While earning my MFA at Cornell University, I was granted a lectureship with which I taught the personal essay and creative writing to undergraduates. I was nervous about the post. I had no experience. That I looked younger than my 30 years was an added challenge. Most of us are familiar with the staidness of a university setting. A classroom is set up as such that tables connect to form a square the near size of the room; it’s as cold as an interrogation chamber.
For my first teaching gig, I sat quietly in the twelve o’clock spot as empty chairs around me filled. Students with friends engaged in conversation, while those who kept to themselves eyed the threshold, waiting for the instructor to walk in. The most I got from everyone was a fleeting glance. Nobody conveyed a sign of recognition that I was the man whose thoughts on sentence structure and paragraph coherency could render fun the task of articulating oneself on paper. That was how young I looked. When I shut the door and greeted all a good morning, the boys and girls before me shifted eyes at each other. Every semester for three years produced the same initial reaction.
The first thing I always told my students was that I was primarily a monitor, a figure present to keep discussion flowing. The most valuable opinions would come from them, I stressed, and this helped to thaw the ice. What ultimately got them engaged were the in-class writing exercises. “Don’t think of this as work,” I advised. “Think of this as e-mails to a friend or a journal entry.” In one exercise students exchanged a photograph with the person seated beside them, and from the photograph now in their own hands, they developed a story. In another they provided five random words, which they then used to pen a paragraph or a poem. My favorite exercise was their speculations as to where they would be at the age of 30. This proved to be an illuminating study on gender roles. The girls prioritized family. The boys prioritized career. The girls were neutral as to the sex of their first child. The boys favored a son with whom to play ball. And they all envisioned themselves with graying hair and arthritis.
One common element inherent among my students that eluded all forms of division, be they gender conditioned or otherwise, was a sense of purpose. This was especially apparent with the freshmen. Whether or not they knew what they would declare as a major two years down the road, they each had a goal – to do their darned best. The upperclassmen were different. Having gone through the rigmarole of exams and fulfilling credits, they were eager to graduate so that they could venture onward as adults cocksure in their future success. The incoming students, on the other hand, were in the transitional phase. For many, Cornell was their first experience to live away from home. They had earned their acceptance, and as obligated as they were to their parents for the opportunity, they were more intent on a tomorrow in which, through sweat and diligence, they could stake their claim on the world. These kids were hopeful rather than brash. In their ambition, I was more than a writing instructor. I was a friend.
If there is a type of teacher that I hold as the ideal, he would be Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) in the film, “To Sir, with Love” (1967). Although Thackeray understands the function of textbooks to education, he is also conscious that their formality and inundation of facts can pander. Thus, for him, conversation is key to stimulating the young mind. “We are going to talk about various things,” he says. A student asks about what. His answer: “About life, survival, love, death, sex, marriage, rebellion. Anything you want.” To show that he isn’t a bag of hot air, Thackeray relates hardships he withstood during his own youth. He was a dishwasher, a cook at a hamburger joint, and a janitor. He spoke a patois unique to the working class of British Guyana. He was the antithesis of the gentleman who stands tall before them, posh in dress, demeanor, and elocution. “If you’re prepared to work hard, you can do almost anything,” Thackeray explains of his transformation. “You can even change your speech if you want to.”
My own students responded to accounts of trials I myself survived. How they listened with dropped jaw and unblinking eyes to my confession that acceptance to a writing program was not easy. Admittance came on the third try. Year one, all ten schools I applied to rejected me. Year two, I cut my selection down to eight, and again I was refused. Year three, my father gave me an ultimatum: to do something with my pipe dream of being an author or to get a real job. I upped my pool back to ten schools. Nine turned me down, while Cornell’s offer came over the fax one afternoon that I happened to be checking my landline voicemail, followed by a phone call from the deliverer. “Are you coming or aren’t you?” he urged. “Give me a couple of days to think about it,” I said in an attempt to impress him that other programs had accorded me entrance.
I once told a friend that I wish I were a literary wunderkind, that brilliance flowed from me with a single click of a keyboard and that success were instantaneous. “You’d more gain people’s respect if you struggled,” he said. He is right. These were words I shared in every class. Writing a novel isn’t easy. Getting an A isn’t easy. Triumph is not a given. We achieve it by proving our worth, and this includes forging forward despite multiple letdowns, for only in failure and rebuff is our passion strengthened. Rather than buckling, we must use them as fuel for our ambition. Now who exactly are we in the grand scheme of the universe to be of interest to anybody? “You all have something important to say,” I would remind my students. “Allow yourself the courage of emotional vulnerability. The more honest you are with your emotions – be they sadness or happiness or heartache or love – the more engrossed the reader. Nobody is here to judge you.”
Indeed, we all go through a shared set of emotions, but what make us unique are our own experiences in relation to them. A common error when writing is that we have played these experiences so often in our memories that we take it for granted the reader would be engaging in them for the first time. Slow down. Relay what you see, what you hear, what you smell and taste. Divulge conversations. Lure the reader into the world that exists in your head in order to propagate empathy. No matter who we are, our individual stories deserve to be heard, each one a link to the chain of human evolution.