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Instructions for the Vocationally Challenged
How to Become a Teacher, an Artist,
or Something In Between
Susanna Childress

Begin with Mrs. Muffler, in second grade, who announces she is leaving to be an astronaut and, since training begins next week in Florida, St. Valentine’s will be her last day with you. This is the year you write an essay about what you want to be when you grow up and every other girl in class chooses Teacher. Even your best friend David Hallgarth lands on Guitar Teacher, not Cop like most of the boys. Give yourself “room to dream,” which is what the bulletin board on the east wall instructs. A folk singer-pediatrician. A folk singer-paralegal. A folk singer-florist. This is also the year Christa McAuliffe, former schoolteacher, explodes with the rest of the crew in the space shuttle Challenger. You find this as tragic as anybody else, only you want to laugh when you learn from the newspaper clipping that the spacecraft commander’s final words were, “Roger, go at throttle up.” That’s the silliest sentence on earth! But there’s Mrs. Muffler, crying so hard the sucking noises begin to scare you. Admit you love her, a lot, and when the time comes, sing “Friends are Friends Forever” as a duet with Hillary Goodman. They bring out cake and soft drinks and the vice principal chalks “Bon Voyage” in humongous letters on the blackboard along with hearts pierced by arrows and all nine planets, which except for Saturn you have trouble distinguishing.

Resent Mrs. Muffler’s replacement. Sniffle a little as you walk into class. Ms. Williams—“That’s Mizzz, Missy”—is tough on you. But everyday after lunch she reads aloud from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which your mom tells you is usually for fourth graders. Ms. Williams says, “Think about it: in 1866, exploring the bottom of the sea was completely futuristic, kind of like you and me traveling through outer space is today.” Add folk singer-submarine commander to your list even though a gigantic narwhal has begun to slink through your dreams. Add folk ­singer-harpooner. Start calling your kid brother “Ned Land.” You love those sounds. You wonder if a submarine has throttles but are smart enough to know if it blows up they won’t be finding parts of you in Atlanta, Georgia.

Augment your list throughout the next year. Cake Decorator. State Senator. Shuck new ideas as soon as you’ve announced them even though your third-grade classroom is a place of practicalities: multiplication tables, long vowels, Mrs. Bush’s mouth full of braces and little purple rubber bands. Be fastidiously irrational; believe humans are capable of whatever they set their minds to. You like that phrase. Adults besides Mrs. Bush will say, “Fantastic!” and “Go for it!” Notice how they stretch out their unblemished smiles. “Atta girl,” shouts your bus driver, a kind, gigantic woman named Delena, and takes the curve onto Old Finley Way so fast you pretty well end up in your sister’s armpit.

In grades 4–6, try not to miss Ms. Williams. Try not to think of Captain Nemo’s final words, “Almighty God, enough! Enough!”

After a field trip with Mr. Rocha’s class to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, think hard about the pulley, the phonograph, and bubble gum. Work on inventing things, but only if you’re able to sneak parts from around the house so that once a week someone has to ask, “Anybody seen the lid for the blender?” and “Where’s the other kerosene stove?” If at all possible, founder terribly. Become familiar with the uncertainty of brilliant and whimsical connections; drag a knapsack back into the house and, after everybody’s in bed, return items to their places. Use Krazy Glue if needed (your dad is keen to keeping things whole). Try not to get caught. Slink like a narwhal.

Begin deliberations with your sister: Is it possible to be a babysitter for a living? Why would you want to do anything else if you could babysit all the time? The first time you babysit as a ripened-up seventh grader, you try to play Kid Games and make Fun Snacks but you end up instructing your sole charge, a ringletted three-year-old, how to say your favorite word, onomatopoeia (this takes the first two hours), and then some examples like drip and scrape and crack (this takes fourteen minutes, though you have two more you don’t get to because she keeps saying her own name, Brynn, which you’re almost certain isn’t onomatopoeic, and because her parents show up). They don’t suggest opening a Babysitting Business. Instead they say, “Have you thought about becoming a teacher?” and “I bet there’s a lot of kindergartners who’d love you!”

Give up on Babysitting. Your sister has determined she wants to be a veterinarian, and you, too, feel the need to land on what you will Be. Not knowing yet it was the participle that did you in, you can only articulate your small grief and growing panic by referring to the previous year as My Babysitting Phase, which sounds so good you start identifying and occasionally making up other phases for yourself. This is crucial; it cultivates a proclivity towards both mainstream and outlying trends, not to mention grievous exaggeration, both of which will increase in grandiloquence as you march through grad school. “Yes, well,” you intone at fourteen, “that was smack in the middle of my Lowering Cholesterol Phase.” Or, “But I said that during my Reading Through the Bible in One Year Phase!” Your mom understands this. Your dad understands you will later call it your Ironically Self-Abnegating Phase. Do what you can to stretch this one out a minimum of two decades.

In the hallway at your high school you ask David Hallgarth, “Do you sometimes delight in a word so much you find yourself saying it again and again?” and, at lunch, “What is important in this life?” In the locker room, repeat a phrase you think exceptionally beautiful: young minds. Young minds, young minds, over and over and over. Finally, you decide what you shall Be. The problem is that it will require the attention of an orthodontist and a dermatologist, neither of which your parents can afford on their teacher-librarian, teacher-preacher salaries, so you try to keep an appropriate emotional distance to your idea. These days your teachers say things like, “You can be anything you want to be!” and “Hitch your wagon to a star!” and “If you aim for nothing, you’re sure to hit it!” These statements strike you as leaving God out of the picture—the wagon-star one especially makes you nervous until you find out it’s an actual quote and therefore a metaphor that has nothing to do with horoscopes, which are a sin. It’s the kind of encouragement you need: with all the Evil and starving kids out there, does God really give a hooting-ninny about your zits and incisors? You embrace your Destiny, and the timing couldn’t be better; folks are getting pushy. It is best, then, if you tell your teachers straightaway, especially in grades 9–12, that you plan to be a News Anchor. You don’t want to teach. Be emphatic, particularly after group projects. (Hint: opt for The Diorama if you can. This is a perfectly good way to spend hours and hours scissoring construction paper and planting the idea that perhaps a saturnine streak is on its way, which is permissible for News Anchors but not for educators in closer proximity to young minds.)

Junior year, Amanda Pyles gets her Shakespeare paper torched in a candle on the teacher’s desk because she wrote “a lot” as one word. You will never again hear those lines from Macbeth without thinking how the flame nearly reached Mrs. Callis’s fingers before she blew it out. Make a point from here on to pronounce this phrase, “eh lot” instead of “uh lot” in case from your speech people assume the worst about your intelligence.

Senior year, agree to be editor of the school newspaper, The Confederate, which corresponds with the mascot, the Southwestern “Rebel.” Request a column, but do not try to take on the complicated implications of your school’s racist mascot. You’ve asked your friend Monet Perry, as an African-American (one of three at your school), whether it bothers her, and she said no. Take this at face value. Meanwhile, write salty little op-eds about watching less television and the beauty of adjectives. A few kids will grin at you in the hallways and say, “Nice column.” A few actually means one (your best friend David Hallgarth). Most will ignore you, many will roll their eyes. About anything you write, Mrs. Abplanalp, your journalism teacher, will say, “Maybe your sentences should be a little more straightforward. You know, subject-verb-direct object. Building an argument. The five Ws.” Recognize within a few weeks your almost complete inability to blandish others to write for the paper either quickly or well. Stay until midnight before each issue goes to press, correcting, printing, reprinting, rubber-cementing the proofs. Discover that your co-editor revises the captions you’ve written for every photograph. “There’s no need for adjectives in captions,” she says. “Just stick to the facts.”

In college, try not to be confused by the difference between Communications and Journalism. Journalism is edgy, French-sounding. Communications is, well, redundant—isn’t that what Journalism is? Your college does not award a degree in Journalism. What they do have is a topnotch Communications program. Deaden your Appalachian accent by practicing sentences that start, “Another anonymous source contends the governor’s office is responsible for….” Declare a double major in Communications and English, even though you hated The Great Gatsby. You know a lot about commas. Say to your mom on a cell phone the size of a brick, “Maybe words will work out for me after all.”

At this critical juncture you must be certain to do two things. The first is not get asked out on a date. At all. Ever. You can blame God a little if you want; this will be important for your sense of social alienation and a slow pedestalization of human connection. It will help that the girl-to-guy ratio at your school is 4:1. The second, most useful if it happens concurrently, is fall irrevocably, irreversibly in love with The Great Gatsby. And Age of Innocence. And East of Eden. And every one of those bastards Eliot and Pound and Williams and Stevens and Frost. You will not bring yourself to say the word bastard about anything or -body for another four years. This is fine. This is part of the process.

Two professors will aid you, will not wrangle you with theory or jargon but with their own irrevocable, irreversible love, the great getting lost in literature. Because it is a small liberal arts school, you will be invited to their homes, to look at their libraries and to eat things like paella and pine nuts, neither of which you’ve tasted before. The more Lutheran of the two will be tough on you, ever so much more than Ms. Williams back at Southwestern Elementary who it turns out didn’t like how well you thought of yourself and told you so on the last day of second grade because, she said, she actually did like you. This is different. This is life-or-death. What Dr. Brown demands, up to your earlobes in Daisy Miller’s motives as well as the spondees and slant rhyme for an Intro to Creative Writing course she suffered you to take since you seem always to be speaking of words and sounds and subtleties, is half of you plunged under the signa, half firm-legged on the res, and another half (you’re an English major now) floating like the Ghost of Christmas Past toward or around or within the signified. She doesn’t ­actually say this, doesn’t quote Augustine or Saussure or Julia Kristeva, which is just right, since you need to experience such things before you have someone name the conundrum. In fact, you won’t know entirely what this means or how you’ll fork out most of your adult life trying to imitate that demand until you are seventy and watching your grandchildren teach each other new words. Rosebud. Bucket. Fragile.

When Dr. Brown hands back your paper on Faulkner’s Light in August, the note in rolling script at the end suggests you meet her during office hours, and after she buys you a Diet Coke and you two sit down in the second floor lobby, she tells you your prose style is somewhat overreaching. “Clarity,” she says gingerly, “is not your forte.” It turns out when you write an analytical paper, each paragraph needs to build into something like an argument. You’d been convinced—and are still suspicious that Dr. Brown might be leading you astray—that the point was to wander into a book and let yourself get smitten so hard your eyes nearly cross with joy, and then exclaim this, inasmuch as your rapture is explicable, with a cadre of rabid sentences. It appears there are other things to do with your love of literature, like blow kisses in theses.

At least it’s not the five Ws.

Move beyond the first forty-five years of the Twentieth Century. Backwards and forwards at the same time and in consecutive semesters, for instance Chaucer and Sylvia Plath. Kurt Vonnegut and The Metaphysical Poets. Lose interest in Journalism-Communications, where clarity is not only not your forte but a small god you’re forced to kneel before and make sacrifices to. Write poems. Write gallons of poems. Be trembly and brave and notice everything you didn’t before, such as the keening of the cold night wind in February and how George W. Bush pronounces “a lot.” Cry sometimes when you read Keats. Apply to grad school.

In grad school, go on dates. But only with Marxist feminist deconstructionists, who of course don’t announce themselves as such until after a second glass of Two-Buck Chuck. After twice declining wine, make sure you mention you’re not morally opposed to drinking. You want to ask how a man can be a feminist, since your dad told you feminists are women who hate men and since nobody in college ever talked about feminists except the Young Republicans, of which your roommate was assistant second officer, but you’re too insecure. After twice declining pot, cough a little so he knows the smell bothers you. Talk about your favorite writers. Or listen, since Steinbeck is not, apparently, in, and you don’t know much about either Proust or metafiction. Or how sequential narrative structuring is an affront to the symbiotic interplay of semi-cognizant recall and experiential epiphany. How time, subjectively lived as it is, must replace I as protagonist. You want him to say something about clarity here. You want to ask if, if you understand correctly, time could be the antihero, couldn’t it? But you’re too insecure. You feel fuzzy. Do you mean antihero or antagonist? And what the crap is ­semi-cognizant recall? Is this what happens when you inhale ­second-hand weed smoke? Would it be possible to turn k. d. lang down?

Repeat if necessary.

Decide maybe you should focus on your ­studies.

In class, you find that close reading of, personal enrichment from, and a few puissant connections in the primary text followed by a few wispy ones won’t cut it. The same will be true of secondary texts. And tertiary texts. Resist looking up “tertiary.” Aim for lucid argumentation in your papers but recognize the trouble you have in pinpointing lucid argumentation in your secondary and tertiary sources. Your professors keep talking about the epiphanic interplay of semi-cognizant recall and subjectively lived experience represented symbiotically by the decentering of I, how I is an affront both to privileged reminiscence and to Other. Your classmates nod and nod. Nobody mentions antiheroes. You scribble furiously, trying to keep up. You are so behind, you tell yourself, biting with sincere aggression into your lip, so behind.

After a while, notice how like Job’s their questions are, even the rhetorical ones. How urgent, growing larger and more demanding and more despairing. This is true for every course except Pedagogy, which qualifies you for free grad school and classroom experience and in which your peers sit quietly, lumpen as mushrooms. Suddenly there is a lot at stake for you. Young minds!

In the classroom, don’t be surprised if having your students rearrange their desks in an uncompromisingly equitable circle and call you by your first name also means two of them will ask for your phone number and sixteen of them will not turn in their writing portfolio on time. They are not ready yet for the mutual process of liberation through the democratization of their own education. Wait until you have juniors to try that.

Try The Ping Pong approach, lobbing out an idea and letting your students paddle it back and forth among themselves. Try The Roadmap approach, signaling which way your students might go with an idea but allowing them to steer themselves. Try The Flattened-and-Laminated-Roadmap-as-Netless-Ping-Pong-Table approach, which means you’re about out of approaches because you started class today with a question on The Waste Land and somehow your students ended up discussing Coke vs. Pepsi. Find yourself saying to your colleagues, “I want my students to have courage, but I don’t want them to be punks.”

Wrestle with perspicuity and infinite perfectibility, both of which seem to lack even a glass slipper of Grace, but which you think might be necessary to Thomism, which you’ve become fascinated by, though you aren’t, as a ragamuffin Protestant, fully able to appreciate it. Do not in any draft of your teaching philosophy use the word “grace.” If, in the pre-dawn of some all-nighter, you find yourself chimerically chanting, “Ah, Bartleby. Ah, world,” a temporary antidote will be to visualize Melville himself in front of you in his Berkshire knickers and a floppy farmer’s hat. Of all things he is quoting Heraclitus: “There is a greater need to extinguish arrogance than a blazing fire.” He could be a bit of undigested mustard, but then again he could be instructing you to quit grad school, or at the very least, re-think your choice of occupations. Who but Melville to remind you that you once considered harpooning! But this, too, is a participle. Babysitting. Harpooning. Where is the Be in that? When you try to protest he turns into a white mass, vaporized, white everywhere. In the morning your landlady, whose upstairs you rent but who will not let you remove any of her oversized orange and purple yarn art, tells you that you were shouting gibberish at god-awful hours of the night. Smile at her. Ask her for a new bag for the vacuum.

In the version of your teaching philosophy you send off to liberal arts schools, use the word “Grace.” Do not capitalize it. Alternately, remove “to enlighten” from all versions of your teaching philosophy. Put it back in. Repeat this on a semi-regular basis. Tape a post-it-note over your desk: “You are not God.” –Desmond Tutu (also, St. Paul).

Resist working up a midnight phantasm. You don’t really want Voltaire in your bedroom, do you? Use straightforward sentences. Look up synonyms for “enlighten” in Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus. Tell. Explain to. Inform. Make clear to.

Tell?

Tell?!

Take up yoga. Quit after your third session and buy a pair of running shoes. Curse your flat arches. You are okay with cursing now that it doesn’t affect your salvation. You are told on this issue.

Continue to write. Continue to read. Don’t feel bad to admit at cocktail parties, “No, I’ve not read that yet,” and “No, I’ve haven’t heard of him/her/that cutting-edge theoretical approach.” Don’t quit, but don’t dally in grad school. Avoid professors who call you “that folk-singing Christian girl.” Most of all, don’t take it personally when students fail to recognize themselves as incomplete beings who enroll in your fiction workshop in an attempt to become more fully human. If you invite them to do this under Course Goals in your syllabus—#4: Attempt to become more fully human—you can bet you’ll encounter two of three things: a lot of science fiction stories; a lot of office hours counseling romantic breakups; at least one course evaluation with the injunction, “Lighten up, Francis.”

The good news is, you’re in the homestretch now.

Publish your poems and a mediocre short story or two. Pray. Garden. Meet someone who is a feminist but talks more about Jesus than Marx. Marry him. Eat whole grains. Abandon participles as divination for your future. Attempt limpid ­theses. Contemplate procreation. Try a puppy first, a smart one with whom you establish right away an uncomplicated relationship between signa and res. Sit. No Bark. Time Out. Go Wee.

Every once in a while, at night, you actually do hear the wind keening like a coyote around your house. Don’t turn on the light to write this phrase in your bedside journal. Don’t keep a bedside journal. Instead, say the words out loud, but softly, so as not to wake the one you love. In the morning, before your bowl of oats and almonds, go sit in the office downstairs and see if “the wind keening like a coyote” sounds as magical as it did when the moon was out. If not, don’t blame the moon, which has been, after all, the only who, what, when, where, why (and how) that matters.

 

Susanna Childress lives in Holland, Michigan. Her first book of poems, Jagged with Love (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award. Her second book, Entering the House of Awe, will be published by New Issues Poetry and Prose in October 2011.

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