Friday, July 21, 2017

Keep Always your Fire and your Silver: Why I Teach

Why do we do what we do?

The question appeared in an email the other day. It was asked by a fellow college English professor who I don't know personally. We're part of the same listserv group. He was suggesting the summer is a good time to reflect on larger questions like this. I agree.

Keep always your Fire and your Silver.

This phrase appeared on the Facebook page of one of my high school friends, Matt. I hadn't seen Matt since my college days. In high school we were not best friends; he was more a friend of a friend, yet during the last couple of years in high school we hung out quite a bit--enough that I can still remember details about him: Matt was among the funniest, wittiest, and quirkiest people I've met. He loved poetry, and he introduced me to some great music.

It was from a post from Matt's wife, Ann, on his FB page I learned Matt had died: January 17, 2017. Through a link on Matt's FB page, I was able to read his obituary, catching up on what he'd been up to in the 43 years since I'd seen him.

From the obituary I learned that Matt left university to work for a machine shop, then a tractor company; eventually returning to finish his degree and going on to receive his Master's in Education. He then worked in Substance Abuse education for the Wichita public schools before ending his career as a language arts teacher at two different high schools. He was said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of Tolkien and George Martin and was described as a true wordsmith and grammarian who inspired his students to love words as he did.

On Matt's FB page, following his death, one of his students (I presume) posted a photo of a note that Matt had written to her. "Keep always your Fire and your Silver," the note said.

Intrigued by the phrase, I spent awhile Googling to see if Matt had been quoting from a poem or a song. No luck. The closest I came was a rap song ("Keep your silver, give me that gold") and the Scout song about making new friends but keeping the old; one is silver and the other gold. I doubted that either one was what Matt had in mind, so I'm going to guess the phrase was original with him.

When I saw my colleague's question about why we do what we do, I thought about why I teach; then I thought about Matt's note to his student. I hope my friend won't mind if I draw my own conclusions about his phrase and apply them to explain why I teach.

Fire = passion/intellectual curiosity/loving your subject/valuing the life of the mind. It's why I decided teaching was my calling so many years ago. I can't tell you the exact moment, but at some point as I sat in a college literature classroom at Oklahoma Christian University a professor sparked something within me. It might have been the way he got excited when explaining why Emily Dickinson chose this word and not that one or when asking why Donne began his poem with a trochee rather than an iamb. Whatever it was, the spark was lit and there was no turning back. That spark would eventually grow into a flame as I began to think about a career as an English professor. Later in grad school, I remember Dr. Bratton stopping in the middle of our discussion of Wordsworth's poetry and saying, "This is so much fun! I can't believe I get paid to do this."

I can't believe I get paid to do this. That's been pretty much consistently true for me over my 25 years of teaching writing and literature. But, of course, while it's true I love what I do (I get paid to read Shakespeare plays and Anne Lamott books and C. S. Lewis fantasy lit over and over, after all!), there's something else I've learned in those 25 years. Without students, my passion and love of my subject would be pointless. It's the chance to be the generator of that spark that eventually lights the fire in a student that brings true joy. It's seeing the light bulb go on for a student during a class discussion. It's reading the final essay of a student who has struggled mightily with the first two papers and realizing she's really understanding how to write an academic argument. It's sitting with a student in my office talking about graduate programs or how he hopes to use his writing skills in the nonprofit world. It's getting an email from a student who's just successfully completed her first year of grad school or teaching and having them thank me and our department for preparing her well. That's where the fire is. It's the fire that keeps me warm during the wet Oregon winters and keeps my spirits up in the long stretch between Christmas break and Spring break.

Silver = unique gifts/what makes students different, special, and memorable/style/personality/quirky habits/connection
If students were all the same, my job would be incredibly boring. I teach many of the same texts year after year, but it's the differences among the students who encounter those texts that keeps me interested.  There's some students I'll never forget. Like the one who, on the first day of freshman writing was sitting in the windowsill at the back of the classroom. He had not merely scooted his chair near the window; no, he had gotten out of his chair, raised the lower part of the window as high as it would go, and was sitting on the windowsill, as if he wanted to get as far as physically possible away from me and that classroom. Oh boy, I thought, this one's going to be a problem. He turned out to be the brightest light and best writer in the class, going on to become a medical doctor. While in my class, he wrote his persuasive paper on why a persuasive paper was a dumb assignment, using the argumentative techniques covered in class so effectively I had no choice but to give him an A.

There's some students I'd like to forget. No, I won't go there.

Some of my most memorable students have been the ones who've had great challenges to overcome. Like the student whose twin brother had been killed in a freak car accident when they were teenagers. She survived the accident and had to live with that painful memory. She also had impaired hearing that was not entirely compensated for by the hearing aids she wore. In spite of these challenges (or perhaps due to them), she was one of the most cheerful, compassionate, and encouraging people I've ever met. She took on leadership roles at the college including president of her service club and asked me to be the faculty sponsor. Though it was an all-female club, I couldn't say no to this student. After graduating with her English degree, she went to seminary and today serves as a hospital chaplain. Her story and those of many other unique students I treasure in my heart.

Of course, as any teacher knows, each class has its own personality as well. This explains the phenomenon I've often experienced where I use the exact same material and class plan in two sections of the same class. In one class, it leads to the best session ever; in the other, the worst. A few years ago, I had a writing class of English majors who, for whatever reason, clicked as a group. Instead of a collection of individual learners, the class became a community with its own, rather quirky, personality. Someone decided it would be fun to have themed dress days in class and convinced most of the class members to go along with it. So one week would 90s garb, the next 80s, etc. During 60s week I wore my tie dye shirt and received great applause when I revealed it by unbuttoning my long sleeve shirt. My outer shirt was one of those with the western style buttons, so I was able to make the reveal rather dramatic. Needless to say, discussion was not a problem in this class though I did sometimes have to redirect them to the topic for the day.

So why do I do what I do? I teach with hope that something I do or say or emote in the classroom will light a spark in a student. I teach because I recognize what a difference fire can make in forging a life well lived. I teach because I hope each of my students will recognize his or her unique gifts, what he or she is especially good at, what makes him or her special, will value his or her silver. I don't expect them all to become English majors, but whatever they do, I want them to do it because they've identified what their passion is (their fire) and what makes them unique (their silver). I also figured out long ago I can't expect to connect with every student. That's why I have colleagues.

Recently, I was reading some of Thomas Merton's reflections on the nature of the Bible. Merton quoted the passage from II Corinthians where Paul says to the church members at Corinth: "You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men."

Just so I would hope whatever small part I have in helping students nurture their fire and find their silver, those students would become my letter of recommendation, taking what they can from me and using it in even greater ways for a life well lived.

To shift the metallurgical metaphor, here's what I want my students to know, in the word of John Prine:

"You've got gold, gold inside of you.
Well I've got some gold inside me too."

Postscript: I wish I could revise all those graduation notes I've written to students over the years. If I could, I would boil them all down to a single line: "Keep always your Fire and your Silver." I may use it from now on, but if I do, I'll be sure to credit my friend, Matt.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Lessons I Learned from Dad

It's Father's Day, 2017. I'm missing my dad, who died on New Year's Day, 2012. I wrote this piece a few years before my dad passed and shared it with him and some family members. He didn't say much about it, which was typical of Dad--it made him uncomfortable to talk about himself--but I like to think it meant something to him.  I shared parts of it at his memorial service.

Lessons I Learned from Dad

     I'll skip the obvious ones:  work hard, be a man of your word, love Jesus. When I reflect on what I learned from my dad, it's more about actions, behaviors, attitudes than it is about words he said (though he was good with words, and I remember some of those too).
Teach us to care
     As I look back on my experiences with Dad, I remember him as one who cared, and by that word I mean something like passion.  Some of the things he was passionate about were the big, important things: family, church, the needs of others.  But some of them were things that many would call insignificant.  Take, for example, basketball.  Dad was an athlete and a coach in his younger days, and he followed lots of sports, but the one I associate with him most is basketball.  During my growing up years, he was an avid fan of the Wichita State Shockers, to whose home games he had season tickets. He took it seriously.  Wins were met with much rejoicing, but losses were mourned and hashed and rehashed. I think it was from him I learned how to be a fan.  When you're a fan, objectivity is not an option:  you live and die with the team. You invest yourself in their fortunes.
     Of course, being a fan has its perils.  You can go overboard at times.  I remember the first time I was fortunate enough to go to a Shocker game with him, I was amazed when he voiced his displeasure at a call in loud, rather direct terms. And since his seats were courtside, I'm pretty sure the refs heard him.  I was surprised because in every other setting in which I had witnessed him, my dad was a quiet, unassuming man who seldom raised his voice,  He was a gospel preacher, after all; wasn't he supposed to be setting an example for others?  Looking back, I think the basketball arena provided a space for him where he could set aside his preacher image and just be a "normal" person.  Unfortunately, the lesson I learned was that it was okay to yell at referees, a practice which would get me into trouble later when my sons played high school basketball.  However, the enduring lesson I learned was that part of living, part of being human is caring.
Teach us not to care
     From observing my dad, I learned that some things are not worth caring about:  status, position, material possessions.  I'm not saying Dad didn't like nice stuff; he did.  But he lived simply.  No need to rush out and buy a newer model TV, or car, if the current one was still working.  He was not a self promoter, believing that his actions spoke louder about who he was than any words ever could. He taught me to be suspicious of people who spent too much time caring about or promoting their image.  He also taught me that some things were worth more than others.  He would readily interrupt a quiet evening at home watching a favorite TV program to go help a church member who was having car trouble.
     One of my most embarrassing childhood moments perhaps demonstrated this trait most emphatically for me.  On a hunting trip we stopped for gas.  After the car was full, I asked Dad if I could pull the car forward, ostensibly to make room for other cars, but really because I wanted to experience what driving was like. I was 13 and had never driven any kind of vehicle.  As it happened, the car was in Reverse, not Drive, when I decided to hit the gas, a move that propelled our car into the car directly to our rear.  I felt horrible, of course. What I remember about the incident today is that Dad did not say a harsh word to me and pretty much acted as if it never happened.  Perhaps he knew that I felt bad enough already, but I've often wondered if I would have reacted with as much grace had one of my kids pulled a similar stunt.
Take time to rest
     No one could ever accuse Dad of being lazy.    Throughout my growing up years, he worked what amounted to two full-time jobs, serving as preaching minister for the Northside Church of Christ and as an 8th grade English teacher at Roosevelt Junior High.  Most evenings were filled with hospital visits, and weekends were devoted to sermon preparation and church.  While he worked hard, he always made time for entertainment.  He played golf and tennis at least once a week in the summers, and our family had two summer vacation rituals:  we would spend a week at Table Rock Lake in Missouri, which meant fishing for him and swimming for me and my brother.  And at some point each summer we would take off on a road trip, which meant sightseeing for Mom and Dad and swimming in motel pools for my brother and me.  When I graduated from high school, Mom and I figured out that I had been in 45 of the 50 states.  This rhythm of work and rest was obviously important to him because the routine never varied.  This lesson I am still trying to learn.  So far, I've displayed more of dad's workaholic nature than the rest and relaxation part. 
Put other's needs before your own
     Dad demonstrated a selfless attitude in so many ways, big and small, but I remember most his social grace, what his generation might have called manners.  This characteristic manifested itself in settings like the golf course, where I learned golf etiquette by watching how he invited others to hit first and was careful on the green not to step in someone's path to the cup.  Having dinner at a restaurant, he was concerned, not just about his meal, but about the well being of others at the table.  Perhaps the greatest test of this trait were the last five years of so of Mom's life, where he cared for her as her memory and her ability to care for herself deteriorated as a result of Alzheimer's.  I don't think a selfish person could be a caregiver in such circumstances.  Dad performed the role as if he had been preparing for it all his life, and I guess, in a way, he had.
Find something you do well, something you love to do
     I mentioned earlier that Dad worked two jobs, and I'm convinced he loved both. He never talked much about his teaching job, but I suspect he enjoyed reading literature and discussing it with his students.  He loved words and has always been able to recite long poems from memory.  From him I first learned that words are important, that books contain important ideas, and that poetry is entertaining.  I must have inherited some of his mnemonic facility as well since I can still recite long sections of Eliot's The Waste Land and the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  I also remember the words to numerous Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan songs from the 70s.
     I know he loved preaching.  I'm sure he didn't have as much time for sermon preparation as he would have liked, but the time he did have, he used well.  One example is telling.  Years before PowerPoint, Dad decided that illustrated sermons might increase audience interest, so he got the idea of using a flannel board to illustrate his Sunday evening sermons.  So after writing a sermon, he would spend hours drawing words and images on flannel-backed paper and cutting them out.  One of the church members helped him build a supersized flannel board that could be hung off the edge of the baptistery at the front of the auditorium. I'm sure these illustrated sermons were viewed as high tech in the 60s and 70s.
     I made my career choice in college based on what I loved, not on what I thought would bring in the most money, and I still suggest to the college students I advise today to do the same.
Old dogs can learn new tricks
     Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my dad came from what I'm certain was the most difficult period of his life: walking with Mom as she lived with Alzheimer's.  About a year after her death he was asked to speak to his fellow church members about the experience.   I'm sure it was the most personal sermon he ever delivered.  What I remember are these lines:  "I learned something new about God through caring for Ann.  I noticed that the more helpless she became, the more I loved her, and it hit me that God loves me, loves us, in the same way.  He doesn't love us because of what we can do or accomplish.  In fact, it's the opposite: the more helpless we become, the more he loves us" (my paraphrase).  Dad went on to reflect that in his years of preaching there were probably times when he expected too much of the people he ministered to, when he was judgmental of their weak attempts to follow Jesus.  His experience with his wife, he said, made him regret those times and wish he had been more loving, more graceful, in fact, more Godlike in those relationships.
     I didn't get to spend this past Father's Day with Dad, but I was able to spend my spring break with him at the retirement apartments that he recently moved to after selling the house he lived in for some 54 years.  He gets around slowly these days with his walker, but he's still alert and can still recite long poems from memory--not bad for an 88-year-old.  Spending the week with him, I noticed many of the same traits I talked about.  Ever the gentleman, at dinnertime, if a resident sitting at his table did not get served, he would flag down the waiter and make sure the person was helped.  Even though he had just moved out of his home, he was more interested in talking about the new home Janet and I had purchased in Oregon.
     And he was still being a fan.  My visit coincided with NCAA March Madness, so we watched a lot of basketball together.  What I noticed was he still retained the old competitive fire.  If he had no particular reason to root for a team based on region or conference, he would still pick a favorite, and he would react with emotion to the ups and downs of that team throughout the game.  He still complained about the bad calls.  He still cared.