Surprise! Even on the internet, something defies discovery.
In 1982, visiting a graduate school classmate’s Massachusetts home, I heard a comedy album collecting Vermont humor, a combination he called “a contradiction in terms.” The only joke I remember is…
Farmer, I’ve been on this hill for an hour now, ain’t there no end to it?
Stranger, this ain’t no hill. You’ve just lost your hind wheels.
It wasn’t really funny then, and, muted by time and missing a Vermonter accent, it seems less funny now. Still, it sticks. I hoped the oracle Google might peg its provenance, but she turned up nothing—despite every combination of entreaties.
I’m asking too much, have traveled too much. Who wrote and/or told the joke doesn’t matter. Its persistence does. I’ve climbed many hills since, most of my own making.
When my daughter was young, I learned about “catastrophizers,” people who validate adversity and see struggles as graver than they really are. A broader—probably more personal—definition might include those who endow their lives with meaning according to real or imagined obstacles. It’s a terrible but persistent habit.
Sometimes, my own hill feels endless. The formula says, “Must I always be second?” or “They are all against me,” or “I just can’t catch a break” or “When will my train arrive?” Separating reality from perspective sometimes feels impossible. I subsist on my perspective. Without hind wheels, I climb and climb.
For years, I’ve been looking for anyone who can tell me what hill I’m actually on, but we’re all on hills made steeper by their being ours. I accept friends’ preoccupations because I have so many myself. They have—we all have—our troubles. Still, oddly and irrationally, a voice says, “What about mine?”
It’s selfish to crave recognition in this distracted and overactive time, but I look for moments someone turns to regard my hill and, however politely or secretly insincerely, says, “Yes, I see.”
This week, I retire from teaching after 37 years, but, for all the fond memories that time represents, it’s early—not only because I’m just 60 but also because, aside from missing hind wheels, I still have something to offer. The stereotype of an “Experienced” teacher features shuffling yellowed notes, telling students “Well, that’s your problem,” and meeting each wave of pedagogical innovation with “Not again,” but that’s not me. I still love the people I teach. Caring about their learning has sustained me over so many cycles of September to June. I’m just tired, though ready to travel on.
In my fantasy, the farmer offers help. He backtracks until we find what’s missing. He overlooks my self-absorption. He affixes the old wheels or new ones or a facsimile and sends me off, saying, “Stranger, we need wheels. Let’s hope these are meant for you.”
A college course called “Meaning and Value in Western Thought” was my first exposure to palimpsests, ancient manuscripts washed or scraped to make way for new writing. I don’t remember what specific meaning or value survived well enough for scholars to find it later, but I do remember my professor using the occasion to develop a metaphor that, since then, has become familiar.
The past is a palimpsest and so are we.
Apparently, my grandfather excelled at angry letters. I never knew him, but my father described him sitting at the kitchen table in his underwear, scratching out cutting phrases with a fountain pen and planting the seeds of deadly subtext. My father said he worked and reworked these letters for hours, pausing only long enough to chuckle at his handiwork.
The pre-computer age required much more handwriting, and I enjoyed the negotiation of long-hand. Carets and cross-outs overwhelmed the text. Arrows led to sentences in the margin, and, at the top of the page, I questioned choices, determined to return to them later.
The effort transformed these drafts into holy objects I lacked courage to toss. Even after typing the final composition, I saved them. Some still lurk in my files, their cramped elaborations and digressions winding like varicose veins.
We’re told now to wait before sending sensitive emails. We’re supposed to let them sit, or write them to get our true feelings out. Then, we must delete them. That process should create a more circumspect and neutral message… or a promise “to talk.”
My father, like his father, wrote angry letters, but where my grandfather’s targets were columnists, politicians, and public figures, my father aired gripes about ball-point pens that failed before they expended all the ink in their barrels or coffee filters that weren’t sealed properly and left grounds in his morning cup.
He too delighted in his craft. He also received many unctuous replies and a lot of free shit.
The expense of parchment made of lamb, calf, or goat skin (then known as pergamene) was a big reason palimpsests existed. The page was costly and hard to get, so no surface could be cast off or relegated to an archive. It needed reuse, and reuse required erasure.
Or so they thought. The underwriting or scriptio inferior persisted and could be recovered through various chemical processes—and now ultraviolet light.
What would the authors think? Would it feel like being caught talking to yourself?
I do most of my drafting in my head now, revising and re-revising even as I speak. I mean to say just what I mean and express it just so. Magma-like anger does roil inside me—more than anyone may realize—but the few times it gets out in conversation, it immediately turns to steam amid raining apologies.
Confident people revel in righteous indignation. I ruminate over extenuating factors and my role in every galling slight. I swallow my angry letters.
Or write them to myself.
Once, while I was directing a play in my first teaching job, I had to purchase a hammer before a set construction session. I kept the receipt and filled out a reimbursement complete with—the eighties—three colors and carbon paper between them. I needed the signature of the art department chair, and, hunched over his desk while he was away, affixed a post-it note to the form and scrawled, “I don’t know WHY they don’t trust me, and you have to verify I really bought a hammer, but here…”
My pique passed through every color and the carbons. The next day a smirking note arrived explaining proper procedure.
This weekend, a situation at work required the most consequential form of charged communication. I felt ill-used and thought about retribution. In my imagination, either they would pay or I’d make myself heard, the bile inside voiced. Like colleagues who have real convictions and real gumption.
I wrote several drafts instead.
And—you can tell—I’m confessing nothing about the true subject.
There’s a moment in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold… and the Boys” I particularly appreciate. Two servants to Apartheid-era Harold have suffered such devastating slights and deliberate stabs from him, ending with Harold spitting in the servant Sam’s face. Sam turns to his co-worker Willie—in Harold’s presence—and asks, “And if he had done it to you, Willie?”
Willie replies, “Me? Spit at me like I was a dog? Ja, then I want to hit him. I want to hit him hard!… But maybe all I do is go cry at the back. He’s little boy, Sam.”
The dissatisfaction of silence hasn’t kept me from tasting it constantly.
In my pretend dialogue with my grandfather I ask if his conscience ever told him to restrain himself and say nothing and, if so—angry letter unsent—did he feel defeated?
I want to ask, “Where do feelings go when they go nowhere at all?
In a drawing class a few years ago, a teacher asked us to draw a chair by depicting all the spaces around it. Drawing the not-chair, he told us, restarts the mind, tricks it into bypassing the brain’s assumptions about how a chair should look. The exercise does, as he promised, force you to scrutinize the scene afresh.
Figuratively speaking, I’ve been drawing the not-chair a lot recently.
With my 60th birthday approaching and after 36 years of teaching, I’m working part-time this year, meaning I have not only fewer classes but also fewer responsibilities as advisor, club sponsor, or coach. My schedule is largely open. I arrive a little before I teach. I leave a little after I finish. This new regimen is only a couple of weeks old but feels mostly like not-teaching. Assumptions about my life’s purpose have changed.
Like probably most people, furniture fills my day. Usual tasks take up its room: exercising, making a bag lunch for work, commuting, visiting Starbucks, and engaging in various other regular activities you may know as well as I do. And most of that furniture—until this fall—surrounded work. I had little time left over after planning for class, grading papers, meeting with colleagues, and answering student emails.
Now I look for ways to occupy my newly expansive day. I already have one other sort of furniture—writing a daily haiku for my haiku blog—and, in June, I added another by creating Instagram account (@davidb.marshall) for a daily doodle. “Doodle,” though, may not be the right term for what I post there, some of which take hours to complete. Perhaps because it’s easier to draw patterns than it is to think about what I really need to do, I spend a lot of time brainlessly coloring in shapes or painting pages in preparation for making shapes to color in. Maybe as long as I have the time to doodle there’s no harm in it, but I’m never sure whether I’m using time or filling it in. I believe in any endeavor that I can regard as practice—that’s what I tell myself, anyway—but how does one become a more skilled doodler?
So I also work on work more than necessary—planning, grading, and planning some more. My son correctly predicted I’d have trouble kicking workahol, and he was right. I’m still waking at 4 am to reread what I’m teaching and put the finest of finishing touches on lesson plans. I’ve discovered you never need run out of work if you can think of more work to do. I’ve concluded everything takes exactly as long as you have to do it.
Plus, what I want to do stands little chance against what others want from me. A life of fulfilling expectations, keeping appointments, and meeting deadlines hasn’t prepared me for initiative. For a workaholic, a fine line divides idleness and guilt. Relaxation seems out of the question. I read the back pages of the paper, listen to podcasts as soon as they appear in my feed, and try to do those household chores I too often neglect. I’m embarrassed to admit how often I check Instagram. Yet I wonder about where I’m going, who I am now that I’m only part time me.
So far, I’ve found time for everything but redefinition. Where does identity come from—circumstance or choice? Once you remove the chair, how do you draw the not-chair?
My profession demands infinite alternate explanations. Teaching young writers, I exchange one description for another and turn to what something is like instead of what it is. A research paper is baking a cake, passage analysis is throwing a pebble in the pond, a writer must swing, as Tarzan does, from vines chosen in advance.
I am Mr. Analogy.
I thought about my status when I encountered a post online distinguishing between “reasoning from first principles” and “reasoning by analogy.” The author resorts to an analogy himself in saying that using principles makes you a chef and using analogies makes you a cook. The chef is a scientist who combines ingredients anew. The cook will “look at the way things are already done and… essentially copy it.” The cook might adjust the recipe in a minor way but follows an established approach.
This analogy makes me a cook, and I don’t know how I feel about that.
My first impulse is to extend the comparison. Cooks seek practicality and reliable results. They repeat themselves, sure, but they also hone their approach until every element is just right. If I only have so much to teach about writing—only what I understand and accept—I’d better learn to express it in tried and true ways. My students can take or leave what I have to say. I’m only trying to help.
But I’m defensive. I recognize that, to real writers, each task is a fresh challenge that demands new solutions. They never imitate themselves or settle into a monotonous voice. Maybe my cookery demands compliance instead of genius. Perhaps I should stop saying detail and explanation are like bricks and mortar or that, like a knife, a specific supporting detail can grow dull if it’s used for more than one purpose.
You see I can’t stop. The post I read says, “Your reasoning process can usually be boiled down to fundamentally chef-like or fundamentally cook-like. Creating vs. copying. Originality vs. conformity.” At this stage of my teaching career, I’m too tired to reinvent much. I tell myself what’s worked before is still working. I keep my head down and cook.
Analogies, I figure, demand a specific sort of intelligence, one connecting tasks, appealing to common skills, common patterns of thought and application. The analogy-maker hopes for another avenue of discovery, unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. I want my students to say or feel, “I never thought of it that way.” Of course I have thought of it that way, or I wouldn’t trot out the same exhausted comparisons. I just can’t help it.
The explanation becomes new to me if it’s new to them.
I momentarily lost it last fall when another senior complained about reading 22 pages assigned over two nights—in 14-point font, with sections interrupted and the rest of the page blank. In I983, my first year of teaching, I asked my department chair what homework reading load was reasonable. I operated on her standard for nearly a decade, 30 pages, but since then…
People outside my profession ask me, “How do your current students compare to the first students you taught?”
Honestly, I fear the question, as who wants to be a prune-faced back-in-my-day-er howling about change most label progress? I’ve rehearsed my answer, picturing the students I teach lugging their stretched-to-bursting backpacks into class. I like them. They smile at me. They thank me. They wave hello, goodbye.
The invention of averages hasn’t done much for subtlety. If I say, on average, my students are not as good at reading and writing, then one of the sharpest of my current students appears at an imagined door. I do teach some powerful thinkers, idealists, imaginative innovators. Some revere books and commit themselves to absorbing, testing, and exploiting ideas. The rest are, as a whole, good people. I respect them and would hate offending them.
But you hear me winding up. Whether I want an answer, I have one.
Unsurprisingly, reading challenges my students most. They seem unpracticed because few circumstances in the rest of their lives expects reading, and it’s a trial to convince them patience matters, that, the more they notice and retain, the more discerning their understanding and interpretation will be. For them, nuance matters less and less. They make dramatic links between disparate ideas but aim for fireworks, not gentle brushstrokes. Skilled at the broadest thinking, they sometimes resemble bots devoted to cursory recognition. Complications, exceptions, paradoxes, and mysteries don’t interest them as much. Instructions falling between extremes tax them. They want to know what’s required.
Impatience, I think, makes a bigger difference. The issue isn’t the number of pages but the page number where they become frustrated. The particular assignment my seniors objected to was Eula Biss’ “Pain Scale,” a roaming lyric essay about Biss’ back pain that included allusions to Dante’s Inferno and the history of numbers. Quixotically, I believed they might take to its strange and dramatic leaps between different arenas of thought, but some barely reached the bottom of the first page before deciding, and later letting me know, “This is bullshit.”
Every good student is a good critic, but judgment can be peremptory, skipping knowing, understanding, interpreting, detecting authors’ aims, and formulating thoughtful responses. Obviously, I’m heavy on judgment myself—it’s in the RNA of our times—but I’d love more than a “I didn’t like it.”
Maybe pragmatism explains their perspective. They’ve been conditioned not to deviate from straight paths. Their parents urge them to fix on destinations with less help getting there. Many parents forget about encouraging joy. To recognize how limitless they might be, students need to struggle and overcome, yet, because minor dents are too costly to their reputations, every accident or setback needs immediate remediation. They hardly have time to stumble or to distinguish between stumbling and failing. They’re told they must not fail and seldom come close. Few experiences lead to the redefinition—refinement—arising from discovering where strengths and weaknesses lie.
They’re an anxious generation—of course and understandably. Yet sometimes I wonder why. Granted, we’ve given them a terrible world, but they’re also ready to tell you how much harder they have it, and each challenge can feel to them like too much on top of too much. I long for the student who asks me to be hard, who accepts struggle as fundamental to education.
None of what I’ve said diminishes my affection, but it doesn’t lessen my concern either. I generally don’t compare current students to historical ones. I know it could be my problem, my nostalgia for a past that never was. Maybe I shouldn’t speak at all, but there they are, right in front of me, every day.
Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?
This semester I’m teaching a class called “Humor and Satire,” and, though we haven’t reached the satire part, I’m beginning to wonder if I understand humor very well. So far, nothing on the reading list, apparently, is funny, and my students’ idea of what’s funny often doesn’t match my sense of humor either.
It occurs to me I might be better off teaching a course called “Humorless Sermons” than one that’s supposed to be funny. No one is laughing as much as I hoped, and, in the middle of the night when I wake up from twisted and disturbing dreams designed to sublimate my frustration, I ruminate on the very nature of humor and what skills or traits (or whatever) a person needs to get a joke and/or whether a sense of humor is inherently subjective, untouchable by education.
Some years ago, during my quixotic teaching years, I devised and taught another course called “The Comic View” and ran into different but similarly nettling issues. Then, students did find some of the content funny, but, beyond sharing what each person thought was funny, they weren’t interested in talking. I’d ask how humor worked—what we can learn about what elicits laughter—and the response would be… crickets. No one wanted to talk about why they were amused.
But at least they laughed at first.
I took over “Humor and Satire”—with considerable trepidation—from a colleague when the class wouldn’t fit into his schedule. He is a director and drama teacher and improv sponsor at our school. Unlike me, he’s quite funny, and, though he helped me design and organize the course and approved the books I chose, thus far I haven’t been able to create the magic he intended.
Why? It might be because I’m not funny or they are not sophisticated enough as readers to detect humor or humor itself is a challenging art form that’s easy to under-appreciate until you try it or maybe that humor, the minute you expose it to the spotlight of analysis, withers and dies. It could be all that and more.
For a recent assignment, I asked my class to write an essay (with the same title as this one) speculating on an essential trait of humor. The elusiveness of the answer, I hoped, would challenge them and—like the laboratory a course like this should be—lead us, together, to more sophisticated questions about what’s funny and why. I haven’t read their work yet, but, based on the number of times I answered, “Is it okay if we quote someone saying ‘fuck’?” I’m intimidated and afraid.
Were I writing the essay, I might argue similarly, that humor is inherently transgressive. It must cross a line or elude what’s “usual” or “acceptable” to hit its mark—but, if true, where does that leave stodgy (and older) professorial types like me? Does assigning a work as humor disqualify it as funny immediately?
My class, in their defense, puts up with me. My misguided enthusiasm, they communicate, is occasionally quaint and charming. I can’t help feeling a failure, however. Maybe an explained joke can’t be funny, but, if so, that truth doesn’t leave me much room to teach. The whole situation leads to a more existential question, “Can anything be taught at all?
Every day, almost every hour, I imagine being a sought-after editor, a teacher’s teacher, a designer for Crate and Barrel pillows and tablecloths, a podcaster, a muralist, an educational theorist and consultant, a freelance writer specializing in personal essays, a highly-paid fine artist. I could add masters athlete, but my body says, “no.”
My circumstances fuel these fantasies. When you reach a certain age, people ask, “When will you retire?” Then they ask, “What will you do then?”
I don’t know and blame our society’s new understanding of the word “retirement.” The dictionary says retirement is “leaving one’s job and ceasing to work,” but we’ve revised the concept. Where it used to entail traveling, gardening, doing crosswords, and just bemusedly (and charmingly) puttering about, now it means “second acts,” “rewiring,” and “side hustles.”
The impulse to stay vital makes sense. “The best way to stay on a bicycle,” a friend reminds me over and over, “is to keep peddling.” And I like completing tasks, helping out, creating what did not exist before I conceived it. I love being productive. What seems different now, however, is the vision of a post-work life I’ve absorbed, that, if I’m ready to cease teaching, I need to find something essential to my being and remunerative, preferably something I always dreamed of doing yet never did. I so easily confuse what I might do and what I should have done before now.
Like that other life-redefining moment—college—retirement isn’t cheap, but, unlike college, you can’t borrow for it, which may be what motivates people to remain in their jobs as long as they can. The pension era has passed. In 2002, the average age at which Americans expected to retire was 63. Now it’s 66. If Medicare fades away, we may end up working until we can work no longer, but, even now, if you haven’t saved for idleness, you can’t afford it.
If you have saved, you might still feel compelled to work. Books and articles claim savings justify bold ventures and alternative identities you’ve had to abandon. Like a professional athlete whose playing days are over, your situation is a golden opportunity to remake yourself. You can go back to school or start working in another industry or throw yourself into entrepreneurship… never mind that few places want to admit or to hire or to finance someone of your “experience.”
The “tired” part of “retired” no longer carries much weight. I confess, sometimes every fantasy appears more interesting than continuing down the same road, yet the prospect of starting over terrifies me enough to keep me on the job. My own father received his last paycheck the day after he died. Part of me hungers for an old-fashioned, more traditional retirement, the one where I see a lot of movies and feed the ducks in the park. What if I relearn the sidestroke or take up painting bad watercolors that don’t yield a dime? I’m not talking about idleness, I promise. Can’t my post-work life be busy without being stressful? Is that acceptable?
My school contracts with a service providing substitutes on short notice, and we see a parade of retired teachers pass through. A few don’t have laptops, don’t know how to attach or un-attach documents, and absent-mindedly forget to collect what we ask, but many are vibrant and capable, enjoying students as much as they ever did but going home without papers or parent phone calls to return. They earn nearly nothing—I’ve looked into it—except the satisfaction of putting in a decent day’s work.
There’s plenty of productivity left in me, and I could be someone’s new model employee, but is it so terrible to rest my drive and contribute what I can?
When no real or virtual stack of grading awaits me, when no other deadline looms, when I have time to read carefully, annotate thoroughly, and plan thoughtfully and creatively, I love class.
Question and response and further question and further response come to resemble an intricate, entirely improvised dance. There’s inference and implication and irony and laughter. There’s progress toward answers we didn’t know we wanted, and the slightest signal drops discussion into another, more consequential dimension. Even un-staged epiphanies seem meant to be.
Many teachers must feel as I do. Class time is the pounding heart of teaching that sustains the rest. For me, even almost 40 years in classrooms, it’s the only part of the job that makes me feel competent. The rest is ash.
My school has a curious custom. At the end of each period, after students gather up their papers, re-zip their laptop covers, and file everything away in overstuffed backpacks, they—almost all of them—stop to tell their teacher “Thank you.”
I’ve never experienced such widespread and ready thanks in any other school I’ve taught. I’ve asked students new to our school whether that was the convention where they were before, and many say no. We’re an independent school—read: a private school—and admissions people sometimes tout this thanking habit as proof of the special teacher-student relationship here. Everyone, it seems, marvels at this ritual. Most of my colleagues espouse gratitude for this gratitude. They love being thanked.
For some reason, I hate it. I’m reluctant to tell students, but I wish they wouldn’t thank me.
The expression “thank you” looks outward. It includes only one second person singular pronoun “you” and thus appears selfless. It says, “you deserve thanks,” which suggests it’s all about that offering, all about approval, all about appreciation. Yet, if you listen too closely, you hear the understood “I” at the head of the clause, “I thank you.” A gift can begin to sound like a contract—not clear payment for services exactly, but a transaction nonetheless. Heard from that corner, “Thank you” says, “You’ve been paid. I have paid you.”
The Princess Bride begins with the backstory of Buttercup and Westley’s love. She relishes bossing the farm boy around, and he always replies “As you wish.” However, we soon learn his answer is code. The tasks grow simpler and simpler until she asks him to retrieve a pitcher well within her reach. Westley fulfills her desire with “As you wish.” “That day,” the narration reports, “she was amazed to discover when he was saying ‘as you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you’.”
The moment’s indirection is beautiful because it relies on Buttercup hearing Westley say he loves her and not on his saying it. Love is in the reception and not the transmission.
I wonder what I might think if my students didn’t thank me.
People who grow up as I did with the maxim, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” are prone to hear silence as censure.
My emotional memory is deep enough to recall how torturous high school can be. The details of that time might have fled, but the romantic rejections, the relentless assaults on any belief in my academic, athletic, and artistic worth are still with me.
My senior year, I barely dammed tears when I received less than I expected—the score that should have been mine or indifference that, in light of my earnestness, felt like cruelty. Classmates more insulated by ego weren’t so sensitive, but we all rode waves of confirmation and doubt. I remember.
Do my students ride the same waves? I’m not sure, but my interactions with them assume so. If their high school years are like mine, what they need is for their emotions to be accepted and, as well as I can, valued. Who knows if they do feel I value them, but I hope they feel seen.
Even as, the older I get, the less they may see me.
Occasionally, I try to tell my classes that I don’t like being thanked, but there’s no proper way to say so.
If I say, “Don’t thank me, it’s my job,” it sounds like I’m saying teaching is only my job.
If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s unnecessary,” it sounds like I’m diminishing their gratitude, that I don’t appreciate their appreciation enough.
If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s embarrassing,” I risk an unprofessional confession.
If I say, “Don’t thank me, I don’t deserve it,” which too often comes too close to the truth, they think I’m asking them to dispute it.
One deflection is to string together all the forms of “You’re welcome” I know. The more people thank me, the more ridiculous it sounds.
“You’re welcome, any time, my pleasure, it’s nothing, thank you, think nothing of it, a trifle.”
We study vignettes in my senior writing elective, and, after a longer reading of six vignettes, I asked them to pretend they were determining “The Vignies,” an imaginary award for vignettes aligned with the Oscars, Grammys, or Tonys. They were to name winners in categories like “Top Vignette for Creating an Intimate Connection with a Reader” and “Greatest Mystery of What Was NOT Said (and yet WAS said, in a way… sort of).” They needed to write an awards show style speech announcing their selection and how they reached their decision.
It took some coaxing to get them to play along, but they did ultimately buy in, cooperating not just in the over-the-top fiction of those speeches but in the “we was robbed!” responses I insisted they make on behalf of spurned vignettes.
Forty minutes later, the day felt productive. I’d compelled them to scrutinize the reading, to make some thoughtful judgments, and to think about the bigger matter of how vignettes operate. Some of the speeches were funny too.
And, as they exited, several seniors thanked me.
Recently at my school, students have been secretly recording teachers with cameras in their phones then posting the results online. For the faculty, this behavior creates consternation. Some recorders must mean to show how funny or engaging we are, but others are malicious, hoping to show the opposite—how inept or clueless we are.
I’m sure they’ve focused their cameras on me and can only hope that, on balance, I’ve come across well. Made aware of what they’re up to, however, I wonder how many thanked me afterwards.
It occurs to me that, if thanks are transactions, both parties need to believe, the one thanking and the one being thanked.
At this stage of my teaching career, I can’t look for the attention younger colleagues garner. I probably won’t be asked to give another commencement speech. The fellowships and travel grants my school awards will likely land elsewhere, and I can’t fathom what performance might be enough to add my name to the plaque that designates my school’s best teacher each year. Only retiring might convince students to dedicate the yearbook to me.
I’m not insensitive to praise—who could be? And sometimes I’m haunted by the last line of James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”
“I have wasted my life,” it says.
All these thanks and still… perhaps the problem is me.
Desire, the Buddha says, is suffering, but what of half desires? What about all you want and, at the same time, don’t?
In seventh grade, I was in what-I-thought-love with Nita Stroud. She seemed to care about me when I didn’t care much for myself, and my desperation soared to quite unquiet protests of affection. When she broke up by telling me I was “too intense,” I remember feeling confused. Was I relieved, even happy? I’m still not sure.
Desiring nothing means getting everything. By that standard, even a half desire can’t satisfy.
One day one of my students—I’ll call him John—lingered after class. He asked me to write this essay. I was grumbling again over being thanked, how I perhaps should (but didn’t) know what students felt when they said “thank you.” I should write something, I told him, to figure out the source of my ambivalence.
“I’d read that essay,” John said.
These close moments with students are rare. My colleagues tell me I’m “respected” and a student “had a good experience with me.” I don’t know how to read these compliments. What I want is a sure sign I’m reaching someone after all this time. Yet, that’s not something any teacher can expect. I’ve been to many conferences where we teachers receive a pen, some papers, and a command, “Write about a teacher you meant to thank and didn’t.”
I’ve found something to say and someone to say it to. I recognize which teachers made me. At the time though, the hour passed. Another session demanded I move on.
Many days, I walk to school. It’s no mean distance, two miles or so, but it’s a division between home and work. This time of year, it’s dark, and I barely hear anything other than my steps, barely see anything other than threadbare traffic similarly drawn to starting earlier and better.
Teaching has been my singular devotion. I’d label it “a calling,” if I could be so melodramatic. After all this time, I want—too much—for the sacrifice of money and stature to mean something. I’d like to place my worth on another scale. Still I think, “I could have made more. I could have been more.”
During my own schooling and in my current school, smiles pass between students and teachers, a spotlight of kindness illuminating and redeeming shared troubles. In that, somewhere, are thanks. I’m just unsure how to believe it.
In my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.
“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”
Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.
In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”
Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.
He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.
Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.
At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.
I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.
She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.
Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.
You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.
A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.
Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.
As an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.
Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Parkhasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.
I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.
Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.
Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:
I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.
Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?
Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.
The 2013 movieAustenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.
For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.
Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.
I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”