Teaching at Fifty-Six

By James Mulhern

Inspired by the words of Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, and other patron saints of American literature, I tell my students, in whatever ways I can, they contain multitudes, that nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of their own minds, and the real business of life is to live in the present, find eternity in a moment. We dwell in possibilities, I say, and possibilities are endless. As a teacher of American literature, I want my students to use the literature as a way to make connections and find meaning.

Explore the circumference of your life. Write about your experience. Celebrate yourself! I urge. My students answer, This ain’t math, Mr., or say under their breaths, Mr. Mulhern be on crack, He be trippin’, or That’s so gay. I teach poor inner-city kids, children of immigrants, immigrants themselves, kids who are struggling with many issues that I never dealt with in my Boston Irish Catholic upbringing, but sharing many of my issues as well: insecurity, perplexity, longing, nanosecond cycles of optimism and pessimism, but always, hope eternal. To live is so startling for them, it leaves little time for anything else. In particular: their homework, their reading, their essays, and their attention in class, which is otherwise engaged by cell phones, ipods, or the bootylicious body in the next desk.

I begin my American Literature course by asking students to answer the questions, Who am I? Why am I like I am? What do I believe is true? They have to write an essay and read it to their peers. Most of them cringe at the thought of writing an essay, especially one that needs to be read aloud. My hope is that they start to see beyond the surface of themselves, their adolescent identities, and begin to know a sacred self deep inside, what Emerson calls the infinitude of the private man. Literature, as I see it, is the ladder hanging close to the side of the schooner, this assignment is the first rung, and I want my students to get wet. Telling students that they are schooners and that my sincere hope is that they get wet leads to all sorts of exchanges. Fuck you, for example. Mr., I ain’t getting wet for nobody, or perhaps the definitive, That’s nasty. My methodology is more precise. I give them a handout with specific, concrete directives, and have them read it first to themselves. Then I or a student reads it aloud, then I paraphrase each point several times, then I am repeatedly interrupted by Sasha, Makeba, Latitha, Tim, or Mark, who asks me if he/she can to go to the restroom, then I forget what I was in the middle of explaining, then I begin all over again, then somebody in the back says, What the fuck is he saying?, This sucks, I feel sick, or It’s too hot in here.

I can appreciate my students’ sensibilities, however. They are teenagers, and in the short span of their lives, how could they possibly be certain of who they are? I think back to when I was their age. I was certain of so much and so little at the same time; this is the paradox of youth. I remember sitting around Melinda Baker’s table—my friends and I full of ideas about religion, politics, and sex, beginning to feel like we had some control over our universe. I don’t know what my students talk about when they hang out with friends; I’m not there. But I know they wrestle with the same angst I felt when young. I see glimpses of it in their papers, and I love them for it.

My students are searching. All of us run fast, stretch our arms farther, until one fine morning we are older, at the halfway part, looking back. I think of Melanie from yesteryear who wanted to be an actress, how serious she was in the school plays, her erect posture and fair, fair skin; Andrea, the artist who designed all her own clothes, the beret she wore, the way she sauntered down the hall, hips swaying; John, long dirty red hair, high as a kite, reeking of marijuana, lanky, too tall for the small desk, sleeping at the back of the class; Michael, grinning and laughing with wide-eyed David beside him, both feigning innocence when I tell them to be quiet, then laughing some more; Rhonda from night school, her four children, cervical cancer, passing her GED exam after the third time, the way she cried. All of them are in their thirties now. I’d like to see them again, talk for a moment. It would be awkward to dwell longer than that. Teaching has joy, but there is sadness, too. When my students graduate, I experience the sensation of being left behind. Students come and go. The door closes and you are left in the room, remembering mostly their eyes, knowing them all, how they would fix you in some formulated phrase, mold you by their vision. What did they see when they looked at me? Would they say school was worth it after all?

Sometimes, as a writing exercise, I tell my students to describe the rooms and furniture within their homes. Any structure and/or furnishing will do, I say to the recalcitrant ones. (Point of pedagogy–always give your students a choice.) I use this technique as an exercise in characterization and setting, but also as a way for students to better understand their past and present.

Nadine, a future fashion designer who doodles outfits, creates a short list: “coffee table, dressers, armchair (pink), one desk.” Jessica, with the meticulously organized notebook, relates how her “dog took care of a one-seater real good” and describes the sofa as the “main sitting piece where we chill and relax playing PS2, XBOX, and watching DVD’s on our big screen.” Alex, a thin dreamy-eyed young man in the corner, explains that his “dad sits on the rocking chair when we have guests” and smiling Shane, who asks each week about his grade, catalogs the “crappy, uncomfortable S—- High School seats; falling asleep in a beanbag chair; tripping over an ottoman; bar stools; break dancing on a rug,” and an enigmatic “mattress outside Circuit City at          2 a.m.”

As a teacher, you hope to evoke insights or epiphanies, transcendental revelations that pour effortlessly onto your students’ notebooks. But this happens infrequently. The results are usually more prosaic. To expect gems of eternal wisdom is presumptive and naive. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years on this planet. What enlightenments can be gained in that short span of time? At fifty-six, I still grapple. Judy, a petite Jamaican girl who rarely speaks in class and wears a vacant expression most of the time, writes, “My mother has covered my brown couch with some red cloth to hide some of its ugliness. Plus my eighty-four-year-old grandma has taken permanent residence on it, never getting up from it except to go to the bathroom and eat. Now I call my brown couch ‘the forbidden couch’ because it’s like I can’t go near it. Even so, I have all these memories from it that I keep close to my heart.” There are themes here—pertinacity, aging, boundaries, ugliness we hide, positions we claim, memories we cling to.

If we are fortunate, we become freer as the years progress, and the emotional scars, from our more mature vantage points, appear as they really are—minor scrapes and cuts, dissipating rings, a rock cast into water. In the grand scheme, our personal experiences are the diminutions of a song, and this, to me, is sweet music.

But still we feel the pain. Life hurts. I am moved to tears when I read my students’ essays or when they share their stories in class: alcoholism, molestation, AIDS, violence, drug addiction, poverty, cancer, death, depression, loneliness, the loss of a parent or sibling—it’s all there, the opera of life. At times I want to be a father to all of them. I imagine that I’m rich and can pay for their college educations or buy the things they need.

A few years back, after Thanksgiving break, one of my students told me she was withdrawing from school. An older female relative hovered in the doorway while Charlene told me her mother and siblings were killed in a car crash on Thanksgiving eve. They had been traveling down Route 95 from Georgia to bring her home for the break. I said I was sorry and hugged her. What will you do now? I asked. She said she was moving to Georgia to live with cousins. In a moment she walked out of my classroom and life forever. The image of Charlene’s innocent, shocked expression returns to me again and I wonder what’s become of her. What is her world like now?

But the universe is also joyful and magical. We are simply too distracted to see the goodness, to enjoy the game, to decipher the messages, or to crack a smile. We hesitate. The letters are laid out for us like those on the Ouija board, over which I slyly pushed the heart-shaped planchette to the delight and fright of Mom and Cheryl (my childhood babysitter) on a hot July evening, the crickets sounding in the humid darkness outside the window. I spelled out the cliché story of an old lady, a former occupant of our house, who cooked her baby in the oven. I see the trinity of our heads over that board as we tried to discern and rift our way into the secret of things—What wisdom can we find here? A peal of laughter, a gasp, a scream, our excited faces staring at the stove. We laughed more, and things never felt so good. These are moments that radiate.

Carl Jung, a favorite of mine when I struggled with spiritual issues, discusses synchronicity, or the concept of meaningful coincidences, those shining moments when similar events cluster together and give one the sense that something extraordinary is occurring. There is a significance that cannot be explained by Western conceptions of cause and effect.

Like the moment Kayla announces in class during a discussion of Langton Hughes’s “Salvation” on the very same day that I write about my own disbelief in the Jonah story: “I have a question about the Bible. Are we supposed to believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and lived inside that thing for three days? Cause I think that’s crazy! I don’t believe that junk is true, Mr. Mulhern? Is it true?” And she looks at me with an adamant cause-I-just-really-gotta-know expression on her face, as though I will end her confusion right then and there.

I answer, as teachers are supposed to respond, respectful of the students, many of whom come from Biblical literalist religious traditions, that people read the Bible in different ways: some believe that it is the literal word of God, and others believe that the stories are meant to be understood symbolically. In America, I add, we believe in tolerance, and respect the diversity of religious beliefs. I don’t say, what I really think—that a literalist interpretation of the Bible is ignorant, dangerous, and offensive, and that I get angry at all the hate, misery, and evil that Christianity has caused in the long history of humanity.

As if sensing my dour and too-serious thoughts, Deshae, who is seated at the back of the room, bursts into laughter at something she is remembering. She jumps up and down in her seat, and exclaims, “Jesus came into my church this weekend.”

She runs to the front of the room, sits down, and begins her story, shaking her hand in front of her face, excited in her recollection, laughing, smiling ear to ear, “There’s this homeless guy. He thinks he’s Jesus.”

There is an explosion of laughter. Ebony, Veanna, and others say, “I know him!” They exchange stories of this man, discussing how he’s made the rounds in their churches.

Deshae continues, “He just walked in, said he was Jesus, and started rollin’ on the floor. We were all singin’ and the pastor, he just ignored him. I wanted to laugh, but I knew my mother would kill me.” I, like Deshae’s classmates, find the story amusing, and prod her. I want the details, trying to picture the reactions of the congregation more completely.

No one did anything? They just ignored him? I ask.

“Yeah.” She laughs. “We didn’t want to disrespect him. We just carried on!”

The other students share their anecdotes, and then I bring the class back to order, to our discussion of Hughes’s “Salvation.” We draw comparisons between our individual experiences and those of Langston Hughes, who recounts his childhood attendance at a church revival and the “special meeting for children ‘to bring the young lambs to the fold’ ” at the end of the service. In a bittersweet essay, Langston explains his anxiety and frustration as he “kept waiting to see Jesus,” how he believed that Jesus would literally come into the church and walk down the aisle. That night he cried over his deception, when after waiting an interminable amount of time, his “aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and songs swirled all around me in the little church.” Finally, he approached the altar, pretending to “see” Jesus come, and joined the fold of “little lambs” (his tired peers) who had already been “saved.”

It occurs to me that teaching is my salvation. There are wonderful moments, when things move so fluidly, and the pitch of our discussion seems just right—students are smiling, engaged, sharing feelings, excited. A palpable energy (the Holy Spirit?) moves through all of us—a realness, an in-the-momentness that charges the air and electrifies our conversations. Connections are made. Questions are answered. We learn who we are. If we are fortunate, we intuit an answer to the question Why? Sometimes we discover what is really true.

I believe this is true—People like to imagine that rare and delectable places lurk in some remote part of the universe or some distant epoch from the past, but right now, in my classroom, surrounded by students, I dwell in that delectable place, a most memorable season of any day. I feel intensely awake, most alive—renewed. I think, This is communion, and teaching will be the pond that I bathe in each morning, every new day.