It’s the New Year—time, perhaps, to speak in clichés. To make resolutions.
Mine this year is to write down—finally—what I have learned from my students. I think it may be more than they have learned from me.
I teach literature—novels and stories and plays. I also teach writing, where we tell our own stories. What’s more, I teach talking. I am pretty quiet in my personal life, but in class, I tell many stories of my own. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t do this, and yet, I do it because I remember that I learned the most from the professors who told me tales. Not tall tales, true tales. Informative anecdotes.
I believe that many of the stories we tell each other are where we truly learn more about not only how to use words to describe what we’ve seen and what we’ve felt, but also where we learn more about life and what it means to be human.
I learned from a college philosophy professor how Alan Watts (I was and still am very impressed with Alan Watts' work) never had money for dental care, and his family’s teeth were, reportedly, a “mess.” What did this teach me? Well, I suppose it taught me that no matter how successful one may appear (Watts published many books), personal struggle is still very possible (and don’t take your teeth for granted).
A religion professor told me about his quest to plant every horse chestnut he found. At one point, he had a college campus full of saplings that were then mowed down by weed-whacking landscapers who obviously didn’t see the importance of his project. The importance was only, apparently, in the joy-making capacity of horse chestnuts. We all love to pick those things up, caress them in our pockets, chuck them across ponds. Plus, the blossoms of these trees smell pretty nice in spring...
In other classes I learned about how spatulas are very useful, sometimes, for cleaning babies’ bottoms (no, I never tried this one). The lesson? That practicality should probably, as in this case, trump the gross-out factor. Sometimes the best ideas just sound too distasteful and so are ignored…
From my students I have learned (I will write more later about this. I think I might write a book) many things: among them, I heard about parents being told their child is about to die (thankfully, she did not); I have seen the ordeal of chemo through the eyes of a three-year-old who grew to be 17, who is still growing now; I have learned about dreams of stardom and private lives full of late-night teenaged creative writing. I have seen the strength that comes from living with diabetes. I have witnessed kids trying to be heard in the midst of large, boisterous families; I have felt (vicariously) what it’s like to the poor kid in a rich girls’ school. I have seen the effect of praise from one particular teacher (let’s say it was me. It was me), and how a well-placed sentence can quite literally change a life.
When break is over, school resumes—for my students and for me, the Perpetual Student. As usual, I can’t wait.
Literature is life. Life is literature (chiasmus—oh joy! No, seriously; I’m a nerd like that).
More stories to come later.
Happy New Year! Let's hope this one is better than the last...and that the wars finally end.