Lightly Scorching Bridges

Oh, blog. It’s been a long time for you and I, hasn’t it? I can’t begin to explain what exactly took me away from writing for more than myself, but for a long time I’ve felt disconnected from the writerly part of my brain—she was there, but we weren’t on speaking terms. (Writing terms—hah.) In many ways, I think I felt that as a professor I ran the risk of repercussions from administrators and students in some capacity should I truly be myself on here. And then there was housing myself with a person who couldn’t cherish education or intelligence—my own or that which I passed along—and made it known so often that I stopped cherishing my own gifts.

Still, two years and a tidbit after teaching for the first time, and almost a full year after my last entry, I’m now less than two months away from saying goodbye to what I then endearingly called “the other side of the desk.”

Before I started teaching, I had put it off when the offer came up—twice. I was afraid to try it and find that the thing I had worked my entire educational life toward was something I didn’t truly enjoy. But sometimes we need to try things and find out we don’t enjoy them. Sometimes we need to reach a point of actually running into the wall to know we need to turn around and find another way to go. And here we are. I’ve done it. I’ve lived it. I broke my nose on the wall. And now I’m done.

I have adored my students—most of them. I love that moment when I’m reading one of their drafts and see that change start to happen. Maybe the organization is a bit better, or they finally learned to use that dash or semi-colon. Maybe in a line of beautifully written text a spark of themselves is coming out of the monotonous burden placed on them by years of research papers on subjects they care nothing about. I’m very tough on them. And for that reason, there’s this sense of pride I have in them that I know they’re never going to comprehend or recognize from me, but it’s there nevertheless.

I will miss them.

I loved, too, the parts that others find boring—organizing the course, building the e-learning site, putting together a syllabus, thinking up assignments, making forms and schedules and all of the office-y things that most people roll their eyes at having to do.

But everything else—of the bureaucracy, the administrative nightmares, the feeling of being seen as a warm body to place in a room—that I can’t take anymore.

It’s been a year of transition. Of reacquainting with my own strength and realizing that just because one path was the right one for a while, doesn’t mean it will be for always. And that is as much true in career as it is personally. I didn’t realize how much stress I had been carrying out of a sense of loyalty, duty, love, purpose, responsibility—to my job, my students, a relationship. But never to myself. It was in August that I untied the ropes and let myself be free of two big weights that were crushing me and it’s been like meeting an old friend in getting back to being me.

 

Faith

I’m happy to announce that the fourth and last (for now) of my recently-accepted publications, “Faith,” has been published by Circa: A Journal of Historical FictionThe story is a semi-fictional historic piece about the day that Jim Jones finally gave the order for his followers to drink the Flavor Aid. (Yes, Flavor Aid.)

Why semi-fictional? In my first year of my MFA program, I took a course titled Research for Creative Writing–or something along those lines. One of our assignments was to pick a historical event, research it, and write about it. I chose Jonestown. Cults have always fascinated me, particularly the psychology of them, and anyone who knows the story of what happened in Guyana knows how well Jim Jones got into the psyche of each of his followers. I did the usual research; I watched documentaries and read books; I viewed photo after photo; I read studies on how cyanide affects the body, and what happens prior to death. I also read autopsy reports and listened to the death tapes, in full. The research was dark and difficult, but the piece that came out of it was some of my best nonfiction work. To date, if I thought I could publish the non-fiction piece, I would. But without a significant anniversary it is “irrelevant.”

When I was toying with the idea of writing in the second person POV, I couldn’t decide what to write about. It’s a tricky perspective, one that I’ve only seen work successfully once. But then it occurred to me: taking the piece I had written about Jonestown and adding a slightly fictional element to it (a “you” character) might work. To me, it did. The second person POV made the scenery and the events that happened even more immediate, more terrifying, and more real to someone (me) who hadn’t been alive when they happened. A few more tweaks had to happen to fictionalize it from the original piece, but I was happy with the end result.

I consider it semi-fictional only for that reason. While the place, the events, and even the spoken lines are real (taken from the Death Tapes themselves), the “you” character could be just about anyone. Although, without giving away how it ends, I will say that what happened to “you” comes from a very real description offered of some of the things that transpired that day.

First Short Story Published

In the past month, I’ve watched three of my pieces get published. While I was excited to see my poems (with my name!) appear, it was my short story’s appearance in Bird’s Thumb that I was most looking forward to. “What She Left Behind” is the title story from my MA thesis, one that I really stretched outside of my comfort zone to write. Not only was I trying to capture some of the aspects of my current hometown, but I was also trying to write in a style that felt halted and uncomfortable, much like the main character’s mind and life are feeling to her. It’s a piece I’m particularly proud of. It is the first one that I ever sent out (to later have rejected) and the first one that was eventually accepted (the one that made me cry when I received the e-mail).

Here’s a small excerpt. The rest, of course, can be read over at Bird’s Thumb.

Bored with the desperation of the birds, Josie found a flat rock, still damp from the morning rain, and sat overlooking the Salem-Beverly Bridge. She poured what was left of her popcorn into the water, smiling as the kernels lost their form and became what seemed to be bits of yellow mucus drifting and rising with the current. Her cell phone buzzed from the pocket of her jeans and sang “Whole Wide World.” Josie thought about throwing the phone in, too, imagined the plop and splash when it broke the surface and was sucked under, the shocked, bug-eyed faces of the small fish it would surely disturb on its way to the rocky New England seafloor. She thought of the phone flipping open and her mother’s water-warped voice telling the seaweed, “Your sister’s okay. Josie, can you hear me? She’s okay.”

I hope you enjoy it! The next piece, a short semi-fictional depiction of the Jonestown Massacre, will be coming out later this month.

Upcoming Publication

Just a short few weeks after I got my first acceptance, I received another! I’m thrilled to say that “Faith,” a short historical fiction piece I did on the day the Jonestown massacre took place, will be published in Circa: A Journal of Historical Fiction this October.

This piece was actually adapted from research I had done to complete another piece on Jonestown and is the only one of my stories ever to be written in the second person point of view (one I find is too often done ineffectively and, therefore, tend to avoid it myself). I chose the second person because I felt it forces the reader to really inhabit the moment and consider the thought process behind what happened that day–not understand it, perhaps, because what about that day is understandable? But to, hopefully, feel the madness of it.

Another Item Off the Bucket List

Yesterday morning, I logged into the e-mail account that I keep for sending out my work for publication. I’ve almost given up logging into it at this point, given that it’s typically just filled with promotional e-mails from literary magazines too good for me and inevitable mass rejection.

But I logged in anyway to find that at 12:14AM yesterday, I was sent an e-mail that began with “Congratulations!” Now, I was logging in from my phone so I naturally assumed I was misreading or something had malfunctioned or my phone was just playing mean tricks on me because I had dropped it about 7 times this week. I logged in from my computer to find that my short story, “What She Left Behind,” (which is the title story from my MA thesis) is going to be published in Bird’s Thumb in October.

I broke down crying for about 15 seconds, re-read it just to be sure, and finished crying for another five or so seconds. As I stated to my boyfriend, I didn’t even think I was capable of that kind of emotional reaction.

The greater, long-term effect of this is that if a faculty position comes up in my department now, I can actually throw my name in among the other names, my hat among the other hats, and say, “I want this. I deserve this. I can do this.” Which, of course, they already know–but until that publication says so on my shiny resume, being able to do something doesn’t matter. Yes, more publications will make me a stronger candidate. But at least now I have a presence. 

On a personal, not-necessarily-work-related level, it’s frustrating, as many know, to be a writer. While I’m finally using my degrees as an adjunct professor, there are still aspects of my life in which the work remains unseen. There’s no validation; I can’t point to anything really and say, “Yes, I did that.” When written works sit unpublished, that’s hours, days, months of work and emotion that other people don’t see and can’t understand. Even with my students, what I do for them is sometimes lost or, if not, then it’s not something I’m ever going to see–it’s something that’s going to hit them after they’ve left my classroom and a small voice in the back of their head reminds them to think about their audience or, wait, that should be a semi-colon. It’s why when 2 out of the 75 students I’ve had so far tell me that I made a difference for them, I hold onto that fleeting feeling of pride and satisfaction–because making a difference is all I ever wanted.

But I can’t show people that. To them, my time spent learning, earning three degrees was wasted. Wasted time, wasted money, a wasted path. I have nothing to show but a job that, at times, pays me less than minimum wage.

In frustration, I asked my boyfriend just this morning, “Did you know that my name appears in actual published books as a ‘thank you’ for the work I did in helping to create and edit it?” to which he replied, “No, I didn’t.” And I don’t really fault him for this, but I don’t think that he (along with others who don’t see what I do) has any idea what I know and what I’m capable of.

Now, at the very least, when someone asks what I do or what I am, I can say that I’m a writer and point them toward something–just this one thing–with pride and say, “Yes, I did that.”

Notes of Confidence

No one is ever going to say that teaching is always wonderful and rewarding. In fact, a lot of days I question myself. (Then again, I’m a firm believer in questioning one’s self–I think it’s what fuels our drive to be better.) But a few times I’ve gotten something from a student that made me feel like those other days are worth it. A few weeks ago, I had one of those days. I received an e-mail from a student who is applying for an MA program in English and needed a recommendation. This is an excerpt from that e-mail:

I chose to ask you for a recommendation because your professional writing class last semester was one of the best courses I have ever taken here. I learned so much in your class, but what really impressed me was the way you went out of your way to see your students succeed. You always went the extra mile to accommodate every student in the class.”

Now, sure, she isn’t going to tell me I was a terrible professor while asking for a recommendation. But I don’t think she would be asking for one if she didn’t mean what she said, either. It was a much-needed reminder as, like my students, I find myself growing tired with the end of the semester closing in. Top it off with online students who are mad that they actually have homework instead of, you know, an easy A, and her unexpected e-mail couldn’t have zinged into my inbox at a better time.

Teaching Online

While I’m adapting to teaching online, no part of me has grown to like this way of holding a class. It sounds whiny to say that it’s a significantly harder task, that more work goes into this than into a regular classroom, but it’s true. On top of the additional (unpaid) hours that go into developing the online course—quizzes, discussions, assignment descriptions, rubrics, examples, links, etc.—there’s the amount of time trying to stress to my online students the importance of conversing with one another just as they would in a classroom.

I’m not their mother, and yet for the sake of my other students I almost have to be. How is it fair to one student to submit their work to be workshopped to a peer group and then have the rest of that group not participate and offer feedback? I can’t force them, certainly, but in not being able to corral them I feel that I’m letting down the students who are there, who are doing the work. Unfortunately, the extent of my lecturing is via words on a screen—a brief e-mail, announcement, or assignment description that they look at and either choose to ignore or forget shortly thereafter.

There’s no staying power like there is in a classroom. (Then again, I think about some of my classroom lectures in which I’ve counted the number of times I’ve repeated something only to have it asked again in the same lecture by another student—my highest to date is six.)

The lack of interpersonal connection in the online setting is truly devastating to me as a teacher. On a personal note, I miss the connection that I should be developing with them. While, yes, I hold Skype chats with some of my students, only a very small percentage of them take advantage of that opportunity. The rest are names on a screen. I learn about them through their weekly communiques, but I know that most of them don’t read the comments I leave on those. There is no back and forth, no conversation, no friendliness, and therefore no trust being established.

On another note, there is what they are losing among each other—the potential friendships, the support that this type of course should be inviting them to create. Last semester, my students truly bonded—they learned to trust one another’s feedback, and the majority of them benefited from that. But these online students—are they getting that? I don’t think so.

I thought at first that I would dislike teaching online simply for the amount of work it took—too much for an adjunct’s sad salary. But I’m finding I dislike it for a much greater reason, and that is the reminder of the sheer disconnect our society is building with one another and the loss that entails.

Beyond Teaching

It means a lot to me that several of my students, this semester and last, have expressed a level of comfortableness and confidence with me that they share pieces of their lives that I think are probably withheld from even some friends and classmates. The only thing I ever ask of them is that they don’t share self-harming habits, such as excessive alcohol or drug intake. But their worries, fears, sadness, anger—all of those I’m willing to hear and take, if I can, through my teaching.

I’ve always been this way; it’s how I developed a lot of my friendships, I think, through listening and being able to just be with someone. It’s rare that I let their emotional weight become mine, but I know that I can at least alleviate some of it for them simply by hearing it.

What saddens me is the number of stressors so many of them take on, from simply feeling overwhelmed by everything going on in their lives, to alcoholic family members and friends, health problems, deaths, and more. I can’t remember anymore the number of two-page communiques I’ve read that have caused me to tear up. I’m thankful only for the developed ability to accept that moment and then let it go.

I know a lot of them likely wind up believing that I don’t care about them because I’m a tough grader. I make paper bleed. But I do it with the same care that I give when responding calmly to their communiques. I do it because they need it. I do it because everyone needs a swift kick in the butt just as much as they need a shoulder to lean on, and I’m not going to stop being one or the other.

Most of them will likely forget me after the semester ends and, I won’t lie—eventually I’ll forget most of them, too. But I care for each one of them when they’re in my classroom and hope so many good things for them afterwards. I hope they know that, or that they figure it out eventually.

The Other Side of the Desk

Teaching, School, EducationIn August I was asked if I would cover a writing course at my undergraduate alma mater. It was within the concentration I myself had graduated from seven years ago, one that taught many of the skills I’ve utilized in all or most of the jobs I’ve had since graduating: professional writing, designing brochures, newsletters, e-mail campaigns, etc. I was apprehensive, having pushed off teaching for many years out of fear and knowledge that supporting myself on an adjunct’s pay would be difficult, if not impossible altogether. Being unhappy at my other job, however, I agreed.

It was the best decision I’ve made in 2015. Maybe in several years.

Not only was I growing more and more unhappy at my other job, but I was growing unhappy with the confinements of that type of job. I enjoyed the marketing quite a bit, but when my former boss left, I found my learning come to a halt. I was doing the same things day after day, or I was being given items to do that I had no right doing—and no idea how to complete. My anxiety was through the roof, I started getting sick more and more often, and I started getting, well, mean.

Teaching was a relief. Not only did it allow me to go part-time at the other job (which I wound up leaving a couple of months later regardless), but it was just more enjoyable. I thought I would be nervous, but the moment I stepped into the classroom and said, “Happy start of your semester, I’m Kayleigh…” it was all okay.

To be fair, I’m strange. I enjoy designing handouts and how-tos. I love creating official-looking documents and making people read them thoroughly. I really enjoyed learning how to build my course through Canvas (something I wound up teaching myself). I didn’t just enjoy being in the classroom, I’ve enjoyed creating what I would do within it.

I also participated in a professional development course that prepared me to teach Freshman Comp, or Introduction to Writing, when the time came. (Which it will in Fall 2016.) Without formal training in how to teach, that gave me the confidence I needed—I talked with other professors, I found out that by simply utilizing methods that, as a student, I had thought worked well from the other side of the desk, I was doing just fine.

I’ll be teaching three sections of the same course during the Spring 2016 semester, two of which will be online. That’s a challenge in and of itself, but one that I’m enjoying preparing for.