Teaching ‘Revolutionary Road,’ Part II: One Little Victory

Last night, 10:08 p.m. The Young Professor’s nose is buried in her copy of Revolutionary Road, re-reading the assigned pages for tomorrow’s class. She’s thinking: I hate this novel. She’s thinking: I can’t concentrate. She’s thinking: I am so fucked.


“Earlier today I was feeling sick, and fantasizing about not going to class tomorrow,” she says to her sister & roommate extraordinaire. “But I really don’t think I can justify it.”

“It never occurred to me that teachers ever felt that way,” said her sister.

Class on Tuesday went so badly. At first, only three of my sixteen showed up. I’d planned out this in-class writing exercise that I felt pretty good about: first, have a discussion of the novel, answer questions, to prevent a ‘we just don’t understand it at all!’ moment like what happened last time. Then, break them into groups and have them plan and write a short essay in class about a simple question (“Do Frank and April Wheeler have a good marriage?”) that they can argue effectively either way, which will make them close-read just a little bit, think just a little bit about their own values, and probably give them a leg up when they go to do their at-home essays. Yesss.

But then only three students came to class.

After ten minutes of waiting around to see if anyone else showed up, I felt angry—I hadn’t wanted to get up and come to class either, damn it—so much so that I almost said, I can’t teach just three of you, and let them go. Perhaps not the most mature response, but it’s the one that came to me. A couple more students showed up, though, and we eventually swelled to six or seven. We decided to do the writing exercise all together, though, so I spent most of the period up at the board, helping them to plan and outline an essay. It was like pulling teeth. I’d ask something and just get silence, with the occasional eye-roll. I could not understand whether the students hadn’t read the reading, didn’t understand the reading, or were just not in the mood to deal with class. (Or, I wondered in a later, calmer moment, as I was walking down into the subway: are they just not socialized to be able to talk about books yet? Am I modeling that for them from step one? Do I simply take interpretation, which has been a part of my life from the moment my English-professor mother rocked me in my cradle, so for granted that I’m mistaking ignorance for obstinacy?) I felt like I was talking to myself. I think that at one point I used the word “fuck” under my breath, but probably audibly so.

Luckily, one talkative student arrived, late, to save me. She and I carried most of the class ourselves. After everyone else had left, I thanked her for her energy. “I’m enjoying this book,” she said. “I don’t understand why people wouldn’t be interested in talking about it.” The act of thanking her left a small gleam in my heart to get me home, but damn. I did not want to go back in there today.

It’s very weird. Today just went better. And I think that my pissed-off attitude from last time might actually have helped.

I didn’t spend a hundred hours prepping class, because I was angry and I didn’t feel like it be worth it to sink a lot of work in if only a few students were going to show up anyway. I did my other stuff, and graded some papers, and then noodled around on the computer…doo de doo…oop, it’s starting to get late…hmm…okay, shit, I really have to do this reading. I sat and did the reading, and was not able to concentrate well, partly because I was panicked about the next day. Curiously, I felt like that state of mind got me closer to the experience of being one of my students reading the book than I had yet felt. Maybe I was filling with a new empathy!

Quickly, like a shopper in a store that’s about to close, who grabs just any-old-thing off the shelf, I decided that tomorrow we’d do close reading. It’s a skill they need to learn, we might as well do it tomorrow. I already had a handout about close reading from when I taught at Big University. I’d copy that, and we’d close read…this one passage on pages 218-219 that I marked out, where Frank and April are fighting and Frank is acting totally vain and weird. I want them to catch onto the fact that he’s described here as being like an actor, and that this is key to understanding Frank’s whole character. And then, we’ll do a free-writing, or maybe–yeah!—I’ll assign them a close-reading to do as homework, and give them time to start on it in class if I need to.

Work expands to fill the time available, as the old saying says, but sometimes, luckily, it also works the other way. I was in bed by 11:30, ready to be up and swinging at 6:30, in class by 8.

I felt nervous on the subway this morning about my less-than-thoroughly planned lesson, but I think that in the end it gave me energy. Instead of being mad at the students for not showing up and consuming my lesson, I was the one scrambling to keep it hanging together. The nervous energy worked out. I gave a pretty decent off-the-cuff description of Freud for the very uninitiated. One quite talkative student and two or three somewhat talkative students kept things going. We had about eight total. We talked for about an hour, I didn’t have to dip into the start-your-homework-in-class gambit, and the students themselves came up with an important point about the novel which I know they came up with themselves because I hadn’t ever formulated it for myself yet in quite those words: Frank and April never say what they mean. John Givings, on the other hand, who is supposedly “insane,” always says what he means. He also seems to know what he’s feeling better than the ‘sane’ characters do. Hmmmmm.

God bless that Hmmmmmm. That is what this business is all about.

Teaching ‘Revolutionary Road,’ Part I

I’ll have to write this fast; I’m a girl in a hurry this week, with lots going on in other areas of my life. But I wanted to record something about our first attempt, as a class, to read a whole book.

There is one novel-reading built into the somewhat schizo syllabus of English Composition I. After struggling through the research papers (which I’ve been putting off, and still have to grade the final drafts of, eeegh), we turn into a literature class for three and a half weeks.

The novel we’re doing is Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. It was picked by the head of the department. With all due respect, I think it’s a strange choice for the students, who are mostly 18-19 and very much products of their own generation. Published in 1961, set in the ’50s, Revolutionary Road is about the marriage of Frank and April Wheeler, who are 29 but feel old. They live in a new New York City suburb in Connecticut, in a small white house with a picture window. They have two children, seven and four, having started their family somewhat younger than they intended, due to an accidental pregnancy. April stays at home, naturalment, and Frank works in what is essentially the marketing department of a business-machines company in the city. Both Frank and April harbor the sense that they are special, intellectual, maybe even bohemian—certainly not as banal as their suburban/petit bourgeois circumstances of existence would imply. The plot propels into action as April hatches a plan to move the family permanently to France. Neuroses intervene, all building up to a melodramatic conclusion.

I didn’t love the book, I’ve got to say; I found it a little bit sexist in parts (like the harsh treatment given to the real estate agent Mrs. Givings, the only non-secretary employed woman in the whole book), and grating in others (are we being asked to identify with Frank and April? They’re so horrible. Just a shade too horrible, I think).

But more important than what I think about it, I consider it a weird choice for the students. Its concerns are a world apart from theirs (really, the choice of whether or not to live in the ‘burbs sounds a little quaint, next to the kinds of tooth-and-nail fighting for jobs and promotions I imagine that my students will be doing), and its language and themes are old-fashioned but I don’t think my students will be equipped to realize that. I suppose it is up to me to explain. And trying to explain is how the story of Thursday’s disastrous class gets started, so……

One challenge I face in teaching literature is that our class periods are 90 minutes long: almost surely too long to simply have a discussion of the book, which is my favorite thing to do. So I have to break them up somehow. On Tuesday, we spent the first half of the class on a grammar lesson and then talked Revolutionary Road for half an hour. It went wonderfully. I had a couple of loud-mouthed students (in a good way) who really wanted to share their observations about Frank’s character, and April’s, and so on. Yay!, I thought to myself. This might not be such a bad unit, after all.

I’d decided to start each day of reading with a very short quiz, five questions, just to check to see if they’d done the reading. I ask factual questions about what happened in the book, and give an “A” for five questions right, a “B” for four, etc. An old teacher strategy suggested by my mom.

So I gave a quiz, for the second time, on Thursday. Then we launched into a thing I’d had the students do as homework, which I felt very proud of. Revolutionary Road is set in 1955. I had decided to have a day where I introduce the idea of historical criticism, as one approach to literature. I’d put the students in small groups and asked each one to research, as homework, the 1950s in one area: culture and leisure, politics, fashion, technology, and so on. I put the students together with the others who’d investigated their area, and asked them to prepare a short presentation for the class. They gave their presentations, and I chimed in myself to underscore the importance of various points: Sputnik, the space race, Levittown. It felt all right, pretty much.

Then, I was going to show them a clip from Leave It To Beaver, which I’d spent WAY too much time hunting down on the internet the day before. We were going to talk about what was ‘1950s’ about it, based on what we’d just learned about the ’50s. I wasn’t sure this was going to work, but I had a hunch that they’d be better with visual analysis than they are with textual, and I wanted to give them something “fun” to sink their teeth into, anyway.

Of course, the A/V setup didn’t work. After struggling, with student help, we got a picture, but there wasn’t any sound. One student went downstairs to get the tech support guy, while I perched on the corner of a table and tried to switch to the later part of the lesson, which was to talk about what is ‘1950s’ about Revolutionary Road. The students didn’t really seem to get it, and I was feeling bad because I wasn’t really sure what I had wanted them to say. What is there to say, besides “well, they live in the suburbs, and April doesn’t work?” Maybe we could have gotten into it, but between the non-functioning of the A/V and the a general feeling of lassittude coming from the students, we didn’t get anywhere.

The tech support guy finally arrived, causing more distraction; he eventually confirmed that there was something wrong with the audio setup of the computer, which couldn’t be fixed that day, so no video. We were nearly at the end of class anyway, by that point, so I tried to press on with our discussion, abandoning the ’50s thing and just trying to involve more students in the talk. No one was budging. It was all being carried by one student, god bless her heart, who had been talking a lot on Tuesday as well.

Then, slowly, it began to emerge that of the students who had done the reading, some of them didn’t seem to understand what they had read on a pretty basic level. The book uses flashbacks—simple ones, I thought—to fill in the back-story of Frank’s childhood and Frank and April’s courtship. These had apparently confused some students a lot. “I did the reading, and I couldn’t answer the questions on your quiz!,” said one. Others had thought that Frank’s memory of going to work with his father had been a story about Frank taking his son to work. The student who couldn’t answer the quiz almost wailed at me, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but you know, I hate reading, and I have all these other finals and midterms, and I’m so stressed out…” This was about the homework for this weekend, which is to read the next 80 or so pages of the book. I didn’t know what to tell her, and I was feeling pissed off in spite of myself, at the general torpor in the room. I told her that I didn’t really know what to say besides find a quiet place, read with a pen in your hand, underline and take notes. Break it up into two sections, but give yourself enough time to get warmed up. Give yourself about three hours to do it all.

That’s about all I have time to write right now, but jeez. I have an idea for class next time, and I think it’s going to go a lot better. I’m glad they revealed how hard it is for them to read the book, even though I have a hard time fathoming it. Part of me is excited about the challenge, and part of me, I have to admit, wants to say “OMG! What’s wrong with you!?” I feel awful saying that. But on Thursday, it was true.

Personality Test Fun on a Saturday

I am obsessed with personality tests, particularly the MBTI. It’s a guilty pleasure but one that I’ll cop to. I just took a version of the test that produced the lovely badge you now see at the bottom of this page. In so doing, I stumbled across a kind of hilarious page describing the different MBTI types. Most type descriptions, I find, try to accentuate the positive. This one, not so much. Which isn’t to say it’s not accurate, sometimes creepily so.

Here’s its take on the INFJ:

creative, smart, focus on fantasy more than reality, attracted to sad things, fears doing the wrong thing, observer, avoidant, fears drawing attention to self, anxious, cautious, somewhat easily frightened, easily offended, private, easily hurt, socially uncomfortable, emotionally moody, does not like to be looked at, fearful, perfectionist, can sabotage self, can be wounded at the core, values solitude, guarded, does not like crowds, organized, second guesses self, more likely to support marijuana legalization, focuses on peoples hidden motives, prone to crying, not competitive, prone to feelings of loneliness, not spontaneous, prone to sadness, longs for a stabilizing relationship, fears rejection in relationships, frequently worried, can feel victimized, prone to intimidation, lower energy, strict with self

And here’s the INFP, the other type I seem to get sometimes:

creative, smart, idealist, loner, attracted to sad things, disorganized, avoidant, can be overwhelmed by unpleasant feelings, prone to quitting, prone to feelings of loneliness, ambivalent of the rules, solitary, daydreams about people to maintain a sense of closeness, focus on fantasies, acts without planning, low self confidence, emotionally moody, can feel defective, prone to lateness, likes esoteric things, wounded at the core, feels shame, frequently losing things, prone to sadness, prone to dreaming about a rescuer, disorderly, observer, easily distracted, does not like crowds, can act without thinking, private, can feel uncomfortable around others, familiar with the darkside, hermit, more likely to support marijuana legalization, can sabotage self, likes the rain, sometimes can’t control fearful thoughts, prone to crying, prone to regret, attracted to the counter culture, can be submissive, prone to feeling discouraged, frequently second guesses self, not punctual, not always prepared, can feel victimized, prone to confusion, prone to irresponsibility, can be pessimistic

Really, I do have a saucy, sunny side. At least I’m not an INTJ (“not much fun”). I love the random super-specific details; the ESFJ “loves getting massages” and would disfavor “international spy” as a career. Righto.

Petty Minds


Do the collapse!

After class, I have a standard routine. I think most teachers do. One of my professors in graduate school used to refer to it as “my collapse,” as in: “after class, I go to my office and do my collapse.”

I think there’s something about teaching, the kind of energy and attention that it requires, that engenders a powerful and urgent need in the teacher to veg the hell out after class.

At least, it does so for me. After class, I feel triumphant but introverted. I need to go and be alone and do something mindless.

My routine, my collapse, is fairly humble: I go down one flight of stairs and into the faculty lounge for a different department from the one that I teach in (it’s simply the closest faculty lounge to the classroom). I get onto the computer and enter that day’s attendance in the academic software package that we use. I check my campus email, erasing the inevitable all-campus bulletins about a lost iPod found in the library, a reception for the new dormitory, a scheduled computer network outage for a time when I won’t be on campus anyway, and feeling slightly irritated all the while at the unfamiliar PC interface and low-res terminal screen.

Today I was in the midst of this process when a student wandered into the lounge. She checked out some empty cubicles where the department’s administrative staff usually work. “Is there a place back here where I could take a test?” she asked the room. I was shrugging my shoulders when a heavyset man who teaches I know not what butted in. “Take a test?” “Yes,” she said. “I’m making up a test for my economics class, and…”

“You can’t take a test without a proctor,” said the man.

“What?”

“Your teacher can’t just give you a test to take without someone watching over you to make sure you don’t cheat.” Somehow, his suggesting to this student right to her face that she might cheat made me feel ill. Though maybe it’s necessary. What do I know? The man appealed to another male teacher who was using the copying machine. “She can’t just take a test, just, on her own, can she? That’s ridiculous.”

The student looked indignant and opened her mouth.

“You’re not in trouble,” the first man assured her. “Go down and tell your teacher that you need to have someone proctor your exam.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said the teacher at the copying machine, agreeing with the first. “They might as well make it a take-home exam.” He almost snorted. The student slumped her shoulders and left the lounge.

When next I tuned in, the teacher at the copying machine was complaining to the first teacher about his class. “I assigned them this reading,” he was saying. “And did they read it? No. Did they have the BOOK? No. ONE student had the book…”

I wanted, frantically, to distance myself from their petty complaining. I thought they sounded like lousy teachers. Grumpy, middle aged, and resenting their students: I could not imagine anything more unappealing. I would never be like that. I would never be doctrinaire. I would never be all about the rules, the rules, the rules…I spent the first part of my life, I felt, hating teachers who felt that same delight in exercising their meager powers over students who, at the end of the day, did not and would not care as much as the teachers did and so, ultimately, remained the freer ones.

And yet, the exchange probably bothered me so much precisely because I’ve been growing annoyed at my students recently.

The other day, I had a student tell me that she’d been having a hard time writing her research essay because she’d been in the hospital with a kidney infection. This same student told me earlier in the term that there was a fire that destroyed part of her apartment. Now, these things could both be true, though I have yet to see a doctor’s note. This girl is not a great student, though I appreciated her at the beginning of the term because she was a bit of a loud-mouth, in a good way: she was the student who’d pipe up and say, “I hated this reading!,” and at least, in that way, get the conversation rolling.

Anyhow, we were sitting in a one-on-one conversation on Tuesday, and I was being somewhat aggressive with her because she’d handed in a draft of her research paper that was only one and a half pages long, without any in-text citations, without any reference list. She had not, in fact, done any research yet. I can’t remember what I said to her but I remember seeing her blush, under her foundation, and thinking to myself: ‘Good! Blush! You’re not even TRYING at this, you little…’

Snap back to the grumbling professors by the copying machine. I hated them precisely because I did know where they were coming from, and I didn’t want to know it.

Yes, I’m guilty of being a utopian thinker. I want everyone to relate on terms of honesty and mutual respect. I want my students to be engaged, and me too, and I get disappointed when they’re not. How can I not let this become a downward spiral, where I respond with anger and they respond by doing less, by sinking to my opinion of them?

That’s my dose of teacher torture for this Thursday afternoon.

Image by Brytown.

New Resource!

Tomorrow, my students are turning in the final drafts of the research essays they’ve been working on. They won’t have done any reading, so we essentially have a free day. I think I’m going to start out by having them critique some sentences I’ve pulled from drafts of their essays (after I explain that I’m not doing this to pick on anyone, but rather to get them thinking about and paying attention to writing on the sentence level). On the other hand, they may be so demoralized from the research essay experience that I decide not to do anything that could be remotely construed as picking-on. Either way, I want to devote the bulk of the class period to an in-class writing exercise. I think I just discovered the perfect resource: “Ideas For In-Class Writing,” part of a larger site hosted at SUNY Stonybrook.

On Assigning “Creative” Writing in a Composition Class

Recently, I assigned my students a guided free-writing to do in class. One of the prompts was ‘write a letter to yourself, ten years from now.’ For me, it led to some thoughts on self-disclosure, and our relationship to it as writing teachers. Here’s what I wrote during the free-write period, as the students were writing their things:

“Are these writing prompts not fun enough? Is 1.25 hours too long for these students to write? I guess we’ll find out. Was my description of why we’re doing this lame? Is this exercise not structured enough?

They seem to want it to have a purpose; at least, they wanted to know if we’re going to use this as a basis for a future essay, and I got kind of a ‘what’s the point, then?’ vibe from them when I said we weren’t.

Maybe I’d like to design a class someday where all of the essays and compositions come out of this process of personal idea-generation. It would be a real self-making kind of class. Selfcraft.

Yeah, I am not all that into any of these prompts, right now, and that’s problematic.

OTOH, I’ve done several of them in the past. ‘Write a letter to yourself’ was more fun when one was 18. It seemed like the 10 years might bring more of a miraculous transition. Well, here we go, then.

Dear Self,

The first time you wrote a letter to yourself, you were in fifth grade in the class of that one teacher you can barely remember. She made everyone write a composition at the beginning of the year, and collected it, and handed it back in at the end of the year. I wrote what was on my mind that day, which was that I’d just found out that men and women compete separately in sports–I’d been talking to my mother about tennis–and that this fact made me angry. I thought it meant that women were thought to be inferior to men. Promptly after turning it in, I decided that this composition was really, really embarrassing. I spent the whole year dreading what it had probably made the teacher think about me, and dreading receiving it back and having to be reminded of that moment, and the self who wrote it.

I guess I learned a lesson from that teacher, which is that communication, perhaps especially communication about oneself, can be embarrassing. And all the more so when that communication has the durability of the written word. I have written lots of embarrassing things over the years. When you write something, you show where you are at, and it’s not perfect, it’s never perfect. Writing is like sealing your own imperfection in amber and broadcasting it to the world for all eternity. It takes a lot of courage, and it is often humiliating. (It takes a lot of compassion to read oneself, and maybe the magic of the written word in general is that we are able to communicate and connect in spite of or maybe even because of our imperfections; that
the audience is often compassionate, too, and even grateful.)

That is why I’m a little worried about giving my students these kinds of assignments. Are they going to find them embarrassing? I’m trying to make them like writing by teaching them to use writing as an instrument of self-exploration and self-discovery. But who am I? Have I earned that kind of trust? It’s an interesting set of questions.

The second time you wrote a letter to yourself, you were in J— M—‘s creative writing class in high school, probably in 9th grade. I think you took her class every year during high school, or at least for one semester out of every year. You were hooked. Again, you used writing as a process of self-making. You weren’t doing fiction, and you weren’t even doing personal essays, really, but you were writing down scraps of dialogue from your friends, and you were writing down other things you wanted to be associated with, like lyrics from songs. You were practicing a kind of bricolage. Writing as personality-creation as bricolage. Writer as bricoleur. Luckily, you were pretty clever and your writing teacher saw something in you: intelligence, brio, feeling. She probably saw a lot of things you didn’t want her to see, either, like your vulnerability and awkwardness and the pose-ness of your pose, but she kept it to herself and now anyway, looking back after a dozen years or more, you see that it was only natural for you to have been all those things and for her to have noticed.

Other people create themselves in other ways. I used words. Some people don’t seem to need to create themselves at all, but I wonder if that’s true. For me it’s a compulsive need, I’m always doing it, always going through an identity crisis, always building myself, building towards something better (which accounts for part of the agonizing aspect of writing: you can use it to tie a string around your finger and record whom you want to be in the future, but it will always anyway stand as a reminder of what you are now, what you were, the fact that you weren’t, at this moment, that thing that you wanted to become).

It’s kind of annoying to me that I’m always thinking about myself and working on myself–not to mention always being preoccupied with always being better, faster, smarter, sleeker, happier, etc in the future–but I’ve come to accept that this is the way that I am and I’m trying to believe that it can be of use to the greater world, too–that I can help other people with their own processes, or that I can discover something that will be useful or enjoyable in a bigger way. Or at the very least, that I’m not hurting anyone.

But in this class, it’s funny; am I imposing my own voyage of self-discovery on people? Can you oppress with a forced march of self-discovery? Would I worry about these things if I were a therapist? What are my responsibilities to my class, here? What the opportunities and what the dangers?

Sincerely,

(Less) Young Professor”

Sunday Morning

I’m sitting around the house this morning, drinking my second cup of coffee, pajamas and cardigans and throw-blankets hanging off me like I was some kind of feudal lord.

I feel stiff and slightly inflamed; I think I am fighting off a shadowy illness. I couldn’t just be stiff from sitting and stressing, could I? I went to yoga on two consecutive days Thursday and Friday. It’s never enough.


If I were going to make a medieval-style book of days, but for our era, this week would be defined as ‘the days between when it first gets chilly and when the landlord turns on the heat.’ It’s not very cold, really, but I’d forgotten what cold is. I keep closing the windows, then feeling intolerably stuffy and opening them back up. I’m unaccustomed to coolness in my fingers. I’d forgotten about socks.

The next two classes won’t be too hard. On Tuesday, they’ll do peer review of each others’ research papers. I just have to make up a form for them to use for that. Thursday is a holiday again. I’ll have beaucoup grading to do. The following Tuesday, I’m using the class for one-on-one paper conferences, five minutes apiece. It takes a fair amount of preparation, but the time flies, and the previous one-on-one conference class was one of my favorites all semester. I like the opportunity to feel effective so many times in a row, and the students actually seemed to be appreciative and find it helpful, even when I was basically only explaining my written comments verbally. Everybody likes a little personal attention, I guess.

I don’t know what else to say. The sky is very gray. It’s been a gray week.

(Image by Limonada)

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’m going to take just half an hour to write something for CP before I dive into studying GRE math.


A few disparate strands:

Class was a mess today. I under-prepared on purpose, because if I can’t wean myself off of spending three, four, or even more hours than that prepping each class, I don’t think I’ll even be able to afford to teach next semester if I want to.

The students are in the middle of their ‘research papers’ unit. It’s been a week since our last class meeting because of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Long story short, I ended up feeling annoyed in and after class today: a mix of feeling crestfallen for having failed them a bit, and angry at them for not being better students who would get my lesson.

Last time we met, I helped them refine research questions. Over the break, they were supposed to do the actual research, and come to class with an outline of their paper, a tentative list of references, and a tentative thesis statement.

For class today, my mother had given me this exercise that she likes to do with her own classes. For this exercise, you come into class and you say, okay, write me a bad thesis for this paper you’re working on. Make it really bad! As bad as you can! Most of them don’t understand, but you throw all of the ‘bad theses’ up on the board, and as you talk about it, you all slowly come to understand what a good thesis is: not just a statement of fact, not something you can’t support with evidence, and so on. Ideally, there are a few laughs; inevitably one of the ‘bad theses’ turns out not to be that bad after all, etc.

So I did that, and they didn’t get it all that well, and it was eight o’clock in the morning. I tried to tell them that a thesis is a statement of opinion, and that completely confused everyone because they’ve been working on these research papers where they’re just trying to find answers to a question. I back-pedaled and tried to say that in the case of a research paper, a thesis should be a true synthesis of all the research that they’ve found, filtered through their own judgment; for instance, if they find a difference of opinion in their sources, they should agree with one side or another, and argue for it. The more I talked, the more bizarre the assignment started to seem…did I want a real thesis or didn’t I? It no longer seemed clear. Bleagh!

We should have a whole semester to do research papers. A research paper is a complicated thing. These kids are lost, and I don’t think I’m leading them very well right now because I don’t have much of a sense of what an undergraduate research paper ought to be or do, either.

All right: so this is one of those new-teacher learning experiences—I mean, maybe more of a learning experience for the teacher today than the students.

I gave them the last half-hour of class to work on their theses and outlines before handing them in. Most of them surfed the internet, I’m sure. Well. For $2800 a semester, I thought, I’d better slack off once or twice.

One thing I did notice was that having one sentence by each student up on the board raised the stakes of participation slightly. Each student whose sentence we were talking about at that moment would smile shyly and pay extra attention. So maybe there’s another lesson for me in there somewhere.

Secondly:

It’s fall! I left the house without an appropriate jacket today, just a thin silk sweater and a wool shawl I’m enjoying pulling around me this way and that on the subway and on the street.

Here’s a professor confession for you: I started taking Zoloft again on Monday. It’s been over two years since I’ve taken antidepressants, so this is a big deal for me. Like so many other people, I started in college, and took them almost continuously—with a few breaks of varying lengths, some of them disastrously ill-timed—from then till the time I was 27. I was grateful for the relief from anxiety and occasionally overwhelming sadness, but I also always felt strange and a little grumpy about it: I wanted to be me, not some drugged up version of me! I wanted to adjust the world to myself, not myself to the world. I worried that antidepressants would mess with my natural talents and, in some funny way, prevent me from fulfilling my potential. I guess I worried that they’d make me normal but keep me from being unique, or even—embarrassing to say it—from being great. I stopped writing stories and poems around the same time that I started taking antidepressants (incidentally, that was also the time that I started going to college, so I don’t think it will ever be possible to pry apart the variables), and I always wondered about that. Would I be more creative without antidepressants? Perhaps, in some way, more self-actualized and therefore more deeply fulfilled?

I don’t believe all of those things anymore, but I mulled them over for a long time. I always fantasized about a future life in which I wouldn’t have to take antidepressants, because I’d have figured out a way to be all right with myself. When I got to New York two and a half years ago, I decided that I’d test the ability of my new home and my new full-time work routine to sustain me. I started tapering down on the pills, very slowly. Six months later, I was pill free.

I’d wanted to prove to myself that I could live without antidepressants. And I think that I succeeded. My decision to start again now doesn’t feel like one made under duress. I’ve been going through a rough-ish time, but I’ve been through other rough times in the past couple of years, and they’ve always given way to less-rough times as the days pass. I’m sure that would happen again. On the other hand, a funny thing has happened. Now that I know I can live without antidepressants, I feel less weird about taking them for what they can give me. I’m ready, or getting ready, to move on to the next phase in my life. I’m not totally sure what it will be or how long it will last. It has something to do with modifying my work life—I’ve been in an ad-hoc, freelance-y, liminal space for most of this year, and am getting ready to move out of it—and it feels like everything else is on the table, too: love, whether or not I’ll stay in New York City. Everything is up for consideration, and that’s exciting, but also scary. I know my depression triggers by now and these are a lot of them: transition, the potential for disconnectedness, being in a situation where I have to assert myself and compete. I want to get it right this time, and if I need a little backup for that, so be it.

Secondly, I feel better about taking antidepressants again because I had two years to get to know myself without them and—I wasn’t that different. Am not that different, on or off. I haven’t been cranking out stories and poems in my unmedicated state, which makes me feel a little bit bad, but it’s also taught me that that kind of creativity probably has a lot more to do with my intention and the kind of space I create or don’t create for it than with some kind of magic trigger in my brain.

I’m over my half-hour now by some, and I haven’t even gotten to the title of this post. A friend of mine mentioned to me yesterday that sometimes, when you’re walking around in the crisp fall air, it’s good to imagine the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” playing in the background, and imagine your life as the movie of your life, rather than your actual life. We talked about how the song is feel-good, but also feel-bad. Is autumn itself a feel-good but also feel-bad season? It is the most nostalgic season.

The other night my friend and I were talking about, in her words, “wanting to live an interesting and to-the-bone life without sacrificing economic security or convenience.” I’m thinking about that a lot lately, and I’m thinking about “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and the crisp, heart-pulling, feel-good/feel-bad urgency of fall is in the air, and I’m not sure where the chips are going to land.