I don’t know what i’m doing, but i’m having so much fun doing it. I’m teaching again, another gang of new teachers, and oh! I love them. They handed in their first assignments to me last week, autobiographies. You cannot know someone’s story and not love them. I heard that from some storyteller or other a long time ago and i’ve tested it out since. it’s the first assignment i give to my students, and each time I am amazed, and inspired and moved by their candour and hope and confidence and suffering.
They are going to be teachers. They will influence young people everywhere. Maybe they think they can make some lasting change that they will recognize in their lifetime. Maybe they just want summers off. Do any of us know what we’re doing? I give that assignment partly so I can know them a little and find a way in, so i can see them–and partly so they can know themselves, in the context of their lives, their social location. Are you working class or upper class? How has your gender training influenced how much power you hold (or share, or reach for, or don’t have) in the world? What did your parents do? Who are they? what shaped you? How do you shape the world you are in? Hard questions, unanswerable in some ways. Why do you want to be a teacher, what influenced your decision?
The answers were astonishing and mundane and monumental and trivial. Radiant and flawed. Human.
What does it mean to learn and to teach?
Last night, I went to a meeting, and this guy told a story. I missed the story, ’cause i went to the bathroom just as he started talking, but other people told me about it later (including him). Here’s the story he told:
It was summer. His life had become a country and western song. His girlfriend had died in his arms two weeks previous, he had injured his back while moving, he was broke, (there was something about his cat in the story too–it had run away or died or something, I don’t know), and he had had enough. Enough. He resolved to go to the liquor store and get hammered. All the way to the liquor store, he talked himself into drinking, told himself no one would know, he wasn’t hurting anyone, he was in pain, people would understand, of course he had to drink, this was unbearable. And all the way there, he took back alleys so no one would see him. And all the way there he prayed to god to give him a sign, to let him know whether or not he was doing the best thing he could do, or show him some way.
Then he saw me. And that was enough. He saw me, he took that as his sign and he went home and started painting pictures.
He told that story, and just finished telling it when i came out of the bathroom. He looked at me and everyone laughed, and he said to me, “Thank you”. My friend leaned over and said, “you saved him. I’ll tell you later.”
Of course it wasn’t me who saved him. He had heard me speak at meetings, and we had seen each other around. I didn’t see him on that afternoon, in that alley. He saw me and remembered where it was he knew me from, and remembered something I had said and something I often say is, “you are worth better. you matter. We all do.” But i was only repeating some things that i had learned, and that made sense to me. So it wasn’t me who saved him. We all did.
That’s what i am trying to teach, mostly. See, it’s like working out, learning is. If you know how to do a few key things, it will give you the foundation to do anything. I love squats, for example. Wonderful exercise, squats are. They give you legs like oak trees, explosive power, core strength and can even help increase your lung capacity. When i started lifting weights, i was weak, asthmatic, couldn’t run or swim. It took a few false starts, but i found that i loved pumping iron. loved it. And i became strong. Really strong. And I started to run, and swim and i rode my bike everywhere, and i used my asthma rescue meds much less and I could do much more.
Learning is like that. If you explore one thing really thoroughly, you can use that exploration to inform other intellectual pursuits. See, i love Bourdieu’s theories of cultural reproduction and how domination and inequality are reinforced, and even though he’s hard to read and understand, once you find a way in, you can use your understanding of his thought to figure out how all kinds of things work. I can reject some of his concepts, too, in certain contexts, but then find some other way to understand what’s going on. And I can read other theorists, too, and figure out what they are talking about. It’s making sense, too– one little bit at a time.
It’s parallel to regular workouts. I have done the leg presses and the stretching and the warm ups and the building up from using light weights at first, to 200 lbs for one rep* (barefoot, no wraps, no belt). And i can breathe better and run faster and think better than I could before. One little bit at a time.
Does that make sense? See, if when you’re teaching, you give people a range of ideas and means by which they can investigate and understand these phenomena then they can find a way in. If we can wrestle with these ideas in a way that will spark curiosity, maybe they will gain the confidence to read further, and deeper and change their practices to see if the theory can make it better. But if you just go, “yea, this is how you write cursive” or”this is the life cycle of the fruit fly”, maybe that’s not enough–that’s more like using only machines to work out and not barbells and body weight.
Where is this going? I don’t know. I do know that everything we do matters. We all have moments of inattention, but if we have a big vision of what we want to achieve and if we try to do the next right thing, and try to be intentional, then we will both grow stronger and have some affect on the world around us. We all have some influence in how things go. We are all teaching. We may never know, though. I might never have known that i had any influence on that guy who told the story of the sign he got from god.
If there is a god, it has a great sense of humour, sending as a sign a radical feminist lesbian atheist to the suffering alcoholic. Good one, God.
*that’s when i’m pre-menstrual. I’m always strongest in the week before I bleed.