Everything Changes Everything

The late, great tenor sax player from Chicago, Clifford Jordan, was in Hartford sometime in the late 70s playing a concert in Bushnell Park.  It was around the time his Glass Bead Game album was released, a recording that twisted my ears all ways at once.  Jordan had a hard, massive sound that somehow managed to be serpentine.  He could play like a demon walking out of a burning building, calm, as if nothing in the world could be wrong.

So I had a chance to hang with Jordan a little while, and being in my teens I had foolish questions in good supply.  I asked how he got the tenor to sound that way on the bottom end, all those big, low hard notes to control.  He looked at me like I needed to be hospitalized for stupidity, which probably I did, and said, “Just do it a lot.”

I don’t think I’ve garnered anything more illuminating about learning things than that.  Confucius said it something like this: With repetition, the student becomes one with the material.

When I started teaching as a graduate assistant at Western Michigan University twenty years ago, our coordinator told us not to “teach”, but “to create an environment in which the students can learn.”

Yeah, okay, I thought.  Maybe I can do that.  Now, when this concept of environment crosses my mind, I say, “Yeah, okay.  Maybe…maybe…”

I’m not convinced learning more about teaching will make me a better teacher.  You can go to conferences and discussion groups.  You can read up on the latest pedagogical theories.  As a language teacher, I feel it would be far more useful to take piano lessons, or maybe learn how to read the Persian alphabet.

I don’t want to learn how to teach any more.  I want to learn how to learn.  I want to watch someone like Sokkeang practice in front of me.  I want to understand why a joke can be funny in one language and not another.  I want to eat custard fruit in the shade with someone who never tasted it before.

For most of the last five years, I taught ESL at a school that was indescribably more than a school.  It was a constellation of randomly perfect ingredients swirling together to form an arcane miracle.  It was the right funky old building on the right corner of the right street in the right city with the right combination of people working together.  I’m supposed to say The Genesis Center is an adult education “program”, but that would be a horrible disservice.  A “program” is nothing but a concept at which a government agency or private foundation throws money.  The money generally comes with the kinds of demands that choke the song out of your throat you’ve been asked to sing in the first place.

Until recently, The Genesis Center was the environment my coordinator was trying to tell me about all those years ago.  It was the place where I landed by accident when I made the grievous misjudgment of returning to the US in 06.  It was my playground, and I was an ecstatic tourist among immigrants who were hungry and good natured.  I had an inordinate freedom to play and explore.  My time at Genesis changed me as a teacher almost as much as living in a foreign country had.

Teaching music in Europe, reading books by Hal Crook over and over again with hours commuting on the train reinforced my belief in the value of repetition.  Seven to ten hours a day blowing the same scales and going for that sound Clifford Jordan told me about changed my wisdom forever.  In classes at places like Genesis, we have to learn how to fool our students into not realizing they’re repeating themselves so much.  We’re supposed to keep it lively and interesting so the numbers in our “programs” won’t suffer.

I don’t know if I taught anyone well.  I want to say I care about that, but I’m ultimately too selfish to do so with any honesty.  The embarrassing truth is that I felt like I’d come back to America to witness my own funeral from a hidden corner, same as Tom Sawyer, but the immigrants I met on the playground helped me keep postponing it.

For several years, I commuted by train to a music school in the south of Portugal.  Every week, I passed a town called Mexiloeira Grande.  For years I looked at that sign as the train went by it and tried to pronounce it correctly in my mind.  I couldn’t.  No one could seem to teach me, either.  Then one day there was a woman on the train with a little boy I guessed was her grandson.  The boy looked at the sign and tried to read it, mucking up the sound as kids often do with too many syllables in their mouths.  The grandmother tossed her head back and laughed.  She told the boy slowly: May-sheel-yo-eh-duh.

I had it after that.  I never pronounced it badly again.

The immigrants usually say English is supposed to be easy for those of us who grew up with it, but that’s not always true.

A couple of years ago, I was teaching a remedial writing course at the Community College of RI.  The building I was working in had harsh, antiseptic classrooms that make me think of that sequence near the end of Clockwork Orange, in which the Malcolm McDowell character, Alex, is forced to watch violent films until he becomes too disgusted to ever hurt anyone again.  Talk about environment.

A young woman named Angel joined the class after it started.  She almost looked like a forgotten angel.  Skirting the edges of pretty.  Too thin and jittery.  The few times she came to class she blustered on about how her life was too complicated for studying.  She’d stop and talk after class about how no one in her family had ever gone to college, and even though they all told her she was neither good nor smart enough, she was determined to get through.  Angel never completed an assignment.  I know what she said, but inside, she believed the lies her family and community had been telling her since she was old enough to understand them.  She’d come to class full of piss and vinegar, then miss the next couple, then come back worried she’d never catch up.

Angel shed tears of anguish, that “bag you don’t want to carry”, beside my car in the parking lot.  I don’t think she noticed my car was older than she was, but I did.  And I knew she was begging for something she’d probably never recognize if she got it.  I offered a tiny piece: help and support.  Time.  I offered a silent wish to see her transform into a real angel of this tragic earth, but when her fears finally absorbed her ambitions, she disappeared forever.  I want to believe someone invited Angel to sit at their kitchen table and show her the way to go on without drowning in her own psychic dissonance.

Well, I want to, but I don’t.  And it’s not like people don’t cry in parking lots or classrooms, including me.

Angel?  Where the hell did you go?  You went and broke both our hearts.

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