When I first started teaching, I thought it was going to go like Dead Poets Society: we’d rip up our textbooks and quote Whitman and play soccer to opera music, and if ever anyone was in trouble I’d know just how to save them.
That was eight years ago, and I’ve gotten a bit more realistic. College textbooks are expensive; there’s no way we’d rip them up, and my students don’t listen to opera, they listen to emo or trip-hop and I can’t save anybody. I teach creative writing—voice, structure, point of view, imagery… none of that’s going to help Rachel who’s pregnant or Kyle with the anti-depressants or Dennis who’s waaay more interested in pot than he is in class and I have these days sometimes where it’s like, what the hell am I doing here? This past semester was especially rough and on the last day, as I was packing my things for winter break, I thought: I could walk away.
What if I walked away?
On the way out, I grabbed my mail—memos, a stack of student work, and a book. I checked the cover—some lit journal from a community college—and was all set to toss it when I noticed a page was marked with a Post-it note. I opened it to a short story, saw the name of author and stopped. Okay, in order to explain what happened to next, I need you all to imagine that I’m a character on Grey’s Anatomy. I’m thinking specifically of the episode where Izzie gives up being a doctor—she’s got eight million dollars from her dead fiancé and she goes to say goodbye to Doctor Burke who first taught her how to do a running whip stitch and she tells him, “I’m sorry,” ’cause it’s her fault he got shot and has a tremor in his hand and maybe can’t be surgeon anymore and he says, “Don’t you be sorry because of me. You have two good hands and you’re not using them, be sorry for that!” At this point, some pop song by a new up-and-coming band will start playing—Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol, perhaps, or a Regina Spektor tune—and Izzie’s face jerks as though she’s been slapped. She stands there, confused and frozen in Burke’s office until slowly, slowly, she looks down at her hands, holding them in front of her like she’s about to play the piano. She studies every finger, every wrinkle, and turns them so the palms face upwards. We stare at those hands, all of us, imaging the thousands of lives they might save and the camera pans back to Izzie’s face, her lovely blue eyes wide and determined. My God, what am I doing? she thinks. How can I give up becoming a surgeon? And then, the song crescendos or maybe changes chord in some significant way and—she smiles. It all becomes clear then: she’s not going to quit. She’s going to stay and be a great doctor and here, here is the important part: It might never have happened if it hadn’t been for Burke.
Just like that lit journal in my mailbox means nothing unless I tell you about Andrew.
It was my second year of teaching. I was twenty-three and still naive enough to think we could all recite Whitman standing on our desks—except we don’t have desks in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College, we sit in semi-circles so you can look everyone in the eye. It was the first day of class and I was calling out attendance.
I looked up. “Andrew?—” And I will never forget this, he said, “I’m fuckin’ here already.” This guy was nineteen, South Side Irish Catholic complete with the accent, very baggy jeans belted just below his crotch and these giant headphones that he would not turn off unless you told him to, like “Andrew, we’re starting class, can you lose the Eminem please?”
“Whatever,” he’d say, which was pretty much all he ever said—not because he was shy, but because he just didn’t give a fuck. I’m sure if you ask some educational psychologist, they’d tell you his defiance was a façade meant to mask his insecurities, but I wasn’t asking a psychologist. I was asking Andrew.
“I don’t give a fuck,” he said, when I told him he was failing. It was the fifth week of classes and he’d missed three already. When he did show it was an hour late, headphones blaring, sitting in the back of the room a good ten feet away from the rest of us in our semi-circle and it’s very, very difficult to continue reading Faulkner under those circumstances, for one: Faulkner and Eminem do not go well together and two: everyone is more interested in seeing how the teacher will handle such an interruption than they are in The Sound and the Fury so all the concentration that you’ve just spent an hour building is shot to hell. Had I been the teacher I am now, I would’ve told Andrew he could join us after the break, but then? I wanted to save everybody, remember?
“So if you don’t give a fuck,” I asked—Michelle Pfeiffer said the word fuck in the movie Dangerous Minds and after that all her students totally respected her—“Why are you still coming to class?”
Andrew’s hair hung past his nose—I wanted to tell him to move it so I could look him in the eye. “My mom’ll freak out if I don’t,” he said.
“This is college,” I said. “Your mother doesn’t—”
“Look, I fucking paid for the class,” he said. “I’m fucking gonna come to it.” In that moment I was afraid of Andrew—not that I thought he’d hurt me physically, but that maybe he could tell I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
“Fine,” I said. “But you have to write. We’re a third of the way through the semester and you haven’t given me any writing and it’s a writing class, Andrew, you have to—”
While I was talking, he stood up and opened his backpack, taking out a couple typed pages and dropping them in my lap. Then he turned and walked out, leaving me mid-sentence and trying to remember if this had ever happened to Michelle Pfeiffer.
His writing was really, really good, except it was about a guy who wanted to kill himself. Now, lots of my students have written about suicide, but this felt different. It didn’t feel like fiction. Usually, in such situations, you’ve got three options:
- Ignore it, which really isn’t an option so far as I’m concerned so—
- Contact somebody who knows what they’re doing. I called the college’s counseling hotline—and, for the record, I felt like a total asshole, like I was ratting out this guy’s creative work but me being an asshole seemed better than him being dead. Turns out, there are all sorts of legal implications to this stuff. This is college. Andrew is an adult—he has to choose to seek out counseling. I could suggest it but not enforce it, which brings me to—
- Talk to Andrew directly.
Halfway through the semester, we do one-on-one conferences with every student—an hour-long sit-down to go over the strongest elements in their work. These are held in closet-sized cubicles in a hallway off the Fiction office, which is good because of the privacy but also a little unnerving, like picture you and a semi-stranger locked up in a bathroom for an hour. Now picture Andrew and me during his conference, the two of us in this tiny, cramped space and I’m making suggestions for his writing, like, “Could you maybe slow down the scene? Right here, when the character is taking all those pills and drinking all the vodka…” because that’s my job, right? To focus on his work? And then say something very subtle that’ll inspire him to seek help on his own but it is not, not, not that simple because sometimes those perfect words get all stuck in your throat and you end up saying the absolute worst thing possible, like: “Sooo. How’re you doing?”
“Fine,” he said.
“Fine?” I said. “Like, really fine?”
I couldn’t see his eyes through the hair, but I knew he was looking at me like I was nuts. “Okay,” I said. “Look. Do you need to… talk to somebody? I mean, there’s people here who—” Just like last time, he was on his feet and packing up. “Andrew!” I said. I wanted to reach out and grab his arm but figured that touching him would be as far from appropriate as I could get. “I’m just trying to help!”
He turned and faced me then. “It’s fiction,” he said. “Isn’t that what this class is? A fiction class?” And then he was gone.
I sat there in the cubicle for a really long time. I don’t remember my exact train of thought, but it went something like: Why can’t I get through to him, how do I reach him, how do I save him. I didn’t know then what I do now: it is so much fucking bigger than my little one class a week. Everybody think back for a second to when you were a freshman in college. What were you the most focused on? Me: my folks were splitting up, my boyfriend back in Michigan was seeing somebody else and I shared a twelve-by-twelve foot dorm room with a girl looped on ecstasy four nights out of the week. I will tell you what, teachers were the laaaast thing on my mind.
My job is to help their writing, not save their lives.
I gave Andrew an F, and on the last day of class I asked him to stay after. “You failed to fulfill the standards and policies of this class,” I told him. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer.”
“What the fuck ever,” he said. “I’m done with this school bullshit anyhow—” And then, like always, he was gone, out the door with zero fanfare.
At the end of every semester, teachers turn in grades and all copies of students’ work to the fiction office, at which time we’re given our student evaluations. I flipped through the stack and found one that hadn’t been filled out except for a single line in Andrew’s handwriting. It said: I can’t smoke pot before this class. This teacher talks too damn fast.
I thumbtacked that evaluation to my wall and looked at it for a while. Then, I put it in a box under my bed. Shake it off, I told myself. New students, new chapter. The first day of the spring semester I walked into class, called out attendance.
“Brian?—” I looked up and it was total déjà vu. The same baggy pants, same headphones, same fucking accent even! Except this wasn’t Andrew. It wasn’t Andrew. It was Brian, slouching in his seat and looking at me like All right sweetheart. What are you gonna do for me?
He didn’t show up the second week of class.
He didn’t show up the third week
On the fourth week he rolled in an hour late and sat down in the back of the room. That’s when I sort of lost my mind. “All right, out in hall,” I told him. “Everybody else—read something… or something.” As I left the classroom, I tried to calm down. This is not Andrew, I told myself. Don’t put Andrew on this guy.
“I’m sorry,” he said, moving the hair out of his face. He had blue eyes. “The past couple of weeks have been pretty fucked up.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “But that doesn’t excuse—”
“My friend killed himself,” he said. “That’s not your problem, I know, I just told you so you don’t think I’m slacking off.”
I exhaled, wondered briefly what the world was coming to and said I’d help him catch up after class.
“Cool,” he said. “But actually, my friend? He was a student here. And I know they’ve got some of his work in the office and I was wondering if you could get it for me. ‘Cause I know he wouldn’t want his parents to see it.”
I’m telling this story now and it’s so easy to see what’s coming next, but in that moment I just didn’t get it. I said something about the legality of the situation, how I’d have to ask the chair of my department and did he know the name of his friend’s teacher so I could speak to them directly?
And he said— “It was you. You were Andrew’s teacher.”
In class I tell my students there are words for every emotion and it’s our challenge as writers to find them. I have tried over and over to explain how I felt in that moment and every time I fail. I can tell about the guilt, about how part of me, the idealistic part, died right then and there; I can tell you how horrible it was but I won’t even come close. “Excuse me,” I said to Brian. Then I went into the office and down the hall, locked myself into a conference cubicle and cried. It was the first time I’d ever done that, and it certainly hasn’t been the last.
The full-time faculty in my department were really wonderful, and I might not have gotten through it without their support and advice. “Do the best you can,” they told me. “Turn your attention to the students you have now.”
For me, that meant Brian.
He came to class sporadically, but when he did he was really involved and even, I think, had a good time. He told stories about growing up on the South Side, specifically a series of instances about the Catholic school he and Andrew attended when they were kids. I don’t know if it was therapeutic for him to write about Andrew, but it sure was for me to read it.
In the end, I gave him a C, and on the last day of class I asked him to stay after. “You got a C ’cause you weren’t here half the time,” I told him. “It doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer.”
He smiled, sliding those giant headphones over his ears. “School’s never been my thing,” he said. “And this place costs too fucking much anyway.” He made it halfway through the door before he turned back around. “You know, Andrew told me to take your class,” he said.
I waited. What I wanted to hear was: He said you really helped him, or He said you were inspiring, or He said you almost saved him. What I heard instead was:
“He said you were… interesting.”
That was eight years ago. Sixteen semesters ago—twenty-seven if you count summer school—multiply that times three classes at two schools equals eighty-one classes times approximately twelve students per class at a grand total of nine hundred and seventy-two students and through all of it, all the names and faces and page upon page of writing I have never once forgotten Brian.
So picture it: I’m standing in front of my faculty mailbox, getting ready to walk out the door for winter break or maybe a hell of a lot longer, and I find this book, some lit magazine from a community college, and when I open it, there’s Brian’s name on the top of the page. I stare at it for a while, remembering him and Andrew and how I once thought I could Save the World, and some John Mayer song kicks in—maybe Imogen Heap. The story is about Brian getting kicked out of Catholic school for calling his teacher a whore. “What are you going to do with your life?” his mother asks as they walk to the car. “What are you going to do?” I remember when Brian first told the story, eight years ago in my class the week after his best friend’s funeral—and then, right after the chord change, I get it: my job is not just story structure and point of view and imagery. It’s about Brian putting that book in my mailbox. It’s Chris calling me the night before he shipped out to Iraq. It’s Rudy writing from prison and Kate getting a Fulbright to write overseas and Byron’s thank you card when he started his own business and all those people who’ve sat in my semi-circle over the years and let me learn from them. I imagine a camera closing in on my face then; my eyes are wide and determined. My God, what am I doing? I think. How can I give up being a teacher? It all becomes clear then: I’m not going to quit.
I can’t say whether or not I’ll be a great teacher, but it’s worth my time to try. At the very least, I’ll always be interesting.
Megan Stielstra writes collaborative stories with musicians and filmmakers and has performed for the Chicago Poetry Center, Neo-Solo at the Neo-Futurarium, Storyweek Festival of Writers, Undershorts Film Festival, The Dollar Store and 2nd Story, a monthly wine and storytelling series in Chicago where she serves as Director of Story Development and regularly tells stories to drunk people. Her fiction has appeared in recent issues of Punk Planet, Venus, The 2nd Hand and Otium and she currently teaches creative writing at Columbia College and the University of Chicago. E-mail: megan[at]mygreenlife.org