I heard this advice at a teaching conference, about a million years ago (or so it seems). A guest speaker — I don’t remember who he was, but his specialty was teaching with technology — was telling us about some of the newest brain science. He said the best way to keep your brain moving as you age is to “Be a Rookie.” He suggested beginning some new project every year, and not just a “new” project, but something to learn. Every year.
I’ve been relearning. For instance, I’m taking piano lessons, again. At age eight or eleven (it seems I took them for several years, but that can’t be right), I never became comfortable with playing the piano. I am not that person who can sit down at the piano and play a song, or bang out a tune. I can’t play chopsticks! And I am filled with envy when other people do. I find that I’m intensely uncomfortable merely sitting down on the piano bench and facing the keyboard. I can’t remember the names of the notes. When I play, or try to, it sounds like a child’s tinkering. At my lesson I feel like such an idiot. How is it that it doesn’t come easier? The first thing, I’ve realized, that I have to learn, is how to sit with this discomfort until it abates. Just sit. Just keep tinkering at the keys.
Being back at the college this fall, teaching my one paltry section of English 101, has made me hyper aware of how other people learn, or don’t. It’s so easy — isn’t it? — to cobble together an English sentence. How is that my students can imagine that She was a lovely woman she had hair of reddish gold when she talked her voice… is one sentence and doesn’t need any punctuation? And these are students who placed in a college-level writing class, after all, not remedial students! After the first paper, I decided to spend some time on the issue, and I gave them an opportunity to resubmit a clean, corrected copy of their work. Three students took me up on the offer, none of whom had serious sentencing problems.
I feel as though I am having to learn how to teach again, how to mark papers, how to be kind in the face of mechanical error — it is another place that is not comfortable for me. By now — after twenty-five years of teaching — shouldn’t I know how to teach a group of freshman writers?
Having my seventeen-year-old daughter enrolled in Driver’s Ed. has been another source of enlightenment. The day we got her permit, I traded car seats with her on a back road and said, “Drive.” She jumped in, eagerly, and I gave her a very quick introduction to gas pedal and brake. She pushed down the gas, raced forward, swerved, stopped, raced forward again, and at the first turn very nearly ran us into the ditch. (“Brake! Brake!”)
I didn’t know how to teach her to drive, how to talk her through the mechanics of driving, even though I have been driving various sorts of vehicles since I was nine years old and my dad told me to climb into the tractor seat and move it ahead. (Luckily, Driver’s Ed. had an instructor who knew just how to accomplish this, and Emma is now driving.)
Similarly, I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was seven. And maybe that has something to do with my persistent astonishment, throughout my teaching career, at how some people don’t already know how to write. The student writers who love this stuff, who can already write — they’re a cinch to work with. But teaching skills that I take utterly for granted? This is a challenge for me, and something I get to learn, all over again. What a blessing!