Here’s the plan. I’m reading Keith Richards’s memoir Life, which is stark and startling and often hilarious, filled with the typical lessons for anyone who wants to become an expert at some skill—in his case, spending countless hours with his guitar, not parting with it even during sleep, listening and studying and feeling the music. You have to slog through passages here and there, but mostly it’s captivating, and I know very little about the Rolling Stones. I want to follow that up by reading another biography, Frank: The Voice, by James Kaplan. I’m curious about any connections I’ll find. I’ve never been what you might call a thematic reader like this—not even reading the same author back to back but meandering from one volume to another—but that’s what I seem to be doing lately. (Does anybody even need to ask Frank who?)
Back to school. Week one recap.
Even after all these years—yep, count ’em…31—I always feel a little lost and out of sync at the beginning of the school year. In class, I stumble because I don’t know anyone’s names and because my tongue feels pasty and stiff. During “off” hours, I’m not sure when to eat, when to visit with friends, when to work, or even when to hit the can. When you teach three classes in a row, this becomes an issue. But all this chaos is infused with great energy, and everyone barrels through. I do wonder if students have the same keen awareness of the rhythm that descends upon a class or if they’re more like guppies who dart and dodge with purpose and flair and ease but who remain mostly oblivious because they have little say in the daily plans of the day. Once the bell rings, of course, they have great say.
Emotions abound too. I feel energized—do I have a choice? I feel like a comedian—though that will end with familiarity…I give this another day or two. I feel useful—I hope this endures; I need that illusion. All these highs are tempered by a yearning to have my former students back. The first week is when I miss them most because I knew them. And I’ll also admit to some frustration. I feel like Sisyphus. You remember him, right? That venerable Greek king who was damned to push a boulder up a hill, only to see it fall to the bottom once he reached the top. He had to do this for eternity. He’s still pushing that big rock right now, just as I need to push my students to the same glorious heights my former students reached. Unlike Sisyphus, however, I do see an end in sight. About 180 days in fact.
While scaling my final incline, I’m compelled to clean up after myself because after 31 years, I’ve accumulated mounds of stuff. Each day I vow to discard a few ancient files from a cabinet or give away a book or game on a shelf or deliberate over the fate of some trinket stuffed at the back of a drawer. I feel like I’m shedding, growing lighter each day. What have I found hidden? Lessons I haven’t taught in 20 years, my handwriting still the same. Some of the papers have paperclips that leave a rusty residue where they’ve been attached; many sheets have perforated edges from the detached strips that once fed into the teeth of those dinosaur printers with their dot matrix splatter. I don’t really miss the sound of the old printers, it’s not like the fondness one feels toward typewriter tapping, but I wouldn’t mind hearing that sound again. I’m finding old tests and answer keys, notes of speeches I delivered at senior brunch, my anxiety palpable on each page. I’m finding copies of papers I’ve graded, one from a former student who works here and who was thrilled to see it land on his desk, like a trace of his old self suddenly reappearing within these same walls. Or maybe that’s how I’m feeling. Just about everything my hands touch reminds me of the hours spent trying to wrestle this concept or that idea into understanding, then trying to imagine how to present those concepts in ways that might engage students.
This past week’s lessons may have been printed on brighter paper with crisper fonts and bound together by shiny clips, but the process doesn’t change much. Still discovery and wrestling and hope, day after day after day.
My one-man revue begins tomorrow. Five shows a day for 185 days. Sorry, tickets have been sold out for quite a while. If you really must see the show, I’ll see what I can do—maybe squeeze you into a 7:30 a.m. matinee. By the way, no refunds, no exchanges, and no rain dates. Yes, classes resume tomorrow.
Certainties: I will not be able to sleep well tonight, nor will most students. But tomorrow will be fine, everyone pumped on adrenaline. Day two is the tough one, everyone dragging their sorry selves from room to room in haste—then sitting more or less still, which is unnatural, especially coming out of summer. Combined, the first two days feel like an attack on the body. By day three, my voice will be hoarse, and by day five or six, it’ll feel as if we never left. How quickly we adjust.
Dreads: Alarm clocks that go off. Alarm clocks that don’t go off. Collecting that first stack of papers to be graded. Dragging that stack home, then hauling the ungraded stack back the next day. Purple IDs on green lanyards. Really. Even with my minimal fashion sense, I’m feeling a little pukish just thinking about that.
Hopes: (1) That each day some spark of insight or curiosity or contentment ignites in our shared space, not because of something I said, but through the give and take and the sense of wonder that sometimes descends on people within the confines of a schoolhouse because of the dawning realization that this particular confluence of minds will never occupy this particular space ever again, and (2) that genuine listening happens as a result. These are modest hopes, the attainment of which never fails to satisfy me, year in and year out.
Isn’t it satisfying to discover something that confirms what you already believe? We do this every day, of course, because this is how our stupid marvelous brain operates. But some affirmations are more exciting than others. For example, I hate the term postmodernism. I think it has something to do with literary criticism or interpretation. The reason I don’t know the precise meaning is that every time someone begins talking about postmoderncrap, I drift into a brief coma, and after a few bouts of this, I resisted finding out what it means. I don’t want to know. And my life has not suffered in any way I can measure by remaining ignorant on this point.
And then I read this, in the introduction to Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, a letter from Steinbeck to a graduate student working on critical material of his work: “I haven’t wanted to be flippant. The curious hocus-pocus of criticism I can’t take seriously. It consists in squirreling up some odd phrases and then waiting for a book to come running by. And as to the question as to what I mean by—or what my philosophy is—I haven’t the least idea.” In an earlier interview with the same student, he says, “Look! This is too complicated. I just write stories.”
He was in the middle of writing The Grapes of Wrath, toiling with this unconscious torrent of ideas, and to have to bring those impulses to the surface by talking about them would have deadened the book for him, I think.
I do understand the impulse of the graduate student. I’m curious as well. I have similar questions. But stories must come first. Stories will last. Postmodernism will become a curiosity. I think. If I knew what it meant, I could be more certain.
New edition of the textbook I co-wrote with my good pal Gary Anderson is officially out! Audience is mainly high school and early college students and any adults who look back fondly on an essay or two they wrote in school and want to get back to that impulse of recording and clarifying their thoughts. If I don't mind saying so myself, it's a pretty darn good book.
Tomorrow, Gary and I drive to St. Paul to present the book to the national sales team. Feeling pretty important right now.
Today is one of those perfect Chicago summer afternoons. Generous sun, a few cotton clouds hanging low, a healthy breeze, comfortable temperatures. We had rain yesterday, so no lawn mowers to disturb the peace. What I hear mostly are the leaves dancing in the wind, a beautiful sound, always louder than you expect. Sounds a little like the tide of an ocean. Seriously. A little birdsong too, insistent crickets, the whining of a garbage truck that grates until it turns the corner, and then even that sounds pleasant. I’m sitting on a lawn chair in front of my house reading, or was reading until I turned to my laptop. I’m nearly done with East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
I’ve been reading the book for about 10 days now, in no hurry to finish because it’s brilliant. If you want to immerse yourself in one last book for the summer, East of Eden is nothing less than epic. It’s filled with drama and wisdom and humor and indelible characters. It’s a masterpiece, about as good as anything I’ve ever read.
I’ll be heading back to work in a couple of weeks for another school year, and I will look back fondly on this afternoon.
My reflections on writing, reading, and random thoughts.