Tag Archives: teacher

The Ghost Ship

“What do I do after … this?” I gesture around the room, and while I’m well aware that this could be interpreted as any number of things, I’m aware that H understands what I mean–graduate. Leave academia. I am comfortable here. I may not have always been the biggest fan of graduate school, but I can still negotiate a classroom setting like the best of them. Can I negotiate a world setting? I’m not sure. Other people think so, but I find myself continually pondering my capabilities. I want to write. I don’t want to walk dogs forever; it’s not how I’m interested in earning a living.

“Well, you’ll publish. And then you’ll teach. You have all this teaching experience, and as a published MFA, you’re qualified to use it.” Her expression indicated this should have been obvious to me. It wasn’t.

I have two lives for the first time. I am not just a girl who hides in the corner and scribbles in a notebook; I am also a dog walker with many regular dog friends who has to deal with doggy parents day in and day out. My boss has a life path for me that involves me getting certified as a dog trainer and helping the training side of the business. I love my each and every one of my dogs for different special reasons. I love what I do. But it isn’t what I thought I’d do. It’s a different ship than the boat I sailed to New York on.

I am interested in dog training, but I’m not. I can’t see how it would work with the life that I want, but I don’t how to say no to my boss. Have I ever said no? To anyone? And the most important question: When would I write?

Writing used to come easily to me; I did it all the time and everywhere. But now that it’s a thing I am supposed to do, I don’t really do it. I sit on my bed when I’m supposed to be working; I stare out the window. I watch people walking down the sidewalk without coats—it’s 70 degrees out today in New York City. It’s bright and sunny and warm and I am not a writer, because I am too busy being a dog walker. I have to make time. This is new to me recently, this idea that writing is something that has to be worked in, new because I never worked it in before. It just happened. 

“How do I get here?” I ask H. I stop just short of saying How do I be you? What I want, what I have always wanted, is to be where she is. A professor, working one on one with students and teaching classes, but a writer first and foremost. It is obvious as we sit across from each other, her bare feet up on her desk and mine tucked beneath me as the sun sets out the window behind us, that she has a different plan for me. We talk about my future, about the position that is mine for the taking next year, should I choose to teach. It is a good position, with benefits, and it has always been my dream. But I don’t say yes right away. H can see farther ahead than I—she can see all the books that I will write, the students I will teach, the relationships I will form, where all I can see are dogs. All I can see is my writing life sailing away because I am too scared to get on the boat I worked so hard to start moving. By not writing, by stopping myself, I am standing on the pier and watching it move away.

In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes, “I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

I want my writer life to be the life I choose. I don’t want writing to be my ghost ship. I am ready to catch that boat that is already sailing away.

So, today, I make myself a schedule for the first time ever. I write. I sail. And next year? I teach.

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Mrs. Thomas

(A new thing that I’m trying–the short essay, 500 words or less.)

I thought the phone call was about Chuck e Cheese.

I urged my Grandma to answer the phone. It rang a lot before she got to it. I was practically bouncing up and down into the plaid couch cushions.

You see, my best friend, Alanna, was supposed to be having a birthday party. At Chuck e Cheese. I didn’t get to go there often, only for parties. But I loved the games and the fun little prizes I could get with all of the tickets I won at the games. The day before said party, which was to be the highlight of my third grade winter, Alanna came down with the chicken pox. A massive phone tree went out. No more party. We couldn’t have a bunch of third grade girls coming down with the scratchy sickness and missing the last days of school before Christmas vacation.

My grandma answered the phone when it rang, on the little pink landline that still hangs in her kitchen to this day. The hello was her normal bright tone; I was listening carefully while also keeping an eye on my episode of Rugrats. But then she took the phone and disappeared down the hallway, the curly pink cord stretching into her bedroom and the door shutting behind her.

It wasn’t about the party then. I went back to my cartoon, having rapidly lost interest in whatever was occurring in the bedroom.

My grandma came out of her room a few minutes later and quietly hung up the phone, but I didn’t pay much attention until she crossed the room and stood in front of me. “Shut off the tv for a second.”

I did, annoyed that it was in the middle of my show.

“So listen.” She sat down on the fluffy pink armchair next to the couch. “Your second grade teacher, Mrs. Thomas, passed away last night.”

“Passed away? What does that mean?”

“She…died.”

“She did?” My eyes were quite wide. Death to me was a thing relegated to tv shows like The Simpsons, not something that happened in real life. “How?”

“She had a problem inside her head. She went to sleep and she didn’t wake up.”

“Okay,” I replied. I clicked the remote on button and went back to my tv show.

I found out later that the “problem” my grandma had been referring to was an aneurysm. My former teacher’s brain had literally exploded; they hadn’t been able to get her to the hospital in time. My former teacher, the one who fixed my broken zipper at recess, the one who french braided my hair, the one who encouraged me to read, was gone. The former teacher who had given us all a red apple Christmas ornament before our second grade Christmas break.

It was Christmas time. I found the ornament on the tree, and there was a tiny chip out of it. Like someone had taken a bite. A piece that was forever missing.

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And Then Teaching Made Me Very, Very Sad

My reasons for writing this are two-fold. One, I am procrastinating. Two, my day has blown literal chunks, which means I must turn to reflection to plow through it.

One of the most common questions I get is, “What are you going to do with your degree?” My general response is, “Well, I’m going to write.” It seems fairly obvious—a Creative Writing MFA, a writer. My sort of math. But then there is the ever-present looming threat that exists for all writers—what happens if I don’t make it, if my writing doesn’t sell? 

I have always assumed I would teach.

See, I love teaching, and I always have. (Or, at least, since I started doing it.) 

I am both a teaching assistant and a supplemental instructor (SI) this semester. These are two fairly different, yet similar, jobs. I do more as a teaching assistant in the actual class than I do as a supplemental instructor; as a supplemental instructor, I am expected to…well…supplement. I’m supposed to help facilitate the students to a point of learning independently. In a way, this is also what I do as a teaching assistant, even though I am less involved as a supplemental instructor. As a teacher, and this is part of my formal teaching philosophy, I believe that the most important moment in the teacher/student relationship is that independent moment, that moment where the student no longer needs the teacher. While I’ve had good moments this semester, I have received a totally different perspective on teaching that I have teaching theatre, and I have arrived at one simple conclusion: there are a LOT of students who either just plain don’t care or don’t know how to care. I have a hard time digesting that, because I, as a student, care much too much.

Today, the professor I SI for couldn’t be on campus. In traditional me form, I said, “Okay, let me help in all the ways I can.” I volunteered myself for four hours of open assistance for papers, portfolios, or any course related questions. Now, where I know all of the students in my TA section, I do NOT know all of the students in my SI section—I don’t SEE all the students in my SI section. So, when I was walking across the campus to get to the place where I told the students I would be, imagine my surprise when a girl came running up to me, yelling, and waving a paper over her head. I froze when she started yelling, as I had never seen her before and was unsure whether or not she was talking to me. But the answer to that question became blatantly apparent when I heard “You need to explain to me RIGHT NOW WHY I GOT A MOTHER-F$&*@(G C!” I didn’t know what to say. I told her to slow down, speak more calmly. Her friend came running up after her, and the girl said again, quite loudly, in the middle of the main through-fare, “WHY DID SHE GET AN A WHEN I GOT A F@#%$&G C?!?” I asked her to see the paper, and she handed it to me. A quick scan made it quite obvious why she had gotten a C; she was missing one of the two main components of the paper—a personal response. I showed that to her on the rubric checklist she was holding in her hand. She blew a gasket and starting calling me all sorts of lovely names and asked again how her friend got an A. I asked the friend to see her paper. Flipping it open, the personal response was apparent, interspersed throughout the entire piece. I read one section of it out loud. The C student literally EXPLODED. “I CANNOT WRITE A PERSONAL RESPONSE. THIS IS A MOTHER F#$%^&G ACADEMIC PAPER AND SHE DOES NOT GET TO KNOW MY PERSONAL LIFE AND THOUGHTS. THIS IS F$%^#$G BULLS$%T!” I stumbled over my words, and she asked how she was supposed to personally respond to her thesis about the color of the seven rooms in The Masque of the Red Death. I took her paper again and gave it a second scan, and then told her that, with her thesis as it stands, she would need some major revision in order to incorporate that personal response. She started screaming again about how she shouldn’t be expected to be personal, and it was ridiculous and all that jazz. I tried one more time to explain to her that she didn’t necessarily need to give the intimate details of her life story in a personal response; she just needed to PERSONALLY RESPOND to the text. She snatched the paper away and clenched it in her hand, crumbling it, and then she was suddenly raising a fist towards my face. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I ducked. I was legitimately afraid that I was going to get hit. I didn’t. While her fist was still hovering in the air, I backpedalled and told her she needed to calm down and take some time to think about both the comments on the paper and what I had told her before she came back to talk to either me or the professor again. She walked a few steps away, her friend apologized for her, and I bolted.

I don’t know how the professors do it, how they deal with the students all the time and get into these situations. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just did the best thing that I could think of at the time. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing, but it was the only thing. The student’s behavior was inappropriate, as several have been since receiving their various papers back over the course of the semester, but this particular behavior really crossed a line with me. I addressed a blanket email to the entire class, all seventy students, that basically informed them I was not their punching bag and that they needed to treat me with the same respect they would a professor. I don’t know how many of them read it; I don’t know if she read it. Honestly, I don’t care, because it needed to be said.

My internal debate regarding my feelings teaching has been an ongoing thing this semester. The section that I TA for is filled with brilliant students who don’t know how to be students. They are some of the brightest minds I’ve seen at their level, but they just don’t care. Or they don’t know how to care. And I care about them. Every single part of me want them to wake up, to do the awesome work I know they can do and be the amazing students I know they can be. But they won’t. They’re making a choice. One of my favorite students, a student capable of writing more beautiful than many people years ahead of her in their educations, has stopped turning in her work. She’s stopped caring. Maybe it’s personal problems, maybe it’s something else. But even though she is physically in class, she has stopped showing up. She is giving up. It makes me sad. My students, all of them, make me sad. I want to be better for them; I wish that I could make them want to learn, make them want to be better. But I can’t. Again, they are making a choice.

These are the two types of students I’ve encountered this semester: those who treat me horribly and those who don’t care or know how to be students. The good moments, the moments when I work with students who genuinely get it, the moments when I have students who turn in beautiful writing, or have done their reading, or do all the extra credit that they possibly can, the ones that want to be better…those are getting harder to see. And when I do see them, I need to hold on to them. Because those moments are the reason that I want to teach, for those students who care. But what if those students are becoming fewer and farther in between? What if we, as a society, are raising people who don’t care, people who just want to glance on by? I’m sad tonight. I’m sad because I see these students who could be better and choose not to be, and these students who want to blame everyone else for their own lack of understanding. I don’t see initiative in these students; I just see a lot of righteous indignation that the world isn’t being handed to them on a silver platter. 

Most of all, I’m sad because I’ve realized that, as a teacher, maybe I won’t have the impact that I want. There will be students that I won’t be able to reach. There will be students that will fail, even though they shouldn’t. Even though they COULD be better, there will be students who choose not to be. I haven’t reached a point yet where I am capable of separating myself fully from my students. I care too much.

I can’t decide if it’s a product of the semester or just a fact of life, but what today has told me is that I’m not sure I love teaching anymore. And I don’t know how to handle that.

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