Monday, September 12, 2011

"AHA" Said the Writer, and Kept On Writing

Writers are introspective by nature. Since our one constant resource is ourselves, we spend countless hours contemplating that source. Even nonfiction writers, dealing in areas outside themselves, see everything through the lens of their senses and experiences. So when the Aha Moment people contacted me, I immediately wondered when I had my greatest inspiration.

My blog first attracted their attention. I had no idea the production company toured the country, soliciting opinions from everybody they can find; I’d never thought about where those ads came from. Ads are ads, and they enter my house hoping to part me from my money. Why should they care what a writing teacher from the provinces thinks?

Although I get consistently positive marks from my students, and many express the desire to keep working with me, I’ve never gotten past the “pretender syndrome,” a common shortcoming among teachers. We often feel we don’t belong in front of the class. We don’t know enough—about our subject, classroom management, psychology, or whatever—to really count as working teachers.

And that’s when I remembered James (not his real name).

Four semesters ago, I thought James wasn’t paying attention in class. I tried to persuade him to take writing seriously, to respect himself enough to invest in his education. I did everything short of begging to engage him with the class. Though he showed up consistently, he sat quietly, staring at me, and repeatedly got papers in late.

At the end of the semester, after I’d distributed the student evaluations and retired to my office, James sauntered into the room. Most students are glad to be well quit of the class, and often never say so much as “hello” to me once they’re done, not even the ones who did well in class. I’m an imposition on their lives, one which ends after only a few months. So I was surprised to see James there.

He walked over, hands in his pockets, studying his shoes. I wondered if he felt bad about something. After a moment, James finally opened his mouth. “Mr. Nenstiel, I just wanted you to know, I went to a small rural high school. The teachers all figured we’d go to community college, get jobs, and never pay any attention to education again. So they never made us write just about anything.

“So I want you to know,” he continued, “that you’ve made me write more in one semester than all my teachers put together made me write all through high school. I think I only wrote two full-length papers in four years.”

James went quiet again. I assumed, as who wouldn’t, that he was about to tell me what a son of a bitch I was for working him so hard. I’d made him write three times as much, in one class in one semester, as he’d written throughout high school. No one likes being forced to do anything.

Finally, James lifted his head to face me and finish his thought.

“I wanted to thank you for that, Mr. Nenstiel. Because I always thought I was kind of stupid. I’d always been treated like I was stupid, and my parents and my teachers never encouraged me to set my sights high. But when you required me to dig down inside so I could keep coming up with something to say, I realized how much I actually had going on. I think, maybe, I’m kind of a smart guy.”

I blinked. I never expected to hear anything like that. I shook his outstretched hand, and he turned and left my office. I haven’t seen him since.

That was my Aha Moment. I couldn’t compress that into a sound bite, but in that moment, I realized what an effect I have long after I leave my students’ lives. For good or for ill, I’m now a part of them, and they’re now a part of me.

I still feel adrift when I try to anticipate and meet my students’ needs. Jargon like “lesson plan” and “pedagogy” only conceals that teaching is a stunt performed without a net. But while I still struggle, I no longer despair. Despite my doubts, despite my struggles, I realized, this was the legacy I was leaving my students. This was the mark I was leaving on the world. I was a teacher, and this was my lesson.

So now I keep writing, and keep talking, because that was my Aha. And you have become part of what I leave behind.

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