It is a privilege to witness the transformation that happens when someone begins to uncover their own abilities—and you can often learn something yourself, tooby Cathy Rentzenbrink / June 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
I’m missing my students. For the first half of the year, I taught a course in Creative Non-Fiction at my local university. Every Monday afternoon I walked down the hill and into a seminar room and spent a highly enjoyable three hours talking about the ethics of memoir writing, and how to turn a space into a place, and whether or not biography needs to cover a whole life. We read about Goya and Virginia Woolf and looked at different types of maps and discussed the importance of accuracy and truth and the nature of memory.
And I was happy. February—usually my cruelest month—whizzed by. I have long thought that the right kind of work can be a bulwark against depression and those Monday afternoons saved me from succumbing to the morose introspection that peaks for me at the end of the winter and isn’t helped by lots of time alone, staring at my computer screen, fretting about the book I am writing. Instead, being with my students filled me with joy and hope.
I’ve loved teaching since the last year of primary school when I used to help the younger children with their reading. It is a privilege to witness the transformation that happens when someone begins to uncover their own abilities. What’s more, I find that it is in showing someone else how to do something that I remember how much I know, often discovering new depths and resonances. It feels primal to me. From the beginning of time, humans have worked to transfer knowledge and information to the younger tribe members. When I imagine what role I’d play in a cave people-style community, I know I wouldn’t be the doctor or the trader, but might well be the bard or the teacher.
The students reminded me of myself, of course, or of the many selves I was when younger. Their ages ranged from 19 to 30 and I was fascinated that they were poised on a continuum between me and my son, Matt. I liked to imagine us as an unpacked set of Russian dolls. Matt at the start, the newest and smallest at nine years old, then the students, and me at the other end, at 46, on a spectrum running from innocence to experience.
The teaching was not all one way. “It must be painful,” I’d say, as I puzzled over how to connect my laptop so we could watch a video clip, “to see me fumble about with technology like an old person.” “That’s OK,” said one of my students, kindly, as he showed me how to turn on the television. “You’re not as bad as my Mum.”
I was Mum-aged for most of them, which was sometimes a shock to remember. Unlike me, they’d first encountered Harry Potter by having the books read to them by their parents.
Perhaps some of my concern for them felt a little maternal. They are struggling to get internships and are worried about getting jobs. Lots of them were fiercely bright. Some of them were sweetly disorganised, which helped me to remember to be less demanding of Matt and more accepting of his age-appropriate nine-year-old silliness. From every class I’d take home a fact for Matt. After a week where we’d been trying to write from the perspective of a non-human, “Did you know that an octopus has three hearts and nine brains?” When Matt and I fell out over his homework, I’d say to him, “Why is this so hard? How can I teach other people and not you?” “You can teach me stuff I like,” he said. “I just hate grammar.”
Another moment of reciprocal learning. Of course! Both the teacher and student need to be interested in the subject. I could happily discuss ethics in memoir writing with keen grown-ups until the end of time, but I’d rather do almost anything else than try to explain what a fronted adverbial is to an unwilling small boy.
So, I’m a bit lonely now that the semester has ended and my students have gone home. But soon, Matt will break up for summer. I’ll give the most heartfelt thanks to his amazing teacher—one of the most important people in any parents’ life is their child’s teacher—and then we’ll spend a few weeks together, teaching and learning, learning and teaching. He can have some time off from failing to understand the grammar that Michael Gove has imposed on our kids and instead we can roam the seashore making up stories from the perspective of a starfish or a crab, or maybe we’ll do some urban exploring, walking the streets, thinking about the impact that place makes on us and that we leave on place. Certainly, the people who teach us remain written on the body. I still feel scarred by my bad teachers and eternally grateful for the good ones. And grateful, too, to my students for brightening up my year and helping me feel positive about the human race.