I realized yesterday that I have five weeks left of this semester. If you take out Thanksgiving, which is only a one-class week, I have four weeks and one day. This is what we call the home stretch.
Lately, I’ve been frustrated with teaching. I’m not the only one to blog about such things, or to Tweet them, or put them on Facebook. Mine is not the only tired face in my department. My sighs are not the only ones you would hear if you walked the fourth and fifth floors of my building.
But this is my blog, so mine are the ones you’ll hear about tonight.
I enjoy teaching. I do it (and am reminded often that I do it) for the moments of epiphany a student has, that moment when they understand their power to make an argument, to analyze something, to write a beautiful sentence. I do it for the moments of dispelling myths about literature or the student who, after a semester of smugness, finally admits that my class is useful.
But understand me on this; those moments, those students, are few. Those battles are hard-won. For the most part, I deal with rudeness, apathy, and frustration. I am lied to regularly. I read papers (that are really rants) that make my blood boil, and instead of asking that student to join me in the 21st century, I redirect my anger, seize the teachable moment, and guide them back to analysis, to literary interpretation, to academic tone and a solid (arguable) thesis statement. I read emails from students that tell me my class, the work we do, is not as important as their other classes.
And instead of giving them a piece of my mind as I might want to do, I smile. I compose polite emails back. I am firm, I stick to my guns, but instead of suggesting they locate their manners and bring them to school with them from now on, I merely try to model good behavior by enacting it myself.
But sometimes, it’s harder than others. And lately, I’ve been feeling worn down by apathy and rudeness and the overwhelming sense that not only I, but also my students, we’re all just done.
And with all of that piled on top, tomorrow, we begin poetry. Oh boy. If there’s a unit my students dread, it’s poetry. We dedicate the first day to poetry detox, so they can air their grievances against the genre, their former teachers, formulaic textbooks, and all the poems of [insert name of over-played poet from high school here].
I’ve written about poetry before. For me, a total non-poet, poetry is like a cool club that I will never get into. It’s a date that I so desperately want to go well that I freak out my date, sending them crawling down a fire escape to, well, escape me. Poetry eludes me, taunts me, and also attracts me. I can’t help it; I’m a whore for the words, the line breaks, the rhythm, the economical coolness of the language.
I sometimes forget that, in my literature classes, my goal is to remind my students that reading is fun. It’s insightful. It gives us a portal to the world around us, makes us remember that we deal in words on a daily basis, and that words have immense power. I don’t want them to read a poem and finish it and forget it. I want them to splash around in it. I put this quote from the movie based on John Keats’s life, Bright Star, on the course syllabus as a reminder of that sentiment.
A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out; it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.
But I find that, when I’m not feeling the course material, when I’m letting exhaustion or stress or frustration distract me from the task at hand, I ruin my own teaching and my own goals. I forget that my soul needs words to accept the Mystery, and if I’ve forgotten that, then I certainly can’t sell my students on the idea.
I am blogging every day this month, and some days, I just need to be reminded that I love words. I love poetry and fiction and songs and well-crafted found materials in the world, like the time I came across a beautiful description of an abandoned home in the report from a process server for the law firm I worked at. Words enliven my world; words hurt and help and woo and anger and inspire and calm.
So in the spirit of remembering that, in the spirit of diving into the lake, I will, from time to time, be sharing one of my favorite poems so that I can remember the things I love about them. They’re not necessarily poems I’m teaching, but they’re poems that are meaningful to me, poems that touch something in me and make me remember myself and the world, poems that embolden my soul to accept the mystery.
This first one is one of my favorites, written by Anne Sexton. When I was in college, I was romanticized by poets who struggled with depression and mental instability during their lives, and so Anne Sexton was a poet who I loved to read, though it would be a few more years still before her poems would really resonate with me. For me, this poem, “Rowing,” is a poem for the whole of one’s life: we start somewhere, we grow up, we go through the motions of our lives. There are things we love and things we hate and things we wrestle against. Perhaps we find faith; perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we come to it later in life, perhaps we revise it as we grow older. This poem reminds me that we are, all of us, works very much in progress. We are a story that develops over many years. And the beautifully inspiring part is that, in the end, we keep going. This story, and all our stories, end with us still rowing.
A story! a story!
(Let it go. Let it come.)
I was stamped out like a Plymouth fender
into this world.
First came the crib
with its glacial bars.
and the devotion to their plastic mouths.
Then there was school,
the little straight rows of chairs,
blotting my name over and over,
but undersea all the time,
a stranger whose elbows wouldn’t work.
Then there was life
with its cruel houses
and people who seldom touched–
though touch is all–
but I grew,
like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew,
and then there were many strange apparitions,
the nagging rain, the sun turning into poison
and all of that, saws working through my heart,
but I grew, I grew,
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I’d say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with His two hands
and embrace it.
As the African says:
This is my tale which I have told,
if it be sweet, if it be not sweet,
take somewhere else and let some return to me.
This story ends with me still rowing.
Sexton, Anne. “Rowing.” Selected Poems of Anne Sexton. Mariner Books: 1988.