Tag Archives: teaching

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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Sometime, the World is Shit. But Sometimes, It’s Not.

I said to myself “I am not going to write tonight. I am going to drink and watch ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and feel sorry for myself.” Well, here we are. Drinking, watching “How I Met Your Mother.” And touching the laptop we promised we wouldn’t touch.

It was a weird week for me. I had a dream, in coming to graduate school. A dream that I was going to be as good of a student here as I was in undergrad, that I would be shiny and wonderful. That I would become a teaching fellow and eventually graduate and become a professor. All while working to publish the most wonderful essays and numerous books. I knew that this dream might not totally come true. But it’s still hard to realize that the paths I have to choose from are not the ones I thought they’d be. I don’t deal well when thing deviate from my master plan.

*

The first time I “taught” in front of the college classroom, it all went wrong. Really. All of it. It was first semester as an English 101 teaching assistant. I don’t remember anymore what the activity was; it fell sometime during our fallacy unit. The wrongness was a slow build. I starting the class with a journal activity, and no one would talk to me. Not planned. I fumbled around, trying to pull answers from them.

I looked at at my supervising professor for guidance. She didn’t give it to me; she wanted me to figure it out.

I tried to keep going. I plugged my laptop into the projector and turned on the display to show something on my screen, only to realize that the display settings on my laptop were accidentally on dual screen, and that the wallpaper on that second screen was a picture of my dead son. I ripped the plug out, but the picture remained on the projector. The class assumed, totally justified, that he was still alive. There was the usual “how cute” exclamations.

I looked to my supervising professor for guidance. She didn’t give it to me; she wanted me to figure it out.

I told myself I couldn’t cry in front of the class, that I would never come back from it. That I would never come back to that classroom, or maybe any classroom. So I soldiered on, and I plowed through the rest of the activity. Our class, a group that was never horribly talkative, did speak a little. I didn’t cry until I left the class day and was in the relative safety of my car. I cried because I was certain that, because things didn’t go the way I had expected, I had failed.

*

Graduate school is not going the way I thought it would. It’s not all bad. But it’s not all good. My school lied to me, and that really sucks. Teaching fellows are NEVER hired from my division of the school. In the words of the person I met with to discuss my lack of a fellowship, “Creative writing students aren’t needed.”

You read that right.

Creative writing students aren’t needed.

I could totally wrap my brain around that, in the moment. It has felt like, with my workshop professor this semester who I mildly idolize, I can do absolutely no right. I went first through the workshop process and submitted before class even began, so there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t format correctly. I didn’t bring a paper copy of my revision work to our first office hour. I didn’t bring plates when it was my turn to bring food. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t. I became certain that she hated me.

*

My second time in front of the college classroom, I was better prepared for things to go wrong. I showed a video and led a discussion. The class still didn’t talk much, but I was more adept at pulling out of them the things that they needed to learn. I helped them to get to where they needed to be in the lesson with relatively little embarrassment on all parts.

I don’t remember how many times I looked at my supervising professor on that day. But I don’t think it was as many as my first teaching day.

*

“Creative writing students aren’t needed. If I was you, if I could do it all again, I would leave this town. I would never go into academia. I would stick to copy editing to supplement my own work.”

The person I was meeting with followed that by telling me to run. Literally. She told me to run. She was filled with advice, but the biggest thing that stuck out to me was that, if I wanted to teach, I should have gone into literature instead of creative writing. In order to teaching with an MFA, I need to publish many books. Not just one book. Many. And publishing books will make me expensive. It’s the ultimate paradox, because no institution wants to hire an expensive candidate.

Jobs in the creatives are slowly dwindling down to a scary sad minimum. They are few and far between. I thought that I was setting myself up, doing everything right, and that I would just … teach after graduation.

I thought wrong. I’m not going to be a teaching fellow, and there was never any chance of my being a teaching fellow. I am now on my own to pay for next year’s tuition, sans teaching stipend.

I left that meeting certain that I had made absolutely every wrong life choice in the book.

*

One of the last times I was in front of the college classroom, I was a second semester teaching assistant. And a total different person. I was more confident, more prepared. I showed a video clip from “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” and used it to teach the class how to first write a profile, and then a paper proposal. It was a great activity all around. The class clicked with the video clip. They clicked with me; I clicked with them. They clicked with the concepts.

They understood me, and what I was trying to say.

I didn’t look at my supervising professor ONCE during that lesson. As a matter of fact, I think she purposefully sat off to the side so she wouldn’t look at me. I did it on my own, and it was the best that I ever did.

I got to my love of being in front of the college classroom by traveling a winding, occasionally shitty, road. It wasn’t always the road I thought it would be; I thought that I’d be perfect right away, and I wasn’t.

But I got there. Eventually.

*

I’m not as good a student here as I was in my undergraduate. I’m still an A student, but I’m a totally different A student. I’m doing a LOT of other things while balancing my classes. I am holding three jobs (four if you count temporary nanny work) just to make sure my rent gets paid and I get fed without taking an excessive amount out in loans. My old friends all have glorious graduate programs that fund them, so they don’t have jobs apart from their teaching and their studies. They can be the students that they always were; they can be great. It’s hard for me to talk to them, to admit how hard this really is, because they’re happy. Their programs are great. They are great. I’m just here. I walk dogs: I write food blogs; I copy edit all the things. This week, I’m a nanny. And I still barely live on what I have each month. The city is expensive. Graduate school is expensive.

I am worried that I have too many balls in the air. That I’m not great anymore. It’s a scary, occasionally lonely thing, to know that I made this decision, to come here, and that I have to own it, despite the fact that it is NOT what I thought it would be.

I had a much needed conversation with a good friend tonight. It’s amazing how our relationship has evolved; it feels like I’ve known her forever, but it’s only been two years. One semester in her class, followed by two semester where she was the supervising professor to my teaching assistant. Somewhere along the way, she gave me the confidence to come to grad school. To go for what I wanted; to become a writer, and someday, a professor. And today, she gave me confidence once again.

“Have you thought about it?” she asked me. “Next year? Going to Iowa?”

“They wouldn’t take me now. You just don’t turn down Iowa. And it would be starting over, with [debt amount edited to protect my emotional sanity].”

“I wonder if you wouldn’t be saying the same things, wherever you are. If you wouldn’t have regrets.”

This is the most truthful thing I’ve heard all week.

My MFA credits will not transfer if I leave for a different program. I would start completely over, but my debt from this year would come with me. I don’t want this year to be a waste. There are good parts to my program to go along with the boatloads of bad. My workshop is incredibly challenging in that it pushes me to my very boundaries as a writer. And my seminar? It’s just amazing and incredible. For the first time since I’ve been here, I’m being asked to really think. To push myself. These are the good things.

This week, I was told that I will never be a college professor. Maybe I’m not going down the path I thought I was. But who ever is? The path to “getting there” is long and windy and bumpy and takes a lot of detours. I still think I can get there some day, though. And when I do, I would love to send that woman I talked to an email and tell her just how wrong she was.

Sometimes, the world is shit. But sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, the path is direct. But most of the time? It’s not. And the truth is, we learn more on the indirect path than we ever would traveling in a straight line.

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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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On the Quality of Education

(Disclaimer–I am writing this on the bus.)

Tonight in my literature seminar, people were beginning to freak out about the first paper–a whopping 1500 words of analytical glee. The professor asked how many of us were confident in or had a strong background in writing analytical papers. The number of positive responses was dismally small.

As I sat in class and listened to her talking about how to analyze, one thought stuck in my head–I got a DAMN good education at Parkside. I wish everyone could realize just HOW good it is.

One thing I have frequently gotten asked since coming here is where I went to school for my BA. I tell them, and I hear “Where?” Yup. It’s this middle of nowhere school that no one here has heard of. At first I felt really weird about it–like I was a poser who doesn’t belong here. What I’m realizing now is that that’s okay. I didn’t come from a big name school. It’s nowhere near the top ten of anything, because no one has ever heard of it. But I know what an analytical thesis is. I can create one and support it. I can structure a paper that makes sense and present a solid, coherent argument. I can craft a topic sentence. I can analyze. I couldn’t do that before my time at Parkside. I look at my first analytical papers, and I laugh at how much I’ve grown. Suddenly, timid me who thought I would fail my first Literary Analysis paper (I got a 92) is in a position to teach other in my cohort what analysis means. Some friends requested I send out a paper; D says I will scare the crap out of them. I say that’s only fair; that first paper scared the crap out of me. But I grew from it. They will grow too.

I’ve been researching for a piece I’m writing on gender, and I’ve come across some interesting things about the different “tiers” of university. There’s the big leagues–school like Harvard and such that are top notch at what appears to be all the things, focusing largely on research. There’s the middle tier, which is schools that also seem to be research-focused, but are not as well known or prestigious. And then there’s the bottom tier. That’s the liberal arts schools, like Parkside–and these are the schools that focus largely on teaching. This system creates a problem where the professors in the lower tier can teach the SHIT out of their subjects but not advance, because the teaching load is too great and there is zero time for research. However, in the upper tier, there are professors who are so research focused that they delegate everything to TAs and can’t even tell you a single student’s name. Which of these things is better? Which is more important? There’s a lot to be said for the imparting of knowledge, and while research and publishing are also important, to me at least, it is the quality of teaching that will always win. And I had amazing teachers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is simply thank you. Whether I had you for one class or many (I’m looking at you, D), I learned something from you that I can’t translate fully to this page. I’ve grown up brain-wise, and I’m in this program because y’all helped me to get here. What you do is important, research or no research, high course load or low, crappy students or good ones. It’s about that moment where a student gets it, and what coming to New York and being in graduate school has taught me thus far is that I, most definitely, get it.

So, thanks. :).

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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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The Right Answer (On Being a TA) — Rough Draft

One of my advisors once told me that she lives for the moment where her students no longer need her and can be independent. I love that moment. I wish it could occur every day; I also wish that I could not be sad when it doesn’t. I’ve heard that feeling, that sadness, does go away for some. But I don’t want it to, not really. When it does, I’ll know it’s time to stop teaching.

*

The first real class I ever taught, aside from church related things, was a beginning theater class for five to eight year olds. My aid for the class could probably testify to the fact that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I had observed the class under another teacher, so I had a basic idea regarding how things should go. But I had come in expecting a curriculum filled with the right answers and what to do and arrived to find nothing but a roster and a theme: Robin Hood for tiny humans. It was my first experience flying by the seat of my pants. I like to think it worked out well; I then taught for the company for the next three years. But that first class has always been my favorite. I felt like a teacher when I was in front of their semicircle, all of them sitting cross-legged and staring up at me, waiting for me to tell them what to do. However, I will never forget the moment when they walked onstage for the end of session performance and were able to say their lines and do the choreography without me. They were independently acting, wearing their construction paper Robin Hood hats (that kept falling off on the stage). Maybe they weren’t perfect, but they were pretty darn great. They displayed the things they learned in class, and I had had a part in that, however small. To me, that was what being a teacher was really about.

*

I can’t remember exactly when I made the decision to become a TA—it just sort of happened. I don’t think there are many of them in undergrad. Or at least not many who ARE undergrads. I believe this makes me a unique breed. 

I received an email from professor towards the middle of my second year of undergrad. She was looking for a dedicated student to work as a supplemental instructor. It wasn’t really teaching, per say. Supplemental instruction more revolves around reviewing material with the students and teaching them how to learn independently. But I still had a blast with it. It was a completely different feeling than being in front of the kids and teaching drama. I looked forward to doing it in future semesters. Then it came:

We don’t have enough Psych 101 instructors that want SI next semester, so we won’t be able to use you.

I was told that if I could find a professor willing to work with me, I could possibly do SI for that professor instead. So I put out a Facebook status and tagged every professor I was friends with. I got a bite:

I’m very interested. Let’s chat.

I was very interested in working with this professor, N, but it turned out her course didn’t have a high enough failure rate to require a supplemental instructor. It wasn’t in the budget. I still desperately wanted the opportunity to learn from her.

Behold. The idea to TA was born.

*

I often get asked what I do as a TA. It’s a lot; it’s too much to list. And my duties have evolved. I attend class, I talk. I grade, I lead. I comment, I assist. I get to draw on the board and occasionally play Vanna. It just seems to work.

Last semester, I went into the first day as a TA quite overwhelmed; I wasn’t sure how it would be to “share” a classroom, so to speak. I wasn’t sure where my place was, how I fit, what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know when to speak up, how to make things work as a person in front of the classroom but not in front of it at the same time. In a classroom of 18 year old and up people as opposed to tiny humans. 

I don’t think I spoke the first day. I possibly didn’t speak the second either. I panicked when I realized there were 28 students and I couldn’t remember their names. 28 seemed like so many more than 16, the largest size theater class I’d ever taught. And the first time I taught as a TA, I did a lot of things wrong. I had an activity planned that involved my laptop, but I had never used my laptop with the projector before. I didn’t realize everything would automatically show when I plugged it in; I failed to take into account the fact that I had student grades up on my screen, as well as failed to remember that my wallpaper was a picture of my dead son. When the class didn’t respond to me, I forgot that they weren’t really talkers to begin with and began to panic and rush through things. I expected N to bail me out rather than try to bail myself out; I immediately looked to her. And while she did save me, she at the same time made me keep going. When no one would really converse with me regarding the video clip I had shown, I started calling on random people. I didn’t give them enough time to think. I was scared to wait them out. And then I didn’t fully connect my segment to the main theme for the day—fallacies.

I cried driving away from campus that day, because I couldn’t focus on the good things that had happened—that the students liked the video clip, that they did eventually engage, that they gave me the correct answers. I could only focus on the fact that things didn’t go precisely the way I’d planned, and the fact that I would never be a teacher.

Even at the end of the semester, when I had a lot of TA wins under my belt, I thought back to that first day, that day I screwed up. But the focus started to change when I realized that rather than continually calling myself a failure, I wanted to be better. I wanted to grow.

I’m different now than I was that first semester. More confident. I’m better at planning out what I’m going to do, and I’m a better TA for it. I talk to the class, and they talk to me. This semester, I’ve even (somewhat) created my own assignment for the first time, a composition design proposal that I will assign in class this week. Things seem to be going better. I’m not sure if it’s that the class is more talkative and better as a whole, or that I’ve learned. 

I like to think I’ve learned.

*

I had a student once named A. A was very quite and shy. I had a hard time getting her to engage with the other kids. She didn’t want to sing solos or talk in front of people, but she loved me. Every week she would bring me a small gift, from a construction paper drawing of “her teacher” to a valentine, to a photo of her new puppy. It was wrong to have favorites, but she was definitely one of mine. Not because of the gifts, but because I understood her. I was shy too. 

“Do you ever get afraid in front of people?” she asked me one day after class.

“A,” I replied, “I think everybody does. It’s okay to be shy, but performing can be different. An escape from being scared. You can be whoever you want to be.”

“Okay,” she replied, and then skipped off to meet her older brother.

She disappeared from classes for a while after that session, but when she turned eight she auditioned for and was accepted to her first show. When she came onstage as one of the orphans in “Annie,” I cried. It was the moment I realized I was meant to be a teacher.

*

I have never been so grateful for the chance to work with someone as I am to work with N. Not because I work with her now so many days a week and get to do all the things. Not because of the load she carries and the way she’s taught me to balance, though her load is enormous. And not just because she’s awesome, though she definitely is. It’s because of the little things. The fact that she spends an hour on grading a paper other people might dismiss for being poor work, just so she can maybe help the student become just a tiny bit better. The fact that she spends her entire break preparing her classes and looking back on activities to enhance them and make them better each semester using suggestions from students. The fact that she opens her office and her email and her time to help her students and make them not just better students, but better people. She has done that for me, without a question. That N has taken the time to work with me has made me a better teacher as well as a better person. Not many people get this chance, but I did. And I’m doing well at it. I more than make it work. I’m becoming more confident. Growing. Learning.

During student conferences, which she let me sit on, I watched N handle an especially promising student who was not doing so well—a student that I might have written off were the decision left to me. Despite the problems this student has had, N was still willing to work with her. She was able to see past that and see the student underneath, and I could tell that she wanted to break through. I believe that she can, whether it be to that student or to a different one. Even when she doesn’t know the right answer, she figures it out.

I want to be that teacher someday.

*

The thing about teaching is that there really isn’t any one right way to do it. I know that now. All of my life, I’ve looked to others to tell me what to do and I live for the right answers. I need them. My teaching style has evolved into a mix of the people around me; I’m not the drama teacher on her first day anymore, and I’m not the TA who makes stupid mistakes. I’m the woman who watches, who absorbs, who learns and grows. I watch all of my professors and the way they handle their classrooms; I read the comments that they put on my papers and I look at their rubrics, and I figure out how they grade. Through that, I have begun to figure out where I lie. My grading style is between two professors, N and D. I’m less black and white than I used to be, but I still have a hard time calculating grades without actual numbers in front of me. I enjoy the way T makes herself available to help students in whatever way she can. I love the way they all flip the classroom, the way they make me think, and the way they have taught me to have my own ideas and stand on them. I have learned so much from all of my professors, about teaching and about simply being. And I am grateful for every last opportunity.

I started writing this thinking that my teaching was a little piece of all of them. But I’m beginning to realize that it’s a lot of me too. And that that’s the right answer.

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Writing Tutoring: A Special Level of Teaching All Its Own

Teaching is not always glorious or fun.  There is not always a big takeaway or a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  I have taught piano, voice, cello, and drama, but the hardest thing for me thus far in the land of teaching has been tutoring.  I refer to the tutor position, in my head, as the buffer between professors and students that might quite possibly drive them insane.  I consider tutoring to be a special level of teaching all its own.

Tutees can be categorized into three categories:  those who come because they genuinely want to learn and receive help, those who come because they want the tutor to do their work for them, and those who have no clue.  I had over sixty tutoring appointments last semester.  Of those, probably only a quarter fell into the first category.  The rest landed somewhere into between the other two.  It should be blatantly obvious which of these categories contains my favorite type of tutee.

My first tutoring appointment still reigns as the most special.  I don’t remember his name, so I’ll just call him John.

John showed up late, beginning the appointment on a truly fantastic note.  Because he was my first appointment ever, I stuck as closely as I could to the manual.

“So, John, what are you here for today?”

He shrugged.

All of my previous teaching experience still left me unprepared for his lack of response.  I tried again.  “What class are you here for?”

“Uh…English?” he replied, as if it was the stupidest question he’d ever heard.

If he wouldn’t have been staring at me, I would have rolled my eyes.  I had to fight the impulse.  “Which English?” I pasted a smile on my face.  It probably looked as fake as it felt.

“Uh…the first one.”

I closed my eyes.  There was no hiding my irritation.

“Okay, so what’s the assignment?”

He shrugged again.  Seriously.  Shrugged.

At this point, I wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him out of annoyance, even though I had only been in his presence for sixty seconds or less.  “Do you have an assignment sheet?”

“I didn’t bring it.”

“Do you have the assignment?”

“No.”

“So…”  I paused and thought for a second.  “What exactly are you looking to do here today?”

“I need to write a paper.”

“On what?” I asked as a last ditch effort.

“I don’t remember.  Can’t you just teach me how to write my paper?”

I wanted to smack myself in the face at the sheer idiocy.  Did he think I was going to magically produce his assignment out of thin air?  I did what I could with him.  I taught him how to structure an outline.  I gave him the main functions of various parts of an essay, the thesis, the introduction, the conclusion…And then sent him on his merry way with instructions to never come to an appointment again without being prepared, and a nicely worded scolding about how he needed to better utilized his tutoring time.  Not to mention mine.

I wondered after that appointment if I was a failure, if tutoring was perhaps not my calling and I should not come back.  But no, I’m told that doesn’t just happen to me.  It actually happens quite frequently, to all the tutors.

In the Tutoring Center, we have a rating system from one to five.  Five is “this tutor was awesome.”  One is “this tutor sucked.”  I had two ones and, I believe, fifty-nine fives for the semester.

I must be doing something right.

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Katie (To Write Love On Her Arms)

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My first voice student was a girl named Katie.  She was twelve years old, with stringy brown hair that reminded me of my own and a voice that wasn’t quite there.  But I had hope, and I had the dreams of a new teacher.

I met her through the youth group I was co-leading during that time.  She was quiet and hung to the back, which also reminded me of me.  So when her mother asked if I could help her learn how to sing, I decided it could be a fun project.  How hard could it be, right?

The plan was that we would go back to my apartment after youth group on Monday nights to have a lesson, and her mother would pick her up from there.  I went through all of my vocal music, picking out different things I thought we could try out.  At that point in my life, I had had both piano and cello students, but no vocal before.

Katie and I went back to my house the first night.  I checked her range, because I was pretty sure that was the first thing I should do.  She flipped through sheet music.  We decided to try out “My Heart Will Go On.”  It was the big hit song of the time.  I let her sit on the bench next to me while I plucked out the notes.  After we sang it through a few times, she stopped me.

“What happened to your arm?”

I stopped playing and looked down.  No one had ever commented before.  I was surprised she had even noticed.

“I was…sad,” I answered, unsure of how to explain it to a twelve year old.

She thought about that for a moment.  “I’ve been sad.”  Rolling up her sleeves, she held her arms out to me.  They were more marked up than mine.

Panic flooded my head.  What was I supposed to say?  Did her mother know?  Was this lesson counted under my mandated reporter status?  What was I supposed to do?!?

Katie interrupted my rush of thought.  “Why were you sad?”

I took a deep breath.  I had to choose my words carefully.  “I…My life was not what I wanted it to be.  I was confused.  Hurt.”  I didn’t tell her I had been in the hospital when it happened.  I didn’t tell her they couldn’t cure me, that I had had to cure myself.  I didn’t tell her what I was getting over.  I left those details out.  She didn’t need to know.

“My dad died,” she replied.  And once she started talking, she didn’t stop.

I ran my fingers up the scars on my own arms as she told me her story.  Her dad had been epileptic.  One day, they went to the store to get a few groceries.  On their way home, he had a seizure behind the wheel.  The car went off the road; it went down an incline and smashed into a tree.  He never woke up from the seizure.

Katie was in the backseat.

She tried her hardest to wake him up once the car had come to a stop, shaking him by the shoulders and poking him in the chest.  But his head was bleeding.  He hadn’t had a seatbelt on; he never opened his eyes again.

“So,” she finished.  “I guess…I think it was my fault.”

“How so?”

“Well, he was…and I was…I was okay.”  She started to cry quietly.

Survivor’s guilt.  “Katie, that’s good.  That’s good that you were okay.  You know that, right?”

She shrugged, sniffling as she stared into her lap.  “I’d rather he was here than me.  I wish I had died.”

“I’ll bet he would say just the same of you, if he was.”

Her brow wrinkled as she considered that.

“I’ll bet he loved you.”

She nodded.  “He did.  And I loved him.  Very much.”

“Katie?” I whispered, closing the sheet music.

“Yeah?”

“He wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”  I laid my hand lightly on her arm, and she didn’t pull away.  I traced the cuts that marked her skin.  Some of them seemed fresher than others.  “No matter what.  I don’t think he’d want that.”

“You don’t know him.”  She snatched her arm away from me, cradling it in her lap.  “You didn’t.  Know him.  You never will.”

“But I know that a parent is supposed to love you, protect you.  So he wouldn’t want to see you hurt.”

“How did you stop?” she asked, pointing at my arms.

I didn’t have an easy answer.  I didn’t know how to explain why I stopped.  “Because…”  I paused and then started again.  “Because I realized that it’s more important that I love myself than that I fit precisely into the world.  I am important.  I have a place.”

Katie stared right at me, tears streaming down her cheeks, but she said nothing.

“It didn’t matter what had been done to me; it didn’t matter what had happened in my past.  I am not those things.  I’m just me.  And if I don’t love myself, who will?  Does that make sense?”

She nodded silently.

“So…I guess what I’m trying to say is that your dad loved you, and he would want you to keep loving yourself, even though he isn’t here.  It wasn’t your fault.  What happened was not your fault.”

Her head was resting on my shoulder, her own shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.

“For real.  You couldn’t have stopped what happened.  And you shouldn’t have to carry it.  It doesn’t make you a bad person.  You are worthy of love; you deserve it.  We all do.”

Katie sat up, pulling down the sleeve of her sweatshirt and using it to wipe the tears and snot from her face.  I ran to the bathroom and grabbed her a box of Kleenex.  “Do you love yourself?” she asked.  “More now than when you…hurt yourself?”

“I do,” I whispered, and I realized that I actually thought it was true.  “Knowing it wasn’t my fault was so, so important to me I think.  To helping me to stop.  Because it’s okay.  To love yourself.  It’s okay to stop.  It’s okay to be…okay.  But you have to want it, I think.  You have to want to stop.”

After a minute, she asked, “Can we go back to singing now?”

Something occurred to me.  “Wait one second.”  Running out to the kitchen, I dug around in the junk drawer until I located a black Sharpie, and I brought it back to the music room.

“What’s that for?”

“Hold out your arms,” I ordered.

Cocking her head, Katie raised an eyebrow at me.  “Why?”

“Just do it,” I prodded.  She held out her arms.  Uncapping the Sharpie, I took first her right arm and then her left and wrote the word LOVE on them, across the cuts, in fancy cursive.  “Do you know what this means?”  I put the cap back on the Sharpie.

She shook her head.

“This means that you love yourself more than you love…hurting yourself.”  As an afterthought, I took the cap back off and held the marker out to her.  “Would you write it on my arms for me?  So we can match?”  Solemnly, she took the marker from me and complied.  Her hand shook slightly, but the word came out clean on both of my arms.  When she gave me the marker back, I recapped it and set against the music stand of the organ.  “You have to stop.”  I touched her cuts again, and the word, love.  “No matter what, he wouldn’t want this.  He would want you to be okay.  He would want you to love yourself.”

“He would want me to love myself,” she repeated.

The doorbell rang.  She pulled on her coat and left my music room to meet her mom.

I got a phone call the next day from her mom.  After she left my house, Katie talked to her mom about what she was feeling.  Every Monday after that for a long time, she came back to my house for lessons and we would talk.   As the Sharpie wore off, she asked me to write the words again.  I asked her each week if she had cut anymore.  But her cutting gradually dwindled off until she had stopped completely.  Until she realized that it was okay to love herself.

One day she came to see me, and she had written the words herself.  I knew then that she would be okay.  And in the time after that, for the years that I knew her, she did not cut again.

Instead, she wrote love on her arms.

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