Jeff Kass: At the end of class, students should be thoroughly used up - and so should the teacher
At the top of the policies and procedures hand-out for my Creative Writing class, which I spend much of the first week going over with my students, is a quotation from the playwright George Bernard Shaw.Â
I designate the quotation as the Mission Statement for what we’ll be doing throughout the semester, and it includes the sentence: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.”Â
Figurative death in my class, I explain to my students, occurs at the end of the Final Exam when they hand in their portfolios. When you give me your portfolio, I say, I want you to be thoroughly used up. I want you to feel like you gave this class everything you possibly could and you have nothing left.
I go on to describe how when my wife Karen - herself a world-class rower - was coaching crew at the University of Michigan, she didn’t want the kind of athlete who bounded out of the boat after a tough race bursting with energy. She wanted the kid who could barely hobble across the dock, muscles depleted, legs jello. She wanted the athlete who would give absolutely everything she could to keep the Michigan bow ball ahead of Ohio State’s, and would collapse in exhaustion afterward.
If that’s the level of devotion I aim to hold my students to, I need to expect the same kind of effort from myself. I’m not happy with my work unless I feel depleted at 3:30 each afternoon, ready to put my head down on my desk and nap. I know it’s been a solid week when the end of classes on Friday brings me no second wind, no desire to go out and get my groove on, but a slow, heavy-bagged shuffle to my car and a hope for a quiet weekend. At the end of the school year, I want to feel like I need to sleep until July, like I have nothing, nothing at all, left to give.
This past Sunday, a student who graduated last spring stops by my house. Some people might think that’s inappropriate. I don’t. She has friends who live across the street and stops by often. She’s eaten dinner with my family and knows my children. She took my class for three consecutive semesters and is a wonderfully warm-hearted, resourceful and resilient kid. She’s also spent much of the past two years living in various shelters and not eating lunch because she has no money.
She’s come by this time to say goodbye. She’s leaving town in the morning, headed west to South Dakota by train. It’s not the kind of train that carries passengers or that she has a ticket for. She hopes to be gone for several months, to ride the rails around the country and to attend an anti-Columbus Day protest in Denver, an anti-School of Americas protest in Georgia. She wants to spend the winter someplace warm and then return to Ann Arbor in March. Isn’t that dangerous, I ask, hopping freight trains like that?
A little, she says, but normally if you get caught, the conductors just make you get off the train. I’ve heard of kids getting arrested, but by the time their court date comes around, they’re in another state. There’s a warrant out for them, but they just don’t go back there.
I’m going with another kid, she adds, I’ll be safe. I’m not saying I won’t be stuck sometimes in the pouring rain somewhere, but I’ll be all right.
Where will you sleep? I ask, and she tells me she has a sleeping bag. What will you eat? I say, and she tells me she has a food stamps card and when that doesn’t work, well, lots of people throw stuff out that’s still good. She says it like she knows.
I give her a copy of Aracelis Girmay’s poetry collection Teeth. She won’t take it until I show her the other copy on my shelf to prove the one I’m giving her is an extra. I give her a journal I bought for her at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, a nice thick one with Frida Kahlo on the cover, and a half-dozen of my best pens, the kind I use to write in my own journal. She’s one of the most talented writers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, though she doesn’t believe it when I tell her that. Write every day, I say, chronicle your experiences. I bet you can write a book. A modern-day On The Road.
She promises to write a lot and asks for my address. She’ll send post-cards. I give her an awkward hug. I’m not good at offering physical warmth. Fortunately, Karen is, and gives her a much better one. I give her all the money in my wallet. It’s not a lot. Maybe thirty dollars. She doesn’t want it. I urge her to take it. So does Karen. We continue to plead until she puts it in her pocket.
I’ve given her three semesters.
It doesn’t feel like enough.