Tuesday, May 21, 2013

We drink. We smoke. We teach.

When I was 17 I decided that I wanted to be a high school English teacher (actually, I wanted to be Jack Kerouac, hitchhiking across the country, hopping freight trains, and writing; but I decided teaching English would be a more viable option.) I love literature and the realization that I could spend my day, every day, talking about literature and the ideas about society and humanity, was enlightening and amazing. I couldn’t wait for my future to come.

And then sometime during my sophomore year of college, I decided that I wanted to teach college English, prompted in part by a couple courses I took that changed the way I thought about literature, writing, and education, and how the three meld together in academic discourse. At that point, my metamorphosis from mere reader to academic intellectual was beginning. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time; all I knew was that I wanted to teach college. So, of course, I did the most logical thing I could: I got a degree in middle grades education, with certifications to teach English and social studies, knowing that I had no desire to teach in most of the grades in which I would be certified, 5-9. Ninth grade? Sure. Anything lower than that? Not a chance, especially after my student teaching experience, wherein I spent 16 weeks teaching 7th graders how to write poetry and about the society of Ancient Rome. That experience taught me much about the world of education, but it primarily served to exacerbate any underlying concerns I had about teaching anything lower than high school. But I convinced myself that my BA in education would serve as a springboard to getting an MA in English, thus allowing me to teach college.

After college graduation, I would spend two years as an adjunct teaching developmental writing and ACT preparatory courses at a local community college. And then, through a twist of fate and providence, I wound up back where I’d wanted to when I was 17: I got a job teaching freshman and sophomore English at a local high school. To say I was nervous as my first day of my new job approached would be an obvious understatement. I was petrified, especially as in the month leading up to the first day, as I spent time planning and prepping, I learned that the high school experience I had left just eight years previous was remarkably different from the world I was entering as an educator. Nearly totally gone was the discussion of literature that I had loved as a student, replaced by a focus on informational texts. No longer did we read the entirety of novels, instead focusing on individual parts that met various standards. In fact, I was told that I may be wise to choose my standards to teach prior to selecting a work; that way I would ensure I was meeting the different standards. And, perhaps best of all, it seemed, I may not even have to teach the entirety of the work to meet the standards! If I could teach the theme of Of Mice and Men by reading just a few scenes, why waste time reading all of it? In the place of reading whole novels in class came Accelerated Reader, a program I had last seen as a middle school student. I quickly came to the conclusion that nothing in my past—not my time as a high school student, not my education courses, not even my time teaching developmental writing—had prepared me for teaching high school.

And I found the amount of paperwork and documentation, to say nothing of the grading, as certain assignments were mandated, staggering. Overwhelming at times. There were days during the first few months of teaching high school that I went home on the verge of tears, questioning whether I was truly supposed to be teaching high school, if maybe I had missed my calling somewhere and had totally screwed up the path my life was supposed to take. The newness of my teaching experience coupled with the tumultuous twists and terms of my personal life during the course of the year left me stressed, overwhelmed, and often unbearable to those around me, a fact of which I’m not proud. But I’ve learned a lot this year—about teaching, about the world of high school, about the nature of learning and what it means to learn—and I hope to carry all that I’ve learned this year into the next; and I believe I will be a better teacher for what I’ve learned and done this year.

And one thing I’ve learned is that many of us who teach are medicated; some self-medicated, some actually medicated. Lexapro. Prozac. Zoloft. You name it, we’re on it. Enough of us in education are on some sort of anti-anxiety medication and/or antidepressant that we could moonlight as apothecaries. We stand in the hallways between classes, talking about how we can’t wait to “tie one on” that evening, how we plan to wreck our livers over the weekend, all to cope with the stress of teaching. Just to get up and do it again the next day, the next week. The next year. Many of us sneak off on planning periods and lunch breaks to smoke out of the sight of our students, anything to calm our nerves before the bell rings. We vent and complain, bounce ideas off each other; we lament the way it used to be, the way it was when we started teaching, how it was when we were students. We wonder where society and education went wrong and what we can do to fix it. We have ideas and plans, grand schemes to save the public education system and our students, to better prepare them for college and the real world they will enter after graduation. We have the best of intentions, ways to get our students engaged in the arts, in the world around them, to make them more well-rounded individuals and citizens. And we do this, every day, in some form or fashion. Yet we always lament that we could do more but don’t, for one reason or another. Perhaps it’s a lack of resources, of funding, or maybe it’s simply a lack of time to accomplish all we would like to. Time is our greatest commodity, and it is so fleeting. The day ends and we stare at the paperwork on our desks, just waiting for us to get back to it the next day. We spend evenings and weekends grading and planning for the next week, documenting student successes and failures, parent contacts.

And then the year ends, and we’re tired. Some of us check out in the last few weeks, following our students down a path of apathy once survival mode sets in. We welcome summer with open arms, ready for the months-long break that awaits us. And I know we’re not that unique. Most people find their jobs overbearing and difficult; most people have down days and reach survival mode long before the weekend offers a brief respite. But I suppose I write this because I’m surprised: surprised by the difficulties of teaching in a world where the standards of education are in flux ; surprised by the level of stress associated with my chosen career; surprised by the number of us who love our jobs but get through them primarily with the help of medication.

But I’m also surprised by how rewarding it can be. Every once in a while, I’ll see the progress a student has made, or a student will thank me for making a difference in his life, or for being the first English teacher in ten years of school to teach her anything about English. And even on the darkest days, that brief thank you is bright enough for a silver lining. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

What to Know Before You Sleep with a Writer

“You should know that I’m a writer. Anything you say can and will be stored away or written down, edited, revised, and manipulated over the course of the next several years, before ultimately winding up in a short story, novel, or play.” I actually said that to a friend of mine over dinner one night. We decided that if any story or dialogue I stole from her side of the conversation wound up in a prize-winning work, I’d give her co-author credit for Pulitzer purposes. That dinner has since become the basis for a scene in my play.  It was a few weeks later that she and I went to dinner again. We had decided that it would be a good idea for me to meet new people now that I’m divorced, so after she and I went to dinner, we met up with her boyfriend and several of her friends from medical school at what I soon learned was a college bar in Huntington. It was the second bar she and I had been to in as many months, and I quickly came to realize that this one was quite different. The first had been dark and moderately quiet, had unique d├ęcor, and had been filled with well-dressed people who could easily have passed for stereotypical yuppies and intellectuals. My kind of place. This one, however, was bright and loud, with sports on the TV, people crammed all around the bar in skimpy clothes and t-shirts, everyone trying to hook up with anyone and anything that was awake and breathing. And I’m starting to think the lack of the last qualifications would’ve by no means been a deal breaker for some. I ordered a Courvoisier, my favorite cognac. The bartender looked at me as though I had two heads and then wandered off to find the other bartender, who ultimately affirmed the first’s belief that either she or I had no idea what the hell we were talking about. “We don’t serve that,” she said suspiciously upon returning. So I ordered a Hennessy. Nope. No cognac of any kind.

I was out of place and I knew it as I sipped my Maker’s Mark. (At least they had bourbon.) I was surrounded by strangers, friends of a friend, most of whom I will likely never see again, all of whom were lost in varying degrees of drunkenness. I tried to engage some in conversation—a fellow divorcee who was more than happy to give me drunken advice on the ills of marriage was also all too happy to talk about his new-found freedom—but mostly I did what I do best: I listened. In most situations, it seems that’s what I do best. I walked away from that night more sure of who I was (and was not) as a person (ideas best kept for another entry) but more than that, I walked away with stories. Several stories taken from drunken conversation about hang-ups, hookups, one night stands, love, and loss. I was amazed at the stories people would willingly tell over drinks with a stranger. And I warned them that I was a writer working on a play and a novel, that anything they said may well be used against them in fiction. They kept talking. I walked away from the bar typing notes into my phone and leaving myself voice memos in which I ran dialogue with myself as if I were rehearsing.

I’ve always been interested in where stories come from, where we get the ideas that formulate our plots and subplots, how our characters and their words are based in elements of reality, and how much truth—personal truth—goes into fiction writing. It is not uncommon, now, for me to grab my phone mid-conversation and start typing out a gist of what the other person is saying. Those who also write get it; they understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I suppose that makes my seeming rudeness forgivable: it’s in the name of art.

A writer friend and I were at a pizza place a few weeks ago and our waitress was rather funny. At one point, she started to launch into a story, but I stopped her. “I should warn you,” I said, motioning to my friend across the table, “we’re both writers. There’s a chance anything you say will wind up in print.” She laughed and then launched into a story that one of her customers told her when asked if he wanted a straw. “I don’t drink from a straw,” he had said. “It looks like I’m drinking from a penis!” We chuckled at her story, but all the while, I couldn’t help but wonder what had prompted the man to say it in the first place. I’m intrigued by the conversations we have in public. What is it that drives us to tell things to complete strangers, things we likely shouldn’t? Or to have private conversations in the most public of forums: restaurants?
I don’t have an answer. I don’t even really know that I want one. If I figured out what it was about us as a people that drove us to do that, I don’t know that I would find the idea so interesting. So in the meantime, I’ll keep listening to those around me. Keep lifting parts of text messages and manipulating them. Writing down the conversations I have.

So what should you know before you sleep with, live with, or marry a writer: we write, and we don’t just make everything up from scratch. So be careful what you say and know that we really are listening, just maybe not in the way you think. Maybe we’re tweaking your words to make them sound just a little bit better, or imagining what your speech would sound like in an Irish accent. Maybe with a few more or less swear words. Or maybe we’re wondering if you’ll recognize yourself ten years down the road when you wind up in our work.