Will this matter to anyone else but me?
August and now September have been months of reducing possessions, my own and others.
In July, a friend’s mother died, and I offered my practical skills as a form of condolences. A favor turned into a part-time job — and teachers love summer income, especially with a child in college! — and in the past few weeks the furnishings of a 10-room house have been winnowed over time to a few piles for the local charity thrift store.
While I have some posts to write about the stripping of that life of all its possessions, this one is not about that. It’s about my life, and my possessions. As I’ve been clearing the house that is not mine, in parallel I’ve been casting a critical eye on my own stuff in attic, basement, and bookshelf storage and reducing it almost ruthlessly. When someone has died (well, someone whom you’ve never loved or known well), and you realize that the life is not at all in the things, you have to realize that your own life is also not represented by your things.
Your life is in your life.
Today I emptied a big plastic bin, stored for years in my attic, of a collection of teaching materials, notebooks, handouts, and other artifacts from my years at Simmons and Mount Ida Colleges: the first years of my teaching (c. 2004 – 2008). I was so earnest, and everything I did so handmade, for better or worse. For every class I taught there was a three-ring binder, with section dividers. I kept my grades by hand in a table I made. The syllabus was in the first section. There was a section with blank pages, filled over each semester, for notes taken during class; there were sections for assignments and helpful handouts.
I found also notebooks and handouts from professional development workshops and conferences I went to. The cool thing about conferences for writers and writing teachers is you often get to do actual writing when you’re there! At the 2004 Bard one (see above), I was daunted by “the huge unbudget(ed) inestimable amount of time that I know writing will take.” I am still daunted.
Grace, who was four or five years old at the time, would incessantly write me notes that I would hang on my office bulletin board. I found some of those in the bin. (See above.)
There were notes from students to Professor Kokernak, and a plaque made by Betty, a middle-aged literature student I tutored who discovered about a year into the Master degree program that she was dyslexic. She chose an Emily Dickinson poem to capture how it felt to be inside her head and to thank me for sticking with her. I liked her, and was flummoxed by her struggles to sort out her ideas.
one of my favorite Peter Elbow articles
a handbook on working with sources in writing
an invaluable chart, from an ESL handbook, on navigating English verb tenses as a writer
two photographs from the front pages of two issues of the New York Times in January 2007 that I used in a compare & contrast essay writing workshop I designed, taught, and really rocked — I always wanted (and want) to make writing interesting
And from 1990, something I had forgotten: a notebook from the time I was tutoring a high school student, as a volunteer, in Cambridge’s Area IV, its poorest section. He was African-American and had been burned in an accident caused by a family member, and he had missed a lot of school because of graft surgeries. I’m just remembering all this now, looking at the notebook. Was he a reader or much of a student? Maybe not. I was serious, though, and tried to choose interesting relevant things to read — books and stories I had liked and considered teachable: “Like a Winding Sheet” by Ann Petry, and “The Kitten” by Richard Wright. I think a lot of these works also had violence in them, and [cringe] I probably had a social agenda in my tutoring, not an anti-violence one, but a white-person-tries-to-subtly-show-understanding-of-the-Black-struggle agenda. Forgive me, I was 25 years old and untrained in pedagogy at that point.
What will I do with all these artifacts? The binders I have already disemboweled and put all the paper in the blue bin for tomorrow’s trash pickup. The binders themselves — still in great condition — are in a carton for donation to charity. I’m keeping the verb chart, well-protected in a plastic sleeve, and the Peter Elbow article to re-read once. There’s an index card from a 2007 writing center conference full of my worries about writing; I’ll keep that temporarily. That’s about 10 sheets of paper from a box that weighed about 20 pounds when full.
Everything else? Child’s art work, thank you notes from students, Betty’s plaque, handwritten reflections — trash.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t value these things. I DO. What it means is that I have lived the moments; they’re in me. Their presence in a box in my attic takes up physical space and confers an obligation of care on someone, me while I’m alive and someone else when I’m dead. That I experienced my students, thought my thoughts, tried to teach as well as I could, and prompted a degree of appreciation or affection are part of me, whether I explicitly have remembered them or not.
The times mattered; the students and colleagues mattered; I mattered. Not the things, not these.