11 June 2009

No Choice But From the Heart

It's funny how when you don't think you're doing anything particularly well, you get praise. Or thanks.

I'm having fun teaching the class I have now. Night classes in the summer attract committed, dedicated students. And they're adults: I don't have to tell them to come to class on time and such. They're working all day, but they somehow manage to come to class and do the work.

With students like that, I don't have to work terribly hard. I'm still busy, yes. But I don't feel as if I'm trying to make a bridge out of Jell-O, as I sometimes feel when I'm teaching the students who are in school because their parents want them there or because they don't know what else to do.

The class I have now is particularly nice. It's the "Understanding Literature" class everyone in the college, no mattter his or her major, has to take. Every night I have taught it, students came up to me after class to tell me how much they like it. "I took the course during the regular semester with another prof," said one student who explained that she had to withdraw from all of her courses for medical reasons. "But this class is nothing like it." Then, she caught herself: "I mean that in a good way!"

Another student praised my "sincerity" and "genuineness." What I didn't tell that students is that I really don't have any choice but to be so.

Today we read Tess Gallagher's poem The Hug. (http://people.tribe.net/41f12efe-2fed-45eb-bdd5-be0632930532/blog/ced17030-4493-4e6d-ae5c-35ba79519cbc) In it, the speaker hugs an apparently homeless man as her lover watches. That itself was interesting and controversial, but the poem's irony or mystery, depending on how you look at it, is heightened in the last line: "When I try to find some place to go back to."

One student (a young man named Ariel!) could not take his eyes off that line. He made one of the more astute observations I've heard, which he expressed in a question that, coming from someone else in another context, could have been rhetorical: "Who's homeless in this poem?"

"The speaker, maybe," replied Vejai, a Guyanese woman about my own age.

I was ready to burst into tears over that one. A few students noticed; one even commented on it. "Yes, it is a powerful line," I intoned. Or, I should say, weaseled. It was one of those true--almost to the point of being trite--statements I have learned to utter to get myself out of an emotional "close call."

Now, I've always liked the poem. But I never quite thought of it the way Ariel and Vejai seemed to suggest. But, there it was: a woman who quite possibly endangered, if not destroyed, the relationship with her lover with that so-tender hug with a possibly-homeless stranger. Could it mean that "the speaker was about to lose what she knew and felt comfortable with," as Ange, another student put it? Or, perhaps, that she never had a home.

That opened up a can of worms. We got into a discussion of what it meant to be "homeless." I explained something I realized at that moment: "After this class, most of us will return to the places where we eat, sleep, raise our children, watch TV, read or simply relax. But that doesn't mean we're going home."

A few students nodded. A few others seemed baffled. Yet others gazed at me as if I were somehow Promethean, bringing some basic and absolutely necessary truth to them.

And they seemed to want more. "Some of you come from other countries. Perhaps you were at home there. You might be at home here, you might not. There are people who never learn the language of their new country, who never adapt in any other way. "

"That's so true," one student exclaimed.

"And then there are some people who never have any homes but the wombs from which they came." Students' jaws dropped. I wasn't trying to impress them; I was simply expressing a truth that, I realized at that moment, was as much a part of me as my DNA.

In other words, I was giving them something completely from my heart because I could not give from any other place. Because I had no other place from which to give. Because what I could say could only come from my heart. I couldn't have intellectualized it or been glib no matter how much I tried or if I wanted to. Of course, I had no such desire and I had no other means of expressing what that poem, and their reaction to it, meant to me other than the words I used, inelegant as they were and as inarticulate as I was.

They had to have known I was talking about myself. They always seem to know--or at least some student or another figures it out. It's happened when I've talked about Nora in A Doll's House and Caliban in The Tempest; it happened in the hip-hop class last semester when I was comparing The Last Poets' Niggaz Are Scared of Revolution to John Skelton's The Tunning of Eleanor Rumming. And when I or anyone else mentioned Bob Marley's Redemption Song.

Out of place, out of time, out of country, out of body. And, in my case, out of gender. Some of my students may have homes now in this country, or will find them here. Some may have that place to which they can always return, where they will always be taken back, with their families and friends. I realize now that I have that place in the words I write, read and teach, and in my female spirit. Soon, I hope, my body will give my spirit a way to be at home in the universe--or, better yet, be the home for my spirit. And I hope the sheltering and nurturing are mutual.

Then again, can it be any other way--especially if none of my words or actions can come from anywhere but my heart?

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