How long have I been teaching memoir writing? On its face, the answer is, “not very,” but I can also truthfully say “about 40 years.”
How can both be true? The recent teaching comes in the form of workshops I have blogged about previously– three sessions at the Fetzer Institute and two about workshops given at my church. Each of these experiences reminded me of how much I love the interplay between teaching and learning.
That love began in childhood with my admiration for and occasional adoration of some very good teachers. There was Mrs. Lochner, in the sixth grade, who doubled as both the principal and a teacher at Fairland Elementary School in Manheim, PA. She was tall, pulled her grey hair into a bun but not so tightly that wisps could not escape and form waves around her face. When she walked, she might have been a general, striding across the battlefield, leather strop in hand. Or a mother lion, moving so gracefully that one might forget those same liquid limbs have mawed other animals into meat in seconds.
Mrs. Lochner picked me to be a reader. Every day I would open the book of the month to a new chapter and read to the whole class after lunch. The book was The Wind in the Willows I wanted to be a teacher myself from that time forward.
I taught high school English for two years at Harrisonburg (VA) High School. Then Stuart and I went to grad school at the University of Texas at Austin, where I taught in both the English and American Studies departments. In each of these locations I taught writing, always learning myself along with the students. I found that when I could get them engaged with their own interests, telling personal stories, they would write much better than if the were describing the pros or cons of capital punishment or other subjects remote from their view and their experience.
At Goshen College I taught English and women studies. My favorite assignment in one of my most frequently taught courses was the personal essay, which is very much like a memoir, except that the essay still follows the thesis pattern and a memoir is more like a series of scenes. I don’t remember any of the research papers my students wrote, and I graded into the wee hours of the night, but I do recall the personal essays–the wig worn by one student’s mother as she laughed at breast cancer and won, the way the stars looked from an outhouse at midnight in a foreign land, why Pepsi is better than Coke, a cathedral’s impact on a student’s vision and identity.
Goshen’s signature program is international service-learning in a “significantly different” (usually third world) culture. Stuart and I led two groups of students: Haiti in 1980-81 and the Ivory Coast, West Africa, in 1993. All students write daily journals about their experiences, and we as leaders, read all of these.
Here I am with son Anthony overlooking the denuded mountains outside of Port au Prince, 1981.
What have I learned from my students? That’s a question I’ll answer next. Have any other questions about memoir or about me?