Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Think I'm Ready to Retire and Write My Memoir

Thursday has become my new favorite day of the week. The reason for that is because Wednesday is the last night of the week that I teach, so I now have four whole dread-free days until Monday (and I don't count Monday during the day because it's hanging over me that I have to go back at night).

I have this love-hate thing with teaching. I get all enthusiastic about my plans and my curriculum and my materials, but when you get there and actually meet the students who, for the most part, have absolutely no desire to be there, pretty soon you can feel your morale circling the drain.

I used to teach at a university. I taught in an evening program that was designed for adults returning to school--writing, literature, and film (OK, the film part was a complete joke. They didn't have anyone to teach it and they knew I would do anything, so they gave it to me. We spent the quarter watching Alfred Hitchcock movies and the Thin Man series just because I like them, and I cobbled together important scholastic reasons why they should too.)

I decided to take a break five years ago because Lucy was a baby, I was still working my day job, and I figured I could be home in the evenings putting her to bed and watching The Newlywed Show with Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson on MTV instead of slogging out to teach at night. I am nothing if not driven.

But now, out of the blue, I got this offer to teach writing at our local community college, and a wave of fall nostalgia and the surge of joy I get from designing curriculum came over me, so I agreed to do it.

Now I am there, two nights a week, trying to get a group of students excited about the written word--about reading, about sentence structure, about research, about putting down thoughts on paper in a coherent manner--while they stare blankly at me. (Believe me--I feel fortunate that we've moved from hostile to blank.)

The theme of our course is that life is the stuff of writing. We can cull from our experiences and find all the humor and pathos on display in our daily existence and then write about it. (Wait, are you staring at me blankly now?) We're reading memoirs and essays and watching clips about all this. We're freewriting every night. We're in the middle of our exploratory papers. Doesn't that sound exciting?

Yet I find myself continually bogged down in the mundane. Picture the teacher who just delivered a stirring lecture and is thrilled to see a student's hand waving wildly. Turns out the student just wanted to use the bathroom.

I find myself explaining even the smallest, most basic concept repeatedly: such as, we should cite our sources; we should have a subject and verb in our sentences, (oh wait, and also explain exactly what the subject of a sentence is); we should use 11.5 font on our papers and not 16 pt; we should type our papers on our computers and not turn them in on lined paper written in pencil; what an outline is; what a rough draft is; how a rough draft is different from an outline; we should have four sources of information for our paper, not one, (and yet they still turn in papers in which they have used only one source--who DOES that?); and on and on it goes.

Here's an example: I had the students read Jonathan Franzen's essay, "Comfort Zone," about being 10 years old in the turbulent late 60s and finding solace in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," (which they thought was "totally boring.") I said, "Drawing on Franzen's example, I'd like you to write about an element of culture that has impacted you in a significant way. Write about a historic event, a well-known person, some music, a film--something recognizable from our culture that has affected you." Then I said, "Please don't write about your mom. Don't write about your third-grade teacher. Write about something from our contemporary culture."

A student raised her hand, crinkling her forehead at me. "You want us to write about...what? I don't get it." I laboriously explained the above that I had already gone over at least three times. She then said, "Ohhhhhh. So you want us to write about one of our family members?"

These are students who had to either pass a development course or pass an exam that proves they can read and write at a 10th grade level. Why it's not a 12th-grade level, I don't know, but it isn't. I echo [fictitious] President Bartlet in saying, "CJ, if we don't completely, and I mean COMPLETELY, overhaul public education in this country..."

I am one step away from bringing puppets to class. Rest assured, after every session, I run home and am on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world (or at least to Jennie and Julie).

Yet, I still believe in teaching. I still believe that if I helped one student figure out how to write a little better or sparked their enthusiasm to read a little more that it is worth it. I still find myself in random places or waking in the middle of the night, thinking about some new idea I've got for class. And some of my students have their little flashes of humor or poignancy too, like the former prison guard in Iraq who wrote about teaching prisoners what deodorant was and how to use it; or the young woman who remembers her son, who died at 5 days old, each year on the Day of the Dead; or the young man who wishes his visiting relatives would stay forever so that his family doesn't have to go back to their regular routine of pain and isolation.'s a tricky business, and I'm still undecided whether or not I want to keep doing it after this semester. I'll leave you with this clip I showed my students last night. We routinely watch little bits of Ricky Gervais's "The Office," because he is the master at taking the boringly ordinary and turning it into comedy. My students laughed and laughed at this. I laughed even harder because...this is THEM. Watch and see what I work with every Monday and Wednesday...


Melanie said...

Sigh, that was too funny! One day I hope you and Scott can have a great discussion of the highs and lows associated with teaching. He's just been given a contract for another four classes next semest and is thrilled but he gets so disheartened by the lack of follow-through and even the lack of turning in original work (plagarism is rampant for his online classes - it's sick). On the other hand, there's always one or two great students that keep him going. Hang in there - you are an amazing teacher and as long as you don't have a particular student next semester it might not be so bad! :)

Operation Kids said...

This post makes me sad. I can't imagine the frustration you must feel.

It is sad that the current state of education leaves so much room for worry and apathy. A few organizations are making big strides - like New Orleans Outreach ( - it makes me hope that those students will appreciate writing, music and art - and have the skills to make a difference themselves.

I think you should write your memoir - you can be "teacher woman" to Frank McCourt's "teacher man."


Alice said...

Sara--thanks for stopping by and your kind words! I actually gave my students Frank McCourt's essay, "Chilled Out" to read. He is (was) a hero to all of us teachers...

Kacie said...

Oh my, how discouraging. I think two things that make teaching great are when a) you love your subject matter and b) you personally connect with your students.

I know you love your subject matter, but how discouraging when nothing seems to go through and the students are totally uninterested!

Jill said...

Thursday should be your favorite day because you get to watch Cho on the Mentalist :) I do think it is awesome that you are teaching again...and your compassion for your students is very evident...I would love to read your memoirs though...I'm sure they would be an excellent read!...
and by the way, I love your blog background. I would say "new background" but I've been in and out of blogging so much lately I'm not sure how new it really it :)