I am 96% positive that the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a ninja. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I fell into a teaching phase. Sitting my stuffed animals down in orderly rows to learn math. Giving my parents spelling tests. But that phase ended, too, and as I entered my teenage years, my goals became jumbled.
I had vague notions of doing something that might impact someone else’s life. I was aware that, within society, there were marginalized populations. I was aware not everyone had an army of plushes growing up, or parents who could sit and play games. But I was also a natural writer. As a kid, I would read over the shoulders of typing journalists in my father’s office and point out spelling and grammar errors. I was accused of plagiarism by a teacher, the first time, in sixth grade, because I wrote at an advanced level.
I eventually decided on social work. Looked at and applied only to colleges with a strong social work program. And then, on my first day of college, abruptly switched to professional writing.
Flash forward nine years. I am looking at MFA programs. A message is scratching itself into the back of my skull. It’s not the time you have. It’s what you choose to do with it. I run alphabetically through a list of programs, rule out by location, length (not too long, not too short), language requirement. Look for programs with community outreach.
Pittsburgh. Not somewhere I thought I might want to be, but what the heck. Click.
Words Without Walls.
Apply. Get in. Get excited. Get nervous. Almost decide not to volunteer. I’m not a teacher. My friends are teachers—they take classes and look like teachers and have some presence of authority. Volunteer anyway. It’s why you applied.
Flash forward again. September 2017. It is my second semester teaching at Allegheny County Jail, and we’ve just finished day one with the Friday morning men’s class. We introduced poetry; they wrote haikus, limericks, and nonets. Several shared their work. We compiled a list of words we associate with poetry. We dissected poetry examples.
But they were quiet. Reserved. There were lulls in conversation that never would have happened in the women’s class I taught over the summer. A pit in my stomach was growing. I was failing them. They weren’t interested.
“I thought that went really great,” Mike says as he gathers up leftover paperwork, pens, folders. He goes on to describe the men as engaged, and says how impressed he was that every single student produced work during writing time.
I was so busy comparing the class to my previous class, I didn’t even realize that for this class, what I had just witnessed was, if not a breakthrough, an improvement.
Each class is unique. Start each new semester with a fresh outlook. Add that to my growing list of teaching lessons learned.
Last week, in response to a poem, they asked us the causes of the Vietnam War. As discussion ensued and broadened, I also scribbled down notes to look up how U.S. territories work, and exactly who Mussolini was, anyway. I have vague answers to all of these, but part of being a teacher is also admitting what you don’t know.
Week by week, our students teach me as much as I hope they learn from us. We have taught them about poetry and prose, the links between music and poetry, about choosing words carefully, about finding inspiration in art.
What have they given me? Direction. The knowledge that this is something I can do. That this is what I want to do. To work with populations overlooked by most of society. To hear their voice; to help them find the voice they already have.
I may not always feel like a teacher. Sometimes I’m a listener, or mediator, or student. But that’s part of teaching, too. My students taught me that.
Melanie DeStefano, Words Without Walls Teacher