We’re nearing the end of the term here at the remote, isolated outpost of higher education where I teach basic writing courses. The thing about teaching writing courses is that they work best when there’s a certain level of trust and intimacy between writers and audience. Many of the assignments require students to explore some facet of their own experience. The upshot of this is that I have a window into the lives of the students who sit in my class that many other teachers don’t have. In any given term, I have a good idea who is struggling with personal issues, who is single, who is married, who has lost–or gained–a loved one, who is having a positive–or negative–experience at school.
I’ve been teaching writing for a long time, and I have rather come to take that window into my students’ lives for granted. But this term has been out of the ordinary. A huge percentage of my students are single parents. Many are attending school as a path out of a long family history of poverty. I have students who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and are going to school on the GI bill. Some students have had unexpected deaths in their families.
We are a small, comparatively poor town, and half of my class reports in by television from even smaller, poorer towns. I teach night school, so many of my students come to class after having already worked a full day, in some cases at grinding physcial labor. And still they come to class, and they sit there, and listen, and write their papers, and revise, and rewrite. And I can see how very tired they get.
And while I wish I could just let them have the time to relax, to unwind, and to catch their breath, I don’t. In fact, I work them all the harder, because that’s my gift to them–the benefit of every bit of wisdom , encouragement, and support I can cram into those hours we share. And they learn. As far as I know, I am the only writing teacher who encourages students to rewrite their papers, over and over and over again. And I grade them over and over again, because the best way to teach writing is to give people the opportunity to write, and to see how they might express themselves more clearly.
Teaching this way is hard work. Sometimes it gets confusing. But we keep doing it because I am teaching more than making marks on paper–I am challenging the people who come to my class to look at their lives in new ways, to explore ideas, to look beyond the simple, trite, common knowledge that “everybody knows” to the deeper wisdom behind it. And I’m doing this not because of who I am, but because of who the people who sit in my classes are. They are people who, in spite of living in small, backwoods, rural communities, have dared to dream of moving beyond the world into which they were born–or in which by happenstance they find themselves.
I read their papers, and sometimes my heart breaks for them, but mostly I am awed, humbled, and grateful that my life offers me the opportunity touch so many lives, to offer hope to people for whom hope may be a rare commodity, to offer support and courage to people whose lives may hold a lot of challenges and pain, but also a seed of a dream. Every week, I get to meet with around twenty-five people who, in a world of uncertainty and diminishing resources, have dared to envision a life that holds more.
In the past, I taught writing. These days, I find I’m spending a lot of time fostering creativity, urging my students to think outside the box, to consider avenues to success that don’t depend on traditional nine-to-five jobs, to explore non-traditional housing options, to dream big, because in times like these our dreams are our treasure. As long as we can dream, we can never be beaten.
And that is the gift of teaching–the deep wisdom that lies behind the obvious pattern of teacher talking and students listening. If the teacher takes the time to listen, her students can teach her the power of dreaming, and of working to make those dreams come true.
My students don’t read this blog–most of them don’t even know it exists. But today I wish they did. I wish they knew what they mean to me, and what they teach me simply by showing up to class, with their tired eyes, and their dreams, and their willingness to write, to think, to rewrite, revise, rethink, and rewrite again. I wish they knew how I hope that something they hear, something they learn, will spark an idea that will carry them beyond where they are now, to a place beyond where they have ever dreamed of being.