Tag Archives: teaching

Why Coffee Matters

the morning coffee

the morning coffee (Photo credit: Thomas Leth-Olsen)

There are things that we all do (eat, sleep, shower) , things that we have to do (grade, write, read), things that we do out of habit (facebook, text, drink coffee), and things that we do when given an hour or two with no other options.  I would like to say that’s when I write, but it isn’t always.

My husband says I can’t ever be alone.  And I say, Not true.  Because sometimes I have to be alone to do work.  But I remember being alone a lot of my childhood.  And a lot of my adolescence.  But my husband’s right.  Tonight, my father-in-law picked up the boys so I could do some work before the Writer’s Forum reading, and I have been cramming so much work in lately, that I’ve burned out.  And the house was too quiet.  I called my parents to see if they’d want to have a meal with me.  They were out at a (fancy?) new bar at the mall in the most urban of suburbs in western NY, Greece.

So I ate five Brown N Serve sausages, alone, and sat down with my computer, thinking I might write.

Instead, my mind wandered.  There are people I think of every day (my family, close friends, some students), people I think of on occasion (friends I had a falling out with, former teachers, former students), people I don’t even know, really, that I wonder about when I’m not busy with the people who need my attention and whose attention I need.

Today, my mind went to a professor at the college.

He was old enough that it was surprising he still taught.  When he walked into Hartwell Cafe, my mother smiled.  He and I were the only two in the cafe before it opened on a regular basis.  If my grandfather had lived closer, and lived as long, I imagine they’d be similar in manner and voice.  Though, this professor’s eyes were cinched in a perma-smile.  A life spent laughing.  He wore Christmas sweaters that my cool friends only wore to “Ugly Sweater Parties,” but he wore them in a serious way.  I’d heard he was a great professor.  He taught business.  I wish more business-owners were as gentle.

One day last semester, I asked my mother where he went.  She said his children had come in to clear his things from his office.  I said, “Retirement, finally?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sarah,” she said with her chin turned down, counting singles, and glanced up at me (meaning something happened to him).

Maybe she was thinking of the wrong person.  She sometimes confused one person with another.  No, she often confused one person with another.  And she had cataracts.

Maybe he fell and was recovering.

He would always approach my mother with the smallest cup (a size I never thought anyone actually purchased), and said, “Today’s my freebie, right?”

And it always was.

And then, because the people I think of on a daily basis called, I bought my coffee and went off to teach.

Tonight, I don’t know what made me think of him.  There’s this rule in fiction that the reader always wants to know “Why this story, why right now?” and for this story, I don’t know why, or why right now.

But tonight, I Googled him the way I Google tragic events, obsessively, hungrily, sadly, curiously, and all of these things at once.  My hands cold from the keyboard, my jaw tight in worry, because suddenly, I would find out where he went.

I have a ritual.  I check the Facebook pages of a family that lost a child last summer.  It’s shameful, but it’s my way of knowing that life does go on.  And how.

The Professor’s name came up in an obituary: Donald Borbee.  I have always known his name on our small campus, but it was solidified by a simple morning routine.  I felt sad that he died in February, and now it was November, and I had just now taken the time to let my curiosity find him.  He didn’t know me, and he  probably only recognized the features I share with my mother when he saw me in the hallway, but don’t we all want to know that when we are gone, someone we never knew, would look for us?

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The Messy Mind

Anxiety - Stress ... Time management vital for...

While my family was in a discussion about depression (that I was trying to listen to, of course), my sons were whipping around my parents’ driveway on a Plasma Car and a scooter, then my iPhone beeped with a new email, and while I was trying to understand why my son desperately needed me to move my mother’s car to the bottom of the driveway right this minute, my phone rang and it was my husband updating me on the paperwork about the sale of our house.   I’m not the only one with this experience.  We likely all do this all day long.

By the time I’d moved my mother’s car, snapped at my husband over the phone, ignored two new text messages that were urgent (read: not urgent at all), and totally missed a conversation that I so wanted to be a part of, I was cranky.

I am chronically anxious.

What I wanted to say during the conversation about depression that I missed out on was this:  Yes, we are all varying degrees of sad at different stages of our lives.  We all get tired and overwhelmed and lost.  But for some of us, it doesn’t end there.  For some of us, it goes to a whole different place, and how we deal with that place is unique to each of us.  And I say “us” not as someone on the outside, but as someone who has dealt with alternating depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, though also as someone who’s learned enough to live fully with it, and still needs help to learn better.

I had a friend who wrote me a suicide letter when she was twelve.   She was angry when I told her mother.  And then I lost her forever after that though she’s alive today.  How could I have known that telling her mother was such an offense that I would be kicked out of her life?

I had a student whose plea for help I missed.  I read her poems awkwardly–not knowing how to behave.  Some were not poems at all, but paragraphs of emotional outpouring.  Some of what she wrote seemed eerily similar to my friend’s letter.  She committed suicide the next semester.  What was the difference between the me I was when I was twelve and the me I was last fall?

I remember my friend’s suicide note vividly.  I remember how she made the letter ‘s’ with a curved bottom and a slanted line on the top.  I remember how once she stashed an orange in the cedar chest in her bedroom and we found it, hard as a baseball, crumpled in a mass of 70s dresses we used to dress up in.  We used to dance around her house to “The Nutcracker Suite.”  We spent hours telling ghost stories and holding seances.  We picked our scabs and put the wounds together so we could be blood sisters.

Have I become jaded?  Am I skeptical?  Did I judge my student as seeking attention or as not serious or as melodramatic?  Did I just get distracted?  Did everyone in her life get distracted by something else?   Was I looking for something to distract me?

I’ve been on many meds.  I’ve been on high doses and low doses and have seen counselors and therapists and sometimes wonder, why?  I’m familiar with wanting to believe I’m cured and then stopping meds.  I’m familiar with the despair that comes after.  I’m familiar with going off meds during college and self-medicating with vodka.  I know not all meds are helpful and that some, in fact, make you worse.

I also understand that I can control my situation to an extent.  For me, I’ve learned that if I stay busy–super busy–I will not be depressed, so I choose anxiety that keeps me up at night over a depression that makes me wonder if the people who commit suicide are braver than I am.  I still need meds, but this constant work keeps me stable.

I’ve learned this: that I cannot play roulette, guessing if someone else who’s depressed wants attention or is serious.  I cannot judge another person’s despair or state of mind.  Their mind is as much theirs as their fingerprint–it’s exactly why copycatting doesn’t work, and sometimes why I think my therapists are bogus.  How can you really ever “get” anyone?  All any of us need is to be “figured out.”

Once, when I was anxious to the point of sobbing and shaking, a friend shared this Natalie Goldberg quote with me:  “Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency.  Nothing is that important.  Just lie down.”

I keep this on my bulletin board because ‘ignorant’ is a dirty word for me and I’d rather be anything before I’d be ignorant.  Sometimes, I still live my life as though everything is an emergency.  My son needs a drink.  The dog needs to go out.  Responding to a work email.  Listening to what’s going on around me.  Paying the bills.  Multi-tasking is fine for the hands but tough on the brain.  Sometimes I can’t prioritize, so I do it all at once.

I don’t know when this started.  I find myself going to the worst places when any threat presents itself.

I am thirty-one.  When I was 27, I taught a night class for a friend.  Flakes were flying hard, and by the time class was over, my mother had driven to campus and cleaned off my car.  She didn’t want me alone, at 9 pm, cleaning my car off on campus.

The thought that prompted my mother’s action was probably a worst-case scenario: Me, alone, cleaning off my car, a gloved arm grabbing me from behind, putting me in a strange vehicle that I would not emerge from alive.  Or maybe this: I, not cleaning off my car properly because I was cold and in a hurry, pull out of the lot and into an oncoming truck.  Or it was both.

I believe this is where my mind is at all times, too.  But if it were at this place last fall, would I have missed my student’s plea?

In an article I found on a friend’s Facebook wall last week, The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric, it explains some of why some minds are more emotional, overstimulated, and goes on to explain why the creative mind leads to “strangeness.”

Part of the reason people with depression and anxiety are viewed as “strange” is because those who are rational or logical-minded don’t understand why the emotions can’t be reasoned with, can’t be “handled” or “controlled.”  These are the people, likely, who have vague memories, who don’t remember mundane moments of their childhood with the vividness of milestones.

My son will recall any little afternoon outing with such specificity that it stuns me.  He is sensitive.  He is perceptive.  I’ve joked that he will be my writer.

Sometimes, my husband says to me, “God.  How do you remember that?”  when I recall one weeknight three years ago when such and such happened, and the article helped me understand that it’s the same part of him that wonders why I can’t just turn my mind off at the end of the night to go to sleep even though I’m tired, or why I insist there are ghosts all around us.

When I tucked my son in tonight, I said to him, “I’m sorry I was upset earlier, I just have all this stuff on my mind, all this chattering from this person and that person and things I know I need to be doing that I’m not, and when you said the same sentence for the third time, I just couldn’t listen any more.”

And sometimes, all it is, is that I don’t know how to stop listening.

 


Dear Diary: Connie Rodriguez and What I’ve Realized About My Blog

Student Biking

Student Biking (Photo credit: University of Denver)

I stopped keeping a journal when I graduated from high school.  My journal was a daily escape from ages eight to seventeen.  Upon graduation, I stopped keeping a journal because its contents would then become volatile.

Before that, I journaled compulsively, usually to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing cd, which spun at such high volumes in my stereo, I could hear the hum of my parents’ hardwood floors.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to.  It became something I couldn’t forgo if I wanted to, like the trail of my parents’ cigarette smoke.

Today, I sit here with a paper plate full of Triscuit crumbs and smears of cream cheese, wondering why I cannot continue writing a series of flash fictions for Goddard without first writing a blog post.  I’ve wondered why I had to do this after the Boston Bombings, the Newtown tragedy, the loss of Alexandra Kogut last semester, and other experiences I’ve had like wishing I could call my grandmother on her birthday.

The blog has become, in some fancier way, my diary, which is why, for weeks, I am able to not write a thing, and then some days, I can’t not write.  My blog entries typically come out in an hour or less of writing.  And now I understand why.  It’s the same muse in action that has you jotting down story ideas on a fast food napkin.  I blog because I cannot continue my daily routine without writing about whatever it is I’m obsessing about.

For the past few days, it’s been Connie Rodriguez, one of my students from this past fall, who died over the weekend.

My husband scolds me after tragedy, as though he expects me to react any differently:  I am as guilty as anyone who grips the controller to watch the terror unfold before them.

I found her old submissions from my creative writing course.  I needed proof.  I couldn’t believe she was my student just last semester, it wasn’t so long ago, and I hadn’t seen her since.  I read a Facebook friend’s page religiously, but not for posts about her daughter like I usually do, but for photos of Connie, who was her friend.  I Googled her name to see if her obituary had been posted yet or if anyone had written about her.  Just before writing this, I found a university news article about her.  I had to write.

As her instructor, I knew these limited things about Constance Rodriguez:

She wrote one hell of a short fiction piece for her portfolio–a story about twin sisters who would not stop battling each other, who would wake each other in the middle of the night to physically and brutally terrorize one another.  The story ended with a blaze, the house catching fire, the girls running away.

She was the first to share her writing on the first day of class.

She lost her mother.

She had seen things and lived a life that I could not ever fathom– a life she wrote in her poetry and essays that I will not post here.  She was a survivor.

From reading the article, from looking at pictures, Connie was a bubbly girl, a forgiving friend.  What I can’t stop thinking about is this: the pain beneath her pretty smile.

We like to think we are heroes, that we can save the world, that the future is ours for preserving.  I wonder if I could have done or said one thing to make her life, then, easier.  I couldn’t have healed a thing for her, a tough girl enduring a tough time who’d lost her mother just before she started my class.  Had I known her deep state of grief, would I have been able to be fair?  Should I have been able to be fair?

I haven’t stopped thinking about her since Sunday, when I learned of her passing.  I printed her poems that had been archived away in my college email, the first creative essay she wrote for class.  I read them at 10 o’clock on Sunday night.  I re-read them at 4 pm on Monday, and not more carefully than I did when I graded them, but differently–with the urgency to pull her back, to prevent the loss of her after it happened.

I grieve in a different way from her friends, from her family, who grieve the loss from their guts.  I am sad about the small part of her I knew, the small part of her that pulled back into herself towards the end of the semester, who veered away from school into sadness.  But I remember her as something bigger, as part of a future unknown, as part of a difference we are afraid to make.


Thumbnails

I am still planning my syllabus.  I rake the shelves in my study for samples of poems and stories that my students will hopefully either love or hate–better off not being anywhere in between.

English: A vintage ampere meter. Français : Un...

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I searched for a poem that would make them unafraid.  I picked up a copy of Ploughshares from 2005, wondered briefly how and why I have this, then flipped through.  I stopped at Adrienne Rich‘s “Life of the Senses.”  I stopped for a number of reasons.  But mostly that I had heard a faculty member at Goddard’s MFA program read about her recently.  I had found this poem right then for some reason.  Magic, my 4-year-old would say.

Adrienne Rich’s “Life of the Senses” will alert my students to what they are hopefully not missing out on, or perhaps make them aware of the white space of life before constant interruption.  I tell myself that being aware of this helps, but it is a strange compromise between control, and loss of it.  The hope was this poem would make them unafraid of poetry, but the more I read it, I become frightened, myself.

Here’s how she begins:

1.

Over and over, I think

we have come to a place

like this,

dead sound

stopping the soul

in its eager conversations

Or, a classical theme

repeated over and over       interrupted

by a voice disguised as human:

Please

stay on the line

Your call is very

important to us

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

In 2005, I was in the middle of my grad degree at Brockport.  I had just started dating my husband.  I had free time.   I had just joined Facebook.  I had no children.  I had time to write, and didn’t.  I had time to read when I wasn’t.  I didn’t yet know I was sick .  At the same time, I revised stories about failed marriages and car mechanics and the Chinese Immigrant who answered the phone at the take-out on Main Street.  It’s still there.   And I edited papers under a desk lamp in my strangely trendy Main St. apartment–in Brockport.  I was making mentors, but Googled shortcuts through my education.  I still do, sometimes.  That knowledge is hard to erase.  It’s 2012–no, 2013, suddenly–and I have two boys who don’t know Facebook except for when I post them there like little entertainers.  I type this on my blog when I should be writing for packet work or watching cartoons with my sons, or recovering from a bad injection, but sometimes I crave social media like an entire bag of microwave popcorn that I inhale before bedtime and then curse at the heartburn when 2 a.m. comes and my children are already sleeping.  If it isn’t already, I know that tomorrow all of me could be numb.

3.

No, it’s worse than I’m saying:

Have you ever woken on a hot night

tangled in a sheet you’d been trying

to throw off

wanting to clutch the dream

you’d been wrapped in

as long as possible?

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

After I finished the last section of the poem, I closed the book.  The cover wore a pale sticky note from a friend, and I read it: “For you.”  I imagined the first time I picked up this book he had given me, how this person had been a mentor, then, but now, how much had changed, how life goes on without us knowing, and how I know only Facebook posts of so many people.  People who were once in the flesh are now thumbnails.

When I spread the pages of the book to make a copy on my printer and the spine cracked neatly in half, I promised myself I would concentrate fully on the hum of the machine.


Old News

One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.

When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.

As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.

Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.

Idaho, a news photo of the dog who was tried for murder. Here, he is situated at a typewriter.

Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.

“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.

So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.

One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.

“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”

I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?

I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.

The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.

A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.

One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.

“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”

She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”

There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.

My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.

This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.


How to Talk to Students About What We, Ourselves, Don’t Understand

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Normally, I might make some joke that goes unnoticed and unresponded to by most of my students, but this morning, walking into class meant walking away from the comfort of small talk and abandoning the ability to smile without feeling guilty. It was, after the wholly unprecedented event on our campus this past weekend, like forgetting how to teach.

On Friday, Alexandra Kogut was in classes on SUNY Brockport‘s campus, would attend swimming practice on Monday, and had a planned visit from her boyfriend that night. Something went wrong, and Saturday morning, Alexandra’s friends and college community woke to an email from the campus that a female had been murdered in their dorm room earlier that morning.

What’s happened since on campus, I can’t know, but can only from read the news reports–the reports I’ve been glued to, trying to make sense of this while at the same time terrified, not knowing the identity until last night, that one of my students would not sit down in class on Monday morning, that I would have the dreadful task of addressing a class that had lost one of its members. What’s happened since, on campus, has been a visually beautiful display of the internal unrest and sadness felt by Alexandra’s loss. A pulling together of memorial services, impromptu vigils, swim-team members housing other female swimmers who could not face the dorm where their teammate and friend was murdered, a wide white sheet with a note to Alex hung over the siding of a college house. In class this morning, many of my students wore purple, a color bringing awareness to domestic violence.

On Saturday morning, an hour before any of the college community received an email about the tragedy, Alexandra’s killer, 21 year-old Clayton Whittemore, was hand-cuffed at a rest stop of the NYS Thruway. Before any of her classmates had even known she was gone, the murderer was captured. And had confessed.

I admit, after the news reports came out, the hungry side of me searched Facebook for his profile, looking for some explanation or warning, or something I knew I wouldn’t find. What I’d found was this: a very meaty shirtless young man, who looked as normal to me as students that sit in my class. And strong. His picture, because I knew in a very superficial way, what had happened, looked horrifying and violent because those arms and those fists had become accomplices.

A close friend of mine had gone to home to Minnesota to celebrate her new novel, but I couldn’t help ruining her weekend with texts about the tragedy, wishing she was here to see the community come together or simply to wander in this strange proximity, the feeling of wanting to hug, but not having the arms to do so.

Saturday night, I had a dream that I wandered to a house just off campus where an older woman lived. She had a lamp on the end table just in front of her window, and slept, sitting up, on her loveseat, with the remote in her hand and her TV on. I walked in as though the house were my own and lay down on the couch on the opposite wall, pulling the afghan over me. She opened one eye, and then took a second look, but didn’t say anything. And I said, “I’m sorry. I should have woken you up to tell you I had to stay here. I was too scared to stay at my house. I will leave when the sun comes up.”

But she got up and made me tea and talked with me about what had happened, the young college girl murdered, and I’d said to her that when I went back to class (and this is where it gets cloudy and strange) I would have to buy my students chewing gum.

As though I didn’t know what to do next. As though anything trivial that I could offer, even words, could address this loss, this permanent cloud, the absence of every version of Alexandra Kogut.

After talking to my husband, Cory, last night about how to address this with my students, he said, sarcastically, “What, are you going to turn it into a writing prompt?” He was right. How could I approach something as sensitive as the immediate loss of human life, the loss of an individual many of these students knew.

Then I talked to my mother, who runs the Hartwell Cafe on campus, in the building where Alexandra would have had her first class this morning. I asked, “What do I say to my students?” As though any answer could solve anything. She said, preparing a cup of tea for a customer, “Tell them you don’t know what to say.”

So I walked in, and, feeling my nose get sting-y as it does when I’m on the verge of tears, I said to my students, “I thought about it all night, but I just don’t know what to say to you.”

And that’s where it opened up.

Click here for information of domestic violence.


textbooks, vodka, and elvis impersonators:

Textbook Stack

Image by greenasian via Flickr

a nearly impossible dilemma.

you might not consider me a “textbook expert” (is there such a thing?), and you might consider me even less an expert because my post has no capital letters (forgive me, i’m a little tired).  in my defense, i’ve purchased textbooks, sold textbooks, and assigned textbooks.  after reading an uninformed editorial in the stylus, i was reminded of the issue.

here are the three people in the back of my mind when i think about textbooks, because i’ve been all three.

1. the student:

i might stand in line for an hour to pay  $40, or $70, or $125 to read this thing.  the cashier, who cracks her gum, texts or talks to the person at the register next to her, will ask me, when the third week of class comes, if she can copy my notes or borrow my book.  my eyes will glaze over as i read the 3rd line of the 2nd paragraph forty times without an ounce of thought to show for it.  or, if my instructor doesn’t require me to read it, i will use it as a coaster or a hotplate–either way, it’s holding my beverage or my meal, two things way more enticing to me than anatomy and physiology.  then i’ll be graded.  once the end of the semester comes, i will sell the book back for either half of what i (or my parents, or my student loans/grants) paid, or less than that, if my professor isn’t using it next semester.

most importantly, i desperately want to celebrate the end of the semester. i want to get dressed up, wear stilettos in the snow, maybe a coat if it matches, and walk, drinking vodka straight from the clear bottle, until the christmas lights turn into strobe lights and i scream the lyrics to “livin on a prayer” in chorus with people who will disappear in a few days.  i want to stumble down to the bar and dance my face off, which i cannot do without the money i should get from selling my books back.  i am pissed.

this is me circa 2000-2006.  note that some responsible students desperately need that money for other things, like bills.  they are even more pissed.

2.  the textbook seller:

i work for an independent bookstore or a corporate bookstore.  i could work at either, or both, but probably not at the same time.  i manage this department.  people are never happy to walk in here and buy my merchandise.  textbooks are never christmas gifts or birthday presents.  could you imagine?

“be careful, it’s heavy and expensive,” #1 says, handing the candy cane-papered theory of modern algebra book to #2.

“ok.  ohh is it that painting i wanted?” #2 says.

“no.  but it’s enlightening, too.  and it’s glossy with a picture.” #1 says.

“a book?  please tell me it’s the history of rock from 1970-1990!” #2 says.

“can you just open it? it’s getting worse.”

no one wants to pay $100 for a western civ book, and i don’t blame them.  here’s my dilemma: the publisher charges x.  i charge roughly  x + .25(x), depending on the publisher (the better discount we get from the publisher, the better retail price the student pays).  this is not a secret.  just ask.  i will tell you all about it.  here’s what that cost does–pays x to the publisher, pays shipping costs, pays wages to every hand that touches the book from the back door to the shelf, pays for light so i can see to shelve them, and the heat in this store so i’m not out sick once the temperature dips below 30.

it also pays my salary, which is enough to feed my family and pay the mortgage.  i am not rich.   my job is a tough one.  i am a counselor, a shelver, a secretary, and extremely apologetic if i make a mistake.  i will give students $$ after they’ve used the book for the semester as long as i know i will be able to sell it again.  the more sell-able the book is, the more $$ they will get.  supply and demand.

i would address the issue of publishers, but i don’t want to make any enemies.  let’s just say that next year the book will be in a new edition because the 50th word on page 422 will be different than the last edition.  most of the time, that’s it. once the 4th edition is in print, the 3rd edition is doable, but only for so long.  the more time passes, the harder the 3rd is to find.  oh, and the new edition comes with a passcode that restricts it to one-time use.

i live by the philosophy that every time a student buys a used book, not only does an angel get its wings, but the student has more money in their pocket, which is good.  especially if my store offers some item (like a hoodie or cute journal) they might actually enjoy spending that money on.

lastly, if you can find it cheaper somewhere else, go for it.  i believe in the health of competition, how it forces me to do what i can to get used books in the store, how it urges me to fire the cashier who is texting her friend at the front counter.  just don’t ask me to copy the isbn numbers of all your textbooks so you can buy them from an online seller.  i’m busy.  email your instructor.

3. the instructor:

you don’t want to read a textbook, and i don’t want to teach from one.  they are boring and create horrible discussions, for the most part.  beware, these are the kind of generalizations i warn my students about.

luckily, i teach creative writing, where i can have discussion on craft, give small entertaining handouts to teach students what they need to know, and spend the rest of the time having each write a story with the following elements:

a homeless man

an elvis impersonator

an apple

the abstraction “ambition”

a city street

then we will dissect this as a group.  we will use “key terms,” not just memorize them.  they will have to say the term “third-person omniscient” in context and know what that means.  but we’ve talked about it, not just read about it, so they understand.

thankfully, i’m not a science or math instructor.  then i would be in trouble.  all of my ideas would be vapor, and i’d long to be the creative writing instructor with a light book bag, maybe even something stylish.

ultimately, i relearn one thing when the student, the bookseller, and the instructor argue, and it’s that education is both expensive and valuable.