On Teaching Writing

by Tamuira Reid

I remember being five years old and sitting in the pediatrician's office as my mother explained the problem. She talks in voices, doctor. Three or four of them at a time. I stand by her door and listen and it is frightening, I tell you. Just frightening.

After hours of testing, more to appease my worried mother than anything else, Doctor Wolfe looked gently at the two of us and said, Yes, your daughter does have a special condition. And it is called a wonderful imagination. Mrs. Reid, your daughter is creating stories that she is simply too young to write down.

A few years later, those voices would become my first poems, first one-act plays. They would become my lifeline.

For as easy as writing came to me, the rest of school did not. I'd stare out the window for hours on end, dreaming of what the world had in store for me, instead of learning the algebraic equations my teacher scribbled across the board in front of us. I would read chapbooks during recess and perform monologues out in the open field behind the block of modular classrooms. I was bright but uninspired. I remember tutors being involved. I remember hushed conversations between my parents behind closed doors.

It wasn't until I ran away to college that I began to really engage in my lessons. I remember the first class vividly. Professor Lesy walked into the room with a small grey boom box under one arm and a bundle of books and papers under the other. His hair was long and unkempt, shirt wrinkled. Coke-bottle glasses. When he finally sat down at the head of the table, pushing the play button to release classical music into the air, he looked at each one of us and said, If you can't write from your heart, you have no business writing at all.

Day after day, workshop after workshop, we picked up our essays now covered in ink. He demanded the truth from us; we gave him half of it. We gave him what we thought he wanted to know. As the semester progressed, we began to let go of what we thought we knew about writing and realized we knew nothing at all. That writing is a process, a craft, not necessarily an inherent gift.

I wrote everyday for the entire first year of my college career. I wrote first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I wrote with coffee, I wrote with beer. I wrote until my hands would cramp so badly that I'd be forced to take a break, smoking cigarettes out in the cold New England night.

It wasn't shocking that I connected to writing this way. I'd always loved writing. What was surprising, however, was how I would fall into teaching.

When Lesy would get up in front of the room, he had this incredible, commanding presence that seemed to grab you around the neck and say, Look at me! What I tell you is divine truth! You will never hear anything more interesting than what I'm about to say right now! He had us completely enraptured, under his psychotic but totally intoxicating spell. It was kind of magical.

He gave a solid performance, day in and day out. And that is exactly what it was: a performance.

I wanted to perform.

During my second year of undergraduate study, I would fill-in for my professors when they were sick or busy or stealing time to spend with their own manuscripts. Eventually they'd give in to my begging and let me teach my own section during winter term, when the Massachusetts snow was so bad they'd want to stay home in bed.

Since those early teaching gigs in college, I've taught in classrooms all over the globe, from a national tiger reserve in India to the mountains of Kentucky to rural villages in Bali. I have taught bookmaking in a state correctional facility. I have taught electrical workers in dirty carhartts and dust-covered work boots how to write poetry.

Now, at NYU, my students bring a lot to the table – diversity, intelligence, grit – and this means I need to up my game as well. I am only as good as my last performance.

But that is the thing, really. I am learning how to be a great teacher without having to rely on all the flash and smoke and mirrors. Without the old fall back of a good personality.

Personality in teaching obviously can go a long way, but it is not everything. When I look over my student evaluations each semester, my big teacher ego is not fed by theShe's so cool or Really-down-to-earth comments, but by the ones that say: Hardest class I have ever taken and I'd do it all over again or This professor pushed me to think for myself.

Once I got passed the need to have students like me, I hit my real stride as an educator. I think I was confusing like with respect. If my students learn to value the work we do as a group, to see why we are doing what we are doing and where it can take them, a bond has been created. And that bond carries us as the coursework begins to move into more challenging and obscure territory. In short, my dedication to my students is met with an equal dedication. If I begin to slack, they slack. Not unlike a marriage, their “performance” is completely dependent on mine.

A few months ago, I realized mid-lecture that I am entering into a decade of teaching. Entering a new phase of my career. I feel it in the way I think about a piece of student writing, the possibilities I see for the work. I feel it in the conversations I have with students after a killer workshop, when everyone is exhausted and alive. I feel it in the collaborative work I do with my colleagues. I feel it in my own output, of what I am moved to produce as a result of being in an academic environment. I feel it when I am on a plane, going to some fancypants conference in Europe with my tiny son on my lap, wondering how a small-town dork like me ever got a passport to begin with.

I am honored to help make writers out of non-writers. Humbled by the hard days when I question why the hell I'm doing all of this, only to have that moment – a laugh, a special connection with a struggling student – that reminds me why I teach and how unbelievably, unabashedly lucky I am to love what I do.

My hope is that I never become stagnant in my material or my thinking. I want everything to change and move and deepen. I assess student performance along these same lines. What did their work look like at the starting line? What does it look like in the end? Nothing should stay the same. Our lives, in and out of the classroom, need to twist and bend and breathe.

Sadly, there is a general tendency in academia to view writing instruction as a support for other courses and majors instead of something in and of itself. I think this attitude in higher education needs to shift towards the importance of preserving writing as an art, as a powerful mode of self-expression, as an almost spiritual investigation into the way the world, and its people, work, independent of any other discipline. In the meantime, if I come across a student in my classroom that has “writer” written all over them, you can bet I am going to do everything I can to help nurture their curiosity and development. I will tell them writing is hard, so, so hard. That being a writer will break your fucking heart. And then I will hand them a pen.

I had a student ask me recently during office hours, Professor Reid, if you could be anything, what would you be?

A writing teacher.