Friday, March 27, 2020

For real

In May I was a senior at the University of Maryland; in August I was teaching freshmen at Ohio University—three short months between being a sometimes half-attentive English major to being the teacher laboring to get that kid's attention. My graduate T.A. cohorts and I had had a smattering of training—a three-day intensive with the Director of Freshman Composition on what to expect in a Freshman Composition course, with the emphasis on You Really Can't Predict A Thing—and, wow, there I was: a beautiful Monday morning in quiet, sweet Appalachia, where I'd lived for only a week or so, having alighted from the bustling and cosmopolitan Washington D.C. suburbs, walking into a classroom in an old building to face twenty-five students, all of whom were only a few years younger than me.

To say that I was petrified would be severely understating things. I bolted upright at 3 a.m. virtually every night for weeks that quarter, panicking with a blend of fear, imposter syndrome, and desperation. Teaching freshman composition to half-attentive students was paying my way through graduate school, and for that I was grateful, but that gratitude did little to assuage my sickly fears. All these years later I still feel a nervous flutter in my gut in the moments before I walk into a classroom, and that's a good thing, but nothing quite like what I suffered those first couple of quarters at Ohio University. It turns out, happily, that I love teaching. But it took a while for me to recognize that. That I woke up trembling and managed to march into a classroom three times a week and teach amazes me now.

These memories are returning this week as I'm remote teaching for the first time in my three-decade career. I've come to prize the classroom, the literal space where a handful of students, ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties, and occasionally beyond, gather twice a week to talk, react, think, quarrel, be bored, be thrilled, be resentful, be grateful, be rude, be gracious, remain stubbornly resistant to surprise or bravely open to it. A classroom is a special space, and I'm extremely grateful that I've been allowed to teach in one, learning as much from the students as they are, hopefully, learning from me and the many, many books we read and discuss. Happily, I've never lost the excitement of being a student, and I vibe on the unique energy that students bring. I still vividly recall sitting in a college classroom among strangers, and then friends, bored or riveted, concerned one day with flirting with the girl next to me or mentally assembling the opening set of my campus radio show, and then willfully ignoring all of that the next class if I'd surprised myself into caring about the text we're discussing, bobbing on top of an excited conversation, though shy, maybe lost in the inability to express my thoughts but amped nonetheless to try.

Now, I'm teaching at my desk, in my writing/music room, via Zoom. The moments before the first class began, the butterflies came back; this time I was dependent upon a technology I'd never used before (and about which I've been skeptical for years). Yet when my students' faces began popping up on the screen one by one, my heart melted, There they are! They were sitting in their old bedrooms, or their current apartments, and I could see the stuff of their lives behind them—posters on the wall, plants, propped and hanging guitars, old dressers, a tiny kitchen, cats everywhere—adding poignancy to the whole thing. Despite the occasional tech glitch or three, the sessions have gone well; we all know each other now and each other's work. The conversations, I hope, been productive and valuable for my students.

Yet the energy that I try to send into a room and the energy I subsequently feed off from the students are radically different, and considerably lesser. We're all simply gazing at a flat screen, away from the dimensional intimacies of the classroom, where our bodies as well as our minds were; physical tics and sidelong glances between buddies and laughter and outfits and buttons on book bags are now sublimated to a grainy screen image. Though Zoom is proving to be a decent substitute for face-to-face teaching, I long for the day when my students and I can gather again in a place, not a computer, pad, or phone. As I write, that day seems mythical.

Heeding the advice of online guides and tutorials, I've been keeping up my daily routines during this crisis, as has Amy, who's also remote teaching, literally in the next room on her laptop as I'm teaching in my room. I wear my full-on teaching costume, head to toe, which, granted, isn't all that far off from what I wear when I head out to the local bar, but routine is deeply valuable to me. Edie Falco, who played Carmella Soprano, admitted in an interview that she'd forgotten to wear her character's many rings as she got into costume in preparation for filming The Sopranos' infamous final scene at a New Jersey diner. About that shot, she said, "It was a very big emotional thing. We couldn’t believe it was actually done. We were hugging and kissing, it was like 3 in the morning. We wrapped, I was walking my way back to my trailer. I felt my pocket, I put my hand in my pocket and all of Carmela’s rings, her engagement ring, you know, she had like 45 rings. This is her marriage to Tony that she wore like a statue on her finger."
I forgot to put them on. I forgot to put them on for that final scene. I finally went up to Ilene Landress, who was the producer, at like 3:30 in the morning, sweat dripping down me I was like, “We gotta redo the last day.” Anyway, she just said, “Forget it. Don’t worry about it.” I was sure that that would work its way into the meaning of the final scene. It never did but I had a pocket full of her engagement ring, and her wedding ring. She never wore them in the final scene.
Elsewhere, Falco has said that wearing those rings had always been crucial to her in helping her embody Carmella, get fully into character. I get that, which is why I was worried that I might feel slightly "off" teaching remotely if I weren't wearing what I normally wear, even though the students are only seeing my head and shoulders. How much of teaching is a variation on method acting, getting into the role? I've never really had to think about that before. Who knows. I just look forward to the day when my students and I can gather in a room again together, for real.

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