Life has been taking me back to remember my time as a young graduate student and then writing adjunct instructor in the English Department at the University of California, Irvine. During that time, the composition program was growing in leaps and bounds. When I started, it was all run by graduate students farther along into the PhD program, and within a few years the department saw fit to hire a professor with a doctorate in composition to oversee the program, along with 3 other doctorates to direct each of the lower division writing courses. I found myself landing a job as assistant to one of these directors, and so I worked closely with the new director of the entire writing program. He was a large teddy-bear shaped man, who somehow never seemed to have all of his shirt tucked in, his shoes tightly tied, or his pants at a particularly fashionable hitch. He had a way of throwing out remarks that caught people off guard. Yet if you could field the curve balls, there was a lot to learn about student centered teaching from this guy.
At that time, the University of California system was tracked to admit the top 12% of high school graduates, plus those deemed worthy of “special action”–usually students of color who needed a little extra support in writing to make the university level grade. One of my jobs under the new director, before becoming an assistant, was to develop a curriculum for a writing workshop that helped these students through their writing classes. My doing this work was one of the most rewarding experiences in my teaching career. Several years back I was lucky enough to have a poem I wrote about that time published in a literary journal called Pilgrimage. You can read that poem in my post “In The Garden: Thinning.”
By the time I became an assistant course director, I was used to students–and the grad students who I was charged to observe during their first quarter of teaching–come to me with “stories” about why they shouldn’t have gotten a D, why they needed to add a class or drop one, or why it was absolutely imperative they get a Tuesday-Thursday teaching schedule (not knowing that everyone else in the department also wanted that so they could write over the weekend as well). It was easy to get at least inwardly exasperated with what seemed like complaints and excuses until this new writing director taught me another more interesting–and compassionate–way to approach them.
If a student came into his office needing to make an appeal of one kind or another, he would shove his large gerth back into the squeaky office chair, pushing it up against a chaotic pile of papers and books about to fall off his desk, cross one leg so that the ankle rested on the knee of the other leg, hitch up his thick square glasses (which had inevitably slipped down to the end of his nose), and say, “Okay. Tell me your story.”
The way he saw it, every student had a story, and it was important to listen and engage in that story in order to best help them succeed. The “story” would shed light not only on the dos and don’ts of sound administration, but on what makes a student tick. The rules were there as guidelines, not rigid standards to divide and subdivide those trying to learn into quantitative bins. After he heard the tale of one or another undergrad, he might say, “Well, okay, that was a good story. We’ll see what we can do (about whatever needed to be done). Then he’d lift his large teddy bear self out of the chair, and saunter, hunched over, down the hall, pulling a cigarette from the pack in his unkept shirt pocket so he could go have a smoke outside the building.
Despite his chronic lack of finesse, this man endeared himself to me because he was especially observant about how us creative writing types actually made really good teachers, because we weren’t afraid to try something different, or step away from what wasn’t working. We cared about our students, he said, because we knew, he said, because we also wrote.
If he had been sitting in my classroom, he would have loved how I told the students that reading and writing are a form of thinking: they are all part of the same process. Listening too. Just different notes in the same chord. He taught me how to appreciate there’s rarely a greater gift you can give someone than pulling up a chair and being truly willing to listen to what they have to say.
So it is my humble honor and pleasure to share with you that I have been asked to “tell my story” on KVMR Radio in Nevada City, California on August 24th. I’ll be on my reader Peggy Bean’s show “SOS Radio” at noonish, where we will chat about how a plant based diet has been the basis for transforming my life with MS and fibromyalgia into the slow miracle you read about here. If you’d like to join us live, you can listen online at www.kvmr.org. The show will be archived immediately afterwards, and will be available for your listening pleasure for 6 weeks. So if you miss the actual program time, you can hear what Peggy and I chatted about.
Although she tackles serious topics, like an interview with Dr. Openlander about the impact of animal agriculture and fishing on global depletion (which you can find by scrolling down to June 22 on the KVMR archive page), Peggy’s got an awesome theme song for her show that makes me laugh with delight every time I’ve heard it. You can listen to and watch it being performed right here on her blog page, if you like to hear music to get you in a vegan mood. I dare you not to smile while you listen.
If you’re sitting at your computer or online on your smart phone around noon on August 24, I hope you’ll join us as I tell Peggy some of my slow miracle story. It’s the first time I will talk about the things I’ve written on the blog to a public audience. I thank you all for your support of my written words, and hope you’ll listen in and cheer me on with the spoken ones!