“The frustrations set in, the strange resentment. My students are writing so much and I am not.”
I’m taking a writing class in New York City, and these words are from the instructor’s blog. She resents all sixteen of us, perhaps me the most. We are of the same generation, she and I, but took different paths in life. We started out teaching high school; while I went on to a career in communications at American Express, she struggled as a writer, editor, and adjunct professor. Perhaps we typecast each other; I saw an aging hippie with long grey hair, jeans, and a fierce manner, and she saw a corporate type, privileged, and nondescript.
I’m the oldest student at sixty-one. In a blog the teacher labeled me “the widow.” Dwayne, the only man, is tall and good-looking and quiet. He’s from Jamaica and writes beautiful essays about his impoverished childhood. Then there are the women. I’ll start with Anna, because she struck me as especially smart during the first class. She is a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr seeking to find her way in the world. She has a beautiful, open face, but she’s tough; she grew up in the rough New Lots section of Brooklyn and is proud of it. When she told the teacher that the first essay – dated and insipid –we’d been assigned to read did not move her at all, the teacher was shocked and brushed her off. I thought, boy oh boy, there will be sparks between these two.
There is Stephanie, with her long hair, wide eyes, and horn-rimmed glasses, a Cornell graduate who plays banjo in a band and works for Ken Burns. When she wrote an essay about meeting Pete Seeger and how it had a profound impression on her, the teacher was unimpressed. She chided her for wondering how people could be drinking lattes at Starbucks as Seeger marched by. “Be careful,” the teacher said. “You go to Starbucks, too.” Huh? Doesn’t the teacher get it, that after you’ve been hit by something, as I was by the initial diagnosis of my husband’s melanoma, you look at people in the grocery store and wonder how they can just go on with their lives. Don’t they know? That it ends?
And the funky, quirky Laine who admits to being addicted to gossip magazines and wrote a hilarious piece about a porn star. The teacher told her that this was not a humor-writing class. Most shocking of all was the teacher’s behavior toward Melanie, a sweet-faced young woman who works in advertising. She shared an essay on what it is like to have a younger sister with brain damage; it is the first time she had opened up on this subject. The teacher told her that she must see a therapist before she attempts to write on this topic. (And our teacher is not going to take on the therapist role; she has her hands full with us as it is.)
And our doctor, the red-haired, green-eyed Cynthia. The teacher decided that she had issues with grammar, since she grew up in a Hungarian-speaking household in French-speaking Canada. One day my cell phone rang, and it was the teacher. She wanted me to use a “gentle touch” and help Cynthia with her grammar. (Because she was so busy preparing for our weekly sessions.) Stunned, I was my usual accommodating self, and agreed, joking that I am a grammarian at heart. “Of course you are,” was her snide response.
Then there are the two blonde, blue-eyed women from Norway, relief workers for the United Nations. They appear shell-shocked at the classes they manage to attend; I don’t think it’s from their work in war-torn Africa, but rather from the teacher’s abrasive manner.
“And not wanting to give my students any kind of short shrift, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with this resentment, though I know it’s very common among working writers who teach. I’ll probably talk to my students about it on Wednesday. If I am not doing my best, they’ll let me know.”
Right. We’ll let her know. It’s impossible to speak in class; we are frozen, afraid of her. After she urged us to write or call her if we faced obstacles, I wrote that I couldn’t write about being at Woodstock as agreed for the “witness to history” assignment because I could barely remember it. I had another idea about meeting Margaret Thatcher and shared information – too much, it turns out. In class, she referred to me and said she has no time to read long emails, because after all, she has “tutorial and private clients.”
What’s the difference? A private client sounds hushed, secretive, prestigious. I imagine private clients discreetly entering her Upper West Side apartment building as they would their private banks. She made it clear that I am not a private client and thus am not entitled to take up any of her private time.
“And I find my students inspiring, too. The class is dynamic and keeps my mind clicking.”
How does a mind click? Mine is what the Buddhists call a “monkey mind,” jumping around and around, rehashing my life ad nauseum. How can I get my mind to click away, as hers does? She may find us inspiring, but she does not inspire us. Rather, she focuses on herself and long-past accomplishments and belittles ours. We know about her screenwriter husband from the famous literary family, her daughter upstate who grows all her own food, the lifeguard at her pool, the manager at her favorite bookstore.
When the doctor wrote about an earthquake where she felt powerless to help, the teacher brought up an incident where her mother, a doctor, failed to jump into a swimming pool to save a drowning child. The child died with a doctor within yards of her. The incident has tormented our teacher for years. With good reason, I think. Perhaps this is the explanation for her bizarre ways. Her mother failed to jump into the pool. Of course, since our teacher has long been in therapy, she likely thinks she has resolved this.
“So, dear students, forgive me if I am a bit distracted now and again. It means I’ve done all the preparation for our workshop by Monday afternoon and have been able to immerse in my own writing for a day or so.”
How wonderful. Done with the arduous preparation – recycling old reading lists and quotes about writing and scribbling a few words on our essays – she has a “day or so” for her own writing. It amazes me how unaware we can be of our behavior. I hate to criticize, knowing my own failings, but with her, I cannot resist. And why not, given what she wrote on her blog about another teacher:
“I took a course with Robert McKee, a Hollywood type. The wannabe screenwriters sat and listened to McKee pontificate about how a screenplay is made. If someone dared to raise their hand with a question, he abused them verbally.”
Take that, Robert McKee! And speaking of grammar, I see why she asked me to help the doctor, who writes extremely well at three in the morning after long days supervising residents. “If someone dared to raise their hand.” Is someone singular or plural? Grammarian at heart, I know it is singular: “If someone dared to raise his hand.” Or, for those who don’t accept the masculine as universal, “If someone dared to raise his or her hand.” Take that, dear writing teacher!
Elizabeth Titus has been a journalist for Gannett, an English teacher, an advertising executive (Doyle Dane Bernbach), a communications director and speechwriter (15 years at American Express), and a freelance writer and blogger. She has a BA in English (Skidmore), an MA in English (University of Pennsylvania), and an MBA (Wharton). She lives in a 1930s socialist colony in Connecticut as well as in Manhattan. She has published articles with the Weston Magazine Group, Westport News (Hearst), Ms. Magazine.com, Skidmore Scope, and MORE.com (Meredith) and will soon appear in Narrative and Talking Writing.