Back to School

I’ve gone back to school in 2018, although the class began eight years ago.

I read Invisible Man on my first trip back to Los Angeles since I got sober. I crashed on a friend’s couch in a move reminiscent of my first move west. Only this trip had a return ticket and no visits to the psychiatric ward.

I avoided my old haunts, caught a meeting, hung with some friends who saved my life and read Ralph Ellison’s epic novel. At the time, in 2010, I was in my second year sober and in my first year as a teacher.

I brought Invisible Man with me to California because I saw my principal’s copy in his office. The cover was torn and several sections of the book lost adhesion to the binding. Each page was adorned with notes in the yellowed margins. For a literature lover, it’s like seeing a priest leaf through a beloved but tattered bible. There is the understanding that the words printed on these pages have moved out of the classification of fiction and into the realm of experience.

I wasn’t surprised. My principal teaches a literature course. In fact, most of our school’s administrators teach in the classroom, a model of education that results in a teacher-first environment.

I love a used book. Unlike cars, mileage adds value. A gift from my sister, my first edition of the rarity The Eighth Day by Thorton Wilder, has come unstitched. My collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems has been treated with super glue and gorilla tape. The cover to Kay Ryan’s Best of It has been ripped off.

While I enjoyed Invisible Man on my homecoming trip to California, I was pestered by the notion that it would be far more enjoyable if I could be taught it by the man who so loved it, by the man who uses a rubber band to hold its pages together.

So, with my only free period this year being the period he teaches the novel in his world literature class, I decided to enroll. Me relinquishing whatever sliver of free time I used to have explains why I’ve essentially vanished from the digital world in February.

To explain the joy in sacrificing the scattered remains of my schedule—time usually reserved for social media, news scrolling, and Netflix—I have to take this post through the then and now effect.

The schism in time between two experiences, demarcated by my first day sober.

 

Then

In high school, I was the beneficiary of hand-me-down Cliffs Notes. Before the internet made book summaries a free but ad-flooded click away on Sparknotes or Shmoop, we used to have to buy and read a book in order to cheat our reading. Those were ironic times. My students don’t know what Cliffs Notes are nowadays. I joke with them that Cliffs Notes are the summaries that the writers of Shmoop read to make their own, sparser renditions.

There were certain books I read, but many I didn’t. I remember taking my copy of Ethan Frome, untouched by the time the test came, throwing it around the room and creasing it’s binding in order to give the illusion that it was well-read.

The best summation of my life as a scholar in the days of back then came during my last semester of college. I was clinging to a GPA of 3.0. Before the last set of finals in my undergraduate career, I did complicated math using proportion analytics and the weights of grades in syllabi to determine the minimum grade to achieve on each final to maintain that coveted 3.0.

I graduated with a 2.98. Fate has a great sense of humor. If I took a single increment of time away from calculating the grades I needed, or—imagine—just studied as hard as I could to expand my knowledge, I could have well exceeded the marker I failed to reach by two hundredths of a point.

 

Now

Teaching English taught me how to read. I taught three sections of American Literature and three sections of a freshman survey course in my first year. I had to read the chapters I assigned in Huckleberry Finn well past midnight in order to become comfortable enough with the material.

I discovered that it’s one thing to read for yourself; it’s another thing to read for school when the pressure to comprehend what you read is upon you. Reading in order to stand in front of two dozen teenage boys for forty minutes the following day and claim a sort of pedagogical mastery over the material is a new species of reading altogether.

I felt a responsibility not to miss any of Twain’s subtleties, a sort of charge that I imagine escape artists feel while trapped inside a straight jacket. I must know where to find the key before I perform.

If I didn’t learn how to read that first year, I would have missed the touches that make the book a masterpiece, like when Huck narrates that Jim was going to do the right thing because he was white inside, or when Huck believed that, while unnatural to think so, Jim might love his family as much as a white man would.

Teaching forces me to scrutinize the text. It has created an urge to never gloss over a piece of literature in any form.

After getting sober and teaching for a year, I began a Master of Arts in Teaching English during the summers. Going back to school sober to learn more about my calling as a teacher and writer and reader was a drastically different experience.

One class I took on the nineteenth century British novel had me reading an epic a week. Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein. I read the Austen novel in four days, reading at eight hour intervals, attempting to scrutinize over each chapter, each sentence. The result, besides a thicker prescription of reading lenses, was a deep admiration for the most powerful narrative voice I’ve ever read, and an ambition to find my own in time.

I wasn’t thinking of what grade I might get. I was reading for the enjoyment and the intellectual pursuit. I graduated with a 4.0 without so much as calculating a single grade in advance.

 

So

If you’ve noticed my falling off the interface of the digital world, it’s because any free moment I now have is reading as much of Invisible Man as I can before my children find me behind the shower curtain during our game of hide and seek or while I stuff my face with cafeteria food.

It feels great to become a student again. I am free to be taught rather than teach. Above all, it is a good reminder that life’s lessons never remit. Class is always in session. We only need show up to reap its wisdom.

My stepfather is fond of saying, “Always keep your learning curve upward.” I’m heading that advice. My mother told me, “The best thing you can do to get your first novel published is to start writing your second.” I’m following that advice as well.

Approaching the world from the willingness of a student allows the great probability of all things possible.

8 Responses to “Back to School

  • Beautiful post. As always. I will pick up a used copy of Invisible Man to read between my one alcoholic memoir a month commitment among other books too good to not enjoy. I just received a clearly loved copy of Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell: Their Correspondence. The fact that someone – or someones – read it so often to release its pages from the spine makes it so much more interesting. Love your posts.

    • Thanks for that. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts on Invisible Man once you get there. We just finished chapter 7. It is dense. Heavy mythology. Blazing insight into the mid-century African American experience.

      Those letters sound incredible. Happy reading! It’s great to correspond. Stay in touch.

    • Also. Very strange but every time I try to comment on your posts, it blocks me as a suspected bot. I wrote a long response that I don’t have time to rewrite now, but I’ll just say that, “the best are reserved for those who live each day toward what it is they want most” is some awesome and brilliant stuff. Really enjoyed your last post.

  • Thanks Mark,
    Again eloquently put, juxtaposed.

    I too am spending an intense week as a student, to sit in the row of peers whilst others impart their knowledge. It is indeed a rare insight for a teacher and many a lesson can be learned (additional to that of the content as intended).

    Mat

    • Very true.

      You get it. That mix of being teacher and student at once. It allows us to appreciate both sides of the equation. Thinking and searching for your links. I’ll get back to you soon. Thanks for leaving a word for me!

  • I’ve read 4 books this year, all down to being sick really. But I’m back reading on the bus to work now. Great post as usual Mark.

    • 4 Books in 2018? You’re killing it!

      I’ve really only read 1 that I finished. I’m reading like five books at the moment and I’m in different places in each. Great to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words.

  • I also love a used book. Most of mine come from our recycling shack at the town dump. My bookcase is full of them. I broke away from reading your post and was thrilled to find among them The Eighth Day! I’ve put the others you’ve mentioned on my reading list- thank you, Mark! P.S. I did notice your absence. Found myself checking out your website to make sure one hadn’t slipped by me!

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