I’m taking Mother Tongue to the classroom—specifically, to Santa Fe High School’s Teen Parent Center (TPC). The dedicated staff, interested teen moms and I meet for a weekly “book club” that I hope will become a for-credit writing class next semester.
Although we rely on the time-honored tradition of bribing with food, attendance is irregular. It takes time to get settled: There’s lunch, breastfeeding, getting children to and from daycare next-door and smart phones. I plan a one-hour class and usually get 15-20 minutes.
We are finding our way, and I’m learning how to connect with my students. These high-school moms deserve high expectations because they are capable of meeting them, but they need teachers to speak to their experiences. I’m a better teacher when I’m true to my convictions and style—and also when I remember I’m a student, too.
The other day, I was discouraged by the previous week’s attendance of two—and also ridiculously excited about my developing reading list. In an effort to balance being both daunted and energized, I abandoned my lesson plan and decided just to explain where I’m coming from: Why I come every week, what I want to do, how I’m balancing aspiration and idealism with the limitations of reality—as a teacher and, like each of them, as a parent.
I opted for explication via quotes, always helpful for distilling complex messages! Quotes fill my notebooks. They were critical in college, when I communicated primarily by metaphor, and I look to them still. My choices for this class ramped from clear simile to abstract analogy.
“Literacy is freedom, and everyone has something significant to say,” I wrote on the board.
“This quote by Albuquerque poet Jimmy Santiago Baca is why I’m here,” I said. “I really believe this: You have important stories to tell about staying in school, balancing motherhood and teenagerhood, seeking compassion, pursuing your path.”
I then swerved right into Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tools and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
“This is what I want to do,” I told the girls. It was unclear to them. Build a ship? What about the sea? I’d have done better with a nod to the drama of our own New Mexico landscape. But the sea! Such a metaphor!
I tried to clarify: “You know the saying, if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; but if you teach him how to fish, he can eat for a lifetime?” This isn’t quite the same, but it was helpfully familiar.
“I want to help teach you how to fish, and also to love fishing, or, rather, the sea, and its endless immensity.” I was getting a little confused myself. “Okay. I’m saying fishing equals reading and writing on a skills level. And the endless immensity of the sea equals reading and writing on a literature-as-portal-to-the-world level.” I paused. “Right?”
They were not entirely with me, but they were trying, which was kind—especially given the abstraction to come.
“A small amount of debris is to be expected from the vibration of shipping.” My journal identifies this as a note in the box of a wreath shipped across country.
“This is life. This is what happens,” I said to my students. “You go through life, you change, you learn things. Parts of you fall away, right?” No response. I did not give up.
“Okay, so you’re shipping a chile ristra to your cousin.” I tried making it local.
“When your cousin opens it, the ristra holds together, but the vibration of shipping caused tiny pieces to fall off. That’s the debris left behind in the box.” I heard myself ending every sentence like a question.
“What’s cool is that often the debris is where the stories are.” This is cool, but I was distracting myself and losing any thread of cogency I’d managed to spin.
“Okay. Imagine your life is like a ristra being shipped across country. You’re in the box, moving through your life. You’re moved from truck to airplane to train. The box is vibrating.” I was now acting this out: Life journey as UPS package.
“You’re shifting, and bits of you are sloughing off.” I vibrated around and pantomimed bits of myself sloughing off. “The ideal is that you arrive in perfect condition. Reality is that you arrive whole, but changed by your experiences.”
“As teachers, we navigate between ideals—why I am teaching
and what I want to impart—and reality—how things actually shake out in class. We
navigate idealism and reality as parents, too: how we want to parent, and the
day we forget Friday kindergarten pick-up is at 12:30 until it hits us at 12:44.
Fortunately, at this point, the TPC coordinator saved me from drowning in the endless immensity of my metaphors. She asked the teens about how things in their lives weren’t exactly how they wanted them to be, relationships, for example.
“With my boyfriend,” said one mom, and the others nodded knowingly. A productive conversation occupied the five remaining minutes. I deemed class a success.
Enthusiasm and theatrical gestures may hold students’ attention nearly as well as clarity, but more productive discussions come from more accessible comparisons. I needed to learn this, again.
A nice thing about teaching parents is that they realize—or will—how much one can learn by not knowing. Ideally, this helps students make sense of their own lives, discover their own metaphors. I want to teach them to long for seafaring—for shipping-box vibrations and stories in debris. Practically, I can only help them earn English credit and see where that takes us. And who knows? That ship has not yet sailed.