The students were not cooperating.
Here I was, a real live writer, swooping in with pearls of wisdom while their hardworking English teacher was out of town celebrating the birth of her first grandchild.
Every day they entered the classroom with the same two questions: “What is the baby’s name?” and “Does today’s assignment count?”
I didn’t know the baby’s name. But of course our work together counted! This was real live education — fresh and relevant and ready for the world. Or at least that was my take on it.
I arrived three days before a long school break, and would return for three days after. The year was winding down, seniors were gearing up for their class trip to Israel. Some of them wouldn’t even be back after break. All in all, not an ideal time to step in as a substitute.
But, as I told them, I was not there to babysit. I had been hired for this brief stint to help make the most of the waning days of AP English Language and Writer’s Craft classes. Their teacher had encouraged me to actually teach them something while she was gone.
I brought the AP students copies of “Seeing,” my favorite essay by Annie Dillard. It is the second chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I have been reading and rereading for 20 years.
The class had spent most of the school year learning about grammar and style and writing practice essays in preparation for the Advanced Placement test. “Seeing” was not on the syllabus.
“Why is this important?” I practically shouted. “Why am I asking you to read this essay?”
“Because you have to pay attention to the world,” I told them, more gently this time. “Notice the details. Be surprised by the familiar.”
We launched into an exercise that involved writing about the room around us. I encouraged them to include details in their own writing, whether for the AP exam or for other purposes.
I like to think at least a few of the students gained something from Dillard’s essay, if only because I love teaching it. I love the part about the disorientation experienced by previously blind people when they see faces for the first time. I love the idea of engaging the world in two-dimensions, allowing a tree to blur into a flat structure with lights in it.
Writer’s Craft presented a different challenge. The students were in the midst of a multi-week poetry unit that required each of them to write a collection of diverse poems, from a simple acrostic to a formal villanelle.
I am a poet, I thought to myself. I can handle this with my eyes closed.
Our first day together, I shared a poem by Li-Young Lee, “Peaches,” in which the speaker reflects on a day spent picking fruit with his father.
“The peaches in this poem really are peaches, I told them, “but they also serve as a metaphor. In a few spare stanzas, Lee brings us an entire relationship.”
Some of them couldn’t take their eyes off me. Others were not buying my story.
“What exactly is a poem?” one of the students asked, nonplussed by the free verse. “Why isn’t this just prose broken into random lines? Why are you telling us it doesn’t have to rhyme?” He truly seemed perplexed.
I mumbled something about distilled language and emotion, and then the bell rang.
I thought about his question all through the school break.
Our first day back, I brought in a stack of books — works by contemporary poets — and asked each student to read one selection and share it with the class.
“Tell us why your poem is a poem,” I said. “Tell us something you notice.”
Their observations were, by turns, insightful and mundane, and all of them were true. And then we wrote some more.
The next class session was our last, so we worked on revision. “Don’t fall in love with your first words,” I reminded them. “Be willing to change anything.
“Show us the details,” I said again and again. “Save what matters; cut the rest.”
With small smiles and flashes of recognition, they read their revised poems aloud.
One girl wrote breathtakingly about being slammed in the stomach with a soccer ball. Another compared love to crab claws. A boy brought a pigeon to life as a stand-in for powerful emotions. There was a computer box poem and a touching description of children on a playground. Specific children on a specific playground.
They were being writers. For a brief moment. For real.
Did I say I took this teaching gig because I had something to share?
Did I say I did it for the students?
That’s what I told myself, but when I heard those poems aloud, I knew it was just as much for me.