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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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In this version of the dream, I’m in a suburban house at dusk, sitting at the kitchen table with my two cats perched in the window. Outside on the patio, a plastic laundry basket left on a picnic table keeps shifting its position: first, the long side faces us; then the short side; then the whole thing is upside down. Someone is out there tampering with the basket and trying to break into the house. I grab the cats and run upstairs for my car keys and phone, but at the top, there is another kitchen, and my father and stepmother are seated at the table. After all these years, it turns out, I’m still living in their house in Japan, a burden and an embarrassment they always said I would become to our family.
When I wake up with the cats next to me, it’s 5 o’clock in the morning in another country, my father is long dead and my stepmother is out of my life, but summer is almost over, with school starting in a week. Every year around this time, sleep drags me back to a house that turns out to be my father’s, or a math class I’ve been skipping where a big test is scheduled for tomorrow, or a foreign language class where everyone is speaking it and I don’t even know what it is. My colleagues have anxiety dreams about going back to work, too, but their subconscious at least allows them to remain who they are. Lost in a warehouse while their students wait for them elsewhere, looking in vain through their briefcase for their books and notes, or standing at the podium in the wrong clothes or no clothes at all, they are still the teachers they have become. In my end-of-the-summer nightmares, I am a student failing a class, a grown woman unable to leave her childhood house.
My first full-time teaching job, some 30 years ago, was at a small Catholic college where the 18-year-olds in my general education classes copied each other’s answers on pop quizzes (why else would a whole row of students write that Jason sailed with the Argonauts in search of a golden calf?), carried on their own conversations, ate their lunch, slept, looked through their vacation photos, and even painted their fingernails while I talked about heroism and hubris. The only positive comments I received on my semester-end evaluations were expressions of incredulity: “She really cared about literature!!!”; “She believed reading was important.” Now I teach nonfiction workshops and literature courses in an MFA Program. My students often say smart things I wish I had thought of and work hard to write and revise their essays and stories. So why am I having the same nightmares about going back to work?
After three months of staying home with my own writing, it’s daunting to resume the schedule for a divided self. I’ll need time to be a teacher, time to be a writer, and time to be everything else. The shift feels seismic: the landscape of my life is about to be rearranged again. I’ll still be home more than any of my friends in our co-op building in DC. When I rush out the door on the two days I teach every week, it’s past noon and everyone else has already put in a half day at work. But my friends don’t see their jobs as museum curators, naturalists, political consultants, or human rights advocates as fundamentally separate from who they are.
“My students often say smart things I wish I had thought of and work hard to write and revise their essays and stories. So why am I having the same nightmares about going back to work?”
My writing comes from everything I am and do, but the person who spends three hours reworking the same paragraph (and can’t decide, at the end, whether she made it better or worse) is not one I would let loose even among my closest friends. The detachment I try to cultivate about my work—to revise what I can and scrap the rest—is the worst strategy possible for dealing with people. Even a minor house repair requires a different kind of patience or problem-solving skill than a writer’s willingness to demolish what looks almost right but isn’t and start over from scratch. Still, I’ve learned to keep the writer contained. I may become a relentless perfectionist for a few hours at my desk, but at the end of the day, I’m relieved to be my ordinary self, a low-key benign presence in any company. I didn’t grow up in Japan for nothing. I’d much rather if people couldn’t remember me after meeting me at a party, than if something I said or did was so unusual that it left an indelible impression on them.
During the summer, spending the afternoon on an essay and then going out with friends, taking a day off for a long bike ride or a museum visit, or even when my writing is interrupted by some crisis in our building—I’m the president of our co-op board—I can move easily between being a writer and being a friend, neighbor, co-op president, cyclist, art lover, or citizen at large. Balancing the two opposite aspects of myself—private and public, driven and relaxed—seems natural. Plenty of other people do the same in their own way. But when school starts and I have to be a teacher as well, the shift is so abrupt and startling that I’m forced to question whatever sense of balance or proportion I thought I had.
Teaching is often portrayed as a calling or a mission. As teachers, we are expected to transform our students’ lives not only by imparting knowledge or demonstrating skills but also by inspiring them with our commitment. If a young teacher were to declare in public, “Teaching doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but hopefully with time, I’ll learn to be good enough—better, at least, than the crummy teachers I had,” people would be horrified. Very few parents would admit to setting a similarly low bar (“I’m not that good with children. I’m sure I’ll make a lot of mistakes raising mine, but at least I won’t be as clueless as my parents were”). When you work with children or young people, you are not supposed to suggest or admit that being merely adequate is acceptable.
I was less than adequate at the Catholic college where I let my students talk, sleep, and give themselves manicures during class. If I had been a truly dedicated teacher like my colleague—also right out of graduate school—who taught general education classes in American history, I would have been fired up about overcoming my students’ indifference and contempt. The history teacher was a shy and awkward guy who got nervous at parties and said all the wrong things. He spent a lot of time organizing debates, mock trials, and other dramatic presentations to engage the students, and when he stood in front of his class or when he talked afterward about how the various assignments had gone over, he was a changed man: lively, smart, and generous. He didn’t mind when students made naïve or arrogant comments about the historical events he cared about. He could use whatever they said as openings for further discussion.
I started noticing others who took genuine pleasure in showing people how to do things. When I got together with another colleague—a psychology professor who was also a fiber artist—to exchange lessons in spinning and knitting, she brought a handout she prepared just for me about the history of spinning, the anatomy of the type of wheel we’d be using, and photographs depicting different methods of spinning. She gave me simple exercises to get used to the wheel before she had me actually handling the wool. All I did was hand her a shoebox full of yarn and needles and show her the two simple stiches required to knit a scarf. She was so happy when I finally got the hang of the wheel and could treadle it smoothly. I thought it would be nice for her to make a scarf, but I have to say I didn’t care that much, either way. She could give knitting a try and take it up, or not. I had the same lackluster attitude years later when I tried to teach several of my friends—one at a time—how to make pie crusts. Only one of them ever made a pie on her own.
Over and over, I failed to live up to the wisdom expressed in the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If a teacher’s job is to enrich her students’ lives by passing on her love of literature and American history, or joy of knitting and pie-making, I don’t have a natural gift. I dreaded being in the same room with those 18-year-olds who told me, day after day, how much they hated reading. I continued to lecture about Jason, Odysseus, and Hamlet, hoping that at least a few of the serious kids scattered among the talkers and sleepers were listening. When my friends got frustrated with dropped stitches and torn pie crusts and said, “Maybe this isn’t for me,” I agreed all too readily. “You know,” I said, “everyone doesn’t have to knit/make pies.” I had no problem leaving behind my easy-going (or lackadaisical) everyday self to become a driven maniac of a writer, but I couldn’t be this third person, a teacher who inspired people to overcome their reluctance or doubt. I couldn’t work up the desire or the energy to show anyone anything they weren’t dying to learn. The “nice” person who left others alone, who hated to intrude, always prevailed.
The archetypes of failure in my nightmares are close to the facts of my adolescence. I got Ds in math every semester, and the kitchen table was where my father and stepmother made me sit down, even when I received decent grades in other subjects, to talk about how I would amount to nothing. Because these details beckon me so far into the past, I have a hard time coming all the way back to the present in my waking thoughts. It’s as though I had gotten my cats and myself into my car and driven away from the home invasion (or my parents), only to get lost on the highway. Freed from the childhood house and the high school math class, I keep circling the early adulthood when I was a hopelessly mediocre teacher.
In reality, I may not have become a better teacher since, but I did put myself in a better situation. I left that job and eventually found my current position, where my inability to inspire people against their will is no longer a drawback. It might, in an odd way, be a strength.
My current students don’t have to be inspired or motivated by me or anyone else. Whether they are directly out of college or returning to school after years or decades, they have something to say, a story to tell, and they have been thinking, reading, traveling, talking to people, and writing in preparation. They need guidance to continue what they’ve started—to figure out how to translate what they want to do into what they are actually doing. Finally with this group of students, I can be a teacher without being the complete opposite of who I am in my everyday life. One thing that does come naturally to me is to read, to get to know the work and the intention behind it.
On the days I prepare for class, I sit on the couch to read each essay or story once without stopping; then I move to the dining table to re-read and comment. Although the couch and the table are only about 12 feet apart, this part of teaching is like inter-galactic travel. The students write in a variety of forms, drawing from a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences. Some have explored places and events that I’m not adventurous or resourceful enough to ever experience on my own: the Bethlehem Wall in the West Bank, a coal-mining town in Wales, or a weekend “orienteering” competition in suburban Maryland. Others want to revisit their childhood in a suburb of Indianapolis where the writer and her family were the only Indians, in a small Catholic enclave outside DC with all the houses built around the parish church, or on a military base in Guam where brown snakes slithering into electrical boxes caused frequent power outages. Still others have worked as a “cast member” in Orlando’s Disney World or as a kindergarten teacher in the United Arab Emirates.
Each piece of writing is a world of its own, both in its topic and its form and approach. In order to give any useful advice, I have to leave my own head and enter the world inside the writer’s mind. I imagine myself as an urban design consultant in another galaxy with its own laws of physics. I have to learn the topography of an alien planet, its light and dark phases, its temperance and turbulence, its culture and history. Only then can I determine if the city that’s being built is too large or too small, whether there is enough public space for housing or recreation.
It’s easier to give advice when I feel energized and optimistic about the project, when it’s a planet I enjoy getting to know my way around and look forward to revisiting. Then I can be sure that the changes I’m suggesting—about how to deliver the background information, how to sustain narrative momentum, or what else needs to be explained or explored—are logical extensions of what is already there. “Oh, why didn’t I think of that?” my students would say, or “I kind of thought you might suggest that.” That’s a sign that I’m thinking with the piece and helping clarify what the writer wanted to do with it even if she or he hadn’t been fully aware. Sometimes, though, I plain don’t understand what the writer’s or the piece’s intention is, or I fear that the whole premise or approach might be flawed in some way I can’t articulate. This is when being a person who is naturally reluctant to wield influence is an advantage. I can say, in all honesty, “I don’t really get this and here are some of the things I don’t understand.” Even when I give advice that I think is sound, it’s up to the writer to follow or disregard it. Most students come up with their own solutions to address some, though not all, of my concerns and the piece eventually becomes what it was meant to be all along. My advice (like my role as a teacher) is—and should be—helpful but not essential.
“A writing workshop or a literature class isn’t a rehearsal for some future performance. It’s a space, maybe even a sanctuary, in which a group of writers come together to practice the discipline of reading.”
In spite of my annual nightmares, my work as a teacher no longer requires me to be someone I cannot be. It’s still hard, all the same, to travel through the galaxies of other people’s minds when I’d rather be exploring my own. The semester is a space odyssey with impossibly infrequent refueling trips to the home base. Halfway through, I’ll start feeling like a traveler who has forgotten how to breathe air, negotiate gravity, or speak her own language. But every morning, when the news reports another round of presidential Tweets, with words like “sad,” “bad,” “beautiful,” “terrible,” and “disaster” taking up most of their paltry word count, I’m grateful to be reading student essays that are complex enough to be galaxies of their own.
There isn’t a set of skills or body of knowledge I can give my students to prepare them for their future. I can’t predict who will keep writing, who will publish books, who will get recognition for their work and who will persist even if they don’t. This used to worry me, and still does, but especially after the last election, I’ve come to believe that education isn’t about preparing for a future that may never arrive: it’s about practicing the discipline we value, now. My former students were right. I do care about literature, and I believe that reading is important. When a roomful of people are focused on a piece of writing—whether their own or from a book we read together—enough to get excited or disturbed or upset about how the writer’s strategy is or isn’t working, our discussion is not a warm-up but the main event. A writing workshop or a literature class isn’t a rehearsal for some future performance. It’s a space, maybe even a sanctuary, in which a group of writers come together to practice the discipline of reading: where we learn to engage with the words on the page and the world they portray, assess, or open. In a political climate that doesn’t respect literature, art, history, science, or any serious examination of facts and ideas, creating and maintaining such a space week after week is a necessary act of resistance. It’s an attempt to ensure that we still have a world in which people care about anyone’s writing.
In the classroom, the private and the public can come together and I can be both a writer and a teacher. Even though I’ve had to put aside my own writing in order to prepare for the class and to conduct it, I’m bringing my writer’s mind to the discussion at hand. In this rare setting, I don’t have to be the lone perfectionist, the only one obsessing about the story’s structure and tone, or about the syntax of the few sentences that make or break the essay. As I ask questions or make comments to keep the whole group talking and thinking together, I can be the sensible, easy-going person—that low-key benign presence—I try to be in my daily life. In the seismic shift from the summer of writing to the fall of teaching, the self becomes split and then brought together, again and again. I once dreaded going back to work I wasn’t cut out for. Work that I am suited for—a job that might be “a calling”—scares me in an entirely different way. Teaching, if it becomes more than a job, might swallow me whole and leave nothing for my life as a writer.
At the center of my earliest memories of writing is my maternal grandfather, a retired elementary school teacher who kept a journal and wrote haiku for the monthly poetry features of a local newspaper. In 1963, the year I started first grade, he gave me a small notebook. Inside its grey cover, each page was divided in two: the top half left blank for drawing, the bottom half lined for writing. My mother and I were spending the last few weeks of August with her parents in their rural village a half-day’s train ride from our home in Kobe. Every evening after supper, my grandfather cleared the piles of books (history books, poetry books, dictionaries full of words I couldn’t yet read) off the desk so I could sit kitty-corner from him to work on my “picture diary” while he composed his journal entry.
The walls around us displayed a dozen calligraphy scrolls on which my grandfather, as a young man, had copied classical Chinese poetry. The sentences he was writing in his notebook with his fountain pen looked nothing like the brush strokes that praised the permanence of the mountains, the swiftness of the wind. You didn’t have to know how to read many Chinese pictographs to understand that those brush strokes represented 100-year-old trees and thousands of white herons and red-headed cranes flying over them. They were powerful dark splashes. Even the blank spaces between them looked grand. The private thoughts he put down in his notebook, by contrast, were tiny incisions: precise, mysterious, and complicated.
My grandfather and I worked in silence. I drew a picture of my mother and me swimming in the river and tried to find words to describe the minnows darting over the white rocks underwater (they could not appear in the picture; they were too small to be drawn), but the few sentences I managed to write were fat and clumsy, the opposite of how the minnows glittered in the sun. I longed to learn enough words to fill up the entire page and have them be the right words.
I only saw my grandfather three times, in secret, after my mother’s death when I was 12 and my father’s remarriage shortly after. Although I wrote to my grandparents every week, my father didn’t allow them to respond so I didn’t ever hear from them until I left my father’s house to go to college in the States. My grandfather died a few years later while I was attending graduate school in Milwaukee. I walked to the bluff over Lake Michigan and looked at the expanse of steely blue water, not a drop of it touching any river or ocean he had ever seen.
One of the pictographs I learned in first grade was for river: three vertical strokes side by side, the curved one on the left veering away from the two straight lines that remained, center and right. I’m that single line that diverged from the source. Having spent my entire adulthood in the States, I no longer write in Japanese. All the same, when summer is almost over and the earlier arrival of dusk tricks my mind into reconstructing my father’s house in my sleep, I need to find my way back to the other house of my memory where my grandfather gave me a notebook for my first journal.
The journal is the most private form of writing. My grandfather and I didn’t read each other’s words as we sat thinking and writing, with the crickets practicing their autumn songs out in the garden. In haiku, many of the things I associated with summer—crickets, shooting stars, melons ripening on the vine—were considered to be signs of autumn. My grandfather and I would not have much time together. The noise from the hundreds of wings and legs wrapped around our concentration as we worked in our parallel solitude, which would continue to be our collaboration. He showed me that writing is a discipline each must pursue alone, and yet he let me in on his practice of it by allowing me to share a small corner of his desk. He moved his books aside to make room for me. I don’t fear the double calling of writing and teaching when I remember that I’m continuing a family tradition.