What is their water?

I wrote my way in the last blog post to this sentence, “I will be writing somewhere…because for me, this is water,” referencing David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech which my students were studying for its rhetorical effects. Wallace begins the speech with a story of two young fish swimming along. They are met by an older fish swimming the other way who says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The younger fish swim on a ways and finally ones looks at the other and asks, “What is water?”

I recently had a former student contact me to ask what I was writing lately. His email became the catalyst for me to write the first entry this year. He actually reads my blog, apparently, and had missed it. I’d written plenty, filled a Moleskin journal since April, but nothing was out there for public consumption. It occurred to me, when answering his question about my writing, that though I’d written thousands of words, that wasn’t obvious to my students.

I had been taught in my college days to always write with my students. I believe in that. The best writing teachers are those who write themselves. But actually writing WITH my students, in class, at the same time…it’s harder than you think. They have questions for me; I have papers to grade and lessons to plan. Something always seems more urgent than writing while they write. 

But maybe that isn’t the essential part. Maybe knowing I write and seeing my writing is what matters. Knowing that I, too, have to wrestle against the blank page, have to re-order, cut and paste, and hit the delete key often is what is important to them. I suspect they need to know that I don’t know all the answers and I struggle with ordering my world too and writing is a means to do that. It’s probably good for them to know that ‘first drafts’ in my Moleskin journal are never what the public sees. And while I’m confessing, they should probably know that much of what I write there isn’t good writing or interesting reading.

Writing is essential to me, a ritual as necessary to living as water to swimming. I’m thinking on paper. I often quote Flannery O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.”

I have to process things in language, either spoken or written. The writing saves my husband, children, parents and friends from having to listen to more than their share. It probably saves on prescription medication and therapy too. It’s a means of discovery, problem-solving, and remembering. It’s an act of worship.

The student who sent the email – I suspect writing is his water too, though he’s multi-talented with painting, photography, drawing and music. He may have multiple waters. As a college freshmen, he is emailing his high-school English teacher that he misses reading and writing this semester. He’s editing friend’s papers for free to get his fix. That’s a man who loves words and is desperate for them! Thinking of him prompts me to think of other students – what is their water?

I don’t mean passion. First of all, that word is so overused in high school and college now it is rendered meaningless, at least to me. Sometimes I don’t feel passion at all toward writing. I resist it. I wish I didn’t feel compelled to do it. I’d have more time for easier, more fun, more entertaining things. My writing life is not passionate as in “I love it and always want it and want it above all else at all cost”. No, water is not passion.

Water, according to Wallace’s fish anecdote, is the necessary medium for swimming. What is my students’ water and can I help them discover it? What is essential to them? Is it hands-on experience? adventure? nature, sketching? solitude? music? movement? competition? I have no idea how to go about doing that and maybe it’s not even my role, but I have a starting point for answering my question. When my students are stuck on an essay question, I tell them, “Write your way out of a hole”.

My Gypsy Life

Pulling my cart out of the room where I taught first period this morning, the phrase My Gypsy Life popped into my mind. I thought again about this blog. It has begun to nag me: the question of whether I’m going to write here this school year. I have not just been on an extended summer vacation from writing, although my initial break started as that. My focus here for the last year has been a window into school, primarily writing about my perspective on the beginning year of high school with my ninth graders, and what little bit I learned about parenting teenagers by making my own mistakes on my two children when they were that age. Teaching freshmen for five years, I seemed to have plenty of fodder.

If I keep the blog, I might should rename it. This year, I made a change. I am now teaching AP Language and Composition to juniors. Even more drastic from moving up two grades and into AP, I have become a part-time teacher. This was a move of my choosing to make room for other things in my life, one of which was writing. Oddly, the thing I was making room for hasn’t quite moved in.

For one thing, a part time teacher is ‘homeless’ at school, meaning, understandably of course, I don’t have my own classroom anymore. In some ways that is liberating. I’ve always hated doing bulletin boards. I don’t have to dust my desk. I no longer compare my room to the cool history teacher’s classroom whose every inch of wall space is covered with colorful posters and art.

But learning to teach homeless has been a new experience. I have a cart. Fortunately, I travel between two other English teachers’ rooms, so the distance isn’t far and the classrooms are familiar. Julius Caesar and Chaucer decorate the walls, not chemical chains or periodic tables. Still, finding a place to land when I am working at school but not teaching has posed some challenges. I tried the copy room, which has two nice club chairs and an ottoman, but it adjoins the faculty rest room, which besides the copy machine is a big draw for traffic. Besides, there was no room for my cart inside.

The teacher’s lounge is just that – a place to lounge – and thanks to generous parents, a place to raise one’s cholesterol and get fat.

The first month of school, I seemed to be in a constant state of flux – my reading glasses in a cabinet in one teacher’s room, my textbook in another, my copies left on the machine yesterday, and my computer cord plugged in the classroom where I taught last hour. I would need a pencil only to have red pens on my cart. It’s taken me two months to establish new habits, find new ways to store things, and see how lightly I can travel.

A colleague with an extra desk in an office adjoining his room offered me desk space, and I happily accepted. I now have a place to land before and after classes and a desk to clutter with papers. I am beginning to feel at home teaching in my gypsy life.

Only seconds after the phrase, My Gypsy Life, crossed my mind, my water bottle turned over on my cart. Apparently the top wasn’t secure, and water went everywhere, soaking papers and smearing ink. Ironically, atop my cart was a copy of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water” which I would assign to my students the very next day.

Among the many good points in that speech is that we get to choose how we see things, and that sometimes the most important things are like water to a fish, so obvious and essential that we miss them.

Whether or not I have anything to say here about juniors and AP Lang and part-time teaching remains to be seen, but I will be writing somewhere because for me…this is water.