March 7, 2014 Leave a comment
Yesterday I realized that I know how to teach writing to 19-year-olds.
It’s all done with mirrors and wires.
I mean that literally, not in the sense that it’s stage magic.
The teacher has to see himself if he’s a man, herself, if she’s a woman (see how ridiculous our phony reliance on a grammar that never really existed is? I should have the courage of my conviction and say, “The teacher has to see themself. . .) mirrored in the face of the student. More important, the teacher has to be transparent enough to allow the student to see themself mirrored in the teacher’s face.
That is, of course, almost impossible, and it happens—if the teacher is lucky beyond belief—about once a semester. It is, however, the moment a real teacher lives for.
The wires part is simpler. The teacher uses wires (or something kinder and more esthetically pleasing) to hold the student up long enough for the student to figure out on their own what makes their writing good. Not what the MLA or some other surreal body says is good writing. No. How students can correctly use enough of the (stultifying) conventions of writing to gather about themselves the mantle of a clear personal voice with which they can tell the world (or their lover or the university or their parents or . . .) what they want those folks to know. The mantle of a clear personal voice.
How’s that for a figure of speech as surreal as a Dali painting?
One wraps oneself in a mantle, of course, so you might be thinking, “How can one possibly ‘wrap oneself’ in something that is intended to communicate, not to hide?”
One’s voice, whether spoken or written, is, in fact meant to hide. Old people understand that, I think. We understand that communication is impossible. I don’t have any intention of telling you what’s really swirling in my head.
OK. I will.
I am grieving. Grieving the ending of my job in which I get daily to try to let a student see himself (the best parts of himself and the parts of me that are worthy of mirroring) mirrored in me. Kindness (once in a while). Generosity. Humility. Curiosity. (These things almost never, except for curiosity). I want my students to know they can stop judging themselves and reject the judgment of others—even the grades they assigned in class (grades intended to insure the failure of a certain percentage of students). I am grieving my loneliness. I do not want to end my days in a ratty, unkempt apartment (any apartment where I live alone will be unkempt) without companionship, without someone to watch over and to watch over me. I joy in my cats—stinky as their litter boxes sometimes are. I rejoice and thank the universe for my students. I love my family. I am hungry at the moment and my Grapenuts are soaking. I’m afraid of the final paycheck. I want sex (I said you didn’t want to know what’s swirling in my head). I fear Barak Obama has become one of the powerful elite out of touch with reality. I fear the US is responsible for the mess in The Ukraine as much as anyone—going back way before this administration (it’s The Ukraine, indicating a region, not a country with logical borders). I think the Dean who asked me to retire is a mousy little man. I’d like to get to the Landry Fitness Center today, but I can’t.
There. You think this writing is supposed to communicate all of that nonsense?
Of course not!
My writing is meant to hide my innards and communicate with you some semblance of order, fitness, and ability to cope with the world.
But it is not meant to be untrue. Or deceptive. Or mean. Or hurtful. Or. . .
Some people mantle themselves with a voice of humor. I cannot imagine the world without Tim Conway’s mantle. Some are poets. Can you imagine the word without Maxine Kumin’s mantle? Some people are composers. Can you imagine the world without Krzysztof Penderecki‘s mantle?
These are famous, highly developed mantles. I can’t imagine the world without yours. We communicate by hiding. We make symbols for what we mean. We mirror each other. We mirror ourselves.
It’s what makes us human. We don’t have to strike out at each other. We don’t have to weep uncontrollably (although some of us do that more than others). We don’t have to assault anyone sexually. We don’t have to . . .
We wrap ourselves in the mantle of symbolic communication. It’s how we survive. It’s how we say “love.”
The greatest joy of my life, and my best accomplishment if there is one, is my helping a few nineteen-year-olds begin to weave the mantle which will at the same time protect them and allow them to participate fully in their lives.
I want, I demand, I need more opportunity for that. I do not want to retire. At least not to stop teaching.