By Christopher D. DiCicco
“Those who do—do. Those who can’t—teach.”
--a student misquoting George Bernard Shaw
I. Teaching falls from a tree and hits you in the head. You pick it up. You bite. You stare around in amazement. You roll it around on your tongue. You think it’s fruit—but teaching is an oak branch weathered by storm. Teeth crack. Splinters cut into your gums. The tongue bleeds. Why’d you bite, kid? Why’d you bite?
II. Organically, teaching is something we should do when someone wants to learn. And maybe at this moment, you actually want to learn about teaching, and so, you find yourself reading this lyric essay on the subject, wondering what the thesis will be. When someone is hungry or wants to taste something, we chew, like it’s a life-sustaining gift, a natural cure for our hunger problem--but what if we’re eating wrong? Serving the wrong dishes? Cooking the wrong way? Are we eating when we’re not hungry, no reason to fill the belly with bread and salt? Or worst of all--are we feeding you when you can’t eat a bite more, when you have lost all appetite for what we are convinced you need to survive?
And, if teachers and schools are the restaurants of the education world, then what are we eating at home?
III. What if some things can’t be taught? Nature vs. Nurture, am I right? Am I? Is there right? What is right? What is wrong? Can we teach those things, and are we being forced to? Is there a moral curriculum hidden beneath the surface of every assignment? Shouldn’t there be? Beneath the poem, beneath the story, the artist’s humanity, critical of a life they are only trying to understand? Quick. Help. Me. Help me teach my students to write all their own stories and songs and essays and poems and scripts before someone says those stories and songs and essays and poems and scripts are far too critical to chew, far too harsh to the diet of what the child has starved through. Damn it. I need utensils and plates. Quick.
IV. A few years ago, I taught the classic The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, to students who didn’t seem terribly interested. Not at first. Except as the novel unfolded, we dissected the symbolism, and one of my students raised her hand and we spoke something like this:
“Mr. D, is Holden depressed? Is that why he’s wearing the red hunting hat?”
Bri looked at me as she asked her questions. She stared into me, and I tried not to draw attention to the moment. I didn’t want the other students to see the concern on Bri’s tight lips and wrinkled forehead.
“Great observation,” I said. “How’d you know?”
“Because his dead little brother had red hair, and sometimes we do things when we miss people to remind us of them. Do you think we do that sort of stuff subconsciously or because somewhere deep down inside us, we know exactly what we’re doing?”
“Both, but probably more of a hurt defense mechanism. Maybe like survival. Like the grief manifests in our actions, so we can keep going.”
“Why do we have to keep going? Why can’t Holden stop a while?”
“Because that’s not the way the world works.”
But she’d recently missed a lot of school, and it seemed like our discussion was about more than the character in a book. I didn’t say it aloud, neither did Bri, but I think we were talking about her--about her little brother who was also terminally ill--about the letters from guidance indicating she needed more time processing, about how she and I had spoken about these things, how I had even disclosed, in an act of connection, the loss of my father when I was a boy, and how I had coped or failed to do so.
“It’s symbolism,” I said to her.
“It feels real, though, like it could happen without a writer,” she said.
She was astute, without my teaching.
V. The organic aisle is no longer an aisle. More than one grocery chain stretches its organic produce and products across the length of the entire store. Trader Joe’s prides itself on providing its customers with healthy options. Whole Foods implies by its name alone that the store specializes in selling food made from the natural whole, not processed synthesized parts, but a wholistic meal--something the buyer seeks out on their own.
There are no signs that either of these grocery chains will diminish in sales.
VI. The snickers bar was not created to satisfy hunger or to fuel you with caloric energy. Did you already know that or do you need me to teach that to you? Unwrapped, it weighs almost the same as a child’s finger‑ 52.7 grams. Were you ready for such information, or is it a reminder of what you already knew?
VII. In the San Diego Zoo, visitors gathered. They applauded. Koko was doing it again, without the keeper’s help. The keeper, Doctor Patterson from Stanford University, had instructed Koko the gorilla in American Sign Language, and she explained this into a television camera, communicating how apt Koko was at learning, how much Koko understood and communicated herself.
But, in an odd twist years later, Koko would be in court. Kind of. Koko had sexually harassed several employees, pointing to her own gorilla nipples swollen from obsession. She communicated--demanded--to see the employees’ naked chests, and later when the employees filed the lawsuit claiming Patterson assisted in the behavior, people asked--how did Koko know to do that? All on her own? Was that taught or was it some animal nature released by a new method of communication?
Please teach me the answer.
VIII. At some point in every teacher’s career they will stand outside their classroom and think about never walking back in again. It’s a given. Unlike other occupations, though, the teacher has at that very moment on average twenty-eight to thirty students waiting to be taught something they may or may not want to learn. I remember, after student-teaching, sitting in my car and telling myself I could do this. I didn’t say the words out loud or anything. I didn’t hold the steering wheel, letting the rubber warm in my grip. No tears slipped down my cheeks and splashed onto my weird, purple tie. Nothing like that. Only a mind game where I tried to convince myself to walk into a building, across linoleum floors splattered with spit, gum, and discarded water bottles, and enter a classroom where thirty-two seniors sat waiting for me to say something about the literature they were supposed to have read.
I was supposed to teach how to--what? How to what? I think that is what every teacher stands outside their classroom and asks: What am I teaching them exactly?
IV. Inside a garage, holding a power jigsaw, a father (me) cuts a slope into a small, soft piece of pine. Sawdust sticks to his new beard and blows around the room like December snow. In the sawdust snow, his son (my youngest) erupts into giggles until the father says, “Here, you try.”
The boy doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want that sharp-edged responsibility. There is danger there, the chance to render skin and sinew into slices and threads.
But the father insists, and the boy listens, comforted only by his father’s hands wrapped around his own.
“I’ll help,” the father says, and the saw purrs to life.
In his hands, the boy feels the pulse of the blade sink into the flesh of the white pine, like teeth into chicken. The boy carves a block of wood into a derby car into a little speed machine. And with shaking hands, he pushes the blade zigzag, cutting a crooked edge that the father ignores. There would be no reason to point to this mistake when the real lesson is ____________________.
When it’s done, and the boy smiles, the father says something like, “Good job, but remember, it’s hard to win these races. We still have to add weight to the car.”
“Why?” the son asks.
“Weight makes it go, speeds it up to the finish.”
The father fails to explain or elaborate on how he has only learned any of this—jig sawing blades and derby specifics—from another boy’s father the prior day. He doesn’t recount his own lesson in someone’s garage.
V. Sometimes, teaching feels like the occupation of the relentless, as if only a test of time and willpower can see a pupil schooled. But art? Art. Art. Art is something that can’t be taught—until the teacher admits it can, that it takes an appreciation, takes a want to master, takes some dumb trick re-examined into enlightenment, takes what we will later admire and call natural. They’re a natural talent.
VI. In my classroom, there is one rule.
1. Those who can do—do. Those who can’t—teach.
Sometimes, when I do create model pieces in front of my students so they can see me in the act, see me suffer and toil, succeed and smile, it is because I can and want to. But I can’t help wondering—do they learn more observing me “do” or is that a sham? Are they not learning a thing, and I'm a selfish jerk who expects them to understand what it is I’m doing? I’m still learning the answer to this.
VII. While my students sit in their chairs, I pace the room, watching their nimble fingers arc and type, deft in pursuit of a story. I ask, “Would you like any assistance? Do you understand what you need to do?” And, without hesitation, they nod, writing what they know, which I will read and nod my head and say, “Good job, but remember, it’s hard to publish.”
VIII. I’m pretty sure if my students knew more, I could teach them better. That’s not a paradox. It’s the truth. They’re limited because my instruction has to communicate foundational concepts they’re missing. It’s true. But then again, if they knew as much as I did—what would I be teaching them? What would I need to learn?
IX. In fall, the leaves touch the ground, touch the shoes of students walking up roads to wait for buses, buses that will take them down long drives to buildings to rooms to seats to another season of learning, have learned, will learn what they want and not a lick more. And maybe they shouldn’t when they want to do things to change the world. They want to fill their bellies with climate change, and Black Lives Matter. Where will they grow their stories? Where will they explore a generation’s understanding? Craft Covid poems and anti-masker essays? Shouldn’t it come from them? Shouldn’t they be doing it? Learning by doing. Creating.
X. When I walk into the classroom, they notice. When they write, type, I notice. When they breathe words into their pieces and break away from the pale flesh of uncool, writing like mad, like they’re a burning piece of art, like no one cares. Write like you don’t care. Some care. Some always care what others care. If they throw themselves into the writing, into their work, they care about it, and then students will know they care. Caring is dangerous in high school. Caring is dangerous. Did you learn something from that last line? Did I teach you something about liking and caring about something? I didn’t even provide a model. I thought you could, a memory maybe. Would you like to share?
XI. Is your hunger satisfied? Should I teach you something else? Feed you historical facts processed by politicians, or can I still pour you a bowl of my favorite stories and poems, organic and critical of everything we know to be true? Will you chew what they tell me to put on the spoon?
I wouldn’t, but maybe I’m still learning what I’m hungry to feed you.
XII. Those who can’t do—teach. Yesterday, a visiting professor told me not to tell all the secrets. All the skills. All the little writing tricks. Magician’s club. He sat, red pants, black boots, slick on his stool, read from his new book, emphasizing his path to publication. He said to me in private, “if you tell them how we do it all, then what do we have?”
Christopher D. DiCicco is the author of So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds and other stories (Hypertrophic Press). He lives and teaches in Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in such places as Entropy Magazine, Little Fiction, Superstition Review, Psychopomp Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and has been nominated for Best of the Net, Pushcarts, and other awards.