It’s eleven o’clock at night, and I just got in from tailgating Shakespeare.
The snapshot places me six hours south of my home, about to begin teaching three weeks of an arts program hosted on an idyllic college campus. Specifically, I was in a parking lot, drinking beers from a cooler after a site-specific performance of an somewhat obscure play, listening to my uber-intelligent, hyper-talented friends laugh about the show, and about stories from their MFA programs.
When I was sixteen, I attended a summer program similar in philosophy to the one we are about to begin. The structure has necessarily changed. That one was five weeks and state-funded; this one is three weeks and tuition-based. Times have changed, too.
A couple of days ago, my friend who teaches creative writing here was talking through a potential project dealing with visual poetry. He noted that since the students had probably done similar work in high school, they would have some references for such project. He is an outstanding teacher – but he lives in the world of academia, working on a doctoral program and earning residencies and fellowships that support his writing.
I turned to face him from my seat on the office couch, and proceeded to set the record straight on what it is like to be a schoolteacher these days. Later, my friend Cathy, a middle school English teacher at a public school, described it pointedly: “Let him know poetry is barely part of the curriculum unless the teacher busts her ass and makes it happen.” Cathy happens to bust her ass, so she speaks from a place of authority.
My summer program colleague will not have to bust his ass, but he will do so anyway. He is the sort of amazing teacher for whom the students’ previous experience doesn’t really matter. They will admire him and follow him from day one, because his presence and experiences call for such an appreciation, and they will create wonderful new works with his guidance. Also, they want to be here. And they are allowed to learn poetry.
On the other hand, I’m fumbling through my approach to a thesis and to teaching students with such clearly defined interest in art. The contrast between my daily classroom routine and this experience is stretching me, mind to limb. My standards are unrealistically high, and my own experiences feel limited and inadequate towards providing the sort of experience that shaped my world when I was their age.
And every day, I read headlines that describe fewer and fewer students having access schools that set up any sort of future potential for artistically-minded students. My life-changing summer no longer exists – it was de-funded five years ago. I’m distracted by signs of the times that indicate, in no uncertain terms, that this experience is never coming back – at least not for young people at my economic status. They make my work here – whether clumsy or expert – seem pale next to the real work that needs to be done
Listening to laughter echo in the parking lot tonight, I felt a switch inside of me on the edge of flipping, like a light switch in my last home that would only work when you set it on the delicate balance between on and off. My circle here – all writers, all extraordinary people and artists – could describe this experience better than me. They always could. At sixteen, as I discovered for the first time that a life in the arts could be a potential future, that switch turned on when I heard a teenage writer read a story that moved me to tears. Hardly a breath later, I saw my suitemate – a dancer – slowly articulate a Peter Gabriel song with her body, in a way that made me understand the words and lyrics were far more than they seemed to be, and the human body could tell this story in an extraordinary way. To this day, when I hear that song on the classic rock station, I get the chills, fighting the urge to pull my car over and start a revolution.
As a teenager in the midst of such talent – and now – my studio work has always been more awkward than graceful. When I teach, I have to compensate for my lack of grace and talent-earned experience with being a “workhorse,” my tailgating colleague noted. I do it, and sometimes I do it very well. But I’m exhausted, and my mind and body do not quite stretch as far as they used to.
I’ve always been on the outskirts of the circle I admire – the people who have real artistic talent, the people for whom summers like this are really for. Switch on, or switch off? Maybe I could draw myself into that circle if I tailgated enough, studied the stories closely, tried to model my artworld after theirs. This summer’s circle seems to believe in my ability to do this. I’m grateful for that confidence, but I can’t help but feel it is misplaced.
Or maybe it’s time for my story to change. King Cymbeline (or, really, any of his parallel heroes in Shakespearean lit) knew what he needed to do once disguises were off and identities were clear. Underneath my disguise as a teaching artist, I am better with a spreadsheet than a brush, with a schedule than with the potters’ wheel, and maybe with a letter-writing campaign than an easel.
If my identity is not really as an artist, or a teacher, or a tailgater, maybe it’s time for the revolution to begin.
Lest the bargain should catch cold and starve.