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THE ECOLOGY OF TEACHING

Education, Fear, and Arrivals From Unexpected Places

By HECTOR VILA

Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners.


I'm often asked what I do for a living. "I'm a teacher of writing," I say. That's what it's turned out to be. There's a freshness that arrives when you know what you are, who you are. My wife, Nina, chimes in: Why don't you ever say you're a professor?

The culture is large and powerful, and always challenging notions of who you think you are. In New York City Public colleges and universities, and in New Jersey's, I was Doctor. Doctor Vila. Too presumptuous, but I learned essential in a world where signification builds street cred. In urban educational environments the code of the streets applies.

In private schools, Professor is customary, a softer adjective that marks a rise, for the student and the teacher, in an invisible but powerful hierarchy of knowledge we assume can only be held in the hands of right-minded apostles. These heralds hold the rank of Professor. Professor is a place in the culture; an event, the donning of colorful robes that signify the anointed. In my mind, I'm far from that. Just the opposite. I tend to work as a counter weight to the significance afforded these distinguished vestments.

"I am a teacher of writing," I repeat. That's all I am. It encompasses everything. Because I look to find ways for students to express themselves. To say what they feel, what they want. What they see. I want them to come to terms with how fragile and nebulous a life's journey can be, its twists and unexpected turns. A tall order for any 18 to 22 year old.

Students come to me from unexpected places; they come with assumptions that, over yet a short life, are security blankets, familiar expectations given to them in intimate moments—but not fully their own. They come to me not yet fully formed. Questioning students' presumptions is a high wire act.

For many in writing classes, even professor is too much, too great a sign of some mystical authority and, particularly in elite educational environments, the professor, the teacher, becomes John or Mary or Hector. The fields of power are changed by the student this way. A student exercising her will to power is exhilarating to experience.

The will to power is not a being, not a becoming, but a pathos—the most elemental fact from which a becoming and affecting first emerge. Nietzsche. The Will to Power. 1901. An idea over 100 years old that still holds.

Pathos is suffering, pitifulness, a kind of deflation, after all. A descent. Finding a voice in all this, digging it out from the debris of time is a painful experience, difficult at best, and challenging. It's a drawing towards the comedown, a negotiation with dead men's words. Dead men's words carry weight. They determine spaces.

Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird. W.B. Yeats. I love turning to him. Among School Children (1926, 1928). Better to smile on all that smile, and show/There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow. Really?

Students arrive from unexpected places—but so do teachers. Students arrive with the sounds of voices repeating themselves over and over in their imagined selves. Teachers add the daunting weight of dead men.

So where are we then, oh writing teacher, when these two seemingly disparate points are enjoined to see, to find, to understand?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance? Yeats again. How indeed.

In the most vulnerable of places where the professor and the student realize that dependency is the guiding principle. That's how. Finding ways to express what one feels and wants is highly emotional. Two are always involved in this, a re-creation of suffering; two are always involved in drawing paths out. And writing is how we harness this relationship between the self, an other, and an understanding of suffering. The idea is to come to realize that we can transform deeply felt emotions into powerful and efficient language that will move others.

That's where we are. That's the secret. Transformation. Transformational spaces. Art. Writing. In vulnerable places where we find ourselves when we search for the truth in what we feel and see beneath histories fraught with what's been done to us. Vulnerability is a kind of power. A writer is susceptible to great waves of insight that require blind allegiance to feeling raw, as if at a moment's notice someone will attack what you say, what you see, what you feel. This can be frightening; yet fear can be willed into submission and feed creativity. It's an arduous process to this. But a writing teacher must go there herself, and bring the student along.

It's how we work. It's very human. We after all speak from what we know. Our experiences are what we want to sing out. Voice and experience are inextricably linked. There is no escape from the voices that inform us, those that have come before - what we call experience. Trying on the voices from our past is difficult, a power difficult to garner and comprehend, and we need time and (some) guidance before we can write, before we can try on voices we've yet to imagine.

10:15AM - 11:15AM, Mondays - May I ask?, she always says, sitting up, hands on her lap, pursing her full, ruby lips, raising her long light brown eyebrows that open her large blue eyes even wider. And she grins. And she nervously repeats, May I ask?

"Of course. Ask. You don't have to say that. Just ask."

"Should I major in Art History or Studio Art? I just want to do art. I don't care about the history. I can only learn something if I'm interested. I'm not interested. Will I need to prepare for a Masters and a PhD? I'll need a PhD, I think. Art History may be better. Can I do both?"

"You will have to know the history of this artist or that, if for no other reason than to know how one artist builds from another. A PhD is possible, but you're a first year. You just started ..."

"It's difficult for me to get used to this American system. Do what you want. I have to think of my future. My parents say I should think about economics. Money. That's what they insist. Always money. Art and economics. I should own a gallery or something. Can I own a gallery? How do you own a gallery? Can I be successful at owning a gallery? They're pushing what I hate and they want me to live in Paris. Their life for me is in Paris...They see me in the future there. I don't. I hate French. I'm no good at it."

She giggles and shrugs her shoulders and tears well in her blue pools. They fill and one falls from her left cheek, which looks like fine porcelain. Another tear streaks her right cheek. Her face is round, clear, accepting.

"Hee. Hee. Whoopie. My life. May I ask? Whose life am I living?" She shrugs again. Nervously pulls on a Kleenex. "Whoopie. May I ask?"

I nod, "Go ahead."

"How do you know so much about art? You seem so happy. Did you always know?"

"You're eighteen and I'm sixty. What does that say?"

Despair comes about because we assume a person gets to where s/he wants quite easily; success is effortless, we tell our kids. Movies, television—media in general—keep us from the process of becoming. In the media, a life is an event—and things always work out; this event is first and foremost about having arrived at an enviable place in the culture's spectacle, usually enrobed in material wealth. Suffering is kept at bay, hidden, not a subject to interrogate. As is learning. Learning happens outside the arrival. Behind closed doors where suffering really lives.

May I ask? "Will I be an artist? Can I be an artist? Can I be good at art? Can I make a living? Will I be okay? Will it be alright? Will I be alright? Am I okay? Or a bit crazy? Will I be miserable if I follow the path my parents have for me? Oh ... my body hurts. It does. Everything hurts."

When the mind suffers, the body follows.

2:45PM - 3:45AM, Tuesdays
Most of the time she comes in, says hi, half grins, sits down in the chair opposite my desk, looks down and away, and starts to play with various objects on my desk that I keep for busy, nervous hands - a small pink and blue rubber brain with plastic eyes that pop out when you squeeze it (she keeps squeezing it and laughs every time the eyes pop out); a round, colorful small ball with fine rubber tentacles that resemble hair (she'll then take it, squeeze it tightly in her right hand and, with her left, pull on the tentacles, sometimes pulling one or two out completely; at some point she'll drop the hairy rubber ball on the floor; this happens several times).

"Why do you have these things?"

"Isn't it obvious?"

"I always drop this one."

"I know."

Pause. Silence for a couple of minutes. No eye contact. She keeps playing with the brain. Squeezing. Popping. Then the hairy ball. Back to the brain. Then mostly the ball. It'll go like this for an hour - back and forth between the two toys.

"How do you feel?"

"Fine."

"How's school?

"Fine."

"What does that mean?"

"'I'm reading better. You'll be happy about that. Now I read and take notes as I go and that keeps me interested. I doze off less. But ... Oh ... You're not going to be happy. But I'll tell you anyway. Don't be mad. Yesterday I went to read on the second floor and I sat by the windows...."

"In the reclining blue chairs?"

"Yes. You know what happened...."

"Those chairs are not made for working. A recliner and a book spell disaster."

"Yeah, I fell asleep."

"You probably needed to sleep. You're tired."

"I'm fine. But I'm lost. What should I major in? What should I do? I don't know what I should major in? Everyone here seems to know exactly what they're doing. What they want. I'm lost. I don't know anything. Tell me. What should I major in...."

"It's not up to me. But if you look closely at what you've done so far you'll see that there's a pattern. That should say something...."

"I don't see it."

"Look."

"I don't want to look. Tell me. Just tell me. Why don't you just tell me?"

"Because then it would be my major. I have a life. You need one."

She begins to cry.

The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are. Niccolo Machiavelli. The Discourses. 1531. An idea nearly 500 years old. More true today than it was for 16th Century Italy.

It's no wonder Nietzsche follows.

1:30PM - 2:30 PM, Wednesdays
He sits back, hands on his lap, chest out. He fidgets. He's a scrapping lad. Round face, thick neck, broad shoulders.

"I'm better. Just got my meds and I'm taking them every morning. I'm better. Yeah."

"Have you spoken to your teachers?"

"Yeah, both. I know what to do. Everything is almost in. I'm good. I know what I have to do."

"You do?"

"I turned in a few assignments. I have another due. Two, I have two due but one is a sort of an outline. Not really writing."

Only the self-moving, since it cannot depart from itself, never ceases to move, and is the fountain and beginning of motion to all that moves besides. Socrates. Phaedrus. Plato. 370 BC. 4th Century.

How do you keep moving? How do we? What stops our forward motion? Impediments, something deep inside that rises up, wraps around us, and ties us up?

Here you have a Monday, a Tuesday and a Wednesday. Random. These are my days. What do we know?

Young students today are younger than they were 10 years ago. Less experienced.

Young students today are resilient—but they have to be taken through their paces slowly and carefully. They have to be brought to trust their own resilience. Young students today dream of lives without fears. Young students today have had fears put into them. It's our fault. Not theirs.

Young students today need safe places to explore themselves and others by reading, writing, dialog, and work, a coming into a practice, into the world, what you feel about what you know. Doing pushes fear aside. And a new being is born. This is very hard.


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