Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Affecting Eternity: Thoughts Upon Leaving Teaching

Teachers affect eternity.  They never know where their influence ends.  - Henry Adams


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When I was student teaching high school in the mid 1980s, a student asked me to the prom.   That's how young I was.  (I told him he had to wrap his mind around the fact that I was his teacher.)

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When I was student teaching in a middle school, I was so baffled about how to fill up a 50-minute class session that I read aloud all of Call of the Wild to the students.  That took at least a week.  (Who knew one day my sister would marry Jack London's great-grandson?)

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When I was teaching in Japan and my six little charges couldn't sit still another minute, I'd do one of two things:  1) Turn on Madonna's "Holiday" and dance with the kiddies around the room, sing-shouting the lyrics together, or 2) Take out a long rope, tell each kid to hold onto one of the knots interspersed down the length of the rope, and then take them on the three-block walk to a convenience store where each could pick out one snack item, as long as they asked for it in English.

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"I aspire to try to be a teacher to my young fans who feel just like I felt when I was younger.  I just felt like a freak.  ... I want to free them of their fears and make them feel that they can make their own space in the world." - Lady Gaga

In one of my frosh comp classes, students were writing about important events in their lives.  One guy wrote about going to a Lada Gaga "Monster's Ball" concert wearing exactly what he wanted to:  a sparkly blue dress.  He was scared at first, but then dancing to her music made him feel more and more brave until he felt, bursting with happiness, that he was one of her "little monsters."

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In my Queer Arts course, one girl in the class talked about how she came out as a lesbian as a sophomore in high school, and then was elected homecoming queen her senior year.  We loved looking at her yearbook pictures of homecoming:  the homecoming queen, escorted by her girlfriend.

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Last August, on the first day of the semester, I checked my phone during class break.  My sister had called to tell me my mom had passed away.  I knew it was coming.  Mom had Alzheimer's and hadn't spoken in over a year.  Two days prior, I'd spent the day with her.  Lying next to her on her bed, I massaged her, I played Hawaiian music (her favorite), and I talked to her about all my good memories of my childhood.  I also told her the new semester was starting.  A retired school nurse and writer, she liked that we had in common educating and writing.  Perhaps that's why, after the break, I finished teaching my class.  I was kind of numb but I couldn't think of what else to do.  I didn't have my car with me (I'd taken the bus to work), and Mom was in good hands with my sisters 45 minutes away.  I told my T.A.--a graduate student--what had happened, just in case I needed to step out.  I made it through the rest of class.  Afterward, my T.A. said, "I'm so sorry about your Mom, Kate."  I looked at his young face and thought about how sweet he was, and how being in your twenties is a different animal than being in your 40's.  Then he said, "I understand what you're going through.  I lost my mom when I was ten."  As we walked across campus, he told me the story of her illness, of his taking care of her.  What a gift he gave me that day--a reminder that we all have losses in our lives, and that some of us have our mothers longer than others. 

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"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." - A. Einstein


My mentor Gabriele Rico--the woman who sparked a flame in me for teaching, for writing, for poetry--died last week.  Everything I do is "stitched with her color."  My office is in the building where hers used to be.  I often feel her presence in that building, and in the classrooms where I teach.  Especially when I'm having my students do clustering or re-creation to awaken their inner geniuses. Gabriele believed everyone had powerful potential.  Her life was devoted to inspiring people to let their unique creativity shine. 

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I'm retiring from teaching this year.  It feels like such a fitting time.  Recently I came across this "Love Letters" website and thought about how I would use it in a writing class.  This is how my mind has worked for years:  everything I encounter gets sifted through the how might students respond to this filter.  I sent an email to a group of my teacher friends telling them my ideas and giving them the link, and several wrote back enthusiastic about this new teaching idea.  One wrote:  "Oh Kate, you'll never stop teaching, a very good thing."

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During my first year of teaching high school, I saw a former English professor of mine who had been so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Hemingway and Fitzgerald that I couldn't help but fall in love with them.  In fact, I had just taught "Hills Like White Elephants" and felt like I knew how to hook students into the story because of his teaching.  I had an impulse to run up and say something, but I wavered.  And then I thought, what the hell and did it.  I could tell it took him a minute to remember me.  And then I told him he'd had a big influence on me, which had enriched my teaching.  To my surprise, his eyes misted.  Then he said:  "Well, this is interesting timing.  I was just going to sign my retirement papers.  And before you stopped me what was going through my mind was this:  I wonder if what I've done all these years has really mattered."

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Here's an email I received last week from a former student:  I hope you remember me. ... I haven't seen you in quite some time, so I would like to offer my congratulations, as I know you were recently married! ... I am thrilled for you! Kate, you may not realize, but you have taught me so much about what it looks like to be an individual, to be unique, and to be comfortable in my own skin. My growing process could not possibly have been complete without your encouragement along the way, so thank you from the bottom of my heart.



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