For the first month of a long-ago school year, sixteen-year-old Mark, hiding inside his torn leather jacket, huge in size and rage and need, reeking of gasoline, his motorcycle boots splayed across the aisle, refused to say a word in English class. Other students steered warily around him. I, his teacher, went home every night thinking about how I might connect with this boy I was carefully observing, trying to imagine the story behind his anger and disengagement, searching for the right words to break through that greasy armor he wore, calculating how I might revise things so they’d make more sense for him.
My thirty-seven years as a public school teacher included a long stint in an alternative school for turned-off students like big Mark. This challenging work supported, in unexpected ways, my growth as a writer. For me, there was a seamlessness between the two endeavors of writing and teaching, the useful habits of each supporting the other.
The tools in the kit of any striving-to-be-successful teacher can be usefully applied to the challenges of writing: Careful observation. The attempt to imagine a life story wholly unlike one’s own. A constant search for the right words that will break through and resonate in the reader’s mind. And endless revision.
Teaching also provided the subject matter for much of my early writing. During my decades in the classroom, I kept notes—-often in the tumult of the school day on scraps of paper I’d stuff into my shirt pocket—detailing provocations of the work. At night I would sometimes type up those notes and write further about issues they raised. The school day requires so much attention and stamina and decision-making, there’s little opportunity for reflection, and I needed a mechanism for sustained thinking about how to become a better teacher. With the evening’s distance and the quiet plink of the keyboard, I could mull over a day’s challenges, savor small victories, tinker with problems, and gain a bit of perspective on the daily triumphs and dismays of teaching. This writing habit was my form of self-analysis for many decades, a refuge for articulating my teaching life—-and, over the years, as I realized the values of this daily discipline, my whole life.
There’s an easy dance between teaching and writing. Both are part-craft, part-art. Both require attentiveness, probing questions, words that grab and hold. Both demand an open mind and an empathetic heart. Both recognize the complexity of the human condition. Both require the skills of a ringmaster in a three-ring circus. Both require bullheaded persistence.
Over time, as I kept trying to connect with Mark, he started occasionally talking in class. And then one great day, he shocked me by slouching up after the bell rang. He eyed me for a moment, and asked if we were going to read some more of “that cool poetry shit.”
“And we’re going to write some, too.” I said.
He nodded. “Okay.”
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TIM GILLESPIE drove away from Los Angeles in a beat-up station wagon at age 18, spent six years at a way station in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 1973 with his wife Jan decamped to the Pacific Northwest, where they raised their two sons. Tim spent almost four decades as a public school teacher in the Portland area, mostly at the chalkface teaching high school English. He has been President of the Oregon Council of Teachers of English, a founding co-director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College, and one of the original founders of the annual Oregon Writing Festival for student writers. His educational essays and articles have appeared in many national educational publications, and he is the author of a recent book for teachers, Doing Literary Criticism, published by Stenhouse Press. Poems have lately appeared in The Timberline Review (WS2017), Windfall, Cloudbank, English Journal, the anthology A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, and elsewhere.