The Four Times I Became a Teacher
Beth Kephart on the Heartbreak Inherent to Teaching Writing
What’s this, here again, this chittering? Rounding it off to the nearest cliché, I’ll call it the voice in my head. Though I don’t actually hear words up there in my skull; it’s more like I feel words floating. Wafting along like thought balloons high on helium and short on strings.
I’m reading Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship—the correspondence between the playwright Sarah Ruhl and the poet Max Ritvo, who died in 2016 at the age of 25. I am reading If We Had Known, a novel by Elise Juska. These are teacher-student stories, responsibility-possession stories, a memoir-in-letters and a novel drawn from life. These are stories that belong to other people, but they float inside my head.
Writes Juska of the final day of a college semester in her protagonist’s freshman comp class: “The nostalgic fever of that final hour wouldn’t last, and shouldn’t; [the students] would head back to their lives, remember the class fondly, and that was fine. The class would begin again. Still, Maggie sometimes felt a sharp sense of loss, almost like grief, driving home on the evening of the last class, final papers huddled in a shopping bag on her backseat.”
Writes Ruhl in the days following Max’s early death from cancer: “How to hold the grief of a teacher for a student?”
Teachers of writing operate somewhere between deep immersion and disinterest, soul-shattering conviction and academic probing, friable certainty and syllabi. Teaching writing is teaching stories is teaching life, and maybe most of us are adjuncts and the teaching does not pay our bills, but still we rise, each teaching day, to confront the existential: How much of ourselves we will give away? How will we sustain our sense of self after the semester frays away?
“I have been thinking of you and sending you, or trying to send you, powerful wishes of healing,” Ruhl writes to Max, early in that semester, when he finds himself in the hospital battling the return of cancerous artifacts.
The first time I became a teacher it was to build a community for my son. I had grown disdainful of the resume-crafting of not-yet-adolescents, the competitions and contests, the machinations of helicopter parents. I wanted kids to be kids—no first, no best, no better than—and so I invited my son’s classmates into our home on summer evenings to experience the democracy of stories.
I read from “Casey at the Bat,” “The Raven,” Tom Sawyer, The Call of the Wild. I read Dorothy Parker and Eudora Welty, newspaper headlines, myths. I bought a five-foot-tall flamingo balloon named Fletcher, and I rolled waxy paper across the floor, and I laid out snacks, and I got the kids to work on building neighborhoods with magic marker drawings and words—characters, landscapes, dialogues. It was theirs, and to them it belonged. Or I’d say “bad-hair day” or “missing button” and they’d interview each other to get a story down. Or they’d be given a scenario to tell in first person and then in third. Or they’d listen to music and write the opening scene of the movie the music inspired.“Teachers of writing operate somewhere between deep immersion and disinterest, soul-shattering conviction and academic probing, friable certainty and syllabi.”
It was dusk, it was twilight, it was moonrise, it was big. And then the parents would drive up and call for the kids from the curb, and I’d stand at the door and watch the kids go. Mine. Theirs. Later I’d watch those kids grow up—see them around town, by the high school flagpole, at the grocery store. Some of them remembered me, but many of them did not.
Most of them, probably.
The teacher learns.
The second time I became a teacher, I wasn’t sure. The invitation came from the alma mater where I had been an isolated, uncherished student. I’d been shamed away from writing poems by the ridicule of freshman-year roommates. I’d been humiliated by a missed allusion in the only literature class I took. Memories haunt. So do fears that you don’t know half the things you are supposed to know since your name now sits on the jackets of some books. I had come to books in autodidact fashion, with a handful of workshops tossed in. What course could I teach? What were to be the rules? From what hollow in what bone was I to extract the necessary charm, the more necessary authority? I had no mystique and no defense against my own uncertainty and yet months of indecision melted into yes. I built the defense of an inarguable syllabus.
Then there I was in a puffy-chair room, teaching a handful of students what I had taught myself about the elasticity of memoir and the patterning of words, the misdirection of the ego, the virtues of the past tense and the seductions of the present, the memoirists who lie and the fictions that tell truth. Terrence des Pres, I said, and we read. Patricia Hampl. Michael Ondaatje.
And when my son would call after every teaching afternoon to ask about the day, I’d hear myself telling stories. I’d hear the love inside my stories.
He is . . . , I’d say about the boy with Adderall tales.
She is . . . , I’d say about the girl who had left behind her early antagonism toward me and the class; I think she’s happy now. I think she’s in.
“Maggie took them seriously, so they took themselves seriously. (This, she maintained, was the key to being a good teacher. Care so much it’s impossible for the students to not care back.)”
–Elise Juska, If We Had Known
“Around this time, Max and I decided to write letters in a more self-conscious way, hoping to make a little book out of them. I was hoping the project would distract Max from his illness. I also just plain liked getting his letters, and I wanted more of his writing out in the world. Our letters thus get longer.”
–Sarah Ruhl, Letters from Max
“Whoever is right, I just realized, we both win. We’ll always know one another forever, however long ever is. And that’s all I want—is to know you forever.”
–Max Ritvo, Letters from Max
The third time I became a teacher I had been teaching for a while—constructing a new syllabus for every semester, no longer surprised by my love. I had made my peace with the certain fact that, with every class, my ideas about family would grow. I had succumbed to the ricochet of questions for which I’d only ever have half of an answer. I knew myself to be one of those teachers with whom students shared their stories. She would have lost her mother. He would have lost his father. She would have lost her best friend—an accident. They would have lost their confidence and they would have claimed it back, and in their losing and their finding there was something I could yield, something I could make—a true, good class.
These things had made me, I thought, a teacher—existentially beset, perhaps, but teaching nonetheless. But then D. asked me to oversee his honors thesis. D., who had sat in my memoir classroom a year before. He had a new blue-rose tattoo, he was a master of “jawn,” he had once been adorned by turquoise hair, he had brought to me, a gift, a potted bamboo. His thesis would be the story of being a son to a mostly absent man—and sometimes we’d meet and talk and sometimes we’d ping emails back and forth and sometimes I’d ask him for more than he wanted to give in those proud and poeming pages, in those stories about cemeteries and the religion of his parents’ cocaine.
I managed the tension. I thought I did. I was a teacher, after all.
But then I wasn’t.
I said, to D., Go bigger.
I said, Write past yourself.
I said, Push through.
I said, Put us in that graveyard. Put us there, beside your heart.
Beside your hurt.
And D. disappeared. Just like that.
Would not come to meet me. Would not answer when I wrote, or wrote excuses. Pizza deliveries in the midnight hour of shadowy neighborhoods. Family business. A hunt for seashells. A bum car. An accident.
What is self-recrimination? It is this: D’s work was gorgeous as it was and I had overstepped my bounds and I had presumed to know so much, to be his teacher.
I am a teacher. I can teach you.
No. Not really. Not like that.
“With students, though, Maggie took comfort in knowing that things would never get so messy. She could state her feelings safely, framed by the contents of their essays, the language and the themes. They were the students and she the teacher—it could only go so far.” If We Had Known
A week before D’s thesis was due, an email arrived with the subject line: “Gesturing to the Universal.”
I am thinking hard, D. had written. I am writing and writing and thinking and trying to be inventive. I am trying to peer out at the reader. I send an attempt for your consideration.
I read what he sent. I blinked. I hurried to find an earlier draft of this reconstructed scene. I read the two passages side by side and it wasn’t just his story anymore. It was a story of and for the rest of us, a story that now sounded like this: We fear the unknown—the late-night creaks that resound from the basement as we try to sink into bed, the voices we are certain we hear calling our name as we make our way through a soulless alley.
I paced the room where I work. I touched the head of the wooden giraffe that stands, a sentinel, at my window. I pressed my hands to the small of my back, touched a tear, let another tear fall. I became a teacher again, a teacher who finally understood that there’s only so much you can teach. The excellence lives in the student himself. The excellence is theirs alone to give.
D., I wrote, when I composed myself. The evolution of your memoir (for it is, now, a true memoir) has been a most miraculous thing. I hope that you have kept each draft. That you will, when this is all over, when you have time, go back and track your own mind on the page.
I have made some notes. Not many, but I hope you’ll take a look at them.
You have done this on your own time, according to your own methods, occasionally allowing in but mostly resisting the old prof’s exhortations or worries. I hope some of what I have offered has been helpful. But this is something you have also learned through this process: That you will see these things through, in your own way, in your own time. That you are utterly your own person. That despite these four years on the this campus, you know who you are, what you want, and how you will go about being you in the world.
“Could we have a phone call soon—I would like to talk with you and hear your wisdom on things that have been rotating around in my mind,” Max wrote to Ruhl, when he was still so alive. “The use of apolitical art. Camp and its relationship to my work. Building a coherent understanding of my personality. Developing a healthier relationship with consistency in the way my mind applies itself.”
The fourth time I became a teacher I couldn’t remember not being one. The children in the house. The students on the campus. The honor thesis devotees to which I attached my thinking but never my demands. The writers—some of them young, some not as young—who were coming now to the workshops I was teaching on a farm, by the sea, near a river. I was good at this now. I only cried sometimes. I only shadowed the writers through the weather of their lives—the wasps and winkled leaves, the spider’s net in rusted chains, the abandoned boots by a rocking chair, the weave of strings, the voice, the mood, the stories that read like the long tail of a white cat swooshing by—because I loved them, because I knew I would always love them, because I was big enough, now, to love them like that. Because I understood what love after the deep immersion of love does and that memoir is the life wanting to be transformed and that memoir is the life we have been waiting for. Because I understood that I teach and live the only way I know how—up close and personal, and that there is no charm in that, nothing drawn out of the hollow of the bone. The thoughts are there. The strings are cut. The ideas float. Don’t try to catch them.
And yet: When the writers of this deep immersion began to write to me after the landscapes were gone, left behind, after I had watched them travel far, after I had traveled with them—when they began to write to me about the other teachers they now loved, the teachers of larger insight, the teachers who really understood, the teachers of otherworldly astuteness and impossible lean, the teachers that had wakened them, I became a teacher yet again.“I understood that I teach and live the only way I know how—up close and personal, and that there is no charm in that, nothing drawn out of the hollow of the bone.”
Say it out loud, fourth time around: Teaching is not possession.
Teaching is the parenthetical hold, the instant of discovery, left to the instant.
Teaching is structure, teaching is the room we build for the students who will come and then slip through—in and out, on their way to other places, other rooms, other stories, other teachers, other teachings. Your students will find you, they will watch you, they will ask you, they will read with you, they will escape you, they will transcend you, they will replace you, they will become their own instructor, the most potent person in their room.
Teaching is that. Say it again.
So you will teach? I ask D., who is a teacher now.
Yes, he says.
Your heart will break a thousand times, I warn. And you will be grateful for that.