Habits and Passions, Regrets and Heartbreak (but not necessarily in that order)
When you know what you love but what you love doesn’t pay the bills you make compromise. For most this is called growing up.
What changes, I’ve found, if you are so fortunate, is that we come to find love for that which we thought was just our “day job”. That or we hope to find the courage and the means to change jobs to something that could one day inspire love.
Yesterday I had one of those experiences that lifts teaching, one of my day jobs (I have two), far above what society too often denigrates it to be. Not that teachers, myself very much included, don’t do our own share of denigrating. Teaching, like parenting, isn’t all Oh Captain My Captain “Dead Poets” inspired love-ins, believe me!
A student came to see me in my office. She wanted to talk about her writing, she said. She had already submitted her final research paper and I had yet to return it so I was a little annoyed. What did she need now? There wasn’t anything to be done. It had been submitted. And she hadn’t yet received her grade, so there was no grade yet to argue. Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph.
I teach a Humanities course that is mandatory for any 2nd language speaker with English good enough to get into York University where I work. The course title refers to contemporary Canadian culture. Really I’m teaching them how to write research papers. How I sell it (the research papers), when it is a skill the vast majority of my students will never use again after they graduate, is that I explain writing is really thinking, which is an essential ingredient for innovation, the lifeblood of any entrepreneurial venture of worth. In other words, I use Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley success stories to defend liberal arts education. Hey, when universities are run like businesses, as governments and most every other facet of society is now run (as if the MBA were the only measure of great leadership), it’s inevitable that you have to “sell” your wares even in a humanities classroom where I’m liable to devote an entire class to Leonard Cohen (Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is played in its entirety).
The irony of my situation is that as one whose great passion is to write creatively (novels), I’ve ended up becoming a professional teacher of discursive writing. And I hated writing essays in university! At least I hated writing them in the early years when I had no idea what I was doing (because no one properly taught me). I certainly wasn’t a natural at it. But then, I’ve come to believe to be an effective teacher of something, it’s helpful to be a slow learner of that very thing. That which comes easy (you heard me, easy; come at me, grammarians, I’m ready!) is actually hard and sometimes impossible to convey. This is why the great researcher hired at the top university can actually turn out to be a horrifically incomprehensible (or just tragically dull) lecturer. Conversely, the adjunct instructor, not at the “best” university in his city, who dare not call himself a professor because really he’s “just a teacher” sans Phd, might actually not be half bad helping students actually learn.
But the fact remains, my first passion is fiction writing and sometimes I long to teach students that which I most love, how to write stories, especially as I myself continue to grapple with that very conundrum.
And then yesterday a student, she’s from Iraq, comes to my office. She needs help with her writing. I’m busy, busier than I may ever have been in my entire life (with teaching, with a writing business – my other day job – with a novel, with marking, with prepping, with the admin that goes with teaching 70+ students, with my own children, ailing parents, marriage (also my own)), but it’s my job to make time and I take my teaching more seriously than I ever did before. Of course she can come see me.
The relief for me was that she was not, in fact, coming to argue grades. Nor was she even about to show me something and ask me to work on her grammar. This the great joke to anyone who has ever taught writing to (young) adults. As if adding or removing a comma were the complexity of what it takes to write.
No, this student simply wanted to share with me her own love of creative writing. She writes too, she told me. She writes from a place of emotion. Heartbreak. Angst. She just wanted to share it with me. Knowing my passion. The thrill that I could direct her to go beyond the fan fiction she reads online and start tipping her off to the great books of angst (Salinger, of course, but even John Greene and the like). To know she, at nineteen, is at the start of a passion that is likely only to grow. In a world so painfully susceptible to greed and corruption, or so the scales seem to have recently precariously tipped, it’s a wonder to me I get to sit and do what I do sometimes, in an office, with a student, suggesting taking a book to bed at night rather than her phone. A habit she could form. For life. One she would never regret.