I remember a few things about the first class I ever taught. I was a teaching intern at a summer program at a New England boarding school. A few days into the session, the lead teacher asked, “Why don’t you take over the class tomorrow?”
“Teach?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“Teach,” she said, not trying but sounding firm. “Tomorrow.”
By the time tomorrow arrived, I had scrounged up some supplies — playdough, pencils, paper — and written, rewritten, and rehearsed a lesson about the importance of using colorful diction to enliven one’s prose. Hence the playdough.
I remember that the students were very kind. They leaned in eagerly at the start, not giving me any kind of freeze or stiff arm. They humored me and kneaded my gimmicky props. When I hesitated or stumbled, they encouraged me with a clarifying question or a stray comment, filling the space until I found my footing.
A rookie, I forgot to check to see if they actually learned anything, but the class ended anyway, and no one was any better or worse for it. The students emptied out, a few saying thanks, until it was just the lead teacher and me. Packing up, she said, “Today was pretty good. Maybe you can do another one solo next Friday so I can take a long weekend.”
With that she was gone, too, and it was just me, an open window with a slight breeze blowing in, and the view of a field and a game forming around a ball. I opened a notebook and started to write down some impressions of my class, some things I might want to adjust, the story of the lesson — an unplanned and improvised writing assignment.
I should add that it was also a lucky assignment.
Capturing Insights Onward
Writing, as an act of understanding the dimensions of my teaching, gave me access to dimensions of my teaching that I might not have found without it. It helped me to notice that students had a deep capacity for kindness, that some of the ideas we like best are mere gimmicks, and that even master teachers longed for time away from classrooms. How could I ever be the same teacher after having seen those particular things in that particular manner? Writing kept the day’s lessons, the semester’s colleagues, and the year’s students from becoming common or generic, unspecific or unspecial.
One young woman I taught, years later, simply could not sit in her chair. So she sat on the ledge of one of our classroom’s windowsills. She was edgy and energized, and learning to write was important to her. I once figured out a way to bring Will Sheff, the songwriter from Okkervil River, to school, and of course she was his self-described biggest fan. I put one condition in Sheff’s contract — he had to sit for an interview with her for the school newspaper. When I told her about the interview, she could not speak. She avoided me. I think it made her lose some sleep. And then, when she sat down with him and pressed play on her tape recorder, she jumped over her fear; she grilled him for an hour; it was one of the best interviews I have ever witnessed. She asked him questions about obscure songs, early performances, decisions he had made, intentions, things he had clearly never been asked by a professional journalist, let alone a high school student.
Another student, a young man, wore his sadness like a second skin. Every day after school, we got together and talked about nothing but the Elephant Six music collective. This was the single best way for him to communicate during a rough patch that seemed baked into every part of his life. He ended up being in one of my classes, and I gave a pop quiz one day (one of the few of my career). He worked vigorously, and I was proud of him, proud of his effort. When I collected the quizzes, he asked for more time. He was lost in what he was doing, and now I was really impressed. It turns out, he was drawing a picture that he titled “The Tom Jones Fan Club.” It had nothing to do with the quiz, but the quiz served as a flow-inducing mechanism for him. He ran in the completely wrong direction, but at least he was running, at least he was free in his own mind, which had often seemed a prison that year.
If I had been an accountant or a plumber instead, would I have written about the first day on the job? The 51st? Would I remember the people who passed through my door, who succeeded and failed and flailed and succeeded so wonderfully and quietly? It’s impossible to know for sure, but teaching, even that very first time, made my left hand itch the way certain sunsets did. Like a hike or stars or good coffee, it made me want to drag a pen across paper, say more words too many.
The Reason for the Fire
Twenty years later, I’d go so far as to say that writing has helped my teaching life, has saved it in fact, on more than one occasion. I have taught my way back to my notebook, and from my notebook, I have taught. I’m not — still not — sure what fueled what, what was vocation and what avocation, but the exchange kept each side fresh, new, honest. If a class didn’t go well, I heard about it, faced it, in my notebook. And if I couldn’t or didn’t write about school for an extended period of time, I felt myself going the way of the teachers who haunted the teacher’s room and seemed to bridle at both youth and authority and only wanted to teach what fit into the boxes on a worksheet.
Imagine striking a match against the rough edge of a matchbook. If the match could think, and had a healthy ego, it might assert: I’m the reason for the fire. Now imagine the matchbook, suddenly animate and equally confident: No, I’m the reason for the fire.
It doesn’t matter to me which is which — if teaching is match and writing is matchbook, or vice versa. What matters is spark and then fire. What matters is heat and then warmth. Being awake to what is awake and all around us, always, in school. And what is passing and past and will be because of what once was seen and set down.