At the end of my certification course in Louisiana each member of the certification cohort was assigned a project addressing our view of the relationship between teaching and learning. Three women in my group (two of whom were cheerleading sponsors at their high school) did an interpretive dance. One very strange man who had a fictional wife who turned out to be a fictional boyfriend who turned out to just be fictional baked a cake. My project involved a vase, Christmas lights, and slips of paper with text on them.
The final project was a paper written by a man who had been a religious studies and philosophy major in college. He turned out to be a bit of an ass – he was of the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps school of thought and figured that since he, a white, lower-middle class farmboy from Indiana, had gotten himself to college, his students should do the same – but damn did he write a mean paper. It was a veritable philosophical treatise on the nature of the teacher-student relationship. He read the paper to us the evening of our last seminar as we sat around the coffeetable of our mentor teacher’s house, wine glasses cozied in our palms.
And when he was done we all just sat and stared at each other.
Finally, someone said, “I feel like teaching has made me dumber.”
Of course teaching had made none of us dumber. We all had learned a countless number of things that year, from how to write project directions so our students could understand and follow them to how to break up a fight (or when not to – hint: when it involves girls) to how to get kids to sit down and stop talking.
But that one year – just one year away from university and a certain kind of discourse – had changed the kind of language that was available to us. I learned what “chirren,” and “hot fries” were and I learned new meanings for “messy” and “disgusting,” and my use of language, my way of using language as a means of observing and interacting with the world changed. I was aware of this change as a kind of flattening in my head. Some of it was exhaustion, some of it was the emotional strain of being a complete failure in an arena in which I had expected immediate success, and a great deal of it was the simple fact that the language in my daily life had changed.
That first year in New Orleans I was too exhausted and too horrified most of the time to write in the way I had in college. All I could think to do most days was record the place and time I was sitting and then write whatever story my students had told me that day. My notebook from that year is full of entries like, “Starbucks on St. Charles and Washington. Exhausted. Today N. told me she was stabbed in her knee and that’s why she couldn’t participate in the geography review” and “CC’s on Maple. B. is pregnant, four months.” The world flattened out and I wrote what I could write and it became extremely difficult to look and read and listen in a way that allowed me to write more.
Two years later I read more and I write more. I have the energy and, to some extent, the time, to think about language in a way that I sorely missed my first two years of teaching. But I do still struggle with the question of how to make writing sustainable when I’m not in a field that directly supports it. It seems to be a question of both time – the only time I write is before 6AM, when I get ready to go to work, or times like now, when my students are taking standardized testing and I’m engaged in minimal supervision – and of language and of community. It’s harder to write and to feel compelled two write when no else in your daily life is talking about writing.
If you’re a writer who isn’t in grad school or working at a university, how do you make your writing sustainable? How do find the time to write and how do you stay connected to a community that values writing? Has the language that’s part of your daily life (and your workplace, if your job and workload is anything like mine) changed your way of observing and writing? How do you, to borrow a phrase from my favorite bookstore in New Orleans, fight the stupids?