Not about Refinement

I’m teaching again, by whatever glitch in the Matrix.

Jess too.

I have to stop looking forward to the future of this class before I blink and it’s already over.


This week I’ve been rereading Tennessee Williams’s Not about Nightingales in the hopes that we can practice giving a performance. This group of women is full of life, and while I wish I had the perfect place to channel their energy (a 21st birthday party, a metal concert, teaching boogery kindergartners), I hope Williams's play can at least celebrate their talents. I’ve been considering this play (a scene from the group of incarcerated men), focused on sharing Queen—an “Image obsessed convict who is a homosexual, and not very bright”— who, quite luminously, has the line: “All my life I've been persecuted by people because I'm refined.

It’s funny, isn’t it? The way refinement can be polarizing. At least, it was where I grew up. Refinement was funny in the way it could insinuate homosexuality (#MasculinitySoFragile) and it was funny in the way a refined person can quickly rot into an elitist. All the different ways we interpret refinement are so funny (in a “haha” and “wah” kind of way).

It’s almost too much to consider that with the slightest shift in the winds, I may have never taught with Words Without Walls. My writer friends cringe when I say this, but I enrolled at Chatham only to work closely with a prison population; the writing came as an aside. More often than not, I consider the ways my life would have been worse, better, or exactly the same without my MFA experience. It’s strange to know that, had it not been for this experience, I would still think artists are nothing if not ridiculous (and always late), that they’re all thoroughly selfish, that they’re fighting a rat race of poverty. I’d still give eye rolls in response to: “I’m a writer.” It's hard to admit, but I persecuted writers as "refined," as if their passions were useless.


Almost a decade ago, I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. Or at least an aesthetician. Why? I’m a zit popper. Identify imperfections, erase them, make them worsethat's my game. I look at myself in the morning with a daily mantra: fat, pale, sick, do better. This is the way I get through each day. As a plastic surgeon, I assumed I’d make people beautiful by changing themby following social constructs, by obeying. 

But when I landed in an American Literature class (by General Education Curriculum accident), one person would absolutely change the course of my life. The experience was less like of the smallest gust of wind that plucks a dangling leaf from a branchit was more like a hurricane ripping a tree up by its roots. I would realize that literature not only reflects but changes the way we see the world. Like religious folks say about God, literature speaks to directly to me and helps me translate this long drawn out practical joke we call life. I learned that negative energy is universal, and I try to channel my mantra through a positive lens. Things suck, let's make it better. I'd find myself unlearning all the systematic rules, the systematic negatives, all the systematics I'd seen practiced in rural West Virginia. Intelligent people aren't, by design, automatically feminine. And even if they are, what's wrong with having female traits, or better, being female? I'm supposed to be ripped, and bearded, and know how to fix everything, right? I'm supposed to laugh at men who write poetry and dance because that's inherently feminine. As if it were a math equation: I know how to fix air conditioners+washing machines+gas meters=I'm no more of a man for any of it. 

I realized I had lived a life with opinions that were not based off of any fact (I know, pretty rudimentary stuff, but an uphill lesson in privilege for me). In all that reading, I'd realize there's a lot more beauty to be seen in imperfections, honesty, and pain, and they are not meant to be fixed. Mended perhaps, but not sucked of all the fat.

Were it not for that professor, I would not have moved overseas to teach English in a dusty rural Chinese town. I wouldn’t have worked for an attorney in Morgantown, only to realize how terrifyingly biased and unprofessional I’d be as a lawyer. I would not treat allying as a verb. I would not see refinement as something respectable; I would not realize that I actually enjoyed refining myself. Were it not for a slew of mentors and the founders of WWW, I wouldn’t have taught at the ACJ, SCI, or Carnegie Library, and I most certainly wouldn’t be a “selfish” writer living in Pittsburgh, finding meaning in evaporating water, crusty eyelashes, in the white space below, in the very fact that you're reading words through thousands of particles of light, in seeing a dog's fur as a rolling desert, in coins that represent tiny planets in orbit, seeing something correlated between mass shootings and a thorny rose.


Without characters like Queen and the words from Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemmingway, and on and on, I don't know how I would have made my journey. Without the words of so many beloved people in my Pittsburgh family, I may not have realized that I’d almost built a life attempting to avoid regrets. 

My purpose in teaching is to pay it forward. And I want to be the kind of teacher I've mentioned because I know how it feels to think one with refinement (or education) deserves persecution. Because who likes a nerd, right? I want my students to know how many times in my life I've changed, and how many times I've felt like something even less than a total failure. I want them to understand: not everyone knows you by your weakness (or convictions) alone. Not everyone thinks you ought to better yourself, but you do it anyway.

So many of us do this because we love it, or don’t quite know how much we love it yet. Many of us work as volunteer teachers. We spend eight weeks teaching three hours each week (more for prep and planning). I was lucky to be able to do this through the support of Laurie Mansell-Reich and Henry Reich. The Robert H. Mansell Fellowship allowed me to: teach every semester of my graduate career; help with administrative tasks; work on team and community building. But most importantly, it allowed me to get to know individual units of this soulful community. It showed me just how selfless (and sometimes, unfortunately, how terribly selfish) some writers can be. Braver still is the WWW teacher who at least tries a semester of this program, only to realize this is not a population best suited for them or their time. That's alright! We all do this and learn from this together as a dysfunctional little family. Anyone able to participate in this program and write in this community, even for a moment, is lucky for the opportunity to be an ornament in another person's heart. 

So stop being so ashamed. As a writer, today you are selfish. Today you are refined. Today you only write to share it with the world. Tomorrow, you're something else. And others are going to persecute you for anything, sometimes everything. So?

You’ll get more and more refined in whatever as you go, and that’s a great lesson to learn.

-Jonny Blevins, Teacher