life, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

Dear Teacher: Thoughts on a New School Year

It’s that time again: Parents prepare to send their kids off to school for the next go-round, hoping that this year will be the best so far. Teachers eagerly decorate classrooms, plan vivid and engaging lessons, check class rosters, and pick apart data.

As someone who spent 15 years in the secondary classroom before moving into higher ed, I distinctly recall all the dreamy potential that this time of year can represent for parents, students, and teachers — it’s a blank slate, a fresh start, and a million other tabla-rasa cliches rolled into one. It is hope and nerves. It is the smell of paper, the satisfaction of checked-off lists, and the promise of a brightly lit, welcoming space away from home. It is its own magic.

But the real work is about to begin. The daydream of clean faces, happy chatter, and new clothes will soon be supplanted by young people facing issues from abuse to homelessness (and more). The shiny technology and glossy posters will matter less than empty stomachs and forgotten texts. Teacher, what will you do then?

I don’t mean to quell the inspiration of a new year. I really don’t. Love those new stickers for your gradebook. Enjoy the cool, smooth plastic of fresh whiteboard markers. But also understand that the highs of August wear off quickly, and if you don’t love teaching and students, endorphins and dopamine will only last so long.

Teacher, I hope you are excited by those learners seated before you. I hope you are just as passionate about your subject as you have ever been and that your passion is virally contagious. I hope you have ideas for activities, strategies, and projects that will make Disney World seem dull. And above all else, I hope that the instructional fire within you burns bright All. Year. Long.

I wish you all this not just because I’m a parent, not just because I’ve been there, but because our profession (and our youth) need you now more than ever. Amid the bickering about pay scales, the ingratitude of an uninformed public, and the ever-increasing demands of governments large and small, remember your calling. Education isn’t just grading worksheets and administering assessments. It truly, truly is touching lives, leaving a legacy, and yes, making the greatest differences.

Maybe you won’t be a movie teacher like Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. Maybe you’ll just be yourself, whatever that means. But you are exactly the person that at least one student is desperately seeking. Be the calm in their storm. Be the high point of their day. Be unforgettable.

America, its children, and its future are relying on you. We know it’s hard. We know there will be days of frustration, tears, and inimitable joy, sometimes all at once. Teaching means poetry. You chose this life, and we so deeply admire you.

Greet this year with greatness, and then nurture it, sustain it. You can do it, our children can do it, and tomorrow will be better because of it. This is your time. Inspire.

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

“Coat-tailing” vs. Mentorship

A statue of Robert Frost, one poet whose legacy I admire.

I am mentoring a young writer, and I am grateful for her willingness to accept critiques and guidance. This woman is truly interested in making her unique work the best it can be while exploring the masterpieces of prior poets. Her outlook and attitude are precisely what they should be to achieve learning. She is well on her way to the next step in her maturity as a poet.

Too often, writing mentorships can evolve into counterproductivity for a number of reasons, beginning with a mentee’s desire to precisely emulate a mentor’s path. The truth is, no matter how badly we may wish to trace the steps of others, our journeys, literary or otherwise, will forever be our own.

Over the last twenty years or so, I’ve admired a number of poets whose trails have been admirable: They’ve won awards, published in esteemed venues, taught in prestigious institutions, and achieved many of the milestones that poets (rightly or wrongly) value. As a much younger man, I wanted to try to walk in the footsteps of those who had done the things I wanted to do and had been to the places I wanted to go, even going so far as to seek their same publishers or apply to their same fellowship opportunities.

I found, however, that those things weren’t right for me. Just as my mentors had experiences and encounters that were suitable to them as individuals, I likewise needed to forge my own path. Some authors are meant for the lights of New York City; I am not. Some authors revel in writing the grotesque and the disturbing; I do not. And still some authors hide from their readers and the public in general; I will not. I believe in celebrating the simple, recording the beautiful, and engaging earnestly with others. Some of my mentors have shared these traits, and some have not.

And while I’m grateful to have learned from a variety of literary personalities, I would be foolish to think that my road will look exactly like theirs. To extend the metaphor, my two-lane country gravel path is a far cry from their eight-lane high-speed interstates, and that’s really okay. This loud, bumpy ride I’m on has its own charms.

I hope that my current mentee finds her own way. If some of my voyage becomes hers, that’s fine. But each of us must blaze our own course. The fellow wayfarers who go before us, join us, or follow us just make the trip more interesting. Fare thee well, readers — enjoy the journey.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

What Won’t Make You a Writer in 2019

blur calligraphy close up conceptual
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Rather than talking about resolutions, goals, or similar subjects, I thought I’d highlight a few things that definitely won’t make a difference to your success as a writer in the 365 days ahead. Here we go:

1.) STUFF — I love fountain pens. I am particularly fond of Waterman pens from the City of Lights, Paris. When you write with a Waterman pen, it feels like history and beauty are both surging from the nib. No, I’m not being compensated to say this. Regular followers of this blog know I’m enamored with these products. But I am not so infatuated that I cannot write with anything else.

Thinking that a certain desk accessory will make you a better writer is the beginning of counterproductive hours.  Yes, it’s nice to have lovely things from Levenger or other high-end bookish vendors, but at the end of the day, tools are only as good as the person using them. Stuff, no matter how cool it seems, will not magically transform you into an author.

2.) BEVERAGES — Whether it’s coffee or alcohol, the old stereotype is that writers need their liquid fix. Stories are abundant about Hemingway and his beloved whiskey, and certainly other canonized voices are made more endearing by tales of their imbibing. “Write drunk, edit sober,” the old (alleged) quote goes, but no writer worth his or her salt follows that maxim. Writing and editing both require clear thinking, and even too much caffeine can inhibit that process.

I’ll never forget the time I was on a writing streak and consumed three huge cistern-sized mugs of coffee in the process. My heart raced, my brain surged and buzzed, and my breathing became erratically elevated. Something like a panic attack ensued, and I learned the value of moderation the hard way. Today I drink coffee with a bit more care and deliberation. Drinks don’t make you more writerly — if anything, they get in the way.

3.) WARDROBE — Along the same lines as “stuff,” certain clothing choices also don’t make one a writer. Not too many decades ago, the fashion at poetry readings consisted of a black turtleneck and accompanying black beret. This ensemble, the thought went, demonstrated one’s cognitive and emotional “depth,” whatever that meant. Today we’ve eschewed the theatrics of such a “poet’s uniform,” but even now, if one isn’t dressing in a non-conformist way, there are some who assume from such superficial measures that one isn’t a “real writer.” Forget them.

Dress how you dress. I tell my students: There is no greater conformity than non-conformity  because, well, you’re different just like everybody else. Assuming that eccentric clothing is going to get you a better platform for your work or more notice from key figures in the literary community is a bit condescending, as well. The assumption made is that people are too stupid to notice your words, and therefore, there must be some kind of gimmick to draw their attention. If your words are good enough, they’ll speak for themselves. No amazing technicolor dreamcoat is necessary.

4.) TECHNOLOGY — Sure, having a social media presence and a few high-tech toys can be helpful. But please don’t assume that your new iThing is going to mystically transmogrify you into Kafka overnight. Your cute photos on Instagram, your witty observation on Facebook, your wry humor on Twitter — all these make zero impact on your actual writing. It’s fine to create a persona online, but at the end of the day, the words you write will define you, not the keyboard or device you typed them on.

One of the finest poets I know (who also serves as editor of a well-regarded literary journal) uses her Twitter account to track her success at running. She posts her times and distances, and very little else. She tweets few literary observations, even fewer politics. I respect a literary human who refrains from leveraging social media to advance her writing or publishing endeavors. It goes against the grain of common practice and demonstrates a level of confidence that exudes cool.

5.) OTHER WRITERS — At one point in my writing journey, I assumed that hanging around great minds would result in some kind of artistic osmosis. And while it’s fun and engaging to be around people with similar likes, I learned not to expect “networking” to be my golden ticket. So much time is spent at events like AWP pressing the flesh and engaging in awkward literary politics; that time would be better spent pressing ink into a legal pad or notebook. Not to minimize the importance of sharpening the saw (Stephen Covey’s term), but breathing the somewhat rarefied air of writing workshops, seminars, groups, and conferences does no good unless motivation and productivity result. The rest is just so much window-dressing.

Don’t expect mentors or friends with lit-cred to pave your way to success (however you may define that term). One’s own writing must do the heavy lifting. In business, friends in high places are essential, and to a certain extent, writing is business. But the thought that name-dropping will somehow result in acclaim or acceptance is fallacy at its finest. Aside from patting oneself on the back, mentioning famous friends or prestigious places serves little purpose. Classy writers just don’t do it unless they’re specifically asked.

I’m sure I could come up with other matters that won’t make one a writer, but these five points are a pretty good start. As we unwrap a new year like a gift, let us put words on the page and clarity in our minds. My mantra will be a quote from the great William Faulkner: “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” Happy 2019!

life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Seeking the Wright Inspiration

20180811_175617
A classroom inside Edge Hall, where I earned my first Master’s degree.

As a creative writer, I’ve done some pretty weird things to try to force epiphanies upon myself. Consider my sophomore year at the Frank Lloyd Wright campus of Florida Southern College, 1995-1996. Around this time, I took an American Literature class under Prof. Wesley Ryals. His course was challenging; he expected you to read copious amounts of writing outside of class, and when you arrived, he would hold deep discussions of the work, leaving those who hadn’t read (yours truly included) in the proverbial dark.

So I began reluctantly reading. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne was on the syllabus, and I began to understand symbolism. Suddenly everything around me came to life with underlying potential — trees meant life and growth and progress, the sky above me foreshadowed the day ahead, and a million other everyday images I’d previously ignored glowed with further implications. We read other canonized authors like Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, and my “literary x-ray vision” for the world around me strengthened.

Right about this same time, I started seeking out spots on campus from which to write. I’d always dabbled in poetry and prose, but now, with this new heightened awareness, I felt especially motivated. I chose a bench somewhere near the freshman girls’ dorms and wrote about a dead white-barked tree covered in brown-black birds. The piece was awful, consisting of faulty formalism with heavy-handed rhyme and meter, but it was editable anyway.

I visited the balcony of the Student Life Center. It was supposed to be closed for repairs, but what are “keep out” signs to young men but invitations? From there, I looked out over Lake Hollingsworth at night, and took particular interest in the radio towers blinking their “dim, consistent red” while cars “looped a pool of silent black.” Egad. I think on these excerpts now and shudder, but they were a starting point. I began to conclude that, so long as I could get elevated enough or secluded enough, artistic revelation would follow.

And so I began frequenting the outdoor stairwells of Edge Hall, where education and religion classes were held (still are). In the evenings, the hustling spirits of the day were left there, but no one visited. Notepad in lap, I wrote about the rain and the wind, the hollow echoes of hard, narrow places. Sometimes the experience was good, but most of the time, I was trying too hard to squeeze the blood of inspiration from my turnip-brain. I’d leave with a legal pad full of sophomoric observations, and occasionally I’d return to them later and pick out some small detail that generated poetry. A few years after I graduated with my B.A., two FSC-inspired pieces would be included in Cantilevers, the school’s literary magazine, and one of them would win — get this — the Wesley Ryals Creative Writing Award.

What I learned from all this nomadic writing, though, was that a writer cannot prescribe himself a place for creativity. As my mentor Erica Dawson once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), you don’t just sit down somewhere and think Today I will write a poem about X. Epiphanies are elusive things, and placing yourself in solitude may help foster them, but there’s no assurance.

As a 19-year-old questing after sagacity, I never would have guessed that I would return to FSC years later to attain my first master’s degree in education, let alone that I would do so inside the very building where I’d written those stairwell stanzas. If someone had told me I’d complete that graduate program with a 4.0 GPA, I would have scoffed, considering my undergrad grades. Likewise, if some guru had said I’d have an MFA and eventually teach the very works that inspired me, I probably would have laughed.

But if some soothsayer had said, “Years from now, you will look out from the third floor of the Roux Library and still be inspired to write poetry,” I would have believed. Florida Southern continues to be a place of inspiration for me. I’ve been honored to adjunct-teach there a few times, but mostly, I like to return to the campus to see with older eyes that which I could not have seen earlier — genius under its eaves, history written into every column, and beauty in the youthful interactions of those with a whole future ahead of them. Such a place embodies potential, and potential is where revelation thrives.

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, writing

An Empathetic Farewell to Unpopular 2016

last-day-imageSo many of my friends have been cheering on the parting of 2016, thankful that it is about to fade into oblivion. As these last few hours tick by, I can’t believe I’m actually feeling sorry for a year in history. But 2016 has elicited that response from me, strangely enough. I feel that 2016 has been like that unpopular kid in class that everybody liked to pick on: easy prey because of difference. I, for one, kind of enjoyed 2016 — not necessarily for political or cultural reasons, but for its more personal milestones:

My fourth book (and by far my best to date), Hard Inheritance, received publication on December 5, and I have been honored by its critical reception. It was good to see a new book of poetry out there, and as 2017 waits just a few hours away, I fully anticipate that it will be a great year for my latest collection.

I received an incredible new full-time position teaching English and Literature at the university level, a long-time goal of mine. The job itself is both rewarding and intellectually stimulating, and I’m the happiest (professionally) I’ve been in a long time. My students make teaching a joy and privilege. That’s a sentiment I thought I’d lost, and now it’s back, thanks to the events of 2016.

Both of my sons have done well in different areas this year. My oldest son discovered a love for basketball, while my younger son has continued to develop himself academically and artistically in the new Montessori school both boys attend. My wife has continued to enjoy her work in the medical field, and my family life has been good, to say the least. My fortieth birthday meant a big trip to Lisbon for all of us, a time that none of us will soon forget for its meaningful experiences.

Maybe your candidate didn’t get elected. Maybe your favorite celebrity died. Maybe unnatural disasters befell your part of the world. But from my little corner of the planet, 2016 was more than okay. It was memorable, it was unique, and it was unpredictable. All three of these traits, while they can be negative, also give us things of beauty. And despite its occasional difficulty and ugliness, 2016 also had plenty of the positive. All we have to do is look for it.

poetry, Uncategorized

More VS. Different: A human quandary

Adding isn't always the answer.
Adding isn’t always the answer.

Recently, I’ve been consumed by one mistake that I’ve made throughout my writing and teaching life. In some ways, this error is stereotypically American: When I feel the need for change, instead of choosing something different, I just pile something else on. It’s a childish mindset really — I’m unhappy with the one thing, but if I had two things, I’d be happier. Fallacy, fallacy.

When I was a young man just starting out, I didn’t make much money. Oh sure, I’d been to college and done my part to begin a journalism career, but a fresh degree and limited experience meant a meager income. My solution was always working harder, not smarter. I’d take on extra jobs until my every waking moment was consumed with responsibility of one form or another. And when you’re just setting foot into “the real world,” being industrious is admirable. But I found out pretty quickly that burnout is very real, and being obligated non-stop is a great way to compromise your health.

The lesson didn’t stick, though. When I changed careers about four years after getting my bachelor’s degree, I began to repeat the same mistakes in education: “Oh, teachers don’t make much? That’s okay. I’ll just take on more duties. I’ll tutor after school and pick up some freelance gigs on the side.” By this time I was married, and the incessant lesson planning, grading, and researching were all taking their toll on the homefront.

I added titles to my own job description, becoming a technology guru, a committee and department leader, a curriculum developer, and a professional development coordinator. My writing, of course, was taking the back burner to my overwhelming career roles, all because I assumed that if I had more to do, I’d somehow be happier. And granted, the experiences I earned while tackling these titles proved valuable. I know about a wealth of fields that make me an asset in the workplace. But meanwhile, I still wasn’t content.

The truth was, I needed something different, not something more. One more graduate degree wasn’t the answer, despite my 4.0 GPA. One more assignment wasn’t the panacea to discontent.When you’re tired of digging ditches, buying more shovels isn’t the solution.  I needed to work smarter, not harder, and I needed balance.

By shouldering more and more responsibility outside my home, I’d minimized the time I had for my family life. I had become that workaholic husband and father who can’t show up to his kids’ birthday parties, and writing? What was writing? Certainly there was no time for such frivolity. Our bank account was steadily reaping the benefits of my overexertion, but the price beneath my roof was far too great. It was time to restore some sanity and clarity to every part of my life.

I began cutting back on extra teaching opportunities, and started riding my bicycle again, for starters. I took a more active part in church life. My wife and I were dating again. I flew kites and threw Frisbees with my sons on the weekends. This was different, and it was good. Our financial situation was okay, but we still weren’t rich. And for one time in my life, I didn’t care. Money, I found, was reciprocal: we received what we gave, and often, we reaped more than we sowed, to use some biblical terminology. My new quest for balance and “smarter work” was paying off. My new and more flexible schedule now included a daily writing routine during the early morning hours, and soon, I had a thick volume of work. The MFA became not “one more degree,” but a natural outcropping from my own talents and interests, which my re-balanced life had shown me.

So now, as spring break draws nearer and the end of another school year will follow not long after, I feel another mile marker approaching. Change is coming in my professional life, and this time, my hope is that I’ll remember the lessons of my personal history. Work smarter, achieve balance, and don’t mistake more for different.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

An Address to New Teachers Everywhere

A group of summer school students work on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.
A group of summer school students working on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.

If my loyal readers will allow me, I would like today to take off my “poet’s cap” and put on my teacher’s mortarboard instead for just one post.

As summer draws to its end and a new school year eagerly waits right around the corner of the calendar, I feel the need to post something here for all you newly hired teachers and professors. I, too, was once that first-year teacher. Now I serve as a mentor to up-and-coming educators. In that capacity, I have composed a brief address to teachers new to my school. I feel that this address would benefit teachers in any school, but especially independent schools like my own. Here, for your encouragement, is that short speech:      

ADDRESS TO NEW VANGUARD TEACHERS
By John Davis Jr., educator and poet

Before you lies an incredible journey. You have the chance to truly and positively change lives if you take advantage of this moment in your career. At Vanguard, you can teach as you have always wanted to teach, and you can become the servant leader that American education so sorely needs today.

Here is the place where your grandest experiments and classroom daydreams can come to life, if you let them. Now is the time that all your compassion, all your patience, and all your skills will be needed daily. You will have to hug children that others have found unlovable, and you will have to give structure to students that have never known boundaries. You will need to prepare your best advice for broken hearts, best-friend betrayals, and even divorces and deaths. These students need your voice, and they need your shoulders.

They will seek you out to tell you of all their firsts. When they pass their driving exam, compliment their shiny new permit photo. When they lose a beloved family pet, put your arm around them and console them. When they fail at anything, encourage them. When they ask you the hard questions, be honest with them.  They’ll respect you more for the truth than for some typical grown-up cliché. And at the end of the day, real life is really what they need to hear about the most.

They will bring you food they have cooked in culinary arts. Eat it enthusiastically, even if it’s horrible. They will show you pictures of what they plan to wear to prom. Tell them that it’s incredible, even if it’s hideous. They will proudly exhibit their latest woodworking project for you. Tell them how artistic it is, no matter how loose-jointed and awkward it may look.  

Dress like you’re the boss, but be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, and even occasionally bruised. But know above all that the labor, the grit, and the pain are all worth it. You will become to these students a parent, an older sibling, and eventually, a fond remembrance. Even when they go off to college, they’ll spend part of their break coming to see you again if you’ve done the job right.

And when they have long since graduated, found their way, and started adult lives of their own, rest assured that you will be a main character in the stories they tell their children. Your advice, your lessons, and your every idiosyncrasy will be recounted for another generation, not because you are a sage or a superhero, but because at one time in one child’s life, you cared.

Give them your 100 percent every day, even when you feel like you only have 10 percent left. Laugh with them, share with them; invent new games with them. The greatest stories of your teaching life are ahead of you, educator. Be prepared.