Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dreaming About Poet Laureates, Community Colleges, and Harriet Tubman

Last night, I dreamed that I was some sort of employee who was trying to help Poet Laureate Kay Ryan. In my dream, she had come to me to tell me that she didn't want to be Poet Laureate anymore, and we were strategizing her exit strategy.

I woke up and thought, Great--even in my dreams, I'm some sort of low-level administration type. If I'm going to dream about Poet Laureates, why can't I dream that I'm the actual Poet Laureate?

Of course, I've been daydreaming about the Poet Laureate position for years. I've always been intrigued by the projects that the Poet Laureate chooses to pursue. Most of us are familiar with Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, but other Poet Laureates have done interesting things too.

When I woke up this morning, I thought, I wonder if Kay Ryan is still Poet Laureate, and I set out to search. I came across this story, which talks about the project that Kay Ryan will do, a project which focuses upon community colleges: "The Community College Poetry Project is made up of three parts. National Poetry Day on Community College Campuses will be celebrated on the first day of April beginning next year and will include events, readings, and a conference call with Ryan. A Web page, 'Poetry for the Mind's Joy,' will launch early next year hosted by the Library of Congress' site. Lastly, colleges will submit their best work each year to feature on the site."

In this story, Ryan says, ""I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly—and with very little financial encouragement—saving lives and minds. I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle."

What a wonderful statement about community colleges. I finished my Ph.D. during another time of deep recession and cuts in teaching staff (back in 1992). I won a job at Trident Technical College, which was one of the biggest community colleges in South Carolina. I think some of my professors might have felt I was a bit of a failure, but I was happy to have that job. It paid a living wage and gave me benefits.

One of the benefits that it gave me was that I really felt I was doing important work. Most of my students were the first in their families to attend college, and I felt fortunate to be their guide. I knew that this chance to attend a community college was their shot at escape from a low wage future. I liked being part of the team that helped that to happen.

During those days of teaching endless sections of Composition (and the lower level, pre-college Comp classes), I often thought of my childhood hero, Harriet Tubman, and how our vocations were similar: leading people to freedom, some of whom were a bit resistant to being rescued. Seeing myself that way helped me during the days when my job felt more like drudgery than heroism.

In this story, Kay Ryan says, ""I always think writers will come from the most unlikely sources. Maybe that is because I was educated in a community college, I didn't look a bit promising and I got to be poet laureate of the United States."

Kay Ryan's comment touches on one of the difficult parts of being a teacher: you rarely know whether or not you've been successful. You teach your lessons on Composition in sixteen weeks or less, and the students go off to their next class, and eventually they graduate, and you never know what happens.

Well, sometimes you know. On Friday, a former student came to see me. She said, "You changed my life."

No, gentle reader, it was not my writing instruction, exactly, that changed her life. She said, "I brought some flan to class, and you had a bite, and you told me that I'd be really successful if I went into business making flan." Years later, that's what she's doing. I hope she'll be successful. I hope my taste buds weren't wrong. I hope she has good business skills to go with her superb flan making skills.

Perhaps most of us have this job difficulty. Very few of us have jobs that let us know for sure that we're making a difference. The other day, after my Penelope of a day of re-revising a revised report to turn it back into the original report and updating it, I asked a friend, "Is this is what I was put on Earth to do?"

My friend said that was the wrong question, but she couldn't tell me what the right question would be.

I think it's the right question. And happily, most days, I do feel I'm doing what I was put on Earth to do, at least for part of the day. It's one of the joys of midlife. When I got my first teaching job, I spent a lot of time wondering if I was at the right school. Now I know that I can do my Harriet Tubman work in any number of settings with many types of work.


Karen J. Weyant said...

Thanks for posting this -- I didn't know anything about Kay Ryan's Poetry project.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Yeah, they seem to be keeping the community college project on the quiet for now. But thanks! I'm going to investigate today!

Kells said...

This totally made me smile today--

" I woke up and thought, Great--even in my dreams, I'm some sort of low-level administration type"

***I swear, I do the same thing in dreams!

Kristin said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and commenting!