There are moments in one’s past that stand the test of time. They shine while all the rest muddies. They remain as beacons which set the bar for all your future achievements. Sometimes you know in advance, other times it is only in reflection, but those moments grow roots throughout your life and cannot be disentangled from who you are, ever. Receiving my MA from Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English is such a moment for me. One for which I read and wrote and thought and worked harder than anything to reach. Of course there are many people who steered me to that pinnacle, but there was one woman who did so through her own extraordinary passion to enliven and enrich the learning of every student, whether we were in her classroom or for those in classrooms we would return to in the fall, she supported me to be my own teacher-researcher, to gather my own antidotes, all in the service of being a better teacher. This notion seemed novel at first, the idea that a teacher could guide herself and use her own students’ feedback in such an endeavor, but Dixie Goswami’s commitment empowered me more than any educational program I had been in before, or since, and continues to direct my practice even now, two decades later.
Entering the almost century old Bread Loaf Inn, one can feel the presence of wonderful writers, starting back in 1920 when Robert Frost first walked these halls and read his poetry. There is extraordinary history creaking these floorboards and resounding between walls. I spend summer days here while a Bread Loaf student contriving my own sentences among the cluster of marigold buildings. During the summer semester I reflected on my own students and my life with them in Vermont, and it was Dixie Goswami, my beacon, and her network of invaluable people who heralded me to do just that. The following is excerpted from a piece I wrote while in Dixie’s class in 1996, exploring the very reasons I ended up teaching in a public school in a small rural town.
“The old part of downtown is compact, just a T-shaped intersection of two streets with an architectural conglomeration of century-old buildings and newer ones lining the main street. In a book at our school library I have seen historic photos of this place, congested with horses and wagons and women in long prairie skirts crossing the mud underneath new gas lights on the main street. So there is a past here, a past where trains arrived to load our New England lumber and carry it away to the cities, a past where only the hardy ventured north. Some of these buildings are empty now, a string of failed businesses whose dusty, paint-chipped signs advertise their vacancy. Other businesses have survived the changes, and these employ local people, including my tenth graders, who need jobs to pay for their cars and car insurance. Kids drive at sixteen. Seems young, but they feel the urge to get out, to move away, to get beyond this place, this time, this town.”
In the essay I refer to this rural town as Grover’s Corners, likening my town to the one in Wilder’s play.
“Grover’s Corners is a place I’ve learned a lot about simply by observing what goes on. In a few weeks my students will read Wilder’s play Our Town, a drama about hope and loss, love and death, issues woven throughout our town. Will Wilder’s characters, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs, who work tirelessly to make a home, speak to my students? Will my students see their own mothers in a more sympathetic way? Will they begin to imagine the power of love–marriage–death in our town?
Literature like Our Town gives me the strength to be here, in the classroom, with these kids. It gives me a reason to be here, and I want my students to experience it the way I do. My students don’t use literature as a retrospective tool yet, at least not school literature. For them, school is separate from life, from their community. This I understand. Often I don’t want “school life” to creep into my personal life, and vice versa. I can’t find 100% fulfillment in the classroom, and neither can they. But I keep looking for ways to integrate the intellectual and the emotional…
This is Grover’s Corners, rural America, small town USA. I look around at the many familiar faces of students, shopkeepers, colleagues, and know it has, for me, become our town.”
Seeing Dixie for a moment last week flooded me with all that. With the striving to be a better teacher. Writer. Reader. Observer. When I knock on her door she is at her desk. Her large desktop computer surrounded by papers and notes. Her work continuing over these 35+ years at Bread Loaf. She reminds me of my essay. How could she remember mine from decades of students’ writings? She reminds me that we must all tell our stories, even more so today, she adds. She pointedly asked that very question. Isn’t it more important now than ever, she asked with passion and fury and her slow southern determination. Yes, I nod yes, feeling like she is waking me from too many years focusing on grading scales and grading software and grading tools. But story? Even in July this can make me want to talk about school. See? A beacon once more.
The imagination is perhaps the most transformation tool we all possess. With it we can cure the incurable and bring peace to strife. We can reinvent ourselves right into a world of meaning. We can change the landscape and alter the discourse. One step back into this most precious place and I remembered all of that. Full circle to begin again. What is the story I want to tell tomorrow? That is the question I ask each morning in July, and with any luck, it will be the question I still ask come January, especially if Dixie requests one.