I decided to become a teacher—the K-12, September through June, reading and writing and math kind—on a subway ride one New Year’s Eve. I was living in Brooklyn, and the post-MFA fellowship that was supporting my writing was running out. The writing was running out too—my novel, which had found an agent, had not found a publisher, and I wasn’t sure what I’d do next. The desire to write was simply drained out of me.
I can’t remember where I was going that night but I do remember the poster: an advertisement for the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, clamped inside one of those scratched-up Plexiglas frames at the back of the train. In my memory the poster is black and white, with photos of children in neat school uniforms, dress pants and pinafores and Peter Pan collared shirts. Perhaps it said something about changing lives. I decided to apply. I got in. I was hired at Public School 40, an elementary school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, first to teach writing and then to teach first grade.
That was 16 years ago, and since then I like to say that I have taught all the grades: fifth grade and high school and GED and continuing education. I’ve taught in hippie charter schools with no grades or homework and a hardcore charter with a strict system of rewards and punishment. Currently I do what I never dreamed I’d have a chance to: I teach in an MFA program in my adopted home state of North Carolina. I have a beautiful office where one of my literary idols, Lee Smith, once worked, with an arched window that looks out onto a campus green planted with trees native to our state. I have a wall of books, a door that closes, a comfy chair to sit in.
But when I think about teaching and feeling at home in a classroom, what comes to mind is my first classroom, on the ground floor of P.S. 40. At the end of the day, after putting everything back in its place and wiping down the desks and rearranging the books and hanging up whatever artwork we’d made, I’d think: it looks so great in here! And: tomorrow I will be more organized!
It probably didn’t look all that great—I was messy, with a beginner’s lax classroom management, and our building was bedraggled and rundown. We had mouse problems and roach problems, desks that sat unevenly on the discolored tile floors, grimy windows. But copy a first grader’s first poem on chart paper, hang all their tempera self-portraits from clothespins, prop A Snowy Day and Owl at Home and Madeline on easels next to the paperwhites growing on the windowsill: to us it was MoMa, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the Met.
Years later I published my first book, a collection of short stories. I began to have other opportunities: to teach in summer programs or attend them on fellowship, where I’d spend a week or two at a time going to lectures and readings and talking to other writers. I was teaching high school by then, in a small town in North Carolina. If I wanted to do a reading or be part of an event, I’d remind my principal that I never took sick days, or I’d promise to take some kids with me, for enrichment. Once I took a carload of teenagers with me to a college in Georgia that had invited me to give a reading. Another time my AP English class crashed our favorite essayist’s job talk at UNC-Chapel Hill.
But I got the feeling, talking to other writers at those summer conferences, that my work as a public school teacher was at odds with their expectations of a writer’s life. I got the feeling that it was odd, and maybe unproductive, to squash my writing time into summers and winter holidays, and to spend so much time (so many actual hours!) in the classroom. And probably it was, in some ways.
In my current role, as director of an MFA program and teacher of both graduate and undergraduate creative writing students, I’m often asked: what’s next? I point our students toward residencies and fellowships and visiting writer positions, of course—we keep a shared folder of these precious opportunities—but I’ll also say, have you considered teaching? What about teaching in a high school for a few years? What about middle school? This spring I was delighted when one of my former undergraduates, a woman who knows more about hard work and struggle than almost anyone I can think of, texted me to say, Guess what?, then sent a link to a teaching job she was applying for, at a high-needs school district in our state. And I cheered when I heard that one of our MFA students in poetry was accepted into Teach for America, working with middle school English students in his home state of Texas. I thought about the way a new teacher’s classroom begins—empty and echoing—and began to set some things aside to give them: curricular guides I no longer need, extra copies of novels, collections of poetry, and art books.
In my new novel, The Gulf, several characters are teachers—there’s Janine, a home economics teacher taking her first poetry workshop; Eric, who leaves high school English teaching to found the for-profit “inspirational” writing program Janine attends; and Marianne, a frustrated poet who directs the program but begins to have second thoughts. She sees from the beginning how ethically compromised for-profit schools are, but only feels truly responsible for her own actions after her school, the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch, attracts investors who specialize in “Christian” training programs: Christian medical billing schools and Christian schools of cosmetology and game design and sonography. The investors are all about false promises; they want to scale up with webinars and all-online offerings.
Eventually, Marianne becomes drawn to a different kind of teaching. The public school classroom where she lands was easy to imagine because it is somewhat like the classroom where I once taught—a first-grade room with clanking radiators for melting New York City snow from children’s coats, with chart-paper poems and last-minute art projects and desks that sit unevenly on the floor.
I don’t know that Marianne will stay, forever, in her classroom, or if my former students will stay in the K-12 classrooms they are headed toward either. My guess is: probably not. It’s difficult to remain in the K-12 system for the span of one’s whole career. It’s physically and mentally draining, sometimes heartbreaking, and it doesn’t pay what it should. The recent teacher protests and strikes across the country have illuminated harsh working conditions for so many teachers: huge class sizes, salaries that don’t come close to paying the bills.
To some observers, the revolving door we associate with alternative-certification programs like Teach for America or the New York City Teaching Fellows program contributes to the problems inherent within our system of public education. Teachers funneled from Teach for America into struggling schools don’t have enough training, critics argue, and are apt to leave before they become truly effective teachers. Studies don’t show a significant benefit, measured by standardized tests, as a result of their teaching. But I am still hopeful for my students, and proud of them. Doing this work will make them better at whatever else they decide to do—more empathetic, more patient, more aware of the complex lives and minds of other humans.
And I know teaching writers who haven’t quit, who have made their careers working productively in both professions. In the bio she provided for the Simpson Literary Prize, a prestigious literary award given to mid-career writers, my friend Anne Raeff shared that she “is proud to be a high school teacher and works primarily with recent immigrants.” When I visited my friend Jonathan Farmer’s high school English classroom—he is a poetry editor and critic who published his first book of essays this spring—I asked how many people in the room wanted to be writers. Farmer’s hand shot up, along with a few others. From his broad grin I could tell that he was not communicating to the students, I want to become famous and jet out of here but I, like some of you, want to write. It is part of who I am.
In a review of Valeria Luiselli’s most recent books, her nonfiction account of detained immigrant children, Tell Me How It Ends, and her semi-autobiographical novel, Lost Children Archive, James Wood notes that “what writers do best is write.” He was not dismissing her work as an activist on behalf of immigrants and refugees, but praising the impact of her book-length essay. In fact the comment is made in agreement with Luiselli herself: she is proud of the advocacy group her students have created, but she also knows that what writers do best is write.
Since reading his review I’ve thought of this statement often, in a self-questioning way. Is putting words on paper actually the thing I am best at? I worry that on most days I may be better at finding four-leaf clovers, vegetarian cooking, and naming stray cats. I hope, on most days, that I am a better mother than I am a writer.
Writing is, however, my vocation, and for that reason it has always felt like the center of my life: the thing I should be best at. When I was a high school teacher, no one cared much that I was also a writer—if my colleagues and the students’ parents thought about that part of my life, it was only because perhaps it made me a better, more effective teacher. If only you knew the real me, I thought sometimes.
As a professor, I am guided by a document that defines how I should spend my time—a certain percentage for teaching, for research and writing, for administrative and outreach work. It used to be called the “statement of mutual expectations.” Now it’s called something else. I’m always flummoxed, filling it out, because I know that teaching is much more time-consuming than my document is supposed to suggest. My university values teaching and the mentorship of students, but it is also clear that tenure, raises, and sabbaticals are predominantly awarded based on research: the books you write, the awards you win. Difficulties in the classroom—a short temper or penchant for sarcasm, unresponsiveness when students try to get in touch—are easily dismissed or treated as minor, fixable problems, especially if the research is prestigious. The reward for doing well—getting that fellowship, that grant, that other university post—is inevitably less teaching.
Yet teaching is one of the most impactful things you can do. In my intro to creative writing class this spring, we read a poem by my colleague Dorianne Laux about her mentor, the late Philip Levine. “What he told me, I will tell you,” the poem begins, echoing W.S. Merwin’s “Berryman” (“I will tell you what he told me”), then proceeds to share what we assume are Levine’s most meaningful lessons: “He advised me to wait, to hold true / To my vision, to speak in my own voice” and “The greatest thing, he said, was presence / To be yourself in your own time, to stand up.”
When Levine died, in 2015, a flood of tributes circulated among his readers and his many former students—from NYU, where my husband studied with him, and from Cal State Fresno, his academic home for most of his career. (One writer fondly recalled puzzling over a mysterious “bs” symbol appearing several times in the margins on his thesis manuscript before realizing it meant what it said—Levine thought the line was bullshit.)
Another of Laux’s mentors, Sharon Olds, came to campus for a reading two years ago. The audience was rapt: weeping, laughing, gasping. She taught us. Then she said, during the question and answer period, that she was now focused on listening—that she thought it was time for her generation to listen more, to make room for others to speak. She made the gesture of closing her mouth. (Olds, who teaches at NYU, has been known to mark favorite lines of poem drafts with rainbows and suns and flowers.)
Laux’s poem about Phil Levine concludes with Levine giving her his gold pen—“He said What’s mine is yours.” I have seen her version of this gift to students—leaving cash in an envelope for anyone who wants to enter a certain contest, feeding them late at night or early in the morning, housing them. (I’m sure she also calls them on their bullshit.) In the same class we read a poem by Tyree Daye, a writer she began teaching when he was an undergraduate.
Daye, who just won a Whiting Award and will publish his second collection next year, grew up in Youngsville, North Carolina, a small town in a rural part of the state. At one point in his K-12 schooling, Daye realized that he was being passed along—his teachers weren’t concerned that he couldn’t read well. He knew that if he wanted an education, he would have to insist on it. I’ve heard similar stories from other writers—a realization that the system did not care about what they learned, did not encourage them, as Levine did to Laux, “to be yourself in your own time / to stand up.” They persevered and succeeded, but there are many more who do not have that chance.
When I was in elementary school in rural Virginia, my good friend’s parents would not allow her to be part of the gifted education program. For her family, it was a principled, religiously motivated decision—they believed that all God’s children were gifted, and that everyone should be treated the same. Another friend, extremely artistically talented but not great at test-taking, was never identified as “gifted.”
The gifted classroom, a converted office inside the school’s library, is the place I think of when I remember elementary school. I can remember where our teacher posted the weekly word puzzle, the texture of the plastic chairs we pulled up to the gray computers we used for programming turtle graphics and typing short stories, composition books resting in our laps. I remember our group work tables—different from the rows in our regular classrooms—and feeling sorry that my two friends were not there.
I think most artists have a memory of a classroom where the goal of becoming an artist first felt real. We are expected to move away from those classrooms—to live our lives as artists, to do our work—but when we come back, for a time or for a career, we have an opportunity to multiply the effort that was exerted on our behalf. We make a temporary home and shelter for our students, which some of them will one day look back on and remember as the place where they were seen, where they could stand up.
I don’t mean to argue against sabbaticals, or against the time writers need to do their work. I wish time and space for every writer, every artist that I know. What I mean to say is that teaching is undervalued, and that teaching the very young—especially the young and poor—is hardly valued at all. How then do I send my students confidently into those classrooms? Why suggest high school, middle school, elementary school?
Between Tyree Daye’s first and second book, before he was hired for his first university job, I watched him teach: undergraduates at our school, homeless and at-risk teenagers in a community workshop in Raleigh, preschool students (babies!) through our university’s humanities outreach program. He treated every class like an opportunity to get better—in his teaching and in his writing. In each class, he read poems and lectured, then he sat down and he wrote with those students.
Here is what I know about the best teacher-artists: their work is never entirely selfless. It is an exchange. This is what I think of when I consider my two students, headed for K-12 classrooms. This is why my novel’s protagonist, Marianne, ends up in a classroom and not with a published book, which she has been trying to write, and fretting about not finishing. Teaching—that exhausting, important work—is her way out of the solipsism and avoidance that has plagued her personally and artistically. Which doesn’t mean she won’t write her book. I think she will, and it will be better because of that classroom.
From The Gulf by Belle Boggs. Used with permission of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2019 by Belle Boggs.