Good luck with that

What I love about teaching: talking, all day long, to people about — mostly — poetry.

What I hate about teaching: talking, all day long, to people. About poetry.

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I have commuted via international border for nearly seven years. (Suddenly I wonder if writing about border guards attracts the attention of law enforcement monitoring for terrorist activity. Hello, CSIS: I come in peace.) This means that I’m regularly asked by an American guard what I do for a living, the third question in the usual series that begins “Citizenship?” followed by, “Where are you headed this morning?” American, to work in Rochester, I teach at OU. Sometimes that’s enough, but sometimes the guard wants to know what it is that I teach. And, sometimes, what time class starts. A few times: what, exactly, we’re doing that day. When we head down the road of specificity, I get nervous: not, obviously, because I have anything to hide — I’m not lying about where I’m going or why — but because at some point in this chain of questioning I feel something giving way, a slight shift from official interrogation towards the individual boredom of a guy stuck sitting in a tiny booth for hours on end, asking an endless stream of travelers the same three questions.

When I say I teach English, the response, when there is one, is usually some variation of embarrassed grimace and an Oh, I was so terrible in English, as if maybe at the annual English Teacher Convention the poor guy’s grade eleven literature teacher told us all that he could not spell to save his life. Those guys make me smile, because I get it; it’s exactly how I feel when a student comes in for a conference and tells me he’s an engineering major, or she’s studying economics: Uh oh — this person is smarter than me. Does she know? I had a physics student come in last semester to talk about her grade, and I just handed her the list of her scores and let her do the math herself. I’ve been teaching gen eds lately, for the first time in a long time, and loving it in large part because of that feeling: the sense of connection that springs up around knowing that we all struggle with something, that no one’s good at everything, that we can help each other.

As anyone who’s studied English knows, though, the simple statement of your vocation incites bizarre ire in some people. I remember telling one guard, who wanted to know my lesson plans for the day, that we’d be discussing some poems during my first class. “Poetry? Ugh. Can’t they read some stories instead?” Saying I’m off to teach poetry seems to be particularly offensive, and has resulted in the worst of these encounters: one guy who asked, “Poetry? Isn’t that kind of stupid?” Another just shook his head, embarrassed for me, I guess, and said, “Good luck with that.” I told my creative writing class, that day, what had happened. What did you say? they wanted to know. I didn’t say anything. I smiled and pretended this was an hilarious and original attitude I had never before encountered during the eleven years I spent reading, writing, and earning advanced degrees in such a stupid and pointless subject. (Remember the episode of The Simpsons, when the family goes to a film festival and Bart is so bored that he cuts off a graduate student’s ponytail? “Bart, don’t make fun of grad students,” Marge says. “They just made a terrible life choice.” Now that’s funny.)

What was I supposed to say? Here’s a guy with a gun and a badge and not, thankfully, the right to prevent my legal entry into a country of which I am a citizen — but with the ability to singlehandedly make my life miserable for a couple of hours, should he decide I am not cooperating and need to go inside for additional questioning. Worst case, I’d be late for class. Best case? I guess the chance to convince someone that art is for everyone. But I’ll be doing that all day at work, and it is often exhausting — less an intellectual argument, more a defence of a fundamental aspect of my deepest self.

I’ve been guilty of the same dismissiveness myself, of course; I imagine everyone has. I rolled my eyes all the way through Intro to Sociology (sorry, Dr. Alexander) and entirely manufactured every piece of “field research” while sitting in my dorm room drinking Heineken and listening to Ben Webster on repeat. It wasn’t personal, which I’ve learned over the years to remember when a student does not share my ardent love for a poem that genuinely does require several years of formal education to access — T.S. Eliot, I am looking at you. Remembering that fact — that it’s got nothing to do with me — makes it easier to keep on trying, to find a way to get past all the resistance and inevitable fear that accompanies any learning and help a student connect. There’s always a way, I’m sure of it, and I love the challenge as much as a love the ah ha! moment. But no matter how well I know I’m not defending myself, it always feels, just a little bit, like I am.

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What is hard about teaching is what is hard about writing for me right now: the feeling of being scrutinized, vulnerable, open. There was a time when I was not writing because I was afraid to find out what I had to say; it was the self-revelation I could not stomach. Right now, nearly finished with a draft of a manuscript, I am saddled with doubt. I need to find a couple of readers, to get some feedback, to send out another round of poems to journals. I need to be willing, myself, to connect — to let myself be taught. What a blind leap it is, to trust someone else. What a border to cross.

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