Monday, March 15, 2010
I won’t talk about the teacher who was up with me for the same writing…and when I tried to contact said professor s/he replied with….well, never replied. When I won the prize s/he seemed to hate me. I won’t talk about that. That would be petty of me…and insecure.
I’ll talk instead about Mark Doty, who last year won a Lambda Award in an unusual joint win between him and his former student, James Hall. James actually skipped across the stage. James is a big guy, but the skipping seemed a completely correct response not only for winning the award amongst a field of incredibly talented poets but also joining his mentor on stage to accept their award. Mark spent most of his podium time praising James. And James spent his thanking Mark. If you weren’t paying attention you would think they were accepting a collaboration award.
But how many teachers would be cool with their students co-winning an award with them? Killing them off—as Whitman said students should do? Why be a teacher if the ungrateful brats will rise up and maybe get as good, or, have mercy, better, than you? I’ve only written one full length book, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, which was published by Graywolf Press just two weeks ago. But I’ve been teaching for years. Years! Have I just been giving away the goods?
Let’s consider the student perspective. Feeling you’ve been stiffed by your teachers is nothing new. Every smart kid has wondered if she wasn’t smarter than her teacher. Even stupid kids have wondered this. As teachers, we can see how this might have been true. I’ve had students love writers I’ve never heard of….sure some of the books are werewolf romances, but others are major canonical novels I’ve just missed. I’m coming to get you, the student seems to say. I won’t let you kill me, the teacher rails.
So let me be honest. I’ve been anxious and insecure as a teacher. I’ve been teaching in a formal classroom since I was 15. I’ve been a big sister (read as: mentor for life) since I was 11. I remember once telling my brother that he couldn’t be a writer. I told him, honestly, that I didn’t think I’d be able to handle us competing against each other. I could see myself fretting about whether to help him revise a poem or keep my brilliance to myself. So used to giving and giving to him, I was sure I would chose to help him revise but then seethe with resentment. My brother and I have never been sibling rivals but I saw nastiness unfolding before my eyes.
The fiction writer, Jean Rhys figured out how to handle the anxiety of mentorship by noting that ‘we are each adding to the ocean of literature. Some of us are rivers pouring in and changing the movement of the water. Some of us are just droplets. But the point is to add to the ocean.’ Rhys didn’t think of herself as a river. She figured she was only a little teardrop. But she loved the ocean more than her little drop. Who the hell is Jean Rhys, you might ask? Honestly, I couldn’t even find the direct quote on line (hence the paraphrasing). So maybe she really was nothing more than a drop. Maybe she thought of herself as a drop and so she was. Maybe if she only envisioned herself as a gushing river she would’ve been greater than Hemingway. But I don’t think so. Many readers love Rhys more than the rivers of Hemingway (this reader, for one). Her Wide Sargasso Sea is still in print long after she’s been well dead. The point, I think, is to love the ocean first, to love literature first. If that means you guide a student or mentee to create a waterfall, so be it. Much better to have done that then create a gush of sewage (werewolf romances!) or mentor someone who does. The lesson is don’t write literature unless your love is for the literature. Then mentorship is an act of love—corny as that may sound. And then it might be a little easier to keep insecurity about your own drop or river in check.
Because of course, James Hall and Mark Dot had collaborated. James had written many of those poems in classes with Mark. Mark, who has been teaching for years, always expresses excitement about his students influencing him. Come kill me, he seems to be saying. That’s how I get reborn.
Because none of us is self-taught. Not really. That’s some American individualistic bullshit. None of is made without influence. “No one helped me!” is just a lie. Someone hired you to work on a journal. Someone gave you a book. Someone wrote the book that got you loving books. Some middle school teacher gave you a damn smiley face on an essay. When I was 17 Maya Angelou actually read one of my poems during her own reading. She congratulated me for writing it and then read it aloud. She’s never said a word to me in person…but that was one of the most vital acts of mentorship I’ve received. She made room for my poem among her poems. Was she threatened by me? Probably not. But it seems entirely possible that she thought….this might be a future writer. This might be someone who gets read. This might be someone who gets read after I’m dead. But she was more than confident enough, it seems, to be okay with the possibility of this. She seemed to be embracing the possibility, calling the possibility into being.
And if we’ve been a little anxious as mentors we’re downright scared of our peers.
“That bitch is coming to get me,” a friend said when judging a literary prize….a prize he might have entered if he wasn’t the judge. “She’s so good she’s scaring me.”
“So will you pick her?” I asked.
“Of course! She has me wanting to write.” Meaning, of course, that other people’s good writing is great for you.
I have a vignette: When I was in high school I competed in a beauty pageant. I grew up in the Virgin Islands were beauty pageants are pretty common. I was probably the poorest girl running. I didn’t have a coach or a formal beauty pageant mentor. I had aunts and my grandmother and my friends. I couldn’t afford a dress, but a woman who owned a boutique just gave me my evening gown and my talent-wear. A friend’s mother made my martial arts sports segment outfit. My cousin held the board on stage when I broke it with a karate chop. A friend taught me how to play “wind beneath my wings” on the steel pan. My fellow contestants were my friends, but they all had the formal chaperones and coaches and modeling lessons. Me, nada. But I won. No one in my family had even taken pictures or filmed the pageant. We didn’t have a camera, much less a video camera. It was very cool to walk down the catwalk with the crown on my head. But that’s not the end of the story.
Within two days it sucked. One of my best friends had been in the pageant and had expected to win. After the pageant she spoke to me in monosyllables and our friendship never recovered. Her mother was worse—she downright hated me—which was made heinous because the mother was a teacher in the school. On the day I was “presented” before students and teachers during a special assembly I rushed through my speech and encouraged everyone to get back to class. I burst into tears during homeroom and stuffed the crown in my locker. Instead of my queen commitments I concentrated on my year of service…a requirement of the crown I would later learn no one ever bothered with. I chose to host a reading hour for the kindergarten and first grade classes. I read to them every Tuesday and Thursday morning.
Later, I would find out that another contestant actually went to the formal queen functions without me knowing; parading as the winner of the pageant. I wouldn’t even be mad at her—perhaps because I found out years enough afterwards. I’d just feel bad for her.
Instead of crowning glory, what I got was one of those first graders eventually becoming a high school student and stopping me in the street…”Do you remember when you used to come read to us? You made me love reading.” That girl had started writing poems. You guessed it. She’s coming to get me. Well, good. That will only make me write more and better. Maybe I’ll get reborn.
And thanks to Aggie, for helping fill the ocean with this blog!