Updated: Feb 14
By Diane Augustine
I used to start the year with my sophomores by dividing them into groups and giving each a poem: Thomas Lux’s “I Love You, Sweatheart,” George Bradley’s “At The Other End of the Telescope,” Ted Kooser’s “Tattoo.” A few others. In a large public school like mine, kids come in on the first day not only not knowing me, but not knowing most of their classmates. This was my idea: to have them, through mutual exploration of a poem, get to know one another.
They didn’t know it at the time, but the project was set up to be an “easy A.” So all it took was open-minded, open-hearted engagement with the text and with one another. I sat at my desk, pretending to be preoccupied with other work, but I listened, pressing my ear to the hive a few feet from my desk. They had to understand the poem, of course — at least, what they thought it to signify; they had to make personal connections to it; they had to come up with an artifact: some kind of symbol or “tangible” to connect to the poem (to be re/presented on a giant piece of graph paper). Oh, and discussion questions. Always questions.
As they presented, I pushed them to share. What does Lux mean when he writes
Love is like this at the bone, we hope, love is like this, Sweatheart, all sore and dumb and dangerous, ignited, blessed....
In “On Not Flying to Hawaii,” poet Alison Luterman doesn’t want to be elevator Muzak or a faux Oriental carpet. Instead she asserts
I want to go to Hawaii, the wet, hot impossible place in my heart that knows just what it desires. I want money, I want candy. I want sweet ukulele music and birds who drop from the sky. I want to be the volcano who lavishes her boiling rock soup love on everyone, and I want to be the lover of volcanos, who loves best what burns her as it flows.
So I peppered the kids with questions culled from the poems: What was a childhood dream of yours? What does love do to a person? If you could design a tattoo to represent who you are, what would that tattoo be? Or, to sum up in the words of Mary Oliver: tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Do they mirror my love of the pursuit of questions and tentative answers? Hell, yes. I sat in a paper conference with a student and realize that, like me, he has two different-colored eyes, and as we sit across the desk from one another our eyes form a mirror image, blue for blue and brown for brown. How fitting, I think, for in him and in them I see myself in high school: a fledgling, sometimes awkward and sometimes confident, positively ablaze with ambition with what I wanted out of my life — which in most ways was exactly opposite what my family and teachers wanted for me. I think it takes no Freudian to figure out that at least a part of my life is lived in reaction to those who sought to fence me in. Girls can’t do science. Marry for money and not love. Be a doctor or a lawyer. Art history? Italian? Astronomy? How nice. Not very practical, but if you really want to throw your life away...
Do adults really realize the power we have over students and our children? Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me: bullshit learned on the grade school playground. As a parent, I know how tempting it is to want to have your child mirror your own favorite traits, say, a passion for books, the night sky, and the draw of the ocean; knowing that music is always there as a constant landscape. But as a parent and a teacher, too many times I see students either bearing the bit, blinders on, like the diligent workhorse their society wants them to be — or on the other side of the spectrum, the comets, the kids flirting dangerously close to disaster in a gesture of intensity and recklessness.
Look at me, for I am me and I am to be reckoned with. You sorely underestimate me.
This was driven home quite powerfully when I noticed a tattoo on the forearm of one of my boys. “A, is that a real tattoo?” I asked. “You didn’t do that after we read the poem and talked about it in here, did you?” “Yes,” he sheepishly admitted. There it was, the ink fresh, small red swellings around the fine black lines in his arm that covered his veins. Carpe Diem. “What does your mom think?” I asked, starting to imagine the conversation that I would soon be having with the principal. “She kind of likes it”, he said. My forceful exhalation startled him.
Looking out back then at my current crop of students, I saw the tenacity I had in high school mirrored back to me a thousandfold, in a way that shames mine. R, who was given a 5% chance of survival over the cancer that engulfed his then-sixth-grade body. He nodded and winked at me like a modern Cool Hand Luke, and I learned only through his essay that he was missing a part of his lung and had titanium rods in his body. B, who shyly, courageously, shared with the class his deepest secret: his father in jail, his family feeling also sentenced. “I am not my father,” he bravely asserted. We all sat in stunned silence.
Other stories emerged weekly. S, who fainted in class and had cutting marks all over her arms, legs, and neck. A, the fourth child whose mother who gave him up for adoption to a white family and he still is asking why. C did time in prison, watched his mom battle cancer, and now struggles to stay sober. How do I know this? Because of the personal narrative assignment I always give them at the beginning of the year. My prompt: Tell me something about yourself. Are you an Eagles fan in enemy territory? Do you secretly long to sing on Broadway? And in return, they give me the struggles of their life, writ large by their tentative hands. Their sorrows may play out on the public stage or in the secret chambers of their hearts; either way, they look for the meaningful encounters, and a way to find in the literature — and perhaps my class — validation that joy will trump suffering. I make them no false promises, but only sit back and let it unfold before them, as they choose it to. I stick to the questions, I encourage them to do at the same, and let the answers be revealed slowly, painstakingly — or in a sudden shudder of epiphany.
So many books that fly up the bestseller list are touted as portraying “the triumph of the human spirit,” an expression bandied about so much it has become cliche. If it is true that we read to know that we are not alone, then all of a sudden my class becomes the most important in the building. A friend urges me to write all of these stories out to publish them as a memoir, suggesting that through the stories of my students, my own success will “shine through.” For some reason, this bothers me. I haven’t yet figured out wholly why, but I suspect I’ll always ask the question. Here’s as close as I’ve come to the truth: for me to take credit for the success of my students feels criminal. For all the hard work with lesson plans and paper grading, the hardest work is being there emotionally, modeling how to be happy and inquisitive, alive and excited about the world. It’s not hard for me to display emotions that I sincerely feel, if not daily, then frequently and despite grief, but it is exhausting work. It is thankless work in a world where neither my paycheck nor the response I get from others when I tell them I teach (usually “Oh, God,” or “Better you than me”) make me feel valued.
But the internal rewards are boundless. I disagree with a former grad professor (and now former friend) who claimed, “Tell them inspiring lies- inspiring lies change lives.” Inspiring lies? Horse shit. Fraudulent. Dangerous. I still seethe at his comment, once posted somewhere on my Facebook wall. Holden Caulfield was right about phonies and liars. But to be there to witness students as they move beyond that shaded area in the Venn Diagram, where they begin to put that circle around what defines them in the world: that is enough. The girl with the paralyzingly-gorgeous voice who once took the stage at my poetry coffeehouse — and now has shared with me the voice track she’s recorded for an Americana-themed beer commercial in Hong Kong? The boy who needed to be untethered from the system just as it threatened to break him, now choosing to both alternately create his own tethers to academe and yet free-fall into adventures that are taking him around the globe? The girl who wrote the letter that made me sit down on the bed in silence just before back-to-school night, the letter telling me what I never knew — that when she was 15, I was the only one who believed in her?
Harold Bloom writes of the “anxiety of influence” that plagues a writer trying to be original. Harold Bloom in his ivory tower has no idea. Every day I look out at the kids and feel both frighteningly powerful — a control tower job requiring mastery of content and mood — the power of a finger on the trigger or a button that will detonate a crisis; and at the same time wholly unqualified, unworthy, incapable of having to sometimes be the sandbag that holds back the tides crashing, tides trying to shape these stones by sheer brute force. I don’t want to be a dominant force of my own, I want to be the harbor to the sea, the parachute to the wind. And the volcano lover.
I am terrified by this power. I don’t deserve it, and if I have earned it, it is only by virtue of being there, in the world, walking with them down this unstable declivity. I have been a student long enough, in both the formal sense of someone else’s pupil and as a learner in the world, to know that the cliche that “teachers touch the future” holds water.
As I remind my friend, others’ lives are theirs to tell, not mine. My story, thickly woven as it may be with the stories of others, is only to be aired in a gesture of purgation, somewhere on a quasi-anonymous site in cyberspace.
I want to be the lover of volcanos, who loves best what burns her as it flows.
Diane Augustine has been teaching for 25 years in both private and public schools. She misses her Smith College days when she would prank friends by leaving snippets of TS Eliot reading The Waste Land on their voicemail. She enjoys cooking, maxing out her Spotify collection, and finding ways to keep up with her French.