Because I teach.

October 9, 2012 § 8 Comments

As a writer for young readers I make author visits to schools.

I’m about to spend two weeks in Orlando and Miami as an ambassador from the world of books.

But, at least in my case,  that word “author” could be replaced with the word, “teacher.”

I will be afforded a luxury the recognized teachers in those schools may not get, which is to turn kids on to the joy of storytelling, and get even the most reluctant among them to write.

When it comes to credentials, I’m a backdoor teacher. The only official-looking piece of paper I can hold up is a diploma from the Rhode Island school of Design where I majored in sculpture.

But that piece of paper allowed me to get my foot in the door. When my husband, daughter, and I embarked on our great adventure, living aboard a boat in the Florida Keys, that one credential was accepted as proof that I was qualified to teach all the art courses at the Florida Keys Community College in Islamorada.

And here is what I learned as I scrambled to teach subjects in which I had deep knowledge, such as drawing, and those in which I had far less experience, like painting.

A teacher’s first student is the teacher herself. If you ever want to understand a subject really well offer to teach it. There is something about the trust students put in you that makes you measure up, not to mention the fact that looking like a fool in front of an audience is one of the things humans fear most.

I remember being jolted out of sleep by a nightmare I had while teaching oil and acrylic painting, a discipline I was less than qualified to teach. I had one particularly demanding and persistent student—if anyone was going to find out I was a fraud, she would.

In the dream she brought a frozen chicken to class and dropped it, smack, on the table. “How would you paint this?” She asked. I began, “There are many ways to—” She cut me off instantly. “No, I want to know exactly how you would paint this frozen chicken.”

I woke up in a sweat, and then began to consider exactly  how I would paint a frozen chicken. By the end of the term, this demanding student had painted some fine paintings. As she handed me a great evaluation, I asked her whether, by any chance, she had any interest in painting a frozen chicken.

What I’m about to say would not apply to a calculus teacher. Or an auto mechanics teacher. Or, God help them, someone training physicians, but the two things I have taught: art and creative writing, are both things that human beings have an innate ability to do, which makes teaching these skills easier.

If you have had your eyes open and observed the world around you, if you have a working hand, you can draw, you can write.

After teaching one section of drawing, I realized this was true and began each semester with the guarantee: “If you come to class and do the work, you will be able to draw when you leave my class.”

The guarantee itself helped tip the semester’s probable outcome toward success. One of the jobs a teacher does is to give students cover while they learn a skill they feel may be out of reach, or only for someone with real “talent.”

Cover from what? That inner voice I call “the critic.” It is that voice in your head which says, “You can’t draw! Your sister is the one who can draw. And who would want to hear your stories anyway?” And then, when you buck the critic and try, it is the voice that says, “You call that a portrait? I’ve seen butts that look better than that face you just drew…”

When I teach writing, as I will on my “author visit” trips,  I will run interference between the novice writer and the critic, but I may also have to return the joy to writing, undoing the damage inflicted by the literary dead zones real educators are obliged to visit like “the five paragraph essay.” Sad to say, but although education can educate, it can also extinguish the human love of self-expression.

Both art and writing are natural human responses to being alive. Something we’ve seen or heard or touched has moved us so much that we are compelled to convert it into another form, thereby making it our own.

In November I will be working with adult writers at a retreat on St. George Island. I won’t need to convince them that they want to write. They’re all giving up a week of their lives to get away and dedicate themselves exclusively to writing.

But writing is a dangerous pastime. When done right, it leaves the writer vulnerable, winded and emotionally spent.

My job in this case will be to make sure this happens by fending off the inner critic who short-circuits risk-taking, by helping with the craft of writing–and then stepping back.

I will be amazed by the heat and light generated by a dozen writers holed up together in a house by the sea.

And, as always, I will learn because I teach.

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