What’s the Good Teacher’s Secret?

Years ago, I was taking a road trip with my husband. We drove through Southern California, visiting his family and my family, old friends and old haunts. We were both working in different jobs then–I was cooking for a living, and I hadn’t written anything in several years. I’d practically given up on poetry altogether.

I had a book tucked in my bag throughout that trip: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I’d picked it up on a whim, mainly because I’d enjoyed The Remains of The Day in high school. I read a page or two when I wasn’t on driving duty, but I always got sick while reading in the car, so the book stayed in my satchel (I had to dig around the book, in fact, to field a call back from an interview for my very first teaching job, my cell reception breaking up as we drove through the Sierra Nevada hills). Mostly, I saved the book for nights in hotels along the way.

It was an evening in a hotel in Fresno that I sat for a several-hour reading marathon, tearing through the pages well after my husband had fallen asleep. The novel didn’t just bring me to tears. It made me want to start writing again.

This summer, it’s roughly six years later, I’m dragging that dog-eared, beaten and brutalized copy of Never Let Me Go to another class session. I’m going to attempt to explain why Ishiguro is one of the finest novelists working in the English language. I’m going to point to passages that make me want to sing and dance and stand on the table Dead Poets Society-style. I know there will be some blank looks, though, because some students simply don’t care. I could stand on that table, and some would still rather curl up beneath it and take a nap.

I’ve always said that the writing/teaching connection perplexed me–why do so many MFAs simply assume that an academic life is the next step after graduation? Why not hang onto whatever your day job may have been (unless, of course, you’re coming to an MFA straight out of college)? To teach well or to write well, you have to be willing to give every last ounce, whether that’s the last ounce of your patience with your students, or the last ounce of energy you have to finish a draft at 3 in the morning.

So maybe the connection isn’t so much that one of these occupations feeds the other, as I’ve heard so many say. Maybe it’s that it takes a certain kind of person to do both–to, for whatever strange impulse moves us, give what we’ve got until there’s not much left at all, then find a way to keep at it. To still want to jump on the table regardless of who’s sleeping beneath it.

Those who are both good teachers and good writers, and who manage to see their families and maintain friendships and mow their lawns and clean their houses as they do it all–those people must know some secret. That’s a secret this tired teacher needs to learn.

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One Reply to “What’s the Good Teacher’s Secret?”

  1. Good questions here, Kelly. I wonder (and worry) about the balance a lot, too. Have already been a teacher before my MFA, it seemed the right next step. Although, I’d say a lot of the people I know aren’t teaching. It’s a crazy hard balance. Actually, since I just moved far from my family and friends, I had no idea how I was going to keep in touch, take care of myself, pay my bills and see my partner, much less make personal phone calls or take a vacation. I sometimes get caught up in trying to keep a tidy house or make sure I look a certain way and then I realize, I just care about other things more than that. And that’s ok. I won’t judge you for the dust on your shelves. I promise.

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