For Love or Teaching

I have just finished my third week of teaching at Cascadia College, a small community college in Bothell, WA. And guess what? I fucking love it! I didn’t think I would! In fact, I always thought I would hate it. But somehow I’ve come out the other side of four years after grad school, and I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it at all.

In fact, I’m finding it to be exhilarating, even in the stress-inducing fear and apprehension of forgetting to make an assignment or failing to set up the Canvas course correctly, or even dropping a student from my class who actually showed up!

This first quarter of my teaching career I started strong. Instead of attending an entire week of paid training by the college, I flew to New York City only three weeks after my chest surgery (more about that later) to attend my friend Stefanie’s wedding. I stayed with my friend Chad in Brooklyn and we had a delightful time talking, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, and even attending a graduate school lecture by Boima, a friend of Lamin and Stefanie’s.

When I got back to town, I missed the Monday meeting I was supposed to go to with my department chair and the two other English associate faculty, and spent the next three days writing a syllabus and course calendar that by Wednesday, the first day of the quarter, I threw out entirely!

After seeing Robyn’s course calendar, I realized I wanted nothing to do with the syllabus I had written–and indeed had taught previously–that I hated all the texts I had heretofore assigned, and that from now on, I would only assign texts that I was deeply engaged with, or that I found to be funny or interesting. A new horizon of possibility opened up to me and I finally realized that I really can do whatever the fuck I want in English 101! Wowza! It’s changed my whole perspective, inspired true excitement and intellectual vigor in myself, and opened my heart to the possibility that perhaps I actually do like teaching. Huh. Weird.

Four years later, the old ghosts of my graduate school past are wagging their ugly fingers at me, reminding me of how traumatized I was from that experience. I’m sorry, I feel like I am using that word lightly. I don’t mean to, but it gets at the level of intensity and deep anxiety that grad school put as all through.

A friend in the program related a story to me about telling our comps director that she was leaving for a few days to attend a friend’s wedding mid-quarter. The director looked at her levelly and said, “That’s not how a grad student acts!” My friend went away from that meeting feeling as though she should feel ashamed, though the shame somehow didn’t quite make it through.

She said to me, “This is hazing!”

I said to her, “This is grad school.”

Because this is exactly what I expected from grad school for some reason. This is what I prepared myself for somehow. I was so afraid of going because of how “the academy” (said in a snooty British accent) might change me. How would I come out on the other side of it? Would I even like the person I would become?

You might ask, well then why did I go?

Because I thought the advantages of going far outweighed the disadvantages. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to get better at writing. Staying where I was, working dead end service jobs that demoralized my soul, made me feel cheaper and cheaper every day I spent in them. Forced to smile at people, to say, “Hello, how are you?” even to the nice customers, even to the people I liked, felt like an impossible task, a slow burning of raw flesh, an excruciating flay of skin. Because life felt meaningless in these jobs that suck the very life force out of you, like most jobs do. But there’s something even more soul-sucking I think in jobs that force you to work with the public. In America, you have to be nice, “the customer is always right.” It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, only they matter. You are merely a corporate zombie, an automaton for their pleasure.

Anyway, grad school. I went to grad school to escape that bullshit, the constant pressure from managers to smile, to engage the customer, to be happy, to work harder, faster, better. To escape the feeling that I didn’t matter, that anyone could do my job and probably do it a lot better. When I was a produce clerk, I was constantly made to feel that I wasn’t doing my job well. It was never enough. I could never measure up, I was never fast enough, never worked hard enough.

When I told the cashier who had a crush on me that I was bad at my job, she said, “How can you be bad at your job?” As if to say, “It’s a stupid job, there’s no such thing as being bad at it.” But it doesn’t matter. Corporate jobs like that make you feel expendable. And you are. I was dying. My psychological skull cracked open and spilled out the contents of my brain while stewing under the florescent lights of that dark corner of the store. I lost my sense of self. I had become a machine. No, as Donna Haraway might put it, I had become a cyborg. My human carcass thrust into the wheel of the machine of capitalism had blurred the lines of my humanity–and autonomy–and that of the corporate master. My father was right, I was a slave.

So I escaped, to grad school. Or so I thought. I didn’t think I had any other options available to me. And I wanted to write. I was getting no where with writing, merely attempting to write little poems, spoken word pieces, bits of stories at Bent Writing Institute, where I also came out to myself and to my community. But I wasn’t getting very far. The wheels were screeching and stuttering and spinning out in the mud of my own depression mixed with alcohol.

I’m making it sounds more dire than it was. It’s not that I wasn’t writing at all. I was going to Bent, I went to open mics and spit poetry, I joined a band. But I desperately wanted and needed a different kind of job, a different way to make money. I’ve realized that for me, work has to be meaningful, and it has to fit me, otherwise I will be utterly miserable for all time. I need to have work that has a purpose, and that feeds my life passions, pursuits and path. If 20-40 or more hours of my waking life per week has to be spent making money, then it has to be worthwhile. Otherwise, forget it. Kill me now. 

That’s why I wanted to be a writer, a musician, a traveler. Those things feed my soul! Or at least I think they do. Perhaps more accurately, they express my soul rather than feed it. Sometimes they take a lot out of me, leaving me feeling exhausted, spent, nothing left to give. That’s mostly music and travel. Writing is like being in a relationship with an avoidant: we go back and forth, up and down, love each other then hate each other, can’t live without, can’t live with, we know this isn’t going to work, but we keep trying anyway.

This morning I went to talk to my department chair again about various pedagogical ideas and confusions I’ve been having–still trying to figure out the rest of my course calendar for the quarter!–and when I asked her at the end about her own writing, she stumbled through something about writing non-fiction, not really being a writer, or not very good at it. After she tried to explain that her focus became more about teaching and that was why, she said, “Because you can’t do both. You can’t be a really good, effective teacher and a great, published writer.” Her words twinged something in me, a tight muscle twisting at both ends. She said, “I mean, I would love to have a book. Everyone wants a book. I mean, some people have a book.”

“You can have a book!” I said.

“Well, but I didn’t make that the focus.” As in, she didn’t really want it bad enough.

It made me afraid. I’m 36 years old and I do not yet have a book. Neither do I have a child. I told myself I didn’t want children because I wanted to make books instead. But now I have neither. And I’m so afraid that I never will. I’m looking down the path of this “meaningful job” and that’s all it is or ever will be. It’s not my dream job, it’s not really my life path. It’s merely a day job, even if a more fulfilling, life enriching one.

I picked up a copy of City Arts Magazine and found an article by a queer woman I’ve seen around town for years now, a friend of a friend. I don’t know her, but when I realized who it was, I couldn’t believe it and I was immediately jealous. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps because I think that should be me. Not that I should take her place at all, just that I should be writing articles and poetry and books all the time, adding my voice to the discussion out there in the world about queers and sex and books and everything else. Why haven’t I?

I thought grad school would change all of that. I thought it would open all these doors for me. And it did in some ways. In some ways it made me more proud of who I am, it honed the writing skills I have, made them sharper, deeper, more cutting. But it also took something away from me, though I’m not entirely sure grad school is to blame. The year after grad school I’ve never felt more depressed, dejected or desperate. That first year of grad school put me on a summer-long high of Euro-travel, sexscapades and hunger for theory and literary criticism, after coming out the other side. I felt proud of my brain, of my abilities, of my survival. After that second year, I’ve never felt more insecure, more unsure of my abilities. Suddenly I was terrified to speak, to stand in front of a microphone and shout my poetry to the world. Suddenly, my words didn’t matter anymore, I had no right to speak, my prose fell flat at my feet, unable to rise.

I suppose it’s two-fold, the reasons why my words went spilling down and scattering away from me like splattered water on the sidewalk. I think part of it stems from how naive I was. I didn’t know anything else. Like I said to my friend, “This is grad school.” I had come to expect that whatever the institution throws at you, you just have to deal with it. That’s life. It beats you down, and you just have to survive it however you can. I cried every single day for the first six weeks, sobbing on my way to school, mostly from the terror of teaching–all by myself–English Composition to a group of college Freshmen. In the curriculum I was given, our comps director said things like, “You are the expert in the room.” That line scared me so bad I shook, and I kept shaking for half the quarter. It was mostly the teaching that scared the shit out of me, as though I was in grad school to teach, not to be taught. That became the focus of my time there, almost the reason. The writing didn’t matter as much. 

It was also what my writing teacher said to me–queer one I went there to learn from–that I was too confessional, that I hadn’t learned how to separate myself from the material. That the community I had come from–that sexy, queer, spoken-word/poetry, sex-positive Seattle community I was a part of–they were resistant to putting words on a page, to refining and revising their work. It wasn’t true, but because I admired her so much, I believed her, or tried to. I tried to take it to heart, to hear what she was saying to me. But it felt like a judgment of my art. Not only of my art, but of my deep, Scorpio-moon feeling. That was the general sense I got from “the academy”–that there is not room for strong, raw emotions. They must be carefully carved and edited out in such a way that only the craft remains. I know that they would disagree with me, and perhaps I would now also, but that’s the sentiment I was left with. White people, am I right? Ok, ok, not everyone in my program was white. There was one person of color that taught me, my poetry prof. He was great, but I butted heads with him quite a bit, too, though more as a father figure. Heh. Go figure.

Today, in the English 101 class I now teach to babies straight out of high school and some still in it, we talked about a selection from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I had just finished this beautiful book and thought, why not? I’ll give it to them as their longer piece, see what they think, my own personal book club. They didn’t speak much, except for the one black kid in the class. He was only one of two students in the whole class of 24 who had read Baldwin previously. I myself have only recently read his work, but he is eloquent and so compelling. I relate to him on a lot of levels, especially being raised in a large family and growing up in the church.

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin talks about how white people don’t understand the nuance of music. They hear a happy song and think it’s just happy, or a sad song and only hear the sadness. They can’t detect the subtlety of emotions in a song like “I Feel So Good” by Big Bill Broonzy. “White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present  in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” (My emphasis added.)

This definition of sensuality brings to mind Audre Lorde’s beautiful essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”. Lorde writes:

“The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against
women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the
psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have
often turned away from the exploration and consideration of
the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it
with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct
denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression
of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without
feeling.

And here she defines the erotic as power (my emphasis in bold italics):

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of
self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense
of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know
we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth
of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we
can require no less of ourselves.”

She goes on to say that we must demand this of ourselves, this full power of feeling. But that the world does not want us to feel, to be fully empowered in all that we do, except in sex. To be a fully empowered and feeling woman is to be dangerous.

Baldwin levels this very similar compartmentalizing of feeling at white people when he says, “Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum–that is, any reality–so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality–for this touchstone can be only oneself”(Baldwin, 43).

Baldwin seems to be saying that white people don’t know how to feel. They can’t even pick up on the nuances of feeling in a song. We are so afraid of feeling, of our own sensuality, that we can’t even trust ourselves, our own reactions, so we become joyless. I feel like that’s exactly what I was experiencing in grad school. The joyless life of academia. “The ways in which”–to use an over-used academic-y turn of phrase–the institution of higher learning becomes cut off from feeling, from real praxis, to use another useless academic word. What I really mean is, how the academic life becomes cut off from real lived experience. How teachers cut short or stultify the conversations that we really need to be having in the classroom, the ones that are deeply personal to us, wherein our deepest fears and our deepest shame hides.

In my opinion, it’s WASPy whiteness at its worst. Our prose cut off from our feeling; useless, tasteless craft on the table; a boring buffet of syntax and structure. Look, I’m doing it now! Words, for words sake. A love of words, a passion for them, for play. I want to play with words like Joan Didion, arranging them on a page, fiddling and farting around with them. 

But what use is it, if it doesn’t mean anything? If it does not moves us to do anything, to do good work, or move us to action? Or simply move us to feeling?

I’m thinking of Sharon Olds’s poetry book, Stag’s Leap. I discovered it and devoured it just before I left Seattle for grad school. Now I’m no connoisseur of poetry, but that’s the best goddamn book of poetry I ever read. You wanna know why? Cuz she makes me feel things. She makes me feel her finger as it remembers the touch of her husband of 30 years who suddenly stops loving her and leaves her for someone else. She brings me into her ache though I have no idea what it’s like to be married to someone let alone having lived with them for over 30 years. She makes me feel all of it. And she did it with her ever so careful craft.

Dammit. So I guess my writing teachers were correct after all. Damn them. Oliver de la Paz would say things to me like, “You need to let the poetry do the work for you.” And I kind of knew what he meant, even though I didn’t consider myself a poet. I was trying to learn. I really did try. But I also wanted the room and the freedom to play. Except it all felt too serious in grad school, like we were there because we were already fully formed artists, we just needed a little extra chiseling. So much pressure to perform, conform, to already be who we were trying so hard to be, amazing, published writers, the dream of every last one of us, English Lit or Creative Writing tract, all. Only, there seemed to be an unspoken truth, that the English Lit people were more realistic about their options, though I’m still not sure why. We all ended up with the same jobs.

But I can’t blame grad school for wrecking me and my art. I think there was something else going on entirely. I fell in with someone that I never should have dated, and I knew it from the start. It’s not that he was a bad fellow, he just wasn’t for me. He brought me down, the kind of anxious, nervous, negative and obsessive person I just couldn’t shake no matter how many times I broke up with him or broke his heart. In the end, I was the one left broken. We dated my last year of grad school and beyond, and my last year there became intertwined with the intense levels of stress of trying to finish my creative thesis, breaking up with my long term partner while also dating him (and breaking up with him 8 times that year!), trying to figure out the ethical practice of non-monogamy, and lacking the practical knowledge to do it.

After graduation, my lowest point came while delivering packages as a seasonal worker for UPS in the rain and sleet just before Thanksgiving. Just earlier that week I had delivered packages to my professors, and even one of my previous English 101 students. Both parties looked surprised. I felt the rage that Dorothy Allison describes in “A Question of Class” as she is forced to take a year off to work as a salad girl in order to afford to go to grad school. I felt ashamed. Not only that, I felt humiliated while I sat in the truck as the conservative driver listened to Sean Hannity mocking protesters after the Ferguson riots.

I had all this knowledge about the injustices of racism, I had burned with an ever-livid fire of feminist rage against what I saw as the implicit male privileging of my institution of higher learning, yet I was too afraid in my soaking wet pants to ask the driver to turn it the fuck off. Instead, I sat there not saying a word, the cringing sound of white supremacy squealing in my ear. My ears, my whole face burned.

***

 I’m not even sure why I applied for this job way back in the Spring. Because I needed more money? Because I wanted the respect that comes with a “real job”? Because I might as well use my degree instead of going back to school. Because I might as well try actually teaching at the college level before completely writing it off as the worst job of all time. All of those reasons and more.

I’ve realized that I was mildly traumatized by grad school. I guess my friend was right, it was a hazing of sorts. I didn’t want to accept that our comps director was controlling, a helicopter comps director, making me believe I had to do everything her way. It might surprise you to know that I’m kind of a rule follower. I know I seem all anarchist and shit, but I’m really not. I mean, ok, I am a little bit. It would be so cool to be able to tell people, “Yeah, I’m an anarchist” while taking a slow drag of my cigarette, all dressed in black, sipping my cheap, vegan wine. But the truth is, I crave structure. I need it. I hate having to force myself to do things. Which is why I love school so much. In fact, it’s probably the main reason I am a school person. The tragedy is that I was homeschooled! No wonder I keep wanting to go back to school! Good thing I figured out a way to get paid for it.

All that to say, I followed her plan to the mother-loving letter. I didn’t know any other way. It wasn’t until one of the guys in my office, god bless him, told me he didn’t do anything The Donna said. In fact, he would go so far as to write an entire syllabus just to please her, and then do the exact opposite. After talking to him, I realized none of it mattered. I didn’t have to care as much. Of course, as a Virgo, I couldn’t not care, but it took a tiny bit of the pressure off. Somehow, mid-quarter, something broke, and it got better. Oh, also, I wasn’t medicated then. How the fuck did I survive?

I meant it when I told the two women interviewing me for this job, that I want–I crave–the critical engagement I can have with students–with adults–and I want to do work that feels meaningful. I want to feel that I am making a difference in people’s lives. That’s why I want this job.

I also think a part of me hoped that doing this job would cause me, compel me, to write. That in talking to my students all the time about good writing and how to do it, when in fact, I myself rarely do it, that I would become so ashamed of myself that it would force me to write. That the fear I described above, the fear of never writing a book, of becoming the stereotype of “those who can’t, teach” would propel me towards the actualization of the desire I so often purport to want. It’s not all grad school’s fault for why I don’t write consistently.

So that’s why I sat down to write this blog post today. Because I’m terrified of the image of the teacher standing in her office telling me it’s not possible to do both. “Those who can’t, teach.” And foolishly, naively, I don’t want to believe her.

But even if I do believe her, I want to choose writing. Like an ill-fitting love affair, I keep going back to it.

Just yesterday, I found myself on the Instagram profile of a grad school colleague who went back to the Midwest, got married to her sweetheart, popped out two kids, and was feeling that welling up of emotion around “wasting” her degree and craving that same critical engagement I crave, the wanting more, though lounging with her daughter also feels like enough. In a post with her husband, she praises the amazing father and partner he is, saying, “I’d choose you every time.” I thought that was super sweet, the kind of genuine, innocent love–innocent in its simplicity–that I wish I could find and actually be content with. But I’m afraid I’m just not wired that way.

I’m all about the fear, the worry, the complexity of emotion, the back and forth, drive-me-crazy kind of love. The I-can’t-live-with-or-without-you kind of love. The we’re-not-really-meant-to-be-but-hell-I-don’t-know-how-to-quit-you kind of love. The I’ve-broken-up-with-you-8-times-now kind of love. I could go on and on.

I want to find a more stable relationship, one where there is mutual respect, mutual admiration, attraction, obsession. Lust. A firm, content, settling down. No, what I’m really saying is, I want consistency. I want to be constant. I want to choose writing, and choose writing, and choose it until I can’t write anymore. I want to be like Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula Leguin and write until I die.

My whole life I’ve been fighting this mythical thing called “discipline.” My room was always a big fucking mess, clothes all over the floor, books, papers, random junk Melanie and I found at yard sales. Every few months or so we’d sort through all our accumulated baggage, sometimes throwing away two or three boxes worth of trash. Where’d it all come from? I bemoaned aloud the fact that I was so disorganized, a life in disarray at the old age of 12. My father simply said, “It’s just the way you are.” An incredibly accepting, and thus, rare, pronouncement upon my life, but a seemingly prophetic one at that. I didn’t want to be a slob. I’m a Virgo after all.

What my father didn’t know though, is the magic of the astrological religion of the PNW that I would come to learn later. As Ylva Mara put it to me years ago, “Your Sun sign is what you are trying to live into.” And I’ve found that to be true. Somehow, miraculously, I make my bed almost every day now! And look here, I’m writing a long ass blog post that no one will ever read!

But I’m writing. And guess what? Writing, I’ll choose you every time.

 

 

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