Teaching, School, and Real Life

I want to write about teaching. I think I want to write a book about teaching as spiritual practice — in some small, small way, I think that’s what I’ve been doing here on my blog…I’ve been thinking more and more about this, and here is where I’ll try out some ideas. You can let me know what you think.

Here’s what I know: that teaching doesn’t need any more testing, and probably not even any more standards to meet either. Teaching is about human interactions. It’s about waking students up to their lives.

I tell my students every fall — I know you think that your “real life” is over here — I point to one side — and then school is over here — I point to the other side. And as long as you think that way, you’re just going through the motions. What you do in school won’t matter because you’re just jumping through hoops. 

I tell them that this is their real life, right now. It’s all we get, I say. One shot. One life. Who knows how much time we each have?

I say, I know you think your “exciting real life” starts sometime later — after you graduate, after you get into college, after you get a job. I remind them again that this is it. Their lives are happening right now.

We are reminded of this when we read Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. It seems to hit them most powerfully when we read Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Be present now, I tell them.

Richard Rohr writes in his daily meditation:

The belief that God is “out there” is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our understandings of our sexuality; of our relationship to food, possessions, and money; and of our relationship to animals, nature, and our own incarnate selves. This loss is foundational as to why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came precisely to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect, “To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This world is the hiding place of God and the revelation of God!”

He uses more Christian language than I’m sometimes comfortable with, but I think in some way, he and I are saying the same thing. Whitman is saying this same thing. This world is the hiding place of God and the revelation of God. 

Maybe you can use different language to make personal sense of this — the world is the hiding place of wonder or mystery. But what I mean by God when I use the word doesn’t reference a Being but instead lies closer to what Emerson called The Oversoul — that Divine essence that links us all together, that is within each of us.

Helping students realize they each have it? That’s what teaching needs. What it is. What it should be.

holding at bayThis is how it feels, those last minutes of vacation, of free time, the work week looming. It’s Labor Day, summer’s end. And how we want to keep those days of fall from approaching! How we long to keep summer here — days of sunshine and beach,  when we don’t have anything pressing to do. If we just…if we just…

But inevitably, the day arrives when we have to go back to work. The vacation ends. Fall arrives.

I empathize with this boy, trying valiantly to hold the tide at bay. Our whole lives can feel like this —  our children grow up, they go to college, get married — and each milestone brings change to our lives. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just hold it all back? Can’t we just keep things as they are?

Of course we can’t. Nor, really, do we want them to. And Nature reminds us of this fact. The tide reminds us as it comes and goes — advancing and retreating whether we want it to or not, the force greater than any of us and any walls we might put up.

Fall, for teachers, is like this. A new season. New students. Time to get it right. Here we go!

My Salon.com essay!

So, I wrote an essay for Kevin Jenning’s new book One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Teachers Talk About What Has Gotten Better…And What Hasn’t (Amazon link here or Beacon Press link here) — and Salon.com decided to showcase it to call attention to the book’s publication. Of course, I was excited– though I THOUGHT Salon was excerpting the essay and instead, they published it in its entirety.

The feedback was mostly terrific — lots of former students wrote to say what it meant to them to hear my story, what it meant to attend ARGS (where I teach) — such heartfelt and gratifying responses. Of course, there were lots of negative reactions too, mostly those left on Salon, readers who thought I was bigoted against the South, a condescending Northern snob. And I have to say — it felt strange to have people drawing conclusions about me who know nothing about me. And then, there was the one email sent to my school email address, about how I wasn’t “born gay” and how I could benefit from “straight” therapy. Straight to spam, that one!

Worse, perhaps, was the way Salon decided to “market” the essay–with the tagline “”After 21 years in a private school in Cambridge, I took a job in the South. It was not what I expected.”
First of all — that isn’t a true statement. I taught for 10 years in Andover, MA, 3 in Cambridge, MA and then 7 at VCU (in Richmond, VA) before I took the job I currently hold. Salon didn’t ask me if they could put those words in my mouth. And they slanted my essay in a way it wasn’t meant to be slanted.

Still — as a writer, it’s pretty exciting to have my work featured on Salon.com — though I wish I had known the way in which it was going to be featured before it happened. (No one asked my permission, though the publicity director at Beacon Press notified me that my essay was going to be “excerpted” on Salon.com around publication time).

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the link to Salon. Enjoy– and let me know what you think!

Summer Surprises — and a Lesson!

Green Harbor marina We are back from our summer adventure, six-weeks of visiting friends and family, savoring the sights and sounds and tastes that are New England — sunsets like this one at the Green Harbor Marina, lobster rolls on Martha’s Vineyard, fried oysters at Haddads, sailing in Casco Bay, Maine, the lakes and mountains and covered bridges of Vermont; Fenway Park for both a Red Sox game and concert (James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, also, in their own way, sounds of New England); the salty beach air and cool ocean swims — it was all glorious, made even more so because of the people we shared it with.

In between visits, I worked on my novel revisions and wrote some flash fiction.

One visit stands out though, a reunion with a former student, herself now an adult, a teacher too, about to to start the year as a department head in a new school. I taught this woman — I’ll call her S — when she was in junior high, and I remember her as an outgoing, funny girl, whose warm spirit and humor I enjoyed very much. We met for brunch, my partner and I, S and her wife, married now for five years. Over pancakes and eggs, she told me this story:

“Do you remember X (another student)?” S asked me.
I didn’t, only vaguely, though once the story started unfolding, memories emerged.
“Do you remember when you took a big group of us on the Walk for Hunger?”
I did. Each year in Massachusetts, Project Bread organizes The Walk for Hunger, a 20-mile walk through Boston and neighboring communities, to bring awareness and raise money to combat hunger in Massachusetts. Back then, a teacher in my twenties, I thought it was one way young people could feel empowered and helpful. Plus, I thought, walking twenty miles for a 12- or 13-year old was no easy feat. So, for several years, I organized a group of students to walk the route with me, teaching them, I hoped, about commitment, about being part of something larger than themselves, about ways they could make a real difference even as young kids, and about the reality of hunger around them.
“Do you remember,” S continued, “X and I started telling gay jokes and you told us to ‘keep the parachute open?”
I smiled. “I remember I used to always say ‘Your mind is like a parachute; it only works when it’s open.”
She nodded and went on. “We kept doing it, kept telling more jokes. One of our friends even walked away from us, saying we were jerks. But you just kept saying, ‘keep the parachute open.'”
I laughed at the memory, seeing the large group of kids I had with me that year, some of them straggling as we neared the finish, the Charles River beside us. The first weekend in May, some of those Walks were warm, though not all of them sunny.
S took a breath and continued: “Then, maybe a year or so later, X and I realized that you were probably gay. There was a woman who used to come to our basketball games; we figured out it was your partner, but being 13, we didn’t have the courage to apologize. X and I are still friends, (both of them lesbians), and every time we see each other– maybe once a year– we talk about this and how bad we felt, how much we wished we had apologized. So now, for the both of us, I’m officially apologizing. And I want to thank you,” she said, “for dealing so gracefully with us back then.”

It has been about thirty years since I told those girls to “keep their parachutes open.” So much time has gone by that I have only the vaguest memories of one of them and no memory of them telling gay jokes or making me angry or upset, though I do remember the day itself. I’m glad I had the wherewithal to be graceful in my response; that hasn’t always been the case in my teaching career. I’ve lost my temper a few times, never to any good. I wish, too, that I had been able to be more honest and open with them (that would come a few years later, when I came out to the whole school, something I documented in an essay that appeared in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories).  I wish that on the long 20-mile walk I might have been able to talk with them about my own experiences as a lesbian, as a gay teacher, what it meant to hear them — students I liked very much — telling gay jokes, though if I had, I might not have kept my humor and grace. But I, too, was young and fearful. Now, as an older, more experienced teacher, being open in the classroom is less about me and much more about my students, how I can help them in their struggles — a story I have chronicled in another essay, appearing in the new anthology — a 20th anniversary edition of the first one — One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Educators Speak Out About What’s Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t. 

The lessons are several: what we say to our students matters. It sticks with them. Kindness goes a long way. Helping kids find their way is tricky business, and sometimes we have the dumb luck to do it well even though we might not realize the good we have done for years. (We usually know immediately when we harm, though — and that requires an instant apology.)

Thank you, S, for your graceful reminder to me after all these years, of what matters most.

End of the School Year Musings

This is a belated post. School has been over for a week now, so I have had time to regroup, finish some lingering projects, get ready for our summer adventure. But before I head out, I wanted to post these thoughts. I have posted before of how I love reading my students’ portfolios, love listening to their portfolio presentations when they often choose to read from their reflective cover letters. With each portfolio submission — the literary arts equivalent to an exam — we ask the students to reflect back on their learning throughout the semester or year and to discuss what they’ve learned — possibly the best way for kids to a) realize what it is they have learned; and b) in articulating it, begin to internalize their new knowledge. But perhaps even more important than both of these good outcomes is this: my students tell me how much they have learned about themselves. That, to me, is the real goal of education. And of course, something that cannot possibly be tested.

Here are some samples from my Creative Nonfiction I class — all sophomores. Listen to how self-aware, how smart they are!

“I’d say the most difficult thing about writing is being honest. Some people can just dish it all out, leaving all of their feelings into their writing. I’m working on that. I’m working on trusting myself enough to tell the story right, to not make myself sound any cooler or more troubled than I actually am.”‘

“I think I’ve definitely improved all around, but I’d have to give the most credit to my voice in pieces. I’ve noticed that in almost each and every piece I write, more and more people seem to comment on the voice…and I take great pride in that. I think I still lack to ability to find the heart of my pieces. Even if the heart seems to be there for me, my readers tend to have difficulty finding it. I think this has a direct correlation to my inability to write deep.”

“I learned that language is the key and fall back to objects because they will provide the memories and the stories. Pictures can lie even though they capture the truth in one moment. They still don’t tell how people change. I’ve also learned that finding yourself through nature and others is inevitable.”

“I’ve learned how to view myself and others deeper and in different ways than I ever thought I could.”

“I know I’ve progressed a lot this year as a writer. Honestly, it’s because I’ve become more opened to the idea of not thinking too much when I [compose] because it comes from the HEART, and the senses, come on, CSDs (my note: this stands for Concrete, significant details) always.” This writer goes on to say: “Nonfiction is a genre that has been shunned by unbelievers like me when really, it is basically as personal and as real as you can get with your writing, and isn’t that what our goal as writers is? To be 100% with what we put down on paper, because what we write can be all we have sometimes.”

“We’ve had a lot of great moments in this class! We’ve had some incredible readings that have left deep stains of resonance on me — “Good-bye to all That” and “Fourth State of Matter” were probably my favorites. THere’s just something about the way Joan Didion recalls her time in New York. She seems to feel like an alien in her city, her home. That’s what I’ve been really focusing on this year, I think: the idea of Home, where it is and what it is.”

“Creative nonfiction was something I had never done before and is something I never thought I would do. Opening up to people that I barely knew was something I never thought I’d be comfortable with, so I think my most valuable experience is that everyone was understanding through my pieces, in both listening and helping make them stronger.”

“I am going to take away so much from this class, not only pertaining to writing, but also to, well, life. I definitely found out more about myself this year and learned to not care what others think of me and to continue to strive to be fearless…I’ve learned more about the simple process of being and letting the world connect with myself and to just write.”

“I see nonfiction as a way to place myself in the universe. That’s the reason it’s so amazing, because with creativity, I can connect myself with earth’s elements and the cosmos. It’s easy to get caught up in how big and complex everything is around you. I used to think my time as a teenager was kind of like empty space, like I had to just go through the motions and do as I’m told till I can live my life as an adult. I think writing nonfiction made me realize that I, too, am here.”

Their favorite essays? Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” a perennial favorite, but then more surprising ones like Joan Didion’s “Good-bye to All That” (mentioned by a few of them), and Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale,” Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Silent Dancing.” Two students mentioned Jennifer Price’s “A Brief Natural History of The Pink Flamingo” for these reasons: “…this piece has stuck with me. Maybe it’s because the title includes one of my favorite subjects — history. Or maybe it’s because Price chose to write about something [that seemed] so trivial rather than a pressing issue in society.” And, “One of the most important things to me is culture and protecting things that need to be protected. But along with that, it’s important to tell people what they need to know, to expose the things that need to exposed. That piece help me, because, in a way, it made me feel like I wasn’t the only one going crazy.”
One student said this about “Good-bye to All That” — “There was something about the way she made you feel like you were right there with her. Reading that, I could smell, hear, feel New York and it made me realize just how important the scene of a story is. Images are everything.”

About Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale” (which several of them mentioned as their favorite): “Of all the pieces we read this year, I think that “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss has been the most inspiring and most memorable. I loved how Ms. Biss literally compiled, like, 10 short essays into one giant one, and each of them were connected by the theme of describing each of the ten points on the pain scale. It was beautiful how she incorporated actual science and real medical talk with stories of her father and her own feelings. I hope one day I can write a perfect essay like that.”


What IF…?

What if we resisted?

What if schools stood up, one by one or collectively, and said NO?  What if someone threw a standardized test party and no one showed? What if school leaders said out loud what we all know — that the tests are damaging to our students, that taking TWO WEEKS to give standardized tests — TWO WEEKS during which very little other teaching goes on, TWO WEEKS of mind-numbing, empty time, TWO WEEKS during which teachers, who must administer tests cannot grade, cannot read, cannot do ANYTHING else while they are administering the test — are TWO WEEKS better spent doing something else? Teaching, say?

What if we just said no?
No, we won’t give the tests. No, we won’t buy into the idea that all students know the same things, that all students learn at the same rates, that all students are the same, should take the same course of study?

What if we started to envision schools in a radically new way? What if we decided that schools were meant to be the place for young people to discover their passions, to cultivate their talents, to discover? What if we acknowledged that true education isn’t tied to a job, that learning isn’t meant to be training?

What if we stopped doing what we’re “supposed to do?” Stopped being dutiful? What if we did what we know is right for kids?


Back when I was a young teacher, I used to resist a lot. Now, as I get older, it gets alternately harder and easier — harder mostly because of fatigue. I just don’t have the energy I used to. But easier because I care less about what people think. OF course I need the job– I can’t simply quit — but I feel less vulnerable in some ways, more able to speak my mind, more able to see what matters. I can’t help but think of Emerson and Thoreau and about the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. About the calls for resistance, the calls NOT to conform, the calls to stand up for what is true and right.

Of course, I am also thinking about Baltimore and those citizens who can no longer be silent, who feel pushed to explode, who are screaming SEE ME, HEAR ME. I want to say: in some small, tiny way I get that. So much happens because we let it, because we don’t say ENOUGH, because we do what we are told, because we don’t resist.

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.