Thank you for another great semester. What I love about your class is the environment you create, which is as comfortable as it is stimulating.
—Jacob Stoltz, student, Hamline University
On the Friday evening before Halloween in October 1984, I walked into the Whittier Park Community Center to pick up my work schedule. There were lots of ghoulish activities planned for kids and adults throughout the weekend, including Very Scary Theater, a writers’ theater performance that we at the Whittier Writers’ Workshop had developed as part of the park’s Halloween fare.
The building was busy that Friday evening. Some kids were playing floor hockey in the multipurpose room, others were making masks in the art room, while still others were running up and down the hall laughing and screaming while a Friday night poetry workshop was going on in a smaller room. In the lounge area, the fireplace provided warmth and comfort to a group of elderly people who sat contentedly sipping hot cider, and children who sat at their feet with coloring books and crayons. And in the lobby, director Lawrence Hutera stood behind the counter doing paperwork and talking with Jimmie, the big, ponytailed man whose job was to keep order in the building.
I wondered how the elder citizens could be so content with so much chaos going on around them.
“Who are they?” I asked Lawrence.
“They’re from the psychic church over on Lake Street. They meet here every week.”
My interest was sparked and I decided to try to make conversation with them. I walked across the lobby’s tiled floor toward the lounge, trying to figure out what to say. Small talk isn’t easy for me. But as soon as I stepped into the carpeted lounge, one of the gentlemen greeted me.
“Ahh,” he said, revealing a gap from a missing front tooth as he smiled kindly. “You’re a teacher, aren’t you?”
“Why, no,” I replied. “I just manage the park’s creative writing program.”
“You are a teacher,” he insisted in a heavy Swedish accent.
Sure that he hadn’t heard me through all the noise, I repeated a little louder. “No, I just run the park’s writing program.”
“My dear, you are a teacher.” I glanced at his friends who were all smiling with approval and nodding in agreement.
“Someday you’ll see,” said the man. Later, I learned that his name was Carlos, and that he had been one of the best-known psychics in the Twin Cities back in the 1950s and ’60s.
SEVERAL YEARS LATER, in 1990, my friend Julie Landsman invited me to visit her high school class at the Minnesota Center for Arts in Education. After hearing me read at a W3 event, she said she wanted me to speak to her students about the techniques I use to write dialogue. I wasn’t comfortable talking about writing, having never done so before, but I was flattered that someone thought my writing was good enough to invite me to talk with their students—especially in a high school that specialized in the arts.
A week after my visit Julie sent thank-you notes from her students. To my surprise, most of the kids said that the writing I shared, the exercises I gave them, and my personality all combined to make me the best guest they’d had that year. Julie confirmed that the students truly felt that way.
A few years later, I agreed to teach a creative writing class at South High School’s program for teen parents, but I didn’t have any experience other than visits I had made to Julie’s classrooms. Thankfully, she agreed to mentor me. She helped me develop a ten-week class and held frequent meetings with me, coaching me throughout.
The class was harder than I had anticipated. Most of the students weren’t interested in writing. Their minds were on taking care of their babies and making it through school. But I found ways to get them interested in telling their stories, and in the process I learned that one of the most effective ways was to be open with them about my own life. That made me real to them and allowed them to share their stories with someone who understood them.
I taught the class for two years and, in the second year, added a class for students in another program designed for eleventh and twelfth graders who were on the verge of flunking out of school.
I learned two important things from my experience at South High. First, I needed to be creative and flexible, and to listen to them honestly and intently. The second was that I loved teaching, and I wanted to do more of it.
THE YEAR AFTER I finished working with the students at South High, I was surprised when upon the recommendation of friends, Veena Deo, an English professor from Hamline University, invited me to participate in a panel discussion on Black women writers. I didn’t want to disappoint the friends who had recommended me, so I agreed, knowing that my shyness and lack of confidence had kept me from being a good panelist in the past. Through discussions with Professor Deo, I was assured that a discussion about my personal experience of having had to create comfortable spaces for myself and other writers would be appropriate.
I prepared a presentation that centered on how I, as a single mother without much income, had created my own opportunities to learn writing skills. But when I got up to speak, I became tongue-tied and wasn’t able to say nearly as much as I had planned. However, I said enough to cause Karyn Sproles, then-chair of the English department, to ask me what a private university like Hamline could have done to help a woman in my position. Without thinking, I blurted out, “You could give me a job!” She gave me her number and suggested that I call her.
Because of similar experiences, I expected that the call would result in an offer to pay me a small amount to speak to Hamline’s faculty and administrators on how they could open their doors to low-income women. Instead, Professor Sproles gave me a creative writing course the next fall and helped me write a syllabus and prepare the course.
I began teaching creative writing at Hamline in the fall of 1997 and found that I love working with college students. Creative writing classes were not required, so unlike the students I worked with at South High, my students at Hamline took my classes because they wanted to.
The first course I taught at Hamline was challenging, and I was grateful to have Professor Sproles as a mentor. I had a great group of students that year and decided early on to be straightforward with them, letting them know they were my virgin college class. They responded positively and helped me by giving occasional feedback on how the class was going. This allowed me to revise the course as the semester moved along. The other person who helped was my middle daughter, Tania, who had graduated from Vassar College that spring. I asked her opinion about such things as what makes a good teacher, how much reading is too much, how much time should an instructor spend with individual students? Tania is both my toughest critic and my strongest supporter, so I knew her responses to my questions would be useful. Besides, her college experience was still fresh enough for her to remember which professors she thought were good and why.
I had raised my children in a communal atmosphere in which, while they all knew I was the parent, they also knew they were free to discuss whatever was going on in their lives freely and openly. I made a conscious effort to bring the same attitude to teaching. In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks says, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”
For a creative writing course to be successful, I believe both the students and the instructor need to be excited about learning and should also be interested in learning about each other’s lives. In the first course I taught at Hamline, it was easy to create such an atmosphere. The class, “Writing about What Matters,” was focused on writing memoir. The students who took the class were interested in creating short memoirs about something that had occurred in their personal lives. My disclosure that it was the first college course I had taught helped to create an atmosphere where the students and I could learn together. Indeed, as hooks also states in Teaching to Transgress, “Excitement [was] generated through collective effort.”
Also that year, SASE was invited to start a reading series at Hamline. The Loft Literary Center, which had been holding a reading series there for a number of years, withdrew so they could bring all of their readings in-house. I replaced those readings with a series that featured a newly published author, a graduate student, and an undergraduate student. At the time, it was a real boon to the Hamline community, as students had the privilege of reading with a real author before a real audience. Since that time, a group of well-known poets and writers developed the creative writing programs at Hamline that are nationally known and respected; now all undergraduate- and graduate-level creative writing programs come under their umbrella. I am happy and proud to still be teaching one or two courses every year.
MY SECOND YEAR at Hamline was difficult. I had reluctantly allowed myself to be talked into teaching two courses fall semester: “Introduction to College Writing” and the memoir class I had taught the previous year. SASE had experienced an unexpected growth spurt and I needed to spend more time in the office. And because I had no previous experience in working with a large number of students, I was ill prepared for the time and energy it would take. I was surprised that the intro class went well. The memoir class was a disaster.
In Teaching to Transgress, hooks recalled a difficult class she once taught that mirrored that experience: “For reasons that I cannot explain, [the class] was full of ‘resisting’ students who did not want to learn new pedagogical processes, who did not want to be in a classroom that differed in any way from the norm. . . . And though they were not the majority, their spirit of rigid resistance seemed always to be more powerful than any will to intellectual openness and pleasure in learning.”
There were two women in the class who couldn’t accept my laid-back teaching style. Their idea of a good class was the traditional model: a professor who stands in front of the class and lectures, setting her/himself up as the authority. But the most rewarding writing classes I have taken have not been based on that model. I elected to teach writing the way it was taught to me—using a model where everyone knows the instructor is the authority but everyone, including the instructor, sits around a table and engages in writing and feedback. Again, from Teaching to Transgress: “Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process.”
The two women whined and complained and eventually began lobbying other class members in an attempt to force me to manage the class in a way that was comfortable for them. I was surprised and dismayed; neither of my mentors had warned me, nor did I expect that the classroom could become a battlefield. Professor Sproles had moved on to another college that year, leaving me in the hands of a new supervisor, Dr. Alice Moorhead. Because of my nontraditional background, I was a little afraid to talk with her, fearful that she would consider me unqualified, even though I had begun doctoral studies some years before. I was relieved by her understanding and support and surprised that she too had experienced difficult classes and difficult students. When I confided my worries about being ineffective, she replied, “All good teachers feel that way.” I remain grateful for her support and guidance, her expert mentorship.
Because of the support of people like Julie Landsman, Dr. Sproles, and Dr. Moorhead, I learned that Carlos was right all those years ago: I am a pretty good teacher. At the time of this writing I have been teaching two to three courses per year at Hamline for nearly twenty-five years. I was the first adjunct professor to win the Exemplary Teacher award, which I won in 2014. I’ve learned to use my nontraditional background both to my advantage and the advantage of others. I have taught at a community college and a variety of community venues that range from the Loft Literary Center to leadership programs, to prison and detention programs, to programs for teen mothers, and to agencies that serve mothers who are experiencing unspeakable distresses. And I find myself frequently being called on to mentor young people in arts administration as well.
For me, teaching is about much more than being in the classroom. I have become convinced that it is about listening to the students and finding out what’s important to them, and then helping them find a variety of ways to consider what they need to say and a variety of ways to figure out how to say it—rather than presenting myself as the one who has the answers.
Carlos passed away before his prediction manifested. I wish I could have thanked him.