In a few days I will return to work. I am a teacher. I have been working from home since mid-March. The spring was rough and non-productive; as soon as the seniors figured out that grades stopped on the day before they were sent home, they stopped working. I do not blame them. They are driven and smart. And by that point they had all been accepted to college. I do blame the lack of national, state, and local leadership for what has happened since March. There has been so much left undone, which could have been done to prevent so much illness and death. But here we are.
My wife’s parents in their 80’s are in Ft. Worth with her sister right now. Her sister moves to Atlanta sometime after the New Year. My in-laws will come back to live with us after that. Our jobs could kill them. Since my wife has gone back to work in her building two weeks ago, we have not been able to see our grandson. In about six weeks my son’s wife will have another boy, who we will not be able to see because of the risk of Covid. The choice between incomes/careers and the safety of our families is truly fucked. I am not a front-line worker. I am an English teacher. I talk about poetry, and literature, how to write an argument.. to find wisdom in the art of the past.
Austin teachers return to their buildings on October 5th, ironically enough, World Teacher day. The majority of the students will stay home, and continue to do school through their computers. I have been teaching my students for the last three weeks virtually from home. I will continue to teach my students virtually from a room in the very old building where I usually teach my students in person. I, along with two other teachers, will rotate into a room where 9 or so seniors and juniors, who are coming back into the building for various reasons, will be learning in the room using their computers to access their teachers who are teaching virtually from other rooms in the building, or, if the teacher has qualified for ADA or FMLA, from their homes. The students in the building will stay in the room with me and the other two teachers all day.
Do not misunderstand me. I miss seeing my students every day that I am on the computer with them. My students are the absolute best. I wish that I was in the room with them, listening to them talk to each other about poetry and literature. Watch them as they have first encounters with some of the great literature from the last few hundred years. They need little encouragement to engage with deep thoughts with complete delight, making connections to their lives and obsessions, which usually concern topics of social justice. A topic which has become foremost in all of our lives because of Covid. However, I do not want any of them to become ill with this horrible virus, and possibly die. They do not have to be that close to the harshness of life which poetry and literature unfolds for many of us.
And that is the rub, the elephant in the room, the one fact that no one talks about: people are going to die because of a rash decision to open the schools. People are going to die. Say that again: people are going to die. It could be staff at the school, teachers, librarians, principals. It could be students, someone’s child, who dies. It could be the parents or grandparents at home who are infected by the children they love. Now, here is where I fail to understand: why are the powers-that-be willing to risk the death of so many people. Nothing has changed since March when everything closed down. There is not a vaccine; the numbers of infected are still setting record numbers, and people are still dying, lots of people are still dying.
Is remote learning as effective as face to face in the classroom? No, it is not. Is it safer for everyone? Yes it is. Are we that desperate to return to the way things were that we are willing to sacrifice large numbers of our family and neighbors? If so, then I hate to think that anyone thought normal meant willingly allowing death to roam the streets so that we can go have a beer at the local brewery. There must be something more pernicious in play. I fear for us all.
“My life could have turned out differently, but it didn’t.”
“I live with my contradictions intact”
“I’ve got to lose this skin I’m imprisoned in”
“Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by”
It is easy to trace the twisted path which led me to where I am; however, it is a bit more difficult to see where I am going next.
An obnoxious student asked me last week, in regards to this assignment, what my “rock” was. In my usual evasive fashion, I responded, “You are” meaning all of them, my students were my rock. However, even though I enjoy teaching most of the time, when I think of why I do what I do, or rather who I am, I don’t think about teaching. I have several roles I have taken on over the years: husband, father, friend, teacher, student, doctoral student, writer, poet, fool. I don’t think I am a Prufrock, yet, sometimes I feel as if I am no more than a sad man walking along the beach with my trousers rolled. Having a meaning or purpose, it is often said, leads to a happy (ier) life. With that in mind I guess, I would say that teaching gives me some of my purpose, and poetry gives it meaning, or helps me to create a meaning, to create sense out of chaotic universe.
Recently a friend wrote that she had a hard time calling herself a writer, even though I know she writes and writes well. A few years ago, a woman at the first meeting of a poetry group said she did not feel as if she could call herself a poet. I had just said as part of my introduction of myself that I had considered myself a poet since I was fifteen. She seemed shocked that I would have the audacity to call myself a poet. This inability to call oneself what one does came up again in another conversation between teachers. One man said that it felt somehow pretentious to call oneself a poet or a writer. I asked the group how was it any more pretentious to say you were a poet than to say you were a teacher. To me it seemed more pretentious to lay claim to that title, to say, “I am a teacher.” I mean Jesus was a teacher. Who the hell am I? But I have over time become used to being called arrogant, so I guess that is why I have an easy time saying: I am both: a teacher and a poet. I don’t claim to be very good at either one, but I am both. Charles Bernstein said that if one says it is a poem, then it is a poem. No claims to quality, but it is a poem. I am a poet. I sit down with the intention of writing a poem. I think about each line, the rhythm, the sounds of the words in relation to the other words, the phrasing, where I can cut and reduce, where something else needs to be added. I use poetry as a way of making sense of myself and the world I find myself in. As I have said elsewhere, poetry (both reading and writing it) helps keep the horrors of the world away and a way to find beauty everywhere and in everyone. I have consciously written poetry since I was fifteen; with luck, I will continue to do so the rest of my life. I am a poet.
Of course, I am also a teacher. If some magical seer had appeared to me when I was a 17-year-old senior, and told me that I would be a teacher for more than 30 years, I would have laughed out loud just before dying in horror. Yet, here I am working at one of the best high schools in Texas as the senior APLit teacher. Sartre famously wrote about a waiter at a Parisian café. The waiter, according to Sartre, is only a waiter when he is performing as a waiter. So, following that train of thought, I am only a teacher when I am at work talking to my students. I rarely think about being a teacher. It is still, after more than 30 years, difficult to think about me being a teacher. I suppose my life as a teacher would be inauthentic since I don’t think about why I do this beyond making enough to feed my children, pay the mortgage, and send them off to college. Yet, in some small way I like to believe that what I do matters, even though I know it probably doesn’t.
Maya Angelou said you remember how people made you feel, not what you learned. I think that is why when my former students run into me at HEB, or they come back to visit, they remember my class fondly. A few weeks ago, I was having a beer with a friend when I man in his thirties approached and asked if I was Mr. Neal, as if he were a process server for some lawsuit. It was odd to say the least. When I answered yes, he told me that he had been in my class when he was an eighth-grade student at Pflugerville Middle School. He said he heard my voice, and knew it was me. He remembered “The Road Not Taken.” (I used to have my students memorize poems). He said the first few lines. He said that had been his best English class, which I found embarrassing and kind of sad—his best English class was as an eighth grader.
I am not retelling this event as an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but to show how one’s self-identity is often much different than how the world sees you. I am always uncomfortable when people try to define me to me. I find their descriptions to be too pat, too much mired in the cliché, too many wrong associations. I am a teacher, and I feel in some small way I am helping create a better world with my students; yet, I never really know what it is I am doing.
In a faculty meeting, several times, I have stated I don’t have any idea what my students are taking away from my class. In an age of standardized testing, to say I don’t know what my students learn in my class is tantamount to heresy. I don’t mean I don’t know what it is I am doing in class; I just don’t know what it is they are learning. And I certainly don’t see them as the number they receive on standardize tests. I have had students tell me years after being in my class what they remember. It is always surprising to me what they found valuable, because it is never really what the objectives were in the class.
When people ask what it is I teach, they mean what books are we reading. They seem confused when I talk about my students. My students are what (who) I teach. Books, poems, essays, are just the ephemera of my class. The tools that are employed in the teaching. About 15 years ago, I would respond glibly to my fellow teachers when I was asked what I was teaching that six weeks with “Nothing.” My students read what they wanted to read, and for the most part wrote what they wanted to write. I ran my class as a reading/writing workshop. The district where I worked claimed that ELA did workshop k-12, yet I was the only teacher in my high school who did. So it often took several weeks to teach the students how to read on their own, to have the stamina to read for 20 minutes without interruption. So, one day after the students were fairly proficient at the process, I was sitting on the floor in the doorway to my class. I was monitoring the students who read in the hall, and the ones who stayed in my classroom. A history teacher walked by and said snarkily, “I wish I could not teach, and sit around all day and just read.” My students were on the verge of rising up against her, when I mumbled (they had learned to understand my mumbling at that point as well)—I mumbled in response to her, “One would have to know how to read first.’ She walked on, not hearing what it was I had said, and the students laughed as they settled back into their books. I developed a reputation with the faculty pretty much as a smart-ass. Not that they were wrong, but I interpreted what they saw as smart-assness, as more of a way not to scream expletives at them. I refused to accept their definition of what it meant to be a teacher. I created my own definition. Even if some of that definition was simply a defiant rebellion against my fellow teachers.
I do think a lot about what I am doing both as a teacher and writer. So, I imagine I am attempting to be authentic in what I am doing. I question whether my praxis (my beliefs correspond with my actions) is authentic..not just me going with the flow because that is the easy way to go about life. As I said earlier, I am never sure if what I do is effective or worth doing at all. I will fluctuate between thinking I am a decent teacher, or writer, to thinking I am a fraud, fooling everyone, even myself.
And that is the point I think of life: to try to be brutally honest with oneself, to never settle back and assume you know what it is all about, because one can never know. Which is not to say that we should not try to understand our lives, we should always be trying, even if we know we shall never know. Embrace the vast absurdity of the universe with a passionate intensity, not matter how pointless. It is the process and the awareness of the life you are living that makes the life have meaning and be worth living.
I wrote this two years ago on the day of the Parkland massacre. I think about my students every time there is another school shooting. And there always seems to be another shooting. And still nothing is done. This poem was published by Shantih Journal.