Words That Light Our Way

Both chapbooks of poetry available from Pudding House Press (Tundra Heart) or Finishing Line Press (Leaving the Pony).

Last year I did some substitute teaching in our local elementary schools here in Jamestown, New York, and today some photos from such a sub day at Love School popped up on my memories section of Facebook. I reposted the photos on Facebook, and as I did I was overwhelmed by emotion. I don’t teach anymore, not in the classroom, though I do teach online. But oh my, I miss it. And not only that, I have loved classrooms and school all of my life from first grade until the last day I taught.

As an adult professional, I have spent much of my working life in the classrooms of America, some in elementary and grades 7-12 and a larger part at the college level at two primary institutions, The College of Central Florida in Ocala and what’s now called the State College of Florida, Manatee-Bradenton. They were both community colleges when I began teaching there. I wanted to be a community college professor because that is where I fell in love with learning. Make no mistake, the community colleges of America can change people’s lives.

I hold both schools dear and still dream of being in the classroom, guiding a class, delivering a lecture, discussing a novel, facilitating a writing group. Recently, a co-worker told me she was an English major at Buffalo State and is contemplating an MFA and a teaching/writing career. Gleefully, I encouraged her. Gleefully, I told her, you will not regret such a life. Every day you will get to talk poetry and writing, to discuss literature with eager minds. It doesn’t get any better than that.

At the bottom of my Facebook post, I typed in “How I love school!” I revere it. I love the clean beauty of the English language. I love the order of seats in a row, teacher’s desk up front. I love the chalkboards and white boards filled with knowledge. I love the eager faces looking up at teachers. I love the students who come in ready to learn and the ones who slump uncomfortably in the back row and all those in between. Each comes in with a dream. Each can profit from mentoring and learning.

The academic life is full of noise and solitude in equal measure. We spend as much time with books and paperwork as we do with hundreds of people in classrooms. Our lives are full of ideas and discoveries, quietude and planning. We live as much in our heads as in any exterior world.

Sign on the wall in one of Jamestown’s fine elementary school classrooms. Photo by Sandy Robison

One of my part time jobs now is grading papers for universities nationwide. I’m not the primary professor; I just grade the papers. It takes hours and hours of reading, offering feedback. The attention to detail for long stretches of time leaves me with red and bleary eyes. But I love it. I love seeing students — some fresh out of high school and some at a midlife turning — striving to find their way, to do well, to get an answer right. I love finding just the right words to champion them and encourage them, to open the door of scholarship a bit wider for them, to shine a light on their strengths and remediate any weak areas. To find just the words, that’s the thing. For “grading” of written work is a qualitative thing, no matter what rubrics we construct. We must have in mind a pyramid of excellence. We must keep in mind that learning is a journey and every person’s is individual.

Recently I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Cori Dunagan from JCC, director of Distance Learning. We talked a good while about teaching online, in the virtual world, where our dealings with students must be made almost entirely through typed language. She was full of sound theory about distance learning and heartfelt enthusiasm about reaching, motivating, encouraging and guiding students towards success.

Every time I grade a paper, I recall how much a few words meant to me when I was a student at various times in my life. I remember how I felt graded in my life, in my soul, with every paper. In my 20s, I was a single mother who had left high school and later earned a GED. I entered JCC with little confidence, only a sort of clattering bravado, only hopes for a better life. Jack Mayne, an English professor who specialized in American Literature said to me once, just keep going. You’re a good student. Maybe you will be a teacher yourself one day. Kathleen Johnson, the beautiful red haired professor, tall and elegant, had a smile for me and for all her students. She encouraged us in some deeply intrinsic way to build our confidence; she was not effusive with praise, but she beamed at us in a way that said, “You’re all doing such a good job! Keep it up! You can do it!” Douglas Carlson read his poems in class, stopping to clean his glasses, his eyes soulful. He is the son of a great teacher, and he has teaching in his bones. He kindly offered feedback to our stumbling attempts at poetry and prose. He gave me a copy of his chapbook of poems, Three Days of Rain, still on my bookshelf. He signed it and wrote, To Sandy. It’s a small thing, you say. But it was personal. It meant, I know who you are. I see your struggle. I use your name. And for me, poetry was thereafter a holy thing.

Two years later, at SUNY Fredonia one spring afternoon in 1977, Dr. Robert Schweik had just delivered another of his mesmerizing lectures on Thomas Hardy. The room was dead silent as he laid down his notes and closed his book. We all sat absolutely still for a moment, reverent at his mastery of the era and the author. We were all still on the Dartmoor plains of west England in our minds. He said, Would Sandy Robison and John Wunder stay after class, please? He then handed out all the papers in class except for two. My heart was thumping. Had I turned in a paper about the Pre Raphaelites so awful he needed to confer with me? I looked over at the other student who visibly gulped. Then with enormous gentility, Dr. Schweik extended his hand to each of us. I had to say to each of you, personally, how much I loved your paper, he said. I want to encourage you both to move on to graduate work and perhaps a life in academe.

Somehow I did not burst into tears as I have just now as I recall this moment in my life that changed everything. This is the power teachers have. It is both honor and burden. It is part of the beauty of the academic life, well-lived.

In my office at the College of Central Florida. Photo courtesy of Art professor Verne Ayers, whose office was next door to mine in the Division of Communications office.

Thanks to those I’ve mentioned and others too I have not mentioned today, my life was changed, my path cleared, my heart lifted. I sought to become a teacher like that, like Kathleen Johnson, like Douglas Carlson, like John Mayne, like Robert Schweik. They remained my models of excellence as a teacher as I met with students, as I lectured, as I led groups for the next 25 years. I think of them now and how they spoke to us students. I make sure I speak to students with the dignity and honor with which those professors spoke to me. I don’t know how to thank such people. I would say to them now, You changed my life. You were a light that has kept shining all these years. Your words echo in my heart and have made me a kind mentor, an attentive listener, a good teacher. I’m sure I failed in many ways, but I strove to shine a light for others as one had been lit for me.

And for me, life has been about words, words said, words written, words withheld. Academia was full of words, written and spoken. They are powerful things. There’s power in a smile kindly and genuinely given to a person in search of meaning and a way to go in life. The road of academe is not traveled alone. The teachers, the professors, hold spotlights to show us the way. The podium is a gift. The pen a medium for changing a life. I kept those papers Dr. Schweik returned to me with his words written in a flourish – Simply superior! It makes me smile to write them on someone’s paper now and then too. Every single time I lay down words on a page as feedback to students, I start with a positive thing. I know words stay with us a long time. I know they can uplift and they can beat us down.

And words can stop our journeys too and send us reeling. When I applied to the creative writing program at the University of Arizona in 1982, where I completed my master’s work, I submitted a portfolio of prose about growing up, about being a young girl in America. Edward Abbey, renowned author of the Arizona deserts, penned a sticky note to the top in red ink. In large, hard letters, that read, “Who cares?” I’m sure someone would have taken off that sticky note before it was meant to be returned to me, but I found the folder laying atop the secretary’s desk. Gut punched, I drove home to northwest Tucson. I did not write again, except for scholarly work, for more than twenty years.

Now I am old and have lived a fine and rich academic life. I have taught thousands of students. I have lived a writer’s life. I am still writing as fast as I can. I have a textbook and several chapbooks of poetry. I’m writing a children’s book with my dear friend Beth Smith, another lifelong educator. The debt I owe my teachers and professors throughout my years as a student and scholar is beyond words. The professors and teachers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing have blessed my life. I offer the prayer of it here. And I say to America, these are your teachers, these people with gifts to offer you and your children. The teaching life is a mighty thing.

My dissertation in book form, available from Amazon.com or any bookstore.