"Things that interfere with writing well: Earning a living, especially by teaching."

-William H. Gass

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


One of my students skipped a class and wandered into my room earlier this year. I should’ve sent him back to “career exploration” but I didn’t. They were searching for jobs on monster.com and I got the wonderful sense that you get with some students that he knew, as much as I knew, that the whole class was a bunch of bullshit. I folded my glasses, put them down, and asked what I could do for him. He said, “Teach me something.” (I imagine this creates a feeling similar to the one a comedian gets when asked to ‘say something funny.’)

In this situation, I am comforted by maps. I happen to have a set of fantastic pull-down full color shiny brand new maps that are the jewel of my classroom. So I pull down the map of the world. The whole globe in pinks blues and oranges is pressed flat right in front of us. His hat is pulled down to his eyelids and little braids poke out toward his face and covering it all is this gigantic hood with that gold faux-Louis Vuitton print. But he can see the map.

I say, “So what’s going on out there?”

He looks at it.

He points to the Middle East and says, “Well this is all fucked up.”

And I say, “Okay…why?”

And so begins an impromptu lesson that meanders between American foreign policy, destruction of the rainforest, Israel vs. Palestine, the Holocaust, Shiites, Sunnis, evolution, the Prophet Mohammed, war, and, everyone’s favorite, the value of a human life. For everything I say he has another question. He exhausts my knowledge of Islamic culture, which doesn’t take long. He wants to know exact dates that I don't remember. He jumps from country to country, wanting to know how each one is involved with the next now and in ancient history, know each country’s stake in the current war, know how each one picks its leaders, treats its women, worships its god. Had I tried, I could never have created such a lesson. It was disjointed and at points, I’m sure, less than perfectly accurate. There were a thousand stumblings and much struggling to remember names and ideas. It was entirely driven by this kid’s whim, his finger, shaking from nicotine withdrawal and too much coffee, bouncing all over the world.

Then it shifts.

“You ever been anywhere?”

I say that I have. And he asks where. I point to Portugal. I point to Spain. I point to the Netherlands, which draws a bit of needling and forces me to remind him that, ahem, Amsterdam has more museums per capita than anywhere else in the world. I point to Ireland, Mexico, France.

I say, “Where would you like to go most, if you could go anywhere?”

And we start randomly pointing at the map. Taking turns. I’d like to see South Africa. He’d like to see London. I’d like to see Moscow. He’d like to see Egypt. What would this be like. What’s this place like. What’s this place. What’s here. Over and over. The image of these two pointer fingers, one black, one white, poking whimsical destination points all over the globe is one that will stick with me my entire life. The realization is crystal: I have about one four-thousandth of the knowledge I’d need to be the teacher he deserves. Or the teacher that could totally satisfy that curiosity, which emerged and then buried itself again by third period. Or the teacher that has even the slightest clue what it is like to be this kid.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

eastern standard time

Some cold morning very, very early after a whole three days of sunless rain the neighborhood stuck with post it note leaves which are just that, small yellow adhesive reminders plastered to the sidewalk and windshield peeking in at wrists bent over the steering wheel looking pale and bony just waiting for the glass to warm up enough to see the sun, freezing but getting up anyway because the river sends it up to catch some piece of partnerless silver jewelry barely winking through the tarnish up from the back seat nestled safe in unsharpened pencils and unposted photocopied flyers for things cared about so deeply they were never posted near the tapes abandoned for the radio is too loud for this time of day when blinkers clicking jog chilled reflexes just in time to take lefts all the way to the river who is paying the sun back fourfold for the favor and split in half by a single kayaker no doubt she sees her breath and, maybe, marvels that somewhere inside she is warmer than this air while cutting in half a river that will just keep on being one river like it has since way before her first ever breath all of it silent and uninterrupted but still offered punctuation by traffic horns and ten thousand clicking blinkers and sips of coffee and international news updates reporting live from the kitchen where the trash waits in vain for the Thursday evening somebody remembers to take it to the sidewalk with all the yellow post it leaves all full of letters addressed to a person who looks so different, just right this second, you are shocked. Shocked to look at her.