Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Lyrical Universe

“Mighty Aphrodite” is the title hand-scrawled in black Sharpee ink on a home-made CD of music I was listening to last night. I vaguely remember the movie with Woody Allen and Mira Sorvino by the same title, but the two words together…the sound of it…stuck with me more. We English majors and that Greek mythology you know!

So, Aphrodite…Greek goddess of beauty and love…chosen to be the most beautiful in the first beauty pageant, winning the golden apple, and becoming the Miss Universe of the goddesses…becomes a kind of metaphor for my musical messages from the spiritual universe.

True to form, the women singer-songwriters on my aptly named disk speak the Universal Truths to me. I can listen to those songs over and over again without thinking a thing about the lyrics, and then some days, well, the lyrics just kind of hit me over the head and I hear the message I need to hear.

I had a rather detached weekend. I felt myself slipping out of the frenzy of accomplishment and goal-setting. Losing sight of the reasons to be happy in the moment. Feeling like I was living for an uncertain future.

One of the big decisions that I have made recently is to move “home.” And that’s home in every sense of the word—into my parents’ home, in the town where I spent my high school years (my daughters will graduate from the same school as their parents), to that part of the country that seems slightly foreign now, but oh-so-real-and-familiar. Comforting. Where there are roots long-buried in the land. Still, it’s a scary prospect sometimes.

I’ve been away for 15 years. I’ve gone back to visit, on average, less than once per year. But I reached a moment when I realized that home is where my heart is. I’ve grown enough to understand the past. I no longer fear the ghosts of it—as much. But since I’ve decided to go back, I’ve had to take another look at some old specters I’d thought were laid to rest.

This weekend I beat myself up for not “grabbing the Queen Power” sooner. The little voice said: “Look at all you haven’t done. Look at what your kids have missed out on because you didn’t. What were you thinking? How could you? Why didn’t you learn your lessons from your past…from your own childhood? Why didn’t you overcome this a long time ago?”

But then I heard these lyrics by Edie Brickell and I heard them for what seemed like the first time:

If a child lives with money, he learns to spend his time.
If a child lives with crazy, he goes out of his mind.
I didn’t live with nothin’ that’s worth talkin’ about,
But I didn’t live with nothing, no I never went without.
But there is one thing that I really need to know
What do you have to live with before you learn to grow?
I’ve taken giant steps; I've walked far away from home,
But I need a little help—can I make it on my own?
Some days I can and some days I can't,
And some days I just don't know where it is I'm at.

I thought, “Wow. Yeah…that’s me. Some days I can, and some days I can’t.” I reminded myself that I don’t have to be perfect to be powerful or Queenly. And I have plenty to be thankful for, even if I feel that there are ghosts of pain hiding in the shadows of my past. And I am growing, so I’m actually better off, perhaps, than the speaker of these lyrics.
While other songs played, my mind chewed on those lyrics…that is, until Tracy Chapman told me something I needed to hear to temper the feeling of loss from the weekend and from Edie’s song. (Did I mention my mom’s name is Edie? The song’s title is “Mama Help Me.” Interesting…).

But here’s what Tracy said:

You can look to the stars in search of the answers,
Look for God and life on distant planets,
Have your faith in the ever after,
While each of us holds inside the map to the labyrinth
And heaven's here on earth.
We are the spirit, the collective conscience.
We create the pain and the suffering and the beauty in this world.
Heaven's here on earth:
In our faith in humankind;
In our respect for what is earthly;
In our unfaltering belief in peace and love and understanding.

I’ve heard this song for years, and I’ve understood the words, but I heard them with new ears last night. I think we all continually remind ourselves of this Universal Truth. We know it, but just like Rule Number One in Cherie Carter-Scott’s If Life/Love/X Is a Game, These Are the Rules books, we forget Truth—as a rule.

If forgetting the Truth is built-in, then all we can do is create mnemonic devices to help us keep the forgetting down to a minimum. We need to schedule encounters with the Holy. Set ourselves up for success, and fall into its pillowy softness with absolute abandon. Read, write, eat, breathe, beat, and sing our way to the Truth. One of my favorite ways to remind myself of the Truth is to listen to music.

Edie and Tracy always sing the Truth. Their songs capture and hold the Truth…save it…store it in memory for me, so that every now and again my heart hears what it needs to hear. Making my own CD of Truth keeps me from dipping too low into an intolerance of my humanity. Edie reminds me that I can ask my parents for help, or that growth is a struggle—she keeps me humble. And Tracy reminds me that “Heaven’s Here on Earth” during those times when I start to think that my goals are outside of me or beyond me; she reminds me that I’m special. She reminds me that “Truth is Divinity.”

© Nicole J. Williams, 2005, all rights reserved

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Sponge Theory of Success


What’s that spell?


What’s that spell?


What’s that spell?


Doesn’t that word look weird now? Isn’t it funny how looking at a word too much can make it look like gobbledygook—or at least like it’s spelled incorrectly? When that feeling of assurance that the word you are looking at is indeed the word you understand it to be disappears and your mind hesitates and questions—you second guess yourself.

I started back as a face-to-face teacher last week. I make that distinction because I also teach in the highly unsatisfactory online environment. Really though, it isn’t the environment that is so unsatisfying—it has more to do with being caught between the corporate, money-making administration’s minions and the disgruntled students who have been thrust into an online writing course against their will—it’s required. But I digress, and I won’t be talking about the very different issues that those students face. No, instead, I thought I would share my newfangled approach to teaching.

I’ve been asking myself the “difficult” questions lately—What do I want out of life? Why? How can I get more of it now?—and one of those question and answer sessions had to do with teaching. It’s what I have been doing for the past four, going on five, years now, and it hasn’t been an incredible source of inspiration and joy; I needed to know why. What am I drawn to and what repulses me in relation to teaching?

Well, for starters, I love the first day! It’s like giving birth. Shiny new faces, assumed potential, a wellspring of love in the heart for the challenges and the nurturing and the growth to follow. I get to have that “new baby” feeling twice a year. It’s addictive. I have to say that I pastor my flock through my courses. I break down previous mythologies, assuage fears, release past guilt, and lead them to the Promised Land. The rest is good parenting. I am compassionate and I care and I praise and coach and cheer and sing halleluiahs to move them from point A to point B. I set up clear boundaries of expectation, blow on and bandage boo-boos when they fall, reprimand them when they should know better. I have multiple roles: pastor, shepherd, care-taker, boundary setter, locater of the lost…surrogate mother.

That brings me to what I don’t like. I don’t like wiping noses or changing diapers or spoon-feeding. After all, these are adults—or at least quasi-adults! When they ask for too much, which is often, I balk, and rightly so of course. And sometimes, parenting or shepherding 50+ quasi-adults can get downright exhausting! My “good-naturedness” spills over into enabling. Or their quasi-adult status plummets to infancy. Whatever the case may be…they push, and I fall over.

So I thought I should have better boundaries. More enforceable guidelines. More logical consequences and fewer exceptions to the rules. But what to do? I mean, this is a life theme…not just a teacher theme…and it’s THE BIG ONE. But still, I thought that teaching would be the place to start experimenting. I had a clear external motivation for change, a captive audience of guinea pigs, and any tangible results might spur me on to a more personal success in the same problem area. Basically, I was looking for insight into this condition, and because I recognized myself in my procrastinating, detached, overwhelmed, and forlorn students, I thought that if I could convert them, then I could do the same for myself. This might be backwards, and it’s definitely a conservative approach, but I thought I would do well to practice “on camera.”

I have to perform as a teacher. It’s my job. It’s what I do. I am accountable to at least 50 other scrutinizing people. Here is where I can prove to myself that it is possible to succeed. So I asked myself what differentiated the successful students from their unsuccessful counterparts. We all know that the answer is never as simple as “intelligence.” In fact, we all know that sometimes, the smartest folks are the ones who just can’t seem to move forward at all. So. I came up with the general stuff...prepared for class, plans (and works) ahead, has drive, is committed…did I mention “doesn’t procrastinate”? Yeah…that’s the big one. Slow and steady wins the race.

All this thinking led to a metaphor or analogy that I “acted” out for them on the first day. These are children of the visual world, so I must be a visual Girl. I set three clear plastic cups on the desk. I produced a bottle of water from my bag and said:

I am this bottle. The water represents everything I know about writing and teaching writing. The cups are your learning environment—the classroom, if you will.

I poured some water into the cups. I set another cup off to the side and told them that this cup represented the “real world”—the world out there that they were striving to get to by going to college. I continued:

I create the classroom environment by sharing my knowledge with you. You bring yourselves. There are three basic kinds of students—Student Rock, Student Sand, and Student Sponge.

I showed them the students in representative form and asked them to guess which student was most successful in the classroom environment. They knew! Just like you do. Student Sponge. So I demonstrated to reinforce the point.

Student Rock comes to class and is hard-headed and impenetrable. I don’t need this class. I’ll never have to write once I’m out of here, so I just need to pass and move on. I already know how to do all this anyway. Hmph!

I put Student Rock in one of the cups. Nothing happened. I took Student Rock out, shook it, and said:

You see. You can’t even tell that Student Rock was in the class. Nothing has changed. And when I put Student Rock into the “real world,” it brings nothing to that environment. It is the same rock it was before and has nothing new to offer.

Then I picked up the bag with Student Sand in it, and explained that it was made of the same material as Student Rock, with opposite properties.

Student Sand can’t get it together. It comes to the classroom in scattered pieces that can’t find their way back together in the classroom. Student sand is bewildered, fears failing, believes that it cannot accomplish the goals of the course, for whatever reason. I swirled Student Sand around in the water. Student sand is overwhelmed by the environment—it can’t make use of the environment because it has no form, no discipline, no consistency. It may try haphazardly, but fails because it is constantly at odds with itself. It rarely makes it out of the classroom into the real world intact. It can’t synthesize and utilize the knowledge it is exposed to.

Student Sponge appears in my hand and everyone is ready to be a sponge. They are imagining sponge-ness. Who wants to be a rock, or sand? (Students may peg themselves, but they may vow to be more sponge-like; after all…most people don’t set out to fail on purpose!) I smile at Student Sponge and hold it up, examining it.

Look! Student Sponge comes to the classroom PREPARED to soak up the learning! It’s READY before it gets there. It’s function…it’s purpose… is to learn.

In goes Student Sponge. It swells with water.

“Look!” I say. It’s taking knowledge out of the classroom! And when I put Student Sponge in the “real world,” it has something to use, to share, to draw on…something to show for its time in the classroom.

I squeeze a little water out of the sponge into the real world cup.

There! It’s contributing to its new environment! It’s obvious that Student Sponge has learned something and taken that knowledge with it into the new environment! So what makes Student Sponge ready?

It is…

Not willing to quit,
Genuine, (and)

I won’t go on about how those qualities translate into the composition classroom exactly…you can pretty much guess…but I will say that I linked those qualities to the expectations inherent in my syllabus so that they could see that I wasn’t just spouting rules at them. Oh no. I was showing them what to do in order to be a successful student. And now they had this visual in their mind’s eye of a sponge taking water from one cup to the next. And every time I see them, I can say: “I hope you are all feeling like sponges today because we have a lot to learn in the next 80 minutes!” And they will be immediately transported to the visual center of their brains and remember and understand what I mean in a primal, limbic way.

It’s already working for me. I use the sponge mantra on myself. “Are you feeling like a sponge today, Nicole? I hope so! Because you have a lot to learn today! And you need to take it with you in order to get to the next level…to reach those goals of yours!”

How about you?

Of course we’ll all have rock and sand days from time to time…but OH! to be a sponge most often! That is my goal. Hopefully it is working on my students too. I’ll keep you posted!

© Nicole J. Williams, 2005, all rights reserved