Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Myth of the English Teacher

Last night was the last class of Ekphrastic Poetry: a month-long workshop based on the relationship between art and poetry. We had such a good group of writers, artists and insightful readers that I will be greatly missing all of them. When a good class gathers and then ends, it can feel like an unwanted break-up. As an English teacher, you so often get to know your students much more quickly and intimately than say if you taught, geometry or gym class. There's rarely a time in math when I recall discussing my favorite theorem or really expressing myself through volleyball. English lends itself towards personal expression and poetry just takes it that much further.

But what I would like to argue against, as a poet and teacher, is the myth of the English teacher: the over-sensitive type standing in front of a group of students with chewed fingernails, coffee stained stutters with a bout of nervous leg syndrome. Someone who is prone to some disorder. Someone boldly wounded. Someone who wants to tell you about their woundness too easily. English teachers aren't all from the same tribe. We are not all just about feelings, wanting students to write about their painful childhoods and some of us will never be caught saying things like, "reading this poem is like waking up on a Tuesday thinking it is really a Sunday." No, some of us want to make sense. Some of us want to help give literature and poetry a better name. A lot of us are just people who like to read and find reading a liberating experience which really we just want to share. Literature is a means to study the history of a culture's consciousness and poetry again takes it that much further. Some of us teachers want to demystify, not simplfy, the world of literature, the workshop and also the idea of the the "writer".

When I think back to my own English teachers, I am pretty sure they represented the wide range of myths of females in literature: the wide scope of the madonna to the whore. Mrs. Craske was everything but crass. No, she wasn't a saint or even Catholic, but she read to us everyday, taught us grammar first then literature, had high expectations, and always encouraged us to read and read voraciously. She didn't give detention or have disciplinary problems, she had what most English teachers have in their pocket: psychological prowess in the art of verbal belittlement. Now, I don't recall anything rude or in severely poor taste, but Mrs. Craske could kick ass with her mouth. She never used profane language, just exacting ways in making you do your work. And she did. She would not tolerate late work, poor effort and laziness and she would tell you just that, in slow very articulated voice over her reading glasses resting on her nose while you feared that pink-lipsticked mouth hovering above your desk.

She stood close to five feet two and yet I remember her as tall. She carried herself well and annuciated perfectly and had a beautiful reading voice. I remember hiding my face while she read Truman Capote's "A Christmas Story", crying into my desk as quietly as I could. What Mrs. Craske gave to me as a student is what I have later used as a teacher: tenacity and strength. The belief to set high expectations, because if you do, perhaps students will reach them and want to reach them. And we usually did in her class. If not, you would certainly hear about it.

Yet sometimes, it's the teacher that doesn't like you that motivates you the most. It is not out of spite or ill-will, more out of those ugly lessons you have to learn early in life if you want to write or if you don't want to be a stereotypical English teacher with a lot of emotional baggage under your tweed jacket and whistful scarf. If you choose to write in this life, you need to learn how to be disliked, rejected and rejected over and over again. Thus is true with my English teacher, Mrs. Hungerford. Mrs. Hungerford showed up at our school mid-year, with outfits that each had a matching belt. She was pretty, too pretty for our small town, and for whatever reason she didn't like me. Ever. Maybe it was because I was on the cusp of my "only wearing muted shades" phase while I sat in the back of the room reading Vonnegut. Mostly, I think it was because of one thing: I wasn't a boy. My dad told me stories of a female professor at college who had a grading scale of : A for athletes, B for boys and C for co-eds. Now, Mrs Hungerford wasn't this extreme, but she was always reading papers from a group of attractive boys who seemed smart, but they were certainly not budding Hemingways.

I recall our final project in tenth grade English with Mrs. Hungerford. It was a simple book report. Now I certainly did not go to a private school, or a school with really high expectations, but at least I can say we were expected to read books. I had selected Slaughter House Five (Vonnegut of course) and had spent a lot of time reading, highlighting and underlining. I've never been a gifted writer, just a worker, so I knew I had to edit and revise a lot. I wasn't one of those write-the-night-before types, so I spent days editing and revising my paper. Days after I had handed it in, Mrs. Hungerford read the entire paper to the class. It was the first time a girl had their paper read out loud. I blushed in the back row. But when the paper was returned with a grade, I was shocked: circled at the bottom of the page was a B. In cursive, she wrote nothing but compliments with few corrections. I was confused so I approached her after class.

Her desk was immaculate and without any pictures, just neat piles of paper. I said nervously, "I don't understand this grade? Will you explain?" Taking off her glasses, she looked at me while seated. "Now your paper is very well written, but it is only four and a half pages. It wouldn't be fair to those who had written five pages when yours is well, shorter. "

"So this is an issue of page length?"


All I remember at the moment was two things: one, my posture changed and I stood as tall and straight as I could and two, I knew I would never forget this moment:

"That doesn't seem fair. If you want to base a grade on length and not content, then fine. You can give me whatever grade you want, but I know this is an A paper. I know my paper is short by one paragraph, but what I did write is solid."

I'd like to say that everyone clapped and all the girls cheered me on like it was some after school special where the awkward kid finds their moment of triumph and the popular kids finally accept them for their weaknesses, try on the geek's glasses and notice how pretty the girl really is. A moment when their faults aren't broadcasted anymore and some song with a driving beat plays in the background. A soundtrack that everyone will later sing while driving alone in their car. But no. No one was there. It was silent. I stood there nervous and yet certain. Mrs. Hungerford cocked an eyebrow and smiled slightly and turned to her piles of papers. I walked out of the room and nothing else was ever said.

There would be others--teachers, professors, and TAs that wouldn't like me. Give me grades based on reasons such as one professor who gave me B- after B- on anything I wrote. He told me with complete seriousness and clarity, "You have a very illogical mind Emily." And another, a TA for my Shakespeare class, wrote on my final paper, "I didn't want to give you an A on anything this semester, but this paper is just too good." It's good to be disliked. It's good to learn how to become even more disciplined, more focused to work for yourself first and not just the doting recognition of others. When you know your "audience" doesn't like you, you work even harder to communicate, to be clear. Also, it is good to know that people might not like you as a person, but they just might like what you write. 

It's good to learn to be more focused on the page, then the person. This also helps when you teach so you yourself aren't overly interested in biography and tell the studies how the poet commited suicide by putting their head in an oven before you tell them how great their poetry is. Really, it doesn't add to what the writer left. And if the students are interested, they can watch some TV late-night documentry with dramatic actors playing their lives. No, stick to the page. Focus on the poem.

When I first met Greg, my now-husband, he told me he got kicked out of his college poetry class within the first week. I knew I was in trouble. He told me he had said something in his first class about not wanting to sit around people just supporting each other and letting abstract words be thrown around the room like some game of Catch the Fledgeling Poet. He was allowed back after speaking with the professor and thankfully he still knows Wallace Stevens by heart and can tell me lines I sometimes forget. He was a Natural Resource student and preferred science to liberal arts, but had requirements to fill and chose intro to poetry. I'm thankful he did and I would imagine some of the others in that class did too. It's good to break down stereotypes of all types, either of student, teacher and hopefully even poet.

It's also a good lesson to learn to thank those who gave you difficult times, who maybe did something that didn't seem fair, but maybe you learned something valuable from it. It's good to thank who hated you, but maybe made you work for yourself, who taught you (perhaps indirectly) to write for what you believe in. As a teacher, I cannot tell you how many times students, sometimes the ones I thought hated me the my requirements the most, later find a way to say thank you, thank you for expecting so much from me. Thanks for not being too easy, but earnest. Thanks for not judging me or my feelings towards you. Really, it's good to even be forgiving of those English teachers that maybe stood with cigarette orange fingers and sadness. Under all that tweed and self inflicted tenderness, they are people too. 

Who knows, there might be more insurance salesmen sitting behind some desk writing out a sonnet, or some English teacher who climbs big mountains in their free time, or even a poet who loves this world so much they dream of flowers mostly, mostly in shades of colors other than black.

This poem I share with you perhaps isn't the most seasonal, but it is one that I really wrote just for myself --not from some place drenched in a lot of emotion or trying to say really anything revolutionary--just a simple still life of my joy in writing. 


The hardy perennials of July thrive
in sand, survive arctic winds and lay still
for months to sink their roots around
rocks, and when I sit on moss and granite

to collect them, I never let myself eat 
one. I stare at their mouths
open in the shape of a star.
The five tips resisting,

so my fingers won't ink my lips
blue. The color of a pen I never lend,
keep for myself while I wait to taste
the words ripening in my ear.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Emily. It's always rewarding to look back and see what influenced you to being who you are today.

    Hope all is well.

    -- Casey
    (Certified Marina Attendant)