Friday, March 25, 2011

Of Evaluations and Ponds

When I was in high school, St. Thomas Aquinas HS in New Jersey, I often performed, singing and playing guitar, at in-school events and talent shows. At the time, my older sister, Maureen, (the brilliant one: all the nuns would ask me, "are you as smart as your sister?" to which I'd want to reply: "nope. I'm the family idiot." But I bit my tongue!)--would sometimes accompany me, singing harmonies and often-times would sit in the front row of the auditorium, ready to yell song lyrics up at me, when I would eventually go blank onstage. I had terrible stage fright at the time, though it generally wore off once my fingers warmed up on the steel strings and my breath regulated itself into belting out bluesy numbers, usually by the third song. But for the first and second songs, my sister would scrutinize my face in the spotlight, waiting to catch the first sheen of that deer-in-a-headlight glaze coming over my eyes. I would search her face out in the darkness, panicked, strumming the C chord a little longer than necessary, and you'd hear a voice piping high over the musty seats: "Come to me now/and rest your head for just five minutes/everything is done..." from "Our House." We became known for this part of our sister "act," and the students and teachers in the audience good-naturedly laughed as I echoed, in full throated song, the snatches of lyrics rushing through the air at me.

Here's the lovely thing about doing something well for a long time: Though I've never gotten fully over having stage fright, especially at the beginning of a "performance," I've learned to channel that adrenaline jolt that surges through the memory like a huge eraser, making me forget my name, where I am, and what the hell I'm doing onstage with a big chunk of wood and steel strings in my hand. Better yet, I find myself no longer worried about the audience and how they'd react if I make a mistake, flub the lyrics, sing an off note. Sure, I still love to please a crowd, want to leave them wanting more. But, I don't fret if I have an off night. I know this is a gift carried down from my grandparents and parents; everyone in my family loved to sing and play musical instruments. The Irish gathering was never complete without a rousing couple of hours of song--Uncle Maurice on the piano, Kieran on the guitar, my dad with his banjo and harmonica, mom singing like a professional chanteuse and all of us singing unselfconsciously.

Years of being paid to play guitar and sing--and after singing for the governor of New Jersey, for a crowd in Bruce Springsteen's first stomping ground, The Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, singing for priests and college students, and belting out the blues in a bright red dress in front of Yusef Komunyakaa in Provincetown, MA--all of this built that ineffable sense of confidence and inner calm. I was fully, utterly embodied in song. I was fully myself when I sang. You didn't have to like my music or my singing--but I KNEW I could touch people with this talent and your opinion? Well, that was your own.

I felt this steadying inner confidence about the way I taught literature and poetry and composition for a long time, too. Though I also started "shaky" in the field and had a tremendous amount to learn (and keep challenging myself every year to do more and learn more about this art of teaching that I love), I became good at it. Not in a passive, sponge-absorption kind of way, but by actively seeking out those who knew more than me, teachers I admired, asking about good books to read and great ways to share them in a classroom.

Sure, I had performance anxiety then, too, back when I first embarked on this journey in the mid to late 1980's, teaching at a private high school in Shadyside. I started when I was 24 years old; and I was teaching students who were 18 and 19 years old! I had no "education" degree; no certification, no papered "pedigree" that demonstrated I could pull off teaching high school students, but my principal saw something in me. I was baptized in the fire of that exchange in the classroom. I learned on the job and through the insight, information and kindness of my colleagues back then.

When I think about it, I marvel at how, during those eight years, no administrator or colleague ever, even once, entered my classroom to find fault, to evaluate me, to weigh my comments on student papers, to judge my blackboard antics or my ability to facilitate a discussion. Students got to write evaluations, but my colleagues did something profoundly more educational and inspirational. They met as a group, weekly! For hours. And we talked about teaching, students, creating tests and essays, what works, what doesn't, what to do when a student was disruptive/bigoted/angry/absent a lot. And what to do when the male students kept asking me out. They offered books, tips, experience, guidance. Instead of looking for the error, the slip up, the flub, the wrong way, they continually pointed me to the stronger way to teach and gave me such solid support along the way, that I grew as a woman AND as a teacher at the same time. Some would say what a shame; the poor students must have suffered. I know that we: Jim Wehs, Patricia Hamilton, Sara Haber, Steve, Wright, Mr. Grant, Georgia, Regina Sommers were as dynamic and inspirational a group of teachers as I've ever met along the way.

So, why is this idea of performance and evaluation on my mind today? That confidence I mentioned earlier about my own teaching has dissipated. After losing my job at a university where I thought I had proven myself beyond doubt as more than competent, after being awarded the top Arts and Sciences award for teaching, the Bellet Award in 2005, my year-to year VL contract was not renewed last year. Difficult enough. But, what made it 100 x's worse is that no one who actually sat in on the meeting where this was decided would give me a straight answer as to why. My whole world was going to drastically change. And no one seemed to know why. The department quickly closed ranks. I was treated stiffly, politely, arms-length. Not a single word of "thanks." Not a single, "you made a difference here these last seven years." Three lovely colleagues did help in their own ways: my poetry mentor was very sympathetic; one of my colleagues who sat in on the decisions was extremely kind and compassionate and one lovely colleague, a young woman, PhD student, continued to offer me work/ poetry workshops over the summer. Otherwise, a baffling silence ensued from what had been my community.

I was told I ruffled too many feathers because I became "emotional"(translation: I cried) after finding out I lost my job. And I "wouldn't slip away quietly" (translation: I kept asking people in the know "why?") I guess in this day and age, in this economy, it is egregious for a woman to react with tears and anger when she loses both her passionate vocation and her livelihood? This insult to injury rang like a priggish admonishment delivered by nuns, when they were flustered and didn't know how to answer a question directly : "Now, Sharon, be a good girl! No trouble from you! Go sit down. Be quiet. Fold your hands neatly on your desk."
Without a straightforward explanation, I turned my sorrow and anger on myself, grilled myself relentlessly as to what kind of teacher was I REALLY? after more than 25 years in the classroom. Maybe I wasn't very good. Maybe the award was a fluke, or maybe, as one of the administrators at the university said to me, "everyone wins awards!" Maybe I'd been deluding myself for a long time--the idea that I was a "good teacher" was merely an illusion I kept nursing. Maybe the students who had continued contacting me (I even hear from students from my high school teaching days in the 80's) were "being nice" or "liked me as a person," but took nothing from me as a teacher," and on and on as the spiral down the rabbit hole took me. The self-flagellation took its toll; I'm not sure teaching will ever feel the same to me.

When I had to move to NJ, I looked for teaching jobs, still reeling and feeling demoralized. Montclair State University took me right away (thank you, lovely people!), as an adjunct, and startled me, treating me with respect and admiration from the start. In my demoralized state of mind, I wanted to confess to them, "You're very kind, but I don't know if I'm really any good at this teaching thing anymore." Of course, I said no such thing.

But, last night, I had to be evaluated for the second time this year by one of the MSU faculty members. As a "hired gun," who commutes a good 40 minutes up the Garden State Parkway to my job, I don't know any of my colleagues very well. The ones I occasionally interact with: mainly, the director of the First Year Writing Program, seem to like me enough that she asked me to be on a panel with her in May for an academic conference in NJ. But, my shakiness in the classroom, my sense that I no longer know how to "do this," has not fully gone away. And last night, when the lovely, smiling professor entered my Introduction to Poetry Writing classroom to begin her evaluation, I became high school Sharon again, quivering onstage, but without my sister to yell out the answers to me.

I was teaching something I used to think I could teach in my sleep: about making music in poetry. Making a poem sing, "intensifying feeling" with the well-chosen alliterative line or internal rhyme or (my favorite sound device, for its wonderful sound subtlety: assonance (that fabulous repetition of vowels that can make a poem moan like a woman being loved well...)
Writing a poem lyrically, musically, is as integral to me as breathing. But, because I wasn't confident in myself any longer, I planned and planned and planned the class all week long, anticipating the evaluator: no weak moments, no weak links, a seamless lesson.

Except: I hadn't counted on being a deer in the headlights again. Once that lovely professor sat down in my room, I felt my brain freeze. A huge eraser swept across my memory. I turned to the blackboard, sucking in deep breaths to calm me, as I wrote out an Emanuel diPasquale poem, a lovely short poem called "Rain," which mimicked the sound of water against a hard surface: "Like a drummer’s brush,/the rain hushes the surface of tin porches." And then, in my high anxiety, promptly forgot I put the poem there and never discussed it. I gave out a long handout with six poems on it that were packed with sound, and the students worked in pairs, "discovering" what exactly in the diction or line was creating the rhythm or song of the lines. This part of the class went well, but I forgot to turn their attention to the top of the handout, where I'd deliberately put this wonderful nugget from poet Kenneth Koch from his book Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, where he discusses the importance of the sound of words in poetry:
If we take the idea of a poetic language seriously, it can be defined first as a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax. In ordinary language, the sound of a word is useful almost exclusively in order to identify it and to distinguish it from other words. In poetry its importance is much greater. Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say, and in fact, it’s often impossible to distinguish one from the other. This is an odd position from which to speak, and it’s not surprising that strange things are said in such a language. The nature of the language can be illustrated by the way a nonsensical statement may, simply because of its music, seem to present some kind of truth, or at least to be something, even in a certain way, to be memorable. For example:
Two and two
Are rather blue
“No, no,” one may say, “two and two are four,” but that is another language. In this (poetry) language, it’s true that “two and two are rather green” has little or no meaning (or existence), but “two and two are rather blue” does have some. The meanings are of different kinds. “I don’t know whether or not to commit suicide,” has a different kind of meaning from that of “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Repetition and variation of sounds, among other things, make the second version meditative, sad, and memorable, whereas the first has no such music to keep it afloat. The nature of prose, Valery said, is to perish. Poetry lasts because it gives the ambiguous and ever-changing pleasure of being both a statement and a song. (pps. 20,21)
I love that Koch talks about the WHY of using sound in poetry. I feel that many modern poets completely disregard the idea of making "memorable music" on the page anymore in favor of content-driven narratives or language poet fragmentation. I wanted to share this with my students. But, bathed in adrenalin, my brain would not cooperate.
I don't need to regale you with all the things I "forgot" to do last night in my cavernous classroom of mostly introverted (but very sweet) students. Even though I'd planned the class strategically. Even though I was as "ready as I would ever be." It just didn't work out, though the students tried to "play along" and "make me look good," as the sweet students they are. I just couldn't breathe right the whole visit, couldn't sink back into my old days of "I know I'm good at this, damn it!" I'll receive her report next week. And even though I don't want to continue teaching there; even though I hope to move back to Pittsburgh again and maybe wash dishes or sell clothes at a nice boutique, or work as an administrator helping an organization in the best way I can, it matters to me that I wasn't my "best" former teaching self last night. I don't know if I'll ever reclaim that part of me. It's hard to know what gets lost, even after the dust settles.
So, today, I walked Rosie over to the tiny pond near the house. I love this pond. Absolutely NO ONE goes there. It is hidden from view, at the middle of a major, congested intersection, double-laned, nonstop traffic in all directions. I love this pond because I CAN breathe there: no one to impress, no one to jump through hoops for, no one to prove anything to. My dog adores me, especially when I pick up the dropped sycamore branches and begin throwing them for her pleasure. She doesn't care how far I can throw or how high I can throw. Just that I throw. The pond is unsussed by me--rippling quietly along today in the chilly spring breeze. Shattered in places by the broken mirror of the sun. The sun, unfazed by me, merely drops its warmth along my hair and shoulders. After wearing Rosie out running the muddy swells, we walk to the edge of this old pond, that apparently some neighbors had to spend 2 years of their life "saving" from the grab of developers in the area. There's a wonderful, low-hanging tree with big fat, near blossoming buds on it. I could be standing there or not and that tree will soon burst into color along its pale gray arms. I stood there for a long time, Rosie chewing her stick, two ducks gliding and preening and circling each other in the lit water. I was breathing easily, happy to simply be Sharon. Nothing to prove. No one to impress. Just me, my dog, the spring pond, two ducks, blue in the sky.


  1. Wow, that's some big stuff. Well put, Sharon!

  2. I have this paralysis, too -- it's endemic to academics, I think, this sense that we're all frauds. But remember: the observer doesn't know why you put a poem on the board. Perhaps it's for inquisitive students; perhaps a routine thing you do to spur thought; perhaps something you do to prepare students for the next class. *You* see the lack of what you had intended to do, but she only sees the presence of the poem.

    She doesn't know that you had planned to do something brilliant with the nugget at the top of the sheet; she only sees that you trusted your sweet, eager students to learn on their own, in the context of that nugget.

    Don't doubt yourself, Sharon. Your students were in the audience, shouting out the lyrics for you, because you taught them those lyrics. And that's the mark of a good, a great, teacher.

  3. Thank you both for your lovely comments! Teri: what you say makes so much sense. It's good to be reminded that all teachers go through "I'm a fraud and will be found out!" moments. It's just that I've never "arrived" in a safe, tenured land as a teacher, so I do feel as if my job is constantly riding on these nonstop evaluations. Thank you for all the loveliness of your support and good words!