What is madness? If I had to capture it in a few words, I’d say it’s anything that is so far removed from the reality of the “norm” that it becomes incomprehensible to the “normal.”
If you followed the news over the weekend, you know what this post is about. Only I don’t want to talk about the act itself; I don’t feel like wasting any time on a person, by all accounts a human, who already got more attention through his acts that he was ever deserving of. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about the narrative that followed, which once more contained references to mental illness, personality disorders, and so on. Because I’d like to posit that at heart, this act was not far removed from the norm at all – that is, if you’re a woman who’s been paying any attention to the culture in which she lives, breathes and exists.
Let me take you back to when I was 14 years old and trying to make some summer spending money and build character by delivering magazines in a neighboring neighborhood once a week. It was relatively warm and I was wearing a shirt and tank-top. I usually delivered these magazines with my best friends; sometimes we’d walk together, but if we wanted to be done quickly, we’d split up, which we did that day. A man, a grown man, walked by and told me how sexy I looked. I, being 14 years old, kept my head down and quickly made an exit. Though this is the first encounter with street harassment I can remember, I know it wasn’t actually the first one, because I wasn’t surprised. But the thing is that usually, teen and preteen girls travel in packs, so on previous occasions where I was approached by strange men, it had happened with friends nearby – friends who were able to deflect and protect. That same summer, there was a young man who frequented the same swimming pool my friends and I did, and he took an interest. Sometimes he’d let me hang onto his car window while I rode my bike, so that I’d be home faster. He wanted to kiss me, but with friends usually around I managed to avoid that.
This was the summer I realized once and for all that this was a thing now. Men would be approaching me, and if I wasn’t interested (and I usually wasn’t, even though like many teenage girls, I still found older guys fascinating), I would have to find a way to turn down their advances or to avoid their advances altogether. I’m not alone in these experiences. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey describes a workshop that Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, did with 200 women. Wiseman asked them to write down when they first “knew they were a woman” and Fey notes that the answers had a “very similar theme” despite the women’s varying ages and backgrounds: “Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them.” From this moment on, whether it happens at age 10 or 14 or 17, I would posit, most of us start developing a sixth sense for male sexual attention: wanted and unwanted. The unwanted sexual attention, whether they’re looks or comments or acts, starts popping up on our Creep Radar. This radar is not built overnight. It develops through experiences like making out with a 23-year old cop, who then wants to date you, at age 16, and being secretly relieved when your mother tells you that is not a thing you need in your life. You hone your skills by noticing whenever strange men look at you a little too long, have their eyes linger on certain parts of your body, turn their heads to check out your ass. And by the time you hit college, your Creep Radar is somewhat operational.
Cue the culture that birthed Men’s Rights Activists. Read more…
“Kick up! Come on! Kick!”
My dance instructor stands near me, arms outstretched, hands cupped. “Give me your leg, darnit!”
I’ve been regretting my question even since I asked it. “After I kick, jump, and twist, is my right leg or my left one forward?” It prompted my instructor to fall back on her hands-on approach, and now here we are – here I am – in this bright dance studio, facing a wall of mirrors, surrounded by other novice dancers who are also wondering how to land this jump and (possibly, secretly) gloating that I’m the guinea pig today.
“Come on, Nanna. Kick!”
I reach that point where not acting is more mortifying than acting, so I swing my left leg half-heartedly – once, twice, three times (a lady) UP! into the hands of my instructor. With what feels like snail-like speed I jump and turn 180 degrees in the air before I land: right leg forward, left leg back. Aha!
The instructor moves on to the next student, and the next. They all get to jump and twist in her capable hands – and under her discerning gaze. Ha! Now they have all of the self-consciousness and none of the glee. It doesn’t seem to affect them as badly as it does me.
I flash back to November 2013. The department talent show. Students and lecturers all performed in the university’s main auditorium: if they were out of their minds/brave enough to sign up, that is.
I sort of got roped into participating. Knowing someone was already doing Anna Kendrick’s “Cups,” I felt perfectly safe saying that was, in fact, my only talent. But as luck would have it, that person dropped out and I was in. For weeks, I felt quite comfortable with my participation, but then, a week or so before the event, coworkers and organizers started complimenting me on my bravery, and suddenly self-consciousness struck. If my participation was brave, then this must be a scary thing I was doing. What had I got myself into? Why?
If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I always finish what I start. I have a pretty good track record of this. Which meant that one November evening, I climbed the steps to the auditorium stage and faced a few hundred students and faculty with nothing but a cup and my voice – oh, and two gentlemen flanking me with microphones; after all, an artist needs her entourage. Microphones! I figured I’d just, you know, cup and sing unplugged. But no, there was one to amplify the sound of the cup and – horror of horrors! – one for me. The singer.
I’m not, nor have I ever been, a singer. I enjoy singing in the shower, and don’t mind taking the lead with birthday songs. I’ll even sing at a campfire or on the beach (provided there is enough wine, of course). But this? This was unprecedented. Microphone… Audience…I took a deep breath and did the best I could. My legs turned to jelly, my hands shook, and it took all I had to stop the tremors from audibly creeping into my voice. But like my jump, I also landed my performance: full of relief, out of breath, and probably three years older from stress, but land it I did.
I flash back to dance class, but a dance class of the recent past. We’re improvising, which in modern dance at the beginner level apparently involves a whole lot of dancing with your eyes closed.
Just moving to the rhythm of the music, swaying to the sound, with our eyes closed, in our own space, was bad enough, but now a partner component is added to the mix: one person will have their eyes closed – and follow – and the other will have their eyes open – and lead. My partner gently grabs the back of my neck and starts moving me around the room. Or I should say, makes very valiant attempts to move me around the room, because I’m having none of it. I push back, I squint through my eyelashes, I move in directions opposite to where she wants me to go. I don’t trust – or relax, or give over – easily.
The instructor takes over. She, too, grabs the back of my neck and starts leading me. “Breathe. Shoulders down. Breathe. Relax. There we go. Breathe. You’re okay. … … …. … …. … … …” The music plays, and I dance – as much as I can.
See, this one I didn’t land. I tried, but I didn’t quite get there.
It’s now one week after the dance class in the opening of this post. It’s exam/resit/project time at my university, which means mountain-like piles of grading and very little teaching. In the end, the teaching’s (obviously) why I’m in this job – and why I love it so much. But being a teacher also means that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how frightening it can be to sit on the other side of the room: the fear of not getting it, the fear of getting it wrong, the fear of others judging you and, of course, the fear of not sticking your landing.
Dancing and singing are, in the end, not that different from the things I teach – English, composition, public speaking; they are skills that you can hone through observation, but if you really want to improve, you have to get down and dirty. You have to speak and let it be wrong sometimes. You have to sing and miss your note. You have to jump and crash your landing. But the nice thing about being in a classroom or a class-like setting is that mistakes are acceptable – and often encouraged. They’re a teaching moment and a learning experience. It’s only through falling flat on your face every once in a while that you learn how to avoid doing so.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not scary as hell – particularly when you know there’s a good chance of failure or mistake-making. The tremors, the sweating, the nerves, they affect all of us and they never make us feel good. What does is our ability to power through them and, in our shining, flawed, mistake making glory, triumph over them. At least until the next time.
This is not a post about Sarah Connor’s schmaltzy and terrible “From Sarah With Love.” It is, however, a post about – or perhaps originating from – a Sarah.
Last weekend, a friend and I went to see Sarah Slean perform at QBUs in Leiden. Sarah Slean, for those of you who do not have a Canadian friend who tells you how much he loves Sarah Slean at least every other month, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who released her first EP in 1997 and has regularly been performing and releasing new albums ever since. My Canadian friend once recommended her to me when I was looking to expand my lady singer horizons after falling in love with Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan (another Canadian Sarah!) back in the ’90s, but I had never seen her live. Until Sunday, that is.
It was a great show. I won’t bore you with set lists and detailed discussions of all the vocal acrobatics that happened (though “Blue Parade,” very similar to this one in Paris, was a stellar encore which prompted me to turn to my friend and comment that “this is what Florence Welch wishes she sounds like.” And I like Florence + the Machine!), because while I was enjoying the evening, I couldn’t help noticing how much Ms Slean was loving* being there, on stage, in Leiden, in front of what can only be called an intimate crowd. The show was, as she herself described it, a bit of an impromptu variety show, with a local amateur strings sextet (BplusC) accompanying her for three songs, a Twitter follower from Utrecht accompanying her on the ukelele for one song and performing her own, original song – with Ms Slean doing backing vocals – and then her supporting act – the wonderful and fabulously bearded Ian Kelly – coming back on stage for a few collaborations. This all happened between her solo performance of a variety of songs, of course. And it struck me that there is no possible way for an artist to do all that – perform with all these people she never met until the day of the performance, share her spotlight, laugh at herself when she messed up her backing vocals – unless they absolutely, positively love doing it. Love not just showing and performing, but sharing their art with those who are open, willing, and brave enough to give it a try.
Though her vocals and performance were great, this is what I remember best about last Sunday night: just how wonderful it is to watch someone do something they love. Wonderful and memorable and inspiring. That’s the thought I was stuck on all day Monday and Tuesday and the thought I believed this post would center on. But then I realized that there are a great many people who love to do certain things and who have no problem exhibiting that love – and yet I want to punch them in the face. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I’m a very violence-averse person. As I started thinking about all these people – certain politicians, talking heads, celebrities, and perhaps a couple of folks I know personally – I realized that just doing something you love and sharing that love and enthusiasm with others is not that perfect storm, that magical moment, that I noticed on Sunday. It’s not just about doing something with love; it’s about doing something from love.
Think back on some inspiring people you have met, and you will probably realize (if you never did so before) that part of the reason they touched you was the passion they had for whatever they did or discussed or showed or performed or [insert other verbs here]. That’s doing something with love. Then think back on the most inspiring people, the most special people, who create the most special moment. They make an active effort to share their love with you, to give you a little part of it, to stretch their love far enough that it can cover a whole community – and not just an individual. That is doing something from love. It is what I can see when I remember my favorite college professors and high school teachers. They obviously loved what they did, but they went beyond that: their teaching practice was brimming with … the possibility that one day my classmates and I, too, might feel such love for something one day. That we, too, would find our niche, and be comfortable in it. That is, in the end, what inspiration is: the belief that one day, you can do or be something that fits perfectly with who you are.
In order to be able to inspire people, one has to (I believe) possess a significant level of self-esteem, self-possession, and comfort with one’s one person and one’s own passion. Without these things, it seems (again, to me) impossible to spark those moments which make others go “Yes, this is wonderful! You are wonderful! I am wonderful! The world is, indeed, full of wonder! Onwards and upwards, my lovelies!” And that is the feeling I had when I traveled home after the concert Sunday night.
So well done, Ms Slean. I saw your love and because you shared it, I got to take a little bit home with me. Maybe, in turn, I’ll get to spread it even further; maybe with this blog post, or perhaps when I’m teaching. Either way, I’ll try to remember to come at things from love, and not just with it. It just seems a whole lot more valuable and rewarding.
*sorry, students! I know I told you one shouldn’t use stative verbs in the progressive form! Please do as I say and not as I do. Thank you.
Baby girls are born every day and grow up to be and do all manner of things.
Sometimes, they are born with a stomach that has a tendency to malfunction in the middle of the night, resulting in screaming and crying and keeping their big sisters up.
And they are perfectly okay being held and patted on their bum until they calm down and fall asleep.
They can develop the world’s most annoying game – throw two dozen marbles onto a serving tray and watch, mesmerized, how they roll from one side to the other as they tilt the tray – and be entertained by it for literally hours, without even noticing the noise that drives all others to distraction.
If they’re truly special, they might develop such a specific, personal language that linguists want to study it. And in that language, it makes perfect sense to call a frog an ah-eeya, a cucumber an ahmeea, and a spoon an eeeeeppphhh. Even after that language has come and gone, Pinocchio will still – always and forever – be Piocchino.
When their mother has the hairdresser chop all their hair off into a bob cut for their (6th?) birthday, they can refuse to celebrate with their family until they’re bought a cool baseball cap with a bulldog on it to hide their near-baldness.
They can be the perfect size to slide under one’s big sister’s bed so that big sister and her boyfriend can be spied on. They can also be so boisterous that this plan ends up not working out. At all.
They can be a tomboy one day and a princess in pink the other. But they have no problem taking the best of both worlds and combining them. Why be one thing when you can kick ass, stomp around in boots, and also have the pinkest room known to man?
On holidays, they can demand to have their constant companions – a stuffed animal cat called Poes and a lion called Leeuwtje (after several trips of also bringing life-size lioness Leeuw, their mother might start questioning her own sanity) – by their side.
But pets can’t come along on holidays, so when such a tough-yet-girly girl holds the frozen carcass of her guinea pig Bir (frozen with ALL the best intentions AFTER DEATH by a big sister who shall remain anonymous) in her hands upon her return, she might burst into tears, even if “she didn’t care that much for him anymore anyway.”
And then when puberty rolls along, their pigheadedness and refusal to listen to any form of reason might lead to all sorts of stress and strain. But puberty fades, and love – especially after it’s tested – remains.
These girls can impersonate Gollum better than the actor who played the part, can recite all of Aragorn’s titles even in the middle of the night, after some heavy drinking. They can decide to move to the other side of the country and study psychology. They can work hard at statistics and harder at their ability to win (beer-based) boat races and be perfectly content with passing grades. And then they can suddenly take a turn for the serious and fall headfirst into their forensic psychology graduate program. And before you know it, they’re a Master of Science.
If there is any little girl about whom all of the above is true, it’s my little sister. My baby sister. No longer a little girl. She graduates today. Master of Science, forensic psychology. I remember when she was born. I remember going to the hospital in my Musketeer carnival costume. I remember the sleepless nights. I remember the diapers and the burping. I remember the frustration only older sisters know. I remember the anger. I remember pushing her and breaking her flipflop and bribing her with a Snickers bar (“No, TWO”) so she wouldn’t tell mom it was my fault. I remember the cuddles. I remember holding her hand every time we crossed a street. I remember when it was no longer necessary to do so, but I still wanted to. I don’t know where all of that time went, if it ever went anywhere. But I know it’s in my head.
I guess a Master of forensic psychology doesn’t need her hand held anymore – at least not when she crosses the street. But being a big sister, I’ll always make sure it hovers near hers anyway, just in case.
What’s the highest praise you can bestow upon a book?
Until recently, my answer might have been “I often think about it when times are rough” or “it made me cry, but in the best possible way.” Of course that was before I read Katie Coyle’s Vivian Versus the Apocalypse. That’s when the highest praise became “this book was so well-written, the story so absorbing, that I forgot it was written by someone I know.”
Now, I don’t know-know Katie in the olden meaning of the word (nor in the Biblical sense, obviously); I know her through the power of the Internet. We “met” on a certain lady-slanted website back in 2007 or 2008 and migrated to another place at around the same time. For those of you who speak Internet and know how quickly time passes in that strange place – with memes rising and falling within days, sometimes hours – it should be clear that I’ve “known” Katie for a lifetime in Internet years. So of course I was beyond excited when she announced she was participating in the Hot Key Books 2012 Young Writers Prize, and I was ecstatic when she was announced the winner in her book’s age category.
I read it the day after it became available on Amazon: one half on Friday, one half on Saturday. I could have read this book – and finished it – well into the night, and I was sorely tempted, but in the end I chose to savor the experience.
The book opens on a party scene, the night before the Rapture (which was foretold by Pastor Frick of the powerful Church of America). Vivian is at a Rapture’s Eve party hosted by her best friend, Harp (Harpreet Janda). As the girls banter, flapper-style, it quickly becomes clear that Harp is the boisterous, outgoing friend (every friendship has one, in varying degrees), while Vivian has so far been okay with a quiet, make-no-waves kind of life. The threat of the Rapture, even though she doesn’t believe in it, however, has her left wanting… more. After a distinctly failuresque encounter with a boy with the bluest eyes, non-religious Vivian prays “Dear Universe, […] Make me less meek, make me less afraid. Dear Universe, make me the hero of my own story.”
And though gods may not be real, the universe certain is, because Vivian’s prayer is answered in every possible way. After going home the morning after the party and discovering two holes in the ceiling over her parents bed, she is swept up in a storm of post-Rapture chaos. What follows is, in many ways, a classic coming of age story. Under the threat of end to life and/or personhood, Vivian embarks on a literal journey of self-discovery, traversing the United States in search of an explanation of her parents’ fate (and that of thousands of others).
Luckily, Vivian does not have to negotiate the dangerous, pre-apocalyptic world of Left Behinds (those not raptured) and New Orphans (the children of the raptured), together with the new believers, alone; she is accompanied by Harp – due to circumstances no longer as innocently boisterous – and Peter – mysterious, but not painfully YA-cliche broody. Together, they deal with the alluring siren call of faux-comfort, the painful reality of hate crime, the agony of abandonment, and – crucially – the evil of drum circles.
When did my reading transition from “OMG KATIE WROTE THIS” to “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE KATIE WROTE THIS” to “OMG THIS STORY”? I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but it was around the time when we first start seeing the corporate face of the Church of America.
The food is all Church of America brand; in addition to the founding of the Church itself, Frick was the CEO of its accompanying multi-million dollar corporation. They publish the magazines and run the Church television networks, and they produce end-of-the-world provisions like these–bottles of Holy Spring Water, bland Spaghetti-Os knock-offs called Christ Loops. (23)
Vivian’s America, despite its fictional nature, started ringing frightfully true (in a dystopian Margaret Atwood-esque way*). Of course a powerful American church would be corporate-minded. Of course nothing good could ever come from dealing with such an organization. Yet, in a way, it does. The Church of America’s actions catalyze the universe answering Vivian’s prayer: she becomes, while tripping over her metaphorical feet and falling on her figurative face more than once, not the heroine (ugh) but the hero of her own story. And she discovers, in the process, that both becoming and being a hero are painful, sometimes excruciating, often awkward, yet ultimately fulfilling states.
So do yourself a favor and run on over to your local Amazon to get your very own copy now. Or order through Hot Key Books!
*I’m not the first one to draw Margaret Atwood parallels. For more detail, go here.
Spotify recently updated its home screen to feature a strange hodgepodge of recommendations tailored to the account holder. As someone traumatized by Pandora when she still had access to that marvel of music sites a few years back (No, my love for Dixie Chicks does NOT mean I want to listen to Carrie Underwood, thanks), I am (perhaps) more reluctant than most to take them seriously. And, indeed, many of the connections Spotify makes are undeniably strange. “You have listened to Judy Garland. Now try Harry Belafonte!” “If you like Bette Midler, you will love John Denver! And, a favorite: “It’s been a while since you last listened to ‘Fuck You’ by Lily Allen. Play now?” Not that I have anything against Harry Belafonte, far from it, but they’re not exactly the same style. So I don’t have a lot of faith in these things.
A couple of weeks ago, however, I decided to click one of these suggestions (“Love Indigo Girls and Girlyman? Try Dar Williams”) anyway. Perhaps because I didn’t know her name and felt like I should, perhaps because yes, I do love Indigo Girls and Girlyman, thank you, Spotify. The reason doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I started listening to her albums and immediately fell in love.
My musical preference is already lightly skewed towards lady singers, so my love-at-first-sight might – at least initially – be explained by that predilection, but in reality it’s her lyrics. They push all my interests-in-art buttons: kindness, connection, nostalgia. These are themes I love the most in the books and media I choose to surround myself with and were also important themes in my MA thesis, in which I took a look at the desire for a reconnection with these themes in books in post-9/11 America. In the end, in my heart, I guess, I believe that when given the opportunity, people will naturally want to do good, connect with their communities and the world around them, and treat each other kindly. Of course such a world view seems to fly directly in the face of our daily news cycle, with its reports of chemical warfare in Syria, people molested and abused the world over, children of color being killed in American streets because the color of their skin, austerity measures, and so on, and so forth. But world views, in my opinion, should always hang in a precarious balance lest they ossify and remain stagnant and reactionary, so I’ll continue facing the world as a contradiction in terms.
But back to Dar Williams and her lyrics. One of the first songs that grabbed me was “February.” (If you don’t like lengthy song analyses and personal thoughts about lyrics, please just listen to the songs and fall in love along with me while skipping over the rest?)
(I’m including YouTube so folks without Spotify can listen along if they’re so inclined. All her albums are on Spotify, though, for those of you who have accounts.) Now please note that all the following analyses and interpretations are (naturally) my own, and you mileage may vary, but this song caught my attention because to me, it speaks to that unspeakable, impossible-seeming moment when you suddenly, without noticing, forget why you loved someone (or something, for that matter) and, as a result, stop loving them. The song opens with “I threw your keys in the water / I looked back and they’d frozen halfway down in the ice” and has a wonderful circularity, ending with “The leaves were turning as we drove to the hardware store / my new lover made me keys to the house.” In between the two keys, however, we find a reminiscence (the “looking back”) of how it all went wrong. But of course there’s never a clear image of where, when and why exactly you forgot to love this person or thing; it sneaks and it happens and it doesn’t make sense. So “first we forgot where we planted those bulbs last year / And then we forgot that we planted at all / Then we forgot was plants are altogether / and I blamed you for my freezing and forgetting.” Later in the song, as February (which “has lasted into March”) finally seems to lose its grip, “you stopped and pointed and you said, that’s a crocus / and I said, what’s a crocus / and you said, it’s a flower / I tried to remember but I said, what’s a flower / and you said, I still love you. ” The damage has been done, inexplicably yet undeniably so, and the new lover is next. But the song is not about that. The new lover doesn’t really matter – except perhaps as a potential simulacrum, with a similar potential fate, of the old one. The key here is the wistful glance at a past which undeniably took a turn you might wish it hadn’t taken. But that’s life, and that’s February. It’s a godawful month.
Then there’s “The Babysitter’s Here.”
This ode to her babysitter in the 70’s (“peace, man, cool, yeah”) has a such a beautiful narrative progression that I really don’t want to quote too much; it feels like spoilers. Ridiculous, I know, but I never said my song feelings made sense. (So why are you reading this, you might ask yourself? Look, I don’t know either. You felt like it, I guess.) If you listen to it, however, you are immediately permeated by the feeling of this little girl absolutely hero-worshiping the cool teenager who takes care of her: the babysitter has long hair, watches strange movies, is a dancer, and has a beautiful boyfriend. Obviously everything she is must be everything a little girl wants to be. But from early on in the song, the adults among us understand that all might not be perfect as our little speaker wonders about Tom (the boyfriend) and the babysitter, “will they get married with kids of their own / he says, not if she’s going to college we won’t.” At the end of the song, the babysitter is crying and says “do me a favor, don’t go with a guy who would make you choose / and I don’t understand and she tries to explain / and all that mascara runs down in her pain cause she’s leaving me, oh.” To this little girl, who loves and is loved, the only understandable pain in this situation is the pain of separation. But of course we know that the babysitter’s decision to go to college must mean Tom ditched her (and good riddance to him, I say!). As a result, we end with a bittersweet scenario of a little girl taking caring for her babysitter (“And I’ll make you a picture for college next year / So hush now, peace man /”) and that awkward knowledge that may have come to us as adults, that childhood, even for all it’s love, lightness and glitter, was so much heavier than we perceive it to be now (especially looking at those who are currently children).
Finally (because I cannot keep going on about these songs, no matter how much I want to), there’s “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts,” which sadly is not on YouTube but which is my anthem for this academic year. Teenagers are, as we all know, much maligned. They’re disaffected, rude, unambitious, have no attention span, don’t know how to communicate, and so on, and so forth. In this song, Dar Williams says that maybe it’s us, not them, that’s the problem. There are many parts of this song which resonate with me. As a now 30-something, “we drink and smoke to numb our pain / we read junk novels on the plane / we use authority for show so we can be a little smarter” is an obvious winner, but so is “we still can grow, and many do / it’s when we stop we can’t reach you / we feel the loss, you feel the blame / we’re scared to lose, don’t be the same.” This song, in its entirety, speaks to the ridiculousness of dismissing teenagers out of hand, just because they’re teenagers. Because, when it comes down to it, what’s the alternative? We all hoard our knowledge and our wealth (haha, fellow Millennials! Haha, wealth) and our influence and keep kicking younger generations down, Boomer-style? That’s no way to live, nor is it a way to make the world better. Might as well have teenagers kick our butts, because it’s not like we’re doing such an awesome job at running the world anyway. Besides, as Williams sings to the teenagers “I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn / but that’s not your fault, it’s just your turn,” so “find the future that redeems / give us hell, give us dreams / and grow and grow and grow.”
Hopefully my students will heed this call as well.
I am aware I went on about this singer-songwriter for an awfully long time, but believe me, it could have been much worse. If my verbosity hasn’t soured any interest you might have had in Dar Williams as you started reading, look up some of my other favorites: “What Do You Hear In These Sounds,” “The End of Summer,” “My Friends,” “Christians and Pagans,” “Iowa,” “When I Was A Boy,” “Are You Out There” and the intro to “Yoko Ono” on the “Out There Live” album. In fact, just listen to that entire album. Do it. For love, joy, and music that’s perfect for September.
This post has been percolating for a good long while. I’ve gone back and forth on posting it for several weeks. Isn’t it too mushy? Too personal? Too much? Is it silly? Ridiculous even? I still don’t know the answer, but I know I want to post it, so here it goes: this is basically a love letter to my students.
We’re currently finishing up the school year and though I’ll be returning to my academy next year, it won’t be the same, for a variety of reasons. In many ways, these weeks feel like one long goodbye. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this past year, because it was an assignment for my teacher training course, but also because, y’all? It’s been a year. I missed the first day of class in September, because that day my mother called me to say that my Oma had been hospitalized unexpectedly, things were serious, and the doctors had told the family to come say goodbye. She died a couple of days later. Then November began a series of professional kicks in the teeth that left me reeling on several occasions during the rest of the school year – until as recently as today, in fact. But there was one thing that kept pulling me through, that had me coming back to work every single day, and that made me feel good about how I spent my days. That reason, dear reader, was you.
Yes, you. No need to awkwardly look over your shoulder for someone else I might be addressing. If you are a student, or if you ever were a student – and I’m pretty sure we all were once – I mean you. What follows is how I feel, but I’m certain many – probably most – teachers feel the same way, at least to some degree. If you were or are a student, but were never a teacher, it may be hard to believe, but trust me on this.
Why do I mean you? And why did you keep me going? Because you make me wonder and marvel, you make me hope and despair, you inspire and infuriate me, you delight and terrify me, you make me laugh and make me sigh, you make me root for you, you make me feel for you, and you make me want to be better. As a class of individuals, you are so exceptionally diverse, so magnificently unpredictable. How could I not adore you for that? From the minute you first walk into my classroom, you start burrowing under my skin. You worm your way into my heart, and there you sit: mine. My student, and as you are my student, I will go to bat for you. You energize me, even – particularly – on bad days.
You might still think I don’t mean you. I promise you, I do. Even if you
- failed my course. I trust you can pass, I trust your abilities, and I know you are working hard.
- got angry with me in class because of something I said or did. We worked it out, and if we haven’t yet, we will.
- challenged me on your grades or my evaluation of your performance. We have talked it over (and maybe you were right!) and if we haven’t yet, let’s. There’s no point in being given feedback if you don’t understand it or fundamentally disagree.
- rolled your eyes in class because we were discussing something you already knew. I know how it feels to not feel challenged and even if I can’t change it, because you’re just slightly too advanced for my courses, I can empathize.
- didn’t understand most of what went on in class, or what’s going on in this post. You, too, have the ability to succeed at English.
- were given feedback that made you believe I’m upset with you as a person or that you thought was harsh. It might mean I know you are excellent, but you could be a bit more serious about your work.
- were sent to the exam committee for irregularities in your work, for sharing your work with others, or for using others’ work as too-literal inspiration. College can be a steep learning curve.
- think I’m full of shit. Hey, I didn’t think all my teachers and professors were completely amazing either. It’s okay. Sometimes people don’t mesh well.
Finally, I’d like to thank you. For a great many things, but especially for
- lobbying for me. I don’t think you’ll ever know how much I appreciated that – and still do.
- daring to speak up in class, whether it was in English or in Dutch.
- challenging me every single day.
- giving me feedback, even with your name attached, even before I’d graded your assignments – but also anonymously. It’s much appreciated and taken into serious consideration.
- questioning me and what we discussed in class.
- letting me know that you used things we discussed in class and how that worked out for you.
- asking me for help.
- daring to think boldly, bravely, internationally.
- saying “hi” when we saw each other outside of school, even though I know seeing a teacher outside of school can feel like seeing an elephant dance in a pink tutu.
- pointedly ignoring me when you spotted me on a date. Man, wasn’t that awkward!?
- laughing at my geeky jokes, and even if you didn’t, appreciating (or at least not mocking) my attempts at humor anyway.
- asking me to teach outside. It was sticky and kind of gross, but also a whole new take on teaching, and I’ll definitely repeat it when I can, in the future.
- sharing personal things with me, things that may not have always been easy to share. I hope you never lose the ability to trust others with yourself.
- jumping on the Silly Express to Ridiculousville with me and talking about your first date even if you hadn’t had one yet, the gnome who lives under your bed, and the color of your toenails.
- writing excellent poetry about physics. Some of my favorites are tacked on my wall and they never fail to make me smile.
- writing excellent poetry about physics, turning that poem into a song, and letting me know about it.
- showing up for class at 8:45. That stuff’s easy for literally none of us.
I could keep going, but I’ve gone on for 1,000 words already, so I think this will have to do. Many thanks to all of you. Kick ass on your projects, slaughter your resits, and enjoy your summer.