The View From Away: My friend, my teacher
One of my writers’ group colleagues asked me at last week’s meeting if I have to censor my writing for The Forecaster. The question got me thinking about how many of my assumptions I have had to change since coming to Maine.
I thought censorship would be a significant issue, given my lifelong comic sensibilities. If my fellow comedy writers viewed life through a glass darkly, I viewed it through a glass blackly. So in the writers’ room they might laugh at my pitches, but they also tried not to let me sit between them and the door. Just in case.
I have made some adjustments for this broader audience.
However, my life since Maine has been largely terra incognita, so figuring out what to avoid saying has not been nearly as important as figuring out how to convey the new and unique. I never had to describe the mixture of surprise and joy at seeing a fox lope along beside your car under a full moon after a snowfall. What’s the word for that feeling you get when people on the street smile at you, and mean it, because they live in a place where it doesn’t feel like you have an anvil on your head all the time? Those are the real challenges, not avoiding the odd vulgarity.
My friend’s censorship question reminded me how much moving here has been an exercise in finding out what I don’t know. The contrast between that same friend’s path and my own illustrates another assumption I came to question, this one about teaching. I thought Maine would be a way station on a comfortable journey from experienced writer to writing teacher. Beloved writing teacher, if I’m being really honest. I totally saw myself becoming Mr. Chips, complete with a pipe, tweed jacket and elbow patches.
I became a writing student primarily to get a qualification for my resume. Instead, I found myself surrounded by people dedicated to teaching both on the faculty and among the students. Their skills and dedication threw me for a loop. I began to wonder if I had what it takes to be a teacher. Meanwhile, my friend was teaching. If he had the same doubts I had, his dedication to making a contribution trumped them. He remains a role model.
We first met as students at Stonecoast. He was a charter member of the writers' group some Portland locals formed. He wrote about nature beautifully and lyrically. If his work had a flaw, it was organization, which is something you can learn. Beauty and lyricism you are born with. Or not, in which case you gravitate toward, say, comedy writing. I consider it a sign of personal growth that I no longer get depressed by his gifts and my deficits.
He was also assisting at another one of Maine’s great cultural resources, The Telling Room, a local Portland literary center for children and young adults. He was helping to teach writing to young refugees, people who had endured as children experiences no one should ever have to endure. By supporting them in overcoming language and literacy challenges, he was making it possible for them to use storytelling to come to grips with their traumatic pasts. A tough job if it paid big money, which it does not. It is not a job for the uncommitted. I am not sure I could have handled it.
I am less sure I could handle his current challenge: two related writing programs, one at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the other at the Maine Correctional Center. As I understand it, beyond teaching writing skills, the programs encourage communication between clients at the two facilities.
I’m no criminologist, but I think these are great ideas. It seems like this interaction could be invaluable to people at both ends of the pipeline. Ideally, the interaction would add a dimension to the “scared straight” approach to deterrence. Aversion programs may have their place, but people in prison must also have other things to say to their younger selves. The youthful offenders may be more willing to listen to a written message of regret or an act of reflection from a prisoner than to that same prisoner screaming in their ears. And they may be more willing to communicate with someone if they can be reasonably sure that person has some idea of what they are going through.
Their potential upside of two-way communication doesn’t make these programs any easier to execute, though. Any teacher would be tested working with people whose life paths have landed them in custody. My friend’s greater challenge will be setting his emotions aside to make his students better writers. Even in rough form, he will be reading some devastating stories that were difficult for the writer to put down on paper. What do you say to somebody who is baring his soul? Do you correct his grammar?
I am not sure what motivates my friend to take on these tasks. Simply watching him take them on has blasted a hole in my abstract notion that it would be fun to be in a classroom. It made me think about what it really means, which makes him my teacher.