Just when I began to second guess myself, I received an email from one of my students, Pooja ji, who is working in India. Students energize me, give me purpose — it’s always been a truth in my life. I always say to students that ask why I do what I do that I learn from them, they teach me. If it was otherwise, what we do in a classroom wouldn’t work, not at all. In a classroom, I’m a learner too. The day that ends, I end.
Pooja wrote to my class of Freshmen, and me . She urges all of us living lives on the boundary, living on the edges of Any Main Street, and from disparate parts of the world, to dig deeply, search and ask the hard questions.
“In my month here (India),” she writes, “I have questioned every minute.” She tells these new, young students with hope and confusion in their eyes — fearful, somewhat, but nevertheless looking to create lives that will not be defined by “quiet desperation” — that her experiences have put into question her beliefs. She tells my new students that “four years at Middlebury gives you a set of skills. Your true education begins after graduation.” And she’s speaking to me too, her old gray-haired prof, balding. She’s talking about us.
Of course, life is the greatest teacher — we know this, Pooja sees this, as do my new students; it compels us to face things we may not want to face. We grow by Being, doing. But I’m fascinated by the notion that 4 years at Middlebury College results in skills. Is this simply a choice of words written quickly, via email, while Pooja sat covered in flies, which she described quite well to me earlier in another note? Or is this all I did for Pooja, give her skills? Perhaps. Maybe that’s all I did. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s all I can do, skills work. I am a “teacher of writing,” after all, and not by choice (I totally self-trained for this part of my life, institutionally mandated; we are all institutionalized somehow), but rather, by circumstances, personal and professional — and by professional I mean that institutions and I have had differing opinions of who we each are, what they want from me.
But maybe it’s through skills work that we find each other. Skills work leads to life work? Does it? First we become acquainted through skills, and they lead us to each other, to matters of the heart, which is really where we need to work. I have always felt that leaving matters of the heart out of teaching and learning is negating the learning process. Doesn’t education mean learning about one’s self?
Pooja is one of those students who would learn and grow and create a world for herself despite any system, any orthodoxy. In 25 years of teaching, I can count students such as Pooja on my two hands — that’s it. Others need more or something else or they don’t even look at education as a journey towards an understanding of the self, an understanding of Being.
Pooja arrived at my doorstep with a sense of self, though she didn’t know it quite fully when she first walked on to the campus. Of her early days, Pooja writes,
During my first year at Middlebury, a friend I’d met only a few months before encouraged me to speak to my advisor. I entered my advisor’s office with the intention of deciding what my major would be. Instead, I sat in his office and cried for 15 minutes. He didn’t say anything. He let me cry. After I was done pouring out my emotions, we talked. I didn’t come out of his office with a clear plan for my academic life, but I came out understanding that it was all right to be vulnerable. I began to trust Middlebury as a community and as my home for four years.
I remember those first meetings where Pooja struggled with expectations and what she began to see as a burning desire to express herself, to mold her life, to write. She became a writer. And she designed her life immediately after graduation. She is creating her world, not the other way around, which is succumbing, as many do, to the elegant means of production afforded graduates of elite institutions (this, of course, following the economic downfall, is doubtful). Pooja, and others like her, have designed unorthodox paths, roads least traveled. Don’t we want this for all our students? How do skills work lead to this sense of self, so powerfully expressed?
I’m left wondering what, if anything, I did for Pooja? We have, I think, mutual respect and we’ve moved from a student-teacher relationship to friends. I worry about her living and working in Kanpur; she sees my anxieties over my current students. And now, as her email points out, she is helping me teach and I accept her knowledge, her unique experience. But this way of being for me is not for all. And some might even wonder whether the role of the teacher is to move from “sage on the stage” to friend, collaborator, respectful colleague — a community of civilized, mutually respectful collaborators.
I always tell my students early on in a semester that if my job is done well, by the time we get to the end of the semester, there should be no need for me. I should be invisible, not there. I move towards invisibility. I think that this is hard to do, but I think that it’s the only way to teach because only when students take over a course, a subject, the course itself, have they arrived at a moment of confidence necessary to assert new ideas, theories, actions — to assert themselves on to the world and be themselves, articulating who they are, but more importantly, what kind of world they want.
I’m left wondering about invisibility. As I write myself out of the equation, the University, too, doesn’t see me either. So as Pooja becomes, I whither? Is this the life cycle of “the teacher”?