Building a fire . . . in my head
After three days of meetings and classes and refreshers and precious little time in the classroom, I was beyond ready for the weekend. But in a weekend filled with obligatory fun, and the class I’ve been taking for my own development, Sunday was the only day left to submerge myself in the work of bringing my brain back around to thinking about something besides all those folders of writings I’ve been working on this summer.
I sat in the study and put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and looked at the computer screen. I skimmed back through last year’s planning to remind myself of where to start and to look at my marginal notes so that I’d remember what I wanted to do differently. I closed my eyes to concentrate my breath with Waters, Gilmore and Wright reminding me to “Breathe.” In the darkened room of my mind, I reached over to my classroom “switch” and turned the yes voice on.
As I unknotted the step-by-step plan for the first two weeks of the sophomore composition course, sparks were flying down the millions of highways in my brain sweeping up stray threads for activities and retying together my “teacher” self. I will never get every little thing across, I know. Even if I could get it out there, most of it wouldn’t stick. Better to hit the big ideas and let them figure out little ideas on their own. The biggest big idea is to get them to turn on their “yes” voice. The second big idea is to convince them to keep it on.
I learned about the “yes” voice reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones way back when I started teaching (approximately 10,000 years ago). I wish I had the book at hand because I’m sure what Goldberg said about it was exactly perfect. Since I don’t have the book at hand, let me give you my stewed down version. Back when we were little people, before the school system got its calloused, dirty hands on us, we used to get truly enthused about, well, stuff.
Your stuff was probably different from my stuff, but I want to give you an idea here; bear with me. I remember lying on the white bedspread in Grammie and Pa’s guest bedroom looking at one of the books from the hall shelf before I fell asleep one Saturday night. This particular book had articles with pictures about prehistoric animals. My two favorites both had big teeth: the wooly mammoth and the saber tooth tiger, both recognizable, but still utterly foreign. I read and re-read the informational blurbs and studied the drawings. After that, any time I saw something related to wooly mammoths or saber tooth tigers, I would feel my belly go all fluttery (don’t pretend that this didn’t happen to you, you know it did) and I’d want to see every teensy piece of new information that presented itself. “Wooly mammoths!”
That fluttery feeling is the feeling I need to pass to my students on day one. Day ONE. In previous years I’ve had inconsistent success with this lecture (one of the few talks I give all year), but last year was spectacularly successful. I think what makes it work is the “fire” I bring.
Today was the day to start my fire. Lay the coals out interspersed with newsprint and ocote sticks. The coals are the old, solid texts we always start with – Beowulf, Canterbury Tales and the ballads, Shakespeare. The texts I know and love so well make a good base for this fire, and we will be burning through them together all year long. I can’t help but get excited about them; they never fail to show me a new face, even after all these years. Newsprint and ocote sticks come in the form of these new facets, and in the planning. Tuesday night I will sit around and rehearse what to say on day one — shredding newsprint.
Honestly, in rereading this entry, it doesn’t sound very fiery. But it is. And I know that sleep will be hard to come by on Tuesday night as I compulsively feed and fan the fire. Because that’s what we do in the face of a fickle flame, we watch and wait, and feed and fan.
This entry feels unfinished, as it should. The finish of this entry will be the day after the fire is lit and begins to spread and takes on a life of its own out there in the masses of students who will come through my door on Wednesday.
Hope your week is as great as mine will be! I CAN’T WAIT!