Marquin, the Rebel Poet
Many of us have trouble valuing what we do and the faint traces of ourselves we leave on the other lives we touch on our journeys. As I’ve sorted through the voluminous stacks and files of paper that have clogged my office for years, I’ve found various notes and cards that have filled me with humility, tinged with a kind of wonder. Why would something so small mean so much to this person? I ask myself again and again. Who is this person they see in such a light?
And, then, I found an echo of my own voice from long ago, in response to one of those notes. Because it’s so present, I’m publishing this day’s discovery out of sequence.
I was once a teacher, a graduate assistant for more than six years, responsible for helping freshmen and sophomores learn to write in the university setting. Many of my students had entered higher education as a gamble. Their grades weren’t high enough for regular admission, so many of the classes they took were essentially remedial classes. One of the classes I taught was a remedial writing course. I learned a lot about myself, about teaching, and about life in general.
Going through the files that have accumulated over time, I found a response I wrote to an email a former student sent me several years after he graduated from college. I don’t remember many specifics about Marquin, but I do know was a self-proclaimed rebel. And I do remember that, despite his initial distrust of us all, he emerged a leader in class, asking his fellow students insightful questions and encouraging them to answer honestly. He was a big fan of Tupaq Shakur, as well, and although I never warmed to the music, Marquin’s explanations of the sources of Tupaq’s lyrics opened up a whole new understanding of some of the students who took my classes.
In his email, I remember, Marquin thanked me for inspiring him to become a teacher. He sent a poem along with his note. His email and poem have long been lost — to a faulty hard drive, if memory serves. I’m not sure how my response to him survived, but I’m glad it did. Because it reminded me that, no matter what I’ve ever given, I’ve always received so much more in return. Marquin, like so many people who have passed briefly through my life, gave me a window into an otherwise foreign experience and made me think differently about the way things work.
Maybe, it’s like Tupac said:
I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.
In any case, here is my answer to Marquin — email for email and poem for poem. It’s a small peek into the heart of a woman in her early 30s, struggling to understand what was being asked of her and where its edges rubbed against other ways of thinking and being in the world. And, perhaps, also finding there were some things she couldn’t know until she’d written them.
I figured that if you had the courage to write a poem to me to tell me how you felt about school and about life and learning, I could find the courage to write one back to you to tell you how I feel about students like you.
It isn’t easy teaching rebels, you know. Teachers like me want to “help” you by diagnosing your writing problems and forcing you to fit the forms that are acceptable in an academic institution. We want to give you formulas for success, but sometimes we forget the politics that those formulas privilege. We forget about the other voices that could be heard, if only we would silence our own educations long enough to hear them.
Not long ago, I decided that the best service I could give to my students was to make them more confident in their writing. I decided to try to give them strategies that would help them help themselves, ways of making decisions for themselves so that they would not need to rely on formulas to get them through school, but on their own minds, on their abilities to make decisions about their writing and thinking. It isn’t that the formulas are unimportant; it’s just that they are of secondary importance to real thinking and learning.
It’s not that I don’t struggle with myself — frequently — over this decision. I often worry about whether or not I have done you any service at all by giving you the kinds of freedom I give you as students. I woner just how many voices I should listen to. I agonize over whether or not confidence counts as much as being able to write in the ways the university expects. Always, I return to my original stance: Thinking and learning are primary; I must teach you how to learn and to think about your own writing. And that, I think, is what I do best.
That’s why I can make some room for the rebels, Marquin. I know that you walked out of my class a little more aware of things like audience and form — and even grammar — than you were when you first crossed its threshold. And I am a little ore aware of the politics of my teaching. It isn’t easy teaching rebels. So I try to let them teach me. And you have.
Good luck in your future endeavors, Marquin. I think that the part of yourself that you hold to yourself is very important. Thank you for trusting me enough to give me a peek at it.
Rebels and Poets
for Marquin: You are not as fortunate in your teachers as we are in you.
True to their natures,
they turn up unexpected
and largely uncooperative,
overturning our well-considered plans,
capsizing our lessons and forms and figures,
leaving us awash in our frustration with them
or leaving us crawling onto some safe, solid shore
of approved knowledge — clawing for assurances
at our books and degrees and certifications,
the things that comfortably tell us who we are.
They, though, need no such confirmations;
they have created themselves
out of the images they find around them,
and they will fit no mold we make for them.
They reject our expectations,
our lectures, our notes, our diagnoses,
our aspirations for them — or
for the someone we think they should be.
They defy our categories.
They defend their boundaries.
And we should count ourselves blessed
when we encounter them.
If we can find the courage
to unclench our own fists long enough
to take the hands they sometimes offer,
we will learn the lessons they have to teach us.
If we can find the integrity
to listen to the words and rhythms we foolishly seek to tame,
with open ears and willing hearts,
we will hear the freshness of their perspectives
and learn to let go of ourselves for a moment.
We should, in fact, count ourselves teachers
only when we can find the humility to remember:
Rebels are also often our finest poets.
— DD, 2000