in to the natural world, less comfortable navigating via landmarks instead of GPS, less able to orient themselves in their immediate surroundings. I am alarmed every time I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I ask the question, where are Huck and Jim headed on the Mississippi? And I get answers like Connecticut, California, Massachusetts — and this from high school juniors in a Governor’s School, dual enrollment students in my college-credit class.

And in Fiction II, when I teach Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, we have to spend a little time on first finding Morocco on a map, then discussing how it is that Lalami’s characters can go from Morocco to Spain, what body of water they are crossing, why it is that these characters want to leave Morocco in the first place. We talk about the Arabic words, the Muslim religion, and why some of the characters speak French.

I lament the loss of geography as a school subject — even the memorizing of state capitals, the drawing of maps. In our technological world, I’m afraid that maps will become a lost art, and I fear the repercussions.

So, as a writer and teacher of writing, I am constantly trying to reinforce that place matters, that where our characters come from will deeply influence their actions, the way they see the world and move in it.

And Just the other day, I had a discovery. I took an exercise from the book Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers, Sherry Ellis, ed. (you can check out or buy the book here) . I adapted Geoffrey Becker’s exercise, “A Very, Very Long Sentence” in which he asks readers to write a 250-word sentence that begins “On a Friday night in _______________ .” I routinely ask my students, usually the beginners, the freshmen, usually at the beginning of the year, when we’re writing nonfiction, to write down that phrase, “On a Friday night in ___________ ” and to fill the blank with the name of their hometown. Then I say, we’re going to write for 10 minutes. I set the timer. Your job, I tell them, is to write one continuous sentence for 10 minutes. Try not to write a run-on. Try to let the details emerge so we get a sense of your hometown on a Friday night. And then we go. At the end, when they share, the results are always worthwhile, often surprising, usually vibrantly alive.

But my revelation was this: I could use this exercise in fiction too. I could use it for students to explore their characters, to help determine what it means to their characters to be from somewhere. And I realized that I could use it for a variety of nonfiction projects. If I needed more place details, I could pull out this exercise and go. I could vary it up — Friday night, Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon. I could see what details emerge. Try it. See what you come up with.