Why I Teach

Last Monday, at the second-to-last meeting of my Writing Skills Workshop class at UC Berkeley Extension, one of the students said, “I don’t even want to think about saying good-bye to everyone.”  Her large, expressive eyes opened even wider, and she shook her head.  “It’s been so … intimate.”

Another student had just asked where to go for feedback after the class ends. “We’ll get to that next week,” I said, as I always set aside time during a final class session to talk about finding a writing community, sustaining a writing practice, and other ways to keep going.

But S had put her finger on something essential, not only in terms of wrap-up discussion topics but in terms of why, after more than a decade at an underpaying teaching job, I keep teaching.  Year after year, not in every single class but in most, I get fantastic students.  Interesting adults who write about cooking shows and in-vitro treatments and birding and bar-mitzvahs; who reveal themselves in ways that restore my faith in writing.  Not that every student piece is flawlessly crafted, or even publishable.  But the fact that fifteen adults have grappled with words in an effort to get what’s on their minds onto the page in a coherent way, and with integrity and often humor – well, that never fails to cheer me up. And, more than the latest issue of The New Yorker, remind me of why I write.

This class bonded strongly from the get-go. For the first three sessions, I got about halfway through my lesson plan when it was time to go. What took so much time?  Students making observations, asking questions, wanting clarification, offering input.  All great stuff, and so what if we didn’t get to every single item on my agenda?  The energy was fabulous, infectious.  A class of opinionated extroverts.  What fun.  Three hours passed in a flash.

Some evenings I had to cut students off, of course. When A went on too long about Joan Didion’s anti-academic attitude; when M offered up too many details on his mom’s politics; when L deconstructed the po-mo artifice in a paragraph handed out for examples of the introductory clause – at times like those, I had to move us along.  We were examining sentence structure, after all, not PhD-level literary theory.  But what a treat, to have too much to talk about in three hours and to say, at 9:30 p.m., “See you all next week.”

Until next week, that is.  As S pointed out, our last class approaches.  Fifteen adults who were strangers have now read – and talked about – each other’s revelations about sexual identity, searches for Jesus, embarrassing forgetfulness, abiding love for hummingbirds, and being too choosy in looking for love.  Revelations of themselves – as well as of the power of manipulation in the use of a subordinating conjunction or a well-crafted metaphor.

Next week, I’ll give my usual last-class pep talk about keeping at it, about finding compatible readers, about staying true to their voices but not getting so precious they stop working.  I’ll remind them of what they already know: writing is hard work.  We’ll say good-bye and good luck, and I’ll look forward to two months with no papers to grade.  But secretly?  I’ll be eager for the next group to remind me why I keep teaching.  And – with their nervousness, their risk-taking (OK, not all of them, but all you need to restore your faith is one or two willing to go out on a limb), and their belief that words matter – why I keep writing.

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