It’s May. The month when many of my teacher friends are winding down their Spring semesters and turning in final grades, looking forward to well-earned vacation time. But because of the nature of my work (teaching English as a Second Language to teenagers), the times of year that are off-seasons for many are full-throttle seasons for me; my students (or their parents, in some cases) want to spend their summers, their Christmas breaks, their Spring breaks, their evenings, and just about any free time at all working on their language skills as they look ahead to college. So as others are wrapping up and embarking on new projects, trips, or even just a period of rest, I’m spreading out the books, updating syllabi, and prepping for what’s sure to be an intense summer (though I look forward, this year, to having my very first teaching assistant–ah, not to have to photocopy ever again!)
Tied to the fact that I’ll be teaching a heavy-duty schedule every day is what I consider the sad part of summer: this is the season during which I inevitably stop writing until September. I promise to make time around grading essays, prepping lessons, and writing daily progress reports. Around the inevitable strange germs I catch at least twice per summer. Around the combat fatigue of trying to explain that, yes, reading a book is important, and using online notes just isn’t going to cut it in my class.
But every summer, my resources in terms of time and energy seem depleted enough that I can’t dive into my manuscript for four or five hours at a shot with any kind of positive results. And I end up feeling guilty that I haven’t accomplished much, and feeling like a failure at my own management of my resources. But this year, I’m going to try to take a different approach: to remind myself that, to be a writer, I have to be a person, not merely a workhorse.
I recently had my class of eight-grade boys read Chiam Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, about a young Hasidic boy with a prodigious talent for painting. I wan’t sure my students, a group of boys who came to the US from Korea not too long ago, would be able to relate to Asher–a young man from a very different era, region, and social and religious context. But I gave it a try, and they absolutely devoured the book. It was a chance for me to reread an old favorite, as well, and I found that, coming to the book at this stage of my life, I was less attuned to the promise and talent of the young Asher and more attuned to the lessons of his mentor, the elderly sculptor Jacob Kahn. While Kahn isn’t entirely on-point as a teacher, and seems to push a number of his own pathologies onto his protege, he does impress an important idea on Asher. Near the end of the novel, Kahn tells Asher, “The artist is a person first…If there is no person, there is no artist.”
So this summer, I’m going to try to accept the fact that, at times, I’m going to have to be content to be the person who teaches all day, edits literary magazines all night, and squeezes in a little sleep somewhere. I’ll be the person who grows really good tomatoes in her summer garden. The person who takes a little time out to breathe without feeling guilty. And when it’s fall again, I can be the artist who finishes this book.