I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.
I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.
The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.
Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.
Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.
As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.
Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.
The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.
After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.
I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.
As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.
The panic was inescapable. I paced back and forth inside a deserted classroom, sweat trickling down my sideburns. In five minutes I was due in the cafeteria to present myself for my first ever back to school night. I could hear the excited burbling of my coworkers’ voices outside in the hallway. Everyone had gathered for our final meeting before heading downstairs. I knew I was supposed to be there. I could hear the head of school asking, “Where’s Anderson?”
When the pressure became too much I popped my head out of the door and caught the attention of Ms. Cannon, my school’s Chief Academic Officer. My face must have communicated my situation, because without a word she rushed into the room. I proceeded to have my first breakdown of the year. I couldn’t do it, I told her. The work was too much. Between the lesson plans, hallway and cafeteria duty, and 6 AM – 6 PM hours, I was breaking. Between gasps of air and heaving sobs, I told Ms. Cannon that this was the first time in my life when I couldn’t work my way out of a hole. I’d been used to just buckling down and burrowing through whatever obstacle sat in my way. I didn’t know what to do.
Without uttering a word she took a seat and listened. As soon as I finished she asked what I needed. I wasn’t sure, I said. Okay, she replied, let me help you plan the next two weeks’ worth of lessons. Will that be enough time to get yourself above water? I nodded. Great! she exclaimed with a smile. Within minutes my eyes were dry (enough) and I was delivering a brief presentation about myself to a standing-room only crowd of eager parents. I never did manage to get ahead of my work, but that didn’t matter. From that night on Ms. Cannon would provide me with guidance invaluable to my development as a professional.
Ms. Cannon was always willing to listen to me talk. As part of my school’s professional development plan, Ms. Cannon met with individual teachers every week to discuss lesson plans and data results. She would listen to my fears, assuage my doubts, and ensure that I had the resources I needed to continue on my path. I also spent hours sitting in on Ms. Cannon’s classes, typing up extensive notes on everything she did. Whether she was handing out papers, leading a discussion, or encouraging students who were having a rough day, Ms. Cannon exemplified the teacher I wanted to be. Witty. Passionate. Respectful. And in complete control of her content and teaching pedagogy.
At this point in my career, I’ve been fortunate to find individuals who don’t mind answering my questions or pointing me in the right direction when I’m stumped. I wrote about some of them earlier in the year. But unlike the educators I wrote about in that post, Ms. Cannon and I no longer have contact. After I left the school our communication ended. Our time together changed me in powerful ways. She helped me become myself.
Scholars such as Gert Biesta and Hannah Arendt have spoken of education as a process of becoming. The concept tasks teachers with creating spaces and activities that push students to articulate who they are. Education as becoming cannot be static. Nor can it result from a sole focus on content memorization. We must take risks and confront that which challenges us. Only by responding to what is challenging can we articulate ourselves into existence. Ms. Cannon pushed me to articulate who I was. The school in which we worked was filled with amazing teachers, and as a new teacher I wanted nothing more than to replicate the success of my colleagues. Every few months I would take on someone else’s mannerisms, vocalizations, and body language. I thought that if I could only act like someone else I would be able to feel successful. Ms. Cannon helped me recognize myself and develop a teacher identity free of mimicry. Never underestimate the power of being told that you’re good enough.
A recent status update on Facebook inspired me to write this post about my time working with Ms. Cannon. I took the above screenshot of two voicemails she left on my phone a number of years ago. Like other Millennials, I find voicemail about as useful and appealing as landline telephones. But I’ll probably hold onto Ms. Cannon’s two voicemails for a long time. I haven’t listened to them in years; I don’t really need to. The time that these voicemails come from no longer exists, but they still resonate with power. Expressing gratitude to someone you no longer keep in contact with is an interesting endeavor. The intended audience and purpose of this post are somewhat murky. It feels important to continually ground myself in gratitude and acknowledge everyone who has helped me along the way.
I’m reminded of the quote (often erroneously attributed to Maya Angelou), “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I no longer remember much of what Ms. Cannon told me. I cannot, however, forget the feelings of confidence and positivity she inspired within me.
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s incendiary Infinite Jest. A book described by Spin magazine as “An acidic, free-styling, 1,088-page encyclopedia of hurt.” I want to take a moment to pen a brief essay describing how and why this book is so important to me.
Like most things intellectual in my life, my initial exposure to the book came by way of my father. My dad has always been a man of frightening erudition. Entering into the rarified atmosphere of his condo as an adolescent felt like stepping into a museum: muted colors, hefty tomes, and angular furniture. He is a man of strict routine and spatial consistency (a constellation of traits I share).
He decorated his dining room table with three dessicated pomegranates and whatever book he was reading. The only other items I ever witnessed on the massive wooden slab were whatever culinary accoutrements accompanied our delicious meals (my father is an outstanding cook, a predilection I have yet to pick up). Regardless of change in the outside world, I could always count on hopping into one of those reed-thatched chairs and being greeted by three lumpy pomegranates and a book. Nothing more, nothing less. At the time I wasn’t much of a reader, preferring instead the acidic rage of metal and industrial music. The books, which he swapped out without comment every week or so, rarely interested my adolescent self.
One afternoon in the 90s, however, a large book on the table caught my eye. The cover, an idyllic blue sky dotted with clouds, drew my attention immediately. Something about the color scheme of orange, blue, white, and black was aesthetically irresistible. And the size! The thing looked to be a solid three inches thick.
I took a chance and asked my dad what it was about. He told me it was complicated, that it messed with time and space. He said he wasn’t entirely sure what it was about, something I’d never heard him say before. Sensing the book was one of those tokens of adulthood far beyond my own puerile range, I was intrigued yet skeptical. Would I like it? I asked. My dad paused for a second. You’re not ready, he said. It wasn’t meant as an insult and I didn’t take it as one. I trusted his judgement and immediately forgot about it.
It would take ten years before I remembered that conversation. I found myself in a Barnes and Nobles on a date. Jazzed up on adrenaline and eager to impress, I dragged her into the critical theory section to show off a few of the books I’d recently read for my grad school classes. Then, out of nowhere, popped the memory of that conversation with my dad. I whipped out my cell phone and called him up on the spot.
‘Hey, Dad! Remember that time you had this big book on your table and I asked if I could read it and you said I wasn’t ready?’
‘It was really colorful. It had clouds on the cover, I think. And it was big.’
‘Oh, yes. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.’
‘Am I ready now?’
That night I launched myself into the book. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before: hyper intelligent, hilarious, and incredibly incredibly sad. I loved the dizzying vocabulary. I kept a vocabulary journal next to my bed and wrote down words like ‘ascapartic,’ ‘homodontic,’ and ‘uremic.’ I struggled to make sense of the multiple plots and the many characters who popped in and out and spoke in radically different voices. I was so confused. And then sometime after the first 300 pages it started to click. Characters began to solidify and the multiple plots started to coalesce. The book asked a lot of me. Its complexity demanded rereads, scribbled down notes, and multiple bookmarks. But oh was it good.
The core of Infinite Jest deals with addiction, depression, and survival. How to hurt. How to survive. How to step outside yourself and resist the narcotizing pull of solipsism, technology, entertainment, and substances. It’s the book I needed to read at that time of my life. I was a full-blown alcoholic polishing off a 12-pack a night. Blackouts became the preferred vehicle for sleep. Days of being flayed alive by self-hatred seemed survivable when I could spend the nights submerged in the numbing slow-death of drink. Although most of me wanted to quit, I didn’t know how.
Infinite Jest, and by extension David Foster Wallace, showed me a way out. The book gave voice to the infantile hurt that propelled me into addiction. Although the entire novel contains too many quotes and lessons and take-aways to mention, the following blockquote has always been one of my favorites. In it, one of the two protagonists struggles to stay sober in the face of extreme pain and readily available narcotics.
He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear. . . . It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real. . . . He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. . . . But he could choose not to listen.
This notion that I could endure anything if I broke it down into individual seconds helped me quit alcohol for good. At first, the idea that I would never drink again was too painful for my brain. I couldn’t possibly conceive of a life, much less an entire week, without drinking. I figured out if I just kept putting my next drink off, if I continuously told myself I’d go to 7-11 in another minute, I could abstain. I hunkered down and repeated “just one more second” until it became “one more minute,” “one more hour,” and then “one more day.” Addiction draws much of its power from its simplicity. It doesn’t care about anything other than securing that next fix. By blinding myself and willingly engaging in self-deception I was able to escape.
Although I’m not saying I never would have gotten sober without Infinite Jest, it’s safe to say the book gave me the philosophical and emotional tools necessary to change the direction of my life.
Beyond helping me with addiction, Infinite Jest reminded me just how fun reading can be. David Foster Wallace’s books and interviews helped me understand myself and the world around me. I quickly became obsessed. I bought all his books, joined the David Foster Wallace listserv, travelled to Amherst to read his theses, bought Infinite Jest-inspired clothing, and pretty much talked to anyone in earshot about how amazing he was.
While the book was also instrumental in my reading and writing life, I’ll save that for a later post. It’s the first answer whenever anyone asks one of those desert island ice-breakers so common in the ed/corporate world. It was my litmus test when searching for a mate. It ended up being the book that showed me just how powerful words and ideas can be.
Our time together has come to an end. Four weeks of transformative lessons, discussions, partnerships, conflicts, and writing. I can’t say enough about the Writing Project. It is the greatest professional development I have ever attended. Teachers teaching teachers. Becoming true scholars of the content we teach. Creating lesson plans and assignments that align with our hearts minds, not a scope-and-sequence template.
Summer institute reminded me that teaching is a glorious burden. A commitment to understanding children, adults, and everyone in between. That it is a path best walked with each other. We are the guardians of our profession. We are the final arbiters of what happens in education. Meaningful unity begins now.
We begin our final day by walking a mindfulness labyrinth made of stones and sticks. Everyone writes a message of strength and clarity on a rock and adds it to the pile.
Afterwards, we write. Whatever we want to write.
We share out about what we wrote and thought. Here is a collection:
-“This has given me a time to listen to myself, to other teachers, to remember what it is that matters.”
-“We’re looking at how things work in the classroom with people who are in the classroom.”
-“So much positive energy and kindness and humor and compassion in this room.”
-“Finding solidarity in other professionals”
-“Creating bonds with other teachers is one of the most meaningful experiences of this institute.”
-“This is a life event. This is a gift.”
“I don’t want this to end here.”