August 16, 2012
I have described the dining hall experience here at Bread Loaf as something of a cross between middle school and prison. The prison aspect derives from the fact that we sit at long tables and have really no alternative. When I was here in the 1970s for the School of English, there was a grill and deli bar in the Barn where you could buy sandwiches and snacks, or even a cooked breakfast or a freshly-made cheeseburger. That’s gone now, replaced by two vending machines with a small selection of candy bars and sodas. The nearest store is six or seven miles over that long, winding, moose-crossed road.
The middle school aspect is probably not something everyone experiences. It seems whenever I enter the room, everybody else is already sitting in groups, talking animatedly, laughing. I feel shy and uncertain, still perennially afraid of being the target of a Mean Girl, such as the woman in my workshop in 2003 who ridiculed my hat and then never said another word to me.
This morning I took a deep breath, put a smile on my face, and sat down with my scrambled eggs and Tater Tots beside a woman who had asked me a question in some line or other that we were waiting in yesterday. We introduced ourselves, and I learned that she lives in a city about 90 miles from my home, and since my home is the capital city of the state, she would know a thing or two about its current problems with impending bankruptcy and other political brouhahas.
We discovered that we were both English teachers, she in a private school in that somewhat larger city. I said that I had “left the classroom,” a phrase I prefer over “retired.” She asked me if I had taught in my city’s beleaguered public schools, a system burdened by overcrowding, a high truancy rate, poverty among its students (almost 90% qualify for free or reduced price lunches), budget shortfalls. When I said no, I’d taught in a suburban/rural district, she said, “Oh, well. That’s better!”
Better than what, I wondered.
Peter Ho Davies, a Welsh-Chinese fiction writer whose story “Chance,” about a couple contemplating an abortion, nearly stopped my heart (that’s a compliment), read last night in the Little Theater after Michael Collier’s welcoming address. He chose “What You Know,” a story that begins with an English teacher cataloging the mistakes that his composition students make. The teacher encourages them to express themselves fully, while considering the ways expression in his own life has been limited. The story takes a dramatic turn when one of the students brings a gun to school and stages a Columbine-like shooting in which he kills himself.
Some years ago, upon learning that I was a teacher, a member of a community writers’ group I attended briefly gushed to me, “Oh, you must have so many fascinating stories!” What makes you think they’re my stories to tell? I wanted to ask her.
The students I taught had the same problems teenagers everywhere have, if perhaps to a lesser degree than their counterparts in the city schools. They didn’t have gang violence to contend with, and the racism was subtle and largely hidden, since we had so few students of color. But there was poverty, and depression, alcoholism and neglect, bullying, loneliness. I have only once taken an experience I had with a student, a confrontation in which a youngster told me I didn’t understand anything about his life, and made it the center of a story. I used some of the circumstances of his life that had caused us to have conflicts, and although I opened with the confrontation that led to his outburst, I eventually took that out, because it wasn’t very interesting.
The manuscript I have brought to workshop this week is a portion of my first novel that no one has ever seen. In it, my character Brenda has difficulty letting the man who loves her help her with some complicated emotions triggered by a family tragedy. She shuts him out, hurting him and denying herself the support he could be to her. She takes her anger out on the gift of a container of potato salad extended by a well-meaning but annoying neighbor.
I write what I know.