Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why Writers & Teachers Never Say "Nevermore!"

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 29, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

Leading a writing workshop with elementary school students is hard work. After two morning sessions, each 90 minutes long, at Wallace Elementary, I couldn’t feel my feet, my voice was worn out, and I couldn’t get the faces of the twenty students who attended the two workshops out of my head.
In short, I remembered what it was like to be a teacher. 
It’s been two years since my last days as a substitute teacher and until last week, I’d forgotten how much energy it takes to stand in front of a class of students for six hours a day and perform. For it is indeed a performance with the teacher in the starring role. You stand in front of those students, who come to you from various home situations and at different stages of puberty, with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and interest, and you try to engage every one of them with whatever means you possess. If that sometimes means giving instructions using your opera singer voice, at least you have their attention. 
Recalling my reasons for giving up subbing, I know that teaching is not only hard work, it’s harder than ever. Even in comfortable shoes.
Do you know what would be great? If teachers could be left alone to do what they love doing in ways that make sense to them. If we could get rid of all the nonsense that now swirls around the profession. And by nonsense, I mean the administrators, parents and students. Imagine how much fun it would be to teach if you didn’t have to deal with anyone else. Why, that lesson on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”, the one you spent the whole weekend creating, right down to training an actual crow to squawk “Nevermore!”, could be presented to an appreciative row of empty desks and not once would you have to hear, “Did they make a movie of this we could watch instead?” 
What keeps writers and teachers showing up at their desks every day at 8:30 am is the pre-rejection, pre-presentation excitement about the potential that exists in what we have created for our audience. We hold out hope, every day, for one true fully-engaged reaction.
The best question of the workshop day came late and I had only ten seconds to answer. 
One young man asked me, “Have you ever thought of giving up writing?”
I wish I could have given him my ten-minute answer about persistence and believing in yourself and listening to your gut, not your mother or brother or great-uncle Bruce who thinks writers and teachers are a bunch of lazy slobs feeding from the government slop bucket (great-uncle Bruce would be confusing us with senators). 
“Of course,” I told the student yet there I was with my binder of published articles and columns. So the way he nodded, as if thinking, ‘Yeah, I get that,’ made it clear I was talking to a future writer. He was also one of a couple of students who raised their hands when I asked, “Anyone thinking they might possibly write a novel one day?”
The fact that one young person responded to that question, let alone three, thrilled me. This is a regular feeling for any writer; it only takes one response to carry us forward into another day of writing. 
This, too, is how teachers feel. Seeing just one light bulb go off above a student, to hear just one student walk out of a classroom saying, “That was cool,” is enough to keep a teacher standing there for the next hour, the next day, but more importantly, the next school year, ready to answer the question, “Have you ever thought of giving up teaching?” with the words, “Of course not.”

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