“The” National Day on Writing… as if there should only be one. I’m always going to celebrate this day as if my life depended on it (and secretly every day of the year). It’s a day perfectly made for me (though I’m sure Congress and the originators of the whole thing never considered my needs for a hot second).
Tomorrow is the big day. This year I’m honored to celebrate the day with a former TCU student visiting AUM to talk about his writing, his music, how he works, and what it means to share words with the world. My former TCU student. (The lyrics of a song he recently wrote for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and TCU Frogs for the Cure contain the words of breast cancer survivors–that’s one way to share words. Watch this video, all of it, and then go buy his song on iTunes. If you don’t buy much music on iTunes, make an exception because you need to own this one song to help find a cure.)
He’s doing amazing things with music and writing. I can’t believe I’ve got a former student who is doing such beautiful things with his life, or that I actually know what’s up with him. Normally, I’ve got a lot of rabbit in me. I’ve rarely lived or worked in one place for long. I haven’t much seen my students again after I’ve taught for a term, a year, whatever. Aunt Marianna nailed it when she said I was naturally discontent. Not unhappy–just always yearning. I distinctly remember her telling me when I was 15 years old, “Honey, you’ll struggle because of your natural discontent, but it’s also a gift. Find the right use for the gift.” (By the way, who says that to a 15-year old?)
Now I get it.
So Tim Halperin is making a difference in the world. I’m proud of him–as if I had much to do with it–but whatever part I played for a semester, it is something that makes a difference… to me. I often wonder if I matter. Do my actions help anyone? Do I say things that make people joyful? Do I create an environment around me that gives people a chance to grow? He says I did that. Thank you, Tim.
He’s come to perform at my university for AUM Writes! Day. We started a day of celebration last year, because I’m big on days that celebrate literacy. When I slaved for a publisher sometime in the mid-2000s, I celebrated International Literacy Day by begging the vice president, fellow employees, and a book distributor to find a way to give 1,400 books to a local elementary school. We did it. On International Literacy day that year, trucks and people rolled up to a little K-5 school outside Dallas and each student in the school got to pick out a book to keep and the rest, 750 books, were donated to the school library. I thought that might have been one of the best moments of my life. Only one of the best as it turns out.
Now I work for an education experience provider–a university. We have a lot less money than publishers, but I really dig the freedom and what money we have is mostly well spent. Would I rather have a talented musician talking to students about his writing process or a new rug? No contest.
Talking with Tim, I realized how lucky I was as I said aloud how lucky I was. Or perhaps, it’s just a kind of fate. I seem to have operated my life like a boat: I point my boat in a direction I think I want to go and then hope some current will move me along where I’m supposed to go. Occasionally someone climbs aboard and sticks an oar in the water and moves me around. Sometimes a bigger boat crashes into me, and I really move around. Fate got us both back into conversation–in a fashion much calmer than a mid-sea collision.
Tim was a great student–a terrific writer who seriously worked the process and created smooth, easy-to-read prose. I almost always tell students that the best papers are ones that don’t trip me up as a reader. I am first a reader who wants to know something that they think is important to say. If I stumble because I can’t understand, then I get all wrapped up in what I assigned. I’d much rather just read than assess. The gap between my reading pleasure and student writing is the teaching zone when I need to assess and guide. Sometimes I’m good at finding what a writer needs to learn in order to improve. At least I get my own motivations now and what purpose I might serve in the world.
I don’t remember all the work Tim created, but I remember it was easy to read and thoughtful. One of his papers, though, was really fine; a profile on a musician/minister was visually well done (lots of green and photos of performances). He was a breeze to teach: just did everything I said, was creative, thoughtful, and on time. He was the first student I ever taught who invited me to an outside school event–an evening of his music at a coffee house (his then-girlfriend was in another class I was teaching). I was delighted and entertained, and thought: he’s got it. I also thought: 1) I hope he knows he has a gift; 2) I hope he finds joy in this gift always; 3) I hope he stays off drugs, then I bought four of his CDs and headed home to move away.
Of course, I lost track. I moved away. But I accidentally saw him graduate last year. I went to see a long-time friend graduate from TCU (Maria who thinks I’m a ninja), and there he was. We connected via email/Facebook later and got to talking about how I’d like to use his videos to teach project management and writing process. One thing led to another (as so often happens when one chooses to live one’s life as an oarless boat); I got funding to bring him to the AUM campus to share his music and writing with my community.
Reconnecting meant I got to relive some of the most pleasant memories from that year. I had been out of teaching for a long time when I started teaching his class: 8 am MWF in Aug. 2007, the first time I’d taught since the fall semester of 2000 when I’d been pregnant and working full-time for a publisher. Not a brilliant move altogether, but there it was. I’d committed to the department and to an elementary school partnership as well as to two dear friends who co-taught with me in a highly experimental three-teacher scenario while providing community-service credits to two high school students. How did we think we could do it all? We were full of ourselves and lucky (though, I will remind you, luck don’t go looking for no stumblebums). We managed to do it. I remember being engaged in that class and so full from the promise of the young people around me. And yet I was exhausted. That was it. I couldn’t teach one more class ever again. I knew it. After the final exam, I remember crying because I knew I’d lost something, but I didn’t know what. I walked home from that last class, two blocks was all, tears just streaming and steaming. Christmas 2000 sucked.
Wait. What happened to the pleasant moments I promised you? Sorry. Here they are:
My next walk on campus, seven years later, brought me back into the classroom–Aug. 2007. (Much better, right? On track and no tears.) I was once again, employed full-time by a publisher, and had agreed to teach for the English Dept. at TCU (bless them always for the good they did me for so many years). I remember thinking, hell, I can’t actually harm the students and maybe will do some good. At the end of Ball Four (perhaps the single most personally influential book I’ve ever read, ever, ever, ever), Jim Bouton wrote about baseball, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” The thing that gripped me was teaching. I just didn’t know it until I taught Tim’s class. Each class I taught that day confirmed it. I was finally in a place I was supposed to be. From that day on, I knew I should be teaching, not publishing. (Though I haven’t exactly stopped wrangling around with publishers, it’s not the major focus of my life or employment anymore, esp. as I push back from entirely feeding at the table of corporate publishing excess and am working on a project that feels right and open because it is both of those things and more: Writing Spaces. If I knew how to create footnotes in a blog, I’d have inserted one at the end of that last sentence speculating on whether I could legitimately mention Writing Spaces every time I created an entry in this blog no matter how I started out or what the general topic might be. Bet on it.)
The end of that first day back in the classroom, I joined MLA so I could embark upon a traditional academic job search that fall. And here I am celebrating The National Day on Writing for the second time, at an event that means so much to me, AUM Writes!, with my current students, colleagues, friends, and one former writing student who rocks, literally. Fate. Luck. Yearning. Or something else? Discontent. Who cares?