Thursday, January 12, 2012

Teach What You Need

They say you teach what you need to know. Of course, they also say, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” but obviously those people don’t know anything. When I was little, everyday when I got home from school, I lined my dolls up against the bedroom wall, stood in front of the chalkboard my dad salvaged from a job site, put on a pair of my mother’s discarded high heels and reviewed what I’d learned that day for a very captive audience. My mother said she could tell exactly what each of my teachers were like because I aped their styles, at turns screaming at, berating, coddling or encouraging the plastic and cloth babies at my disposal.

But, despite my early track record it didn’t occur to me to become a teacher until many years after running the gamut of waitressing, administrative and freelance gigs that I scavenged up to pay the bills.

And then, through a series of happy accidents (otherwise known as getting laid off before becoming broke and desperate) I took up teaching. A friend of mine said, “It’s like you were a top careening madly around before collapsing in exactly the right place.” Yes, that’s exactly how it felt.

I don’t have a teaching degree, an 8-3, a salary or a principal. I don’t have to deal with grades or report cards or SATS. In a way I don’t consider myself a “real” teacher and I bow deeply to those I do. Their jobs, in my opinion, are the hardest, most thankless, and most deeply important in this world.

But I love teaching, because to me it is the process by which I learn the most. I learn from my students who- 8 or 68 —contain vast storehouses of knowledge and experience that I don’t. When I was a teenager, my goal, other than to be a famous reader, was to experience everything. In this way I get to do both.

The stories and poems and essays and bits of word play or dialogue shared by the writers in my class expand my imagination, my vision and my vocabulary. As I write right alongside them, the scratching of their pens pushes me across my own blank page. Writing can be a very isolating, intimidating and lonely task but diving in with everyone else gives me the sense that we’re all swimming in the same deep ocean together. And as we read aloud what we’ve just written, I never cease to be blown away. Beautiful, heartbreaking, disturbing, hilarious, strange, unsettling, thoughtful and deeply true words curl up from their pages, shattering whatever assumption about them I might have made before. Turning your insides out tends to do that. Not that it’s a course requirement, or a confession stand, but it’s hard to write for too long without beginning to write the truth. And the truth, whether it winds its way into a memoir, poem, short story or novel, is what helps me understand life- and writing- the best.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” Scott Ray the Chief Engineer of the cruise ship in Alaska where I was a stewardess, said to me once. “Only sometimes you find that you have to be both the student and the teacher.” I didn’t quite know what he meant, only that I was glad to know, were we to hit a turbulent patch of sea as our small boat careened over large icebergs, I wasn’t the only one on board that knew how to swim.


  1. Valley, you are one of the best teachers I have ever had. I think you have found one part of your calling; I hope I can join you again soon.

  2. Girl, thank you. I would eat part of a car to get to hear your writing again! You hit a vein in our class that I don't see ever closing. Much love!