People, here’s the thing: it’s April. That means it’s National Poetry Month. That means it’s National Poetry Writing Month. That means I’m writing a poem a day. That means I’m participating in a poem-a-day writing challenge.
And that means I’m writing a poem a day along with my fellow writers on campus.
As in, where everyone can see.
Yes, those were the sounds of panic you just heard.
Here’s the thing: sometimes, you hear people say that those who can’t do, teach. Here’s the other thing: that’s totally wrong. I mean, sure, maybe some people who can’t do teach, but I think there’s a qualifier there: they may teach, but they probably don’t teach well. And I’m not saying that as a teacher, really — I’m saying that as a student. I’m saying that as someone who learns, which I will, God willing, always be, teaching or no teaching.
Here, I guess, is the thing I really mean: I learned how to teach from those who taught me, and I praise everything out there that those who taught me taught very, very well. They taught very, very well because, well, they did. And they weren’t afraid to let me watch them doing. My writing teachers wrote with us: if they gave us an exercise in class, their pens were always moving, and they read their drafts when we read our drafts, no matter how terrible or wonderful any of our drafts were. They read poems and puzzled through poems and thought through problems and they did it all out loud, in front of me. And from their thinking, I learned how to think. From their writing, I learned how to write. And I learned, about writing, about everything, the most important thing: keep doing. Do and do and do. Yoda was right: there is no try, there is only do — because trying is its own form of doing.
If there’s one thing I have learned as a teacher, though, it’s that that? That’s not easy. Writing along with my students means that I could write something that’s terrible, and reading along with them means letting them know I wrote something terrible, right then and there, before their very eyes. Sometimes, it’s easier to hide behind the screen, like Oz trapped in a cinderblock room. Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend like I’m the expert, the all-knowing, and they should listen to me just because I’m in the front of the room.
Easier doesn’t mean better when it comes to most things, teaching included. When I first started teaching, I was so terrified of doing and failing that I came into class every day with a full script, sometimes one that I’d rehearsed in the bathroom mirror beforehand. I even wrote out jokes, which, of course, failed, as the classes themselves tended to fail. I told myself that perhaps my humor was just too awesome for my students to get, but eventually, I had to realize that they just weren’t funny. They weren’t spontaneous. They were fake, and rehearsed, as was everything that happened on my end of the classroom — I wasn’t doing anything except reading lines, and when unexpected things (like, say, questions) came from the other
side of the room, I hadn’t rehearsed a response. I didn’t know what to do.
All right, I’ll say it: my classes sucked.
And I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Within three weeks of my first semester teaching, my name popped up on The Website That Shall Not Be Named, and there was a nauseously green frowny face next to it. One student wrote that she would rather jump out of a building than be in the same room with me. I drove to the gas station up the street, bought a bottle of cheap red wine, and sat on my couch and cried.
Looking back, that comment still has its sting, but most of the sting comes from the fact that I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t want to be in a room with me either, especially a classroom. Not long after that, I realized that I couldn’t keep up being a robot in class, even if being a robot was far more comfortable. I realized that in order to teach, I had to do. I had to show my students how I think, how I work, how I write. I had to get comfortable with acting out that process instead of some lame script, and I had to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes, I would falter. I’d be wrong. I’d fail. And I’d recover. I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable — because what else would I ever want to teach?
Now, I’ve reached the final frontier of discomfort: writing a poem every day and posting it for my students and colleagues — and, well, the Interwebs — to see. Sometimes, I will falter. The poems will go wrong. They’ll fail. I’ll recover. And in doing, I’ll do the most important thing: I’ll learn myself and let the language teach me, which is, after all, all I could ever want to teach.