It’s Wednesday afternoon. I am still working on the papers I was supposed to return to my students on Monday, and now I have two new sets of papers to grade. I get this choked up, weepy feeling. I want to go to my boss’s corner office and say, “I’m done. I quit.” I can’t remember why I wanted to be an English teacher. I don’t think this is my vocation, a calling. Maybe I should have kept waiting tables. Maybe I should have kept my job as a bank teller. I would like to go home and crawl into bed. I’d like to pull the covers over my head and take a long nap.
Then I remember my students. There’s L, who just dropped by my office to pick up her paper. I want her to turn her brief portrait of her horse into something more, to let him become a character who her readers will fall in love with just as she once did. I can see the longer creative nonfiction paper she might finish the quarter with. It will have sections about equestrian therapy and a section about barrel racing. It will have a character portrait of the kitten she adopted at the stables.
And there’s J, whose paper I just finished rereading. He has written about surfing and a late night encounter in a bar. They’re both interesting stories, but I think he needs one more story that will deepen the whole piece and show us what he learned and what we need to learn. Possibly he hasn’t learned it yet, in which case he will have to learn it in order to finish this story.
In life, we avoid conflict. In stories, we have to embrace it.
A lot of times, when I read my students’ papers or listen to them in my office, I realize that they haven’t yet embraced their conflicts. They’re just living. They are getting through this thing that happened and onto the next thing. They’re watching TV and texting and playing Angry Birds. But what they have to do now is reread their own stories, to concentrate, and to figure out what it is they need to face. They need to face that.
As an especially good example, there’s my student M, whose brother sent him a letter just before he was killed, a letter that M has not yet opened.
The problem with writing true stories is that our conflict avoidance gets in the way of writing our stories.
There is something that teaching has not yet taught me. Had I learned it, then maybe I’d be done.