Eating Your Words

There is a difference between kissing and talking about kissing.  There is a difference between dating and marriage (apparently).  And there is a difference between reading and memorizing, which is actually what I’m considering here.

I took my students to a writing workshop last week, and one presenter explained the importance of memorizing poems.  That while reading is critical, memorizing is ownership.  I have a great deal of trouble memorizing.  I read like bulimics eat.  I have trouble slowing down.  I am too impatient to digest.  And even more trouble taking small bites and tasting.  Emily Dickinson helps me with this.  She’s so dense and stingy that she forces my attention.

In high school, I was assigned to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquy.  I also memorized Juliet’s “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”  I can’t say it was like pulling teeth.  It was more like trying to shove teeth into your mouth, implant them somewhere up there without a mirror or glue.

I already felt ownership of my language.  My brain waves with iambic pentameter– I grew up on Mother Goose and Protestant hymns.  The smell of English poetry was mine the way Old Spice was my dad.

That kind of ownership is deep stuff, without subtlety or particularity.  With that kind of ownership, I could wax easily about what Shakespeare meant.  I could even write a passage of faux Shakespeare.  I loved writing my own dictionary definitions in 6th grade.  It was much faster than looking them up.  I was never caught.  However, I was caught adding an extra chord to a Mozart piece, and my piano teacher laughed at my insistence on “improving” Mozart.  See, I’m a showoff dilletante.  While I could demonstrate rhythmic and thematic and style understanding, I didn’t own a particular piece.  The generalities were mine and the details swept through my fingers.

My junior English teacher didn’t know or care about my struggle to memorize.  He was just going to sit there with the text while I recited.  (He told us we had to memorize poems so that we wouldn’t go insane if we were trapped in a POW camp.  Funny…and wise.)  There was no way I would screw up an English assignment.  So I shoved Frost and Shakespeare into my mouth, piercing word by word.  I recited to the shower tile.  I recited to the popcorn popping on the stove.  After fifty repetitions, I still got lost and substituted words and mixed up phrases.  I kept going.

Memorizing gives words a sensuality that reading cannot.  Reading once, even reading aloud, you can’t feel the words in your mouth the same way you do when they are memorized.  And the difference is commitment:  time and tenderness toward each sound.

The poems are still there as much as my teeth are– drilled out and refilled, and five of them just gone.  It is good to be able to run your tongue over them, occasionally.  Several times, I’ve silenced students by setting aside the textbook and doing the Juliet speech myself.  I’m not a great performer.  It doesn’t show that I understand Shakespeare.  It just shows is that I own a little of Shakespeare, and I hope it shows that he is affordable.

Scenes from the Chemistry Lab

D and I often experiment in the chemistry lab together.  I have a student teacher right now, so I have the luxury of pulling out my most egregious troublemakers (like D) to give them my full attention.  The chemistry lab is usually unoccupied, and right across the hall from my classroom, so that’s where exiles retreat to.

Our school was built almost 70 years ago.  The cabinets in the science rooms are formerly gorgeous, glass and blonde wood built-ins.  Quite a few of the floor tiles are missing.  It smells mysterious and dangerous.  The windows are huge: maybe eight feet tall.  They present a panoramic view of fast food places, shops, and trees.  None of the windows have screens.  One of the windows has a neatly lettered sign that says, “Do not open this window.”  I think that’s because it would fall out three stories and break.  Half of the stool seats are chewed up, so the wood snags your clothes. 

In spite of all that, I find the lab generally pleasant.  There is one comfy orphaned office chair.  I sit in that, in front of the wrong side of a desk that has a splintered seat attached.  It’s a great place to look at the sky.  The lab is where the chemistry teacher maintains our the third-floor coffeemaker.  My coworkers drift in and out, and we joke and gossip about the kids and sometimes I pantomime wringing their necks. 

When the class is reading “The Crucible” and D gets kicked out, we sit on stools next to each other.  I read half the parts, and he reads the other half.  I hope that he will read John Proctor’s part, although I would prefer to.  I add some explanatory asides.  D tells me he doesn’t know anything about the play, but then I ask him questions and he generally answers them correctly.

For a while, D worked at the Jiffy Lube around the corner from my house.  I saw him one Sunday afternoon, holding up a sign advertising $19.99 oil changes.  He looked sheepish when I stopped to say hello.  Apparently he works at least two jobs.

D has drifted between homes.  We always have some kids like that, who are not always sure where they are going to sleep that night.  Whose parents and grandparents get frustrated and kick them out of the house.  I understand why you would want to kick D out of the house, though.  He’s smart, snarky, and stubborn.  He can really drive you nuts. 

The reason he’s still in school and not expelled is that in between driving you nuts, he is smart and good-natured.  He still has baby fat in his face.  When the teachers complain about him, they do it with an affectionate hint in their voices. 

Today D got yanked from class for yelling across the room while he was supposed to be listening to the instructions about outlining.  When I went over to give him a warning, he waved his hand around theatrically to show everyone how bad my breath was. 

Although he walked across the hall with all deliberate slowness, once he was actually installed in the chemistry lab, he asked some good questions and started his outline.  He will again say, “I don’t know anything about this,” and then I have to cajole him into admitting what he does know.  That’s what we do in the chemistry lab.  Put things together carefully, so they don’t explode.

The Student Massage

I needed massages when I became a teacher. If you sit at a desk and type all day, you don’t need massages. You like them, your eyes roll up in your head, but you don’t need them. You need a massage if part of your job is telling people the same thing 6-100 times a day, and occasionally being called a bitch for not accepting late homework.

However, teaching didn’t provide me with the salary for frequent professional massages.  That’ s an expensive habit.  Other teachers advised me that cheaper options were available: you could go get the discount massage at the massage school in town.

Professional and twice a year had been white towels, fresh flowers. Once a month, student, half-price is ER-style curtains and uncertain direction. You sign in at a desk more medical than cosmotological. The student takes your clipboard and says, “Is there any particular reason you’re here? Just to relax?”

“My shoulders,” I say, following into the huge room. The masseuse-in-training leaves you to undress. I hang up my clothes. I slither under blanket, sheets.

There’s nothing unpleasant about being rubbed down by a well-intentioned healer. It’s always good to be warm and naked and touched—whether it’s personal or not. But these beginners, who charge half price, make you realize what can go wrong.

You can run out of lotion. Burn! You can rub nicely, without digging the creases out of a muscle. You can lean over and push your boobs onto somebody’s leg. Tucking those sheets in six different configurations to hide the gynecologists’ territory is not easy. It’s not that I’m so modest, it’s just that it can get chilly.

“I’m sorry,” says the sniffler. “I have allergies.” Don’t be alarmed that I’m rubbing my germ-infested hands all over you.

“You doing okay?” the talker interrupts, while I’m busy visualizing the light opening in my forehead.

“Is that good?” More experienced massage therapists ask this some other way, because the question elicits either an inappropriate, “Oh yeah!” or a grunt. You can’t really say, “No.”

The cushion thingy that’s supposed to go under your ankles can be under your feet instead. Your head can hang too low on the support, dropping your chin or lip on the metal bar underneath. Cold metal. Like getting braces, or lockjaw.

Whatever the misstep, I want to just shut up and take it. I didn’t come here to teach any more. I tolerate the metal under my chin, a little too slimy on the lotion. I’m breathing and sinking, to restore whatever has been eroded in the last few weeks.

Still, afterwards I will fill out the little survey. Drink my cool water. Give her a 3 out of 4 for sheet tucking. I can do that much.

Hot off the presses: urban youth react to Obama victory

I am glad to report that many of our students here (all African-American) are pretty psyched about the Obama victory, and have been writing in class about how this changes their idea of themselves and their futures.  One of the boys said he cried.  Another said his dumb grandma went downstairs to honk the horn on her car. 

One wrote, “People in other countries believe that America is once again the land of opportunity, that really, you can do anything, with hard work and dedication.  I mean, I’m no ignorant person, but I didn’t see America letting a black man win the presidential election.  I am only 17 years old, and I didn’t think I would live long enough to see a real life black president.  But in all honesty, I thank God.  We needed this.”

Still, they maintain their usual annoying teenage whining, annoyance, and misbehavior, so I know the world hasn’t totally flipped on its axis.  We kept up our cranky struggle for power, teacher/student wise.  That’s reassuring.