speaking in tongues

There’s an easy flow that washes through me when I’m teaching, something I don’t attain in private conversation. In the everyday, I’m in the corner; I’m a quarter turn behind meshing gears; words are dragged though a thick slurry before they rise to the surface. My natural persona is disjointed, thoughts and the conversation and my words all in different parts of a scattered constellation.

But in class it’s different.

With a piece of chalk, an impromptu demonstration, a prodding question or posit, I can arc and tie together a coherent stream of narrative, complete with beginnings, ends, and plot twists. Footnotes, metaphors, self deprecation, examples, and occasional poignancies emerge naturally. It’s all new even to me in that moment. I suppose that this must be conceived out of training and preparation. I’ve practiced these scales and chord progressions for years now, often strung out and knit together for hours on end. But it’s also that I’m consumed by these acts, the development of the ideas and the building from abstract to concrete and back again, even when I’m away from the context — a walk to the bus, getting ready for bed, staring off into space, a run on the trail. And, I let new ideas metamorphose right there in vivo, in the presence of breathing students, live and without a net.

The mystery is that I enter a classroom without any sense of control, just a bold faith. There’s rough outline rather than script, and I’ll follow a metaphor of bemusement even before it’s complete, knowing/hoping/praying that it will come together at the end of the sentence. Teaching feels to me like the throes of speaking in tongues — as I imagine such, anyway. The words and ideas emerge even when I’m ignorant of their source.

This could be great teaching. It could be inspired and genius. But probably, most likely, it’s not. In fact, I think this is all potential cause for concern. I’m wary of any educator at any level in any context who states that they have it figured out, that it’s dialed in, that they’ve been doing this long enough that it comes naturally and that they know what they’re doing like they know their own mother or phone number. That’s bullshit; and it’s dangerous. For me, certainly there’s a muse, but I can’t rely on her, can’t think that that is where the work is done. It comes from within and dumps the soul on the floor, divvied out in 50-minute increments, leaving enough to get me to the next session. Make no mistake: I’m tortured with teaching. It’s not automaticity so much as a chronic condition. It’s full-bodied consumption, if not possession, demonic or otherwise.

But this possession, this torture, is also bliss. It’s heroin. It’s perfect.

I’ve realized that when I’m in this transcendent, focused mode, the rest of the world falls away. I’m not thinking about the washing machine repair or my daughter leaving for college or that personal conflict I can’t resolve. The fate of the country or the world or my own mortality are secondary. When I was worried I might have a heart condition my symptoms would all vanish once class started. I taught on 9/11 as an act of self-preservation; I hosted class after a crushing election as a grasp at rebirth; if I ever receive devastating news that my father had passed I can imagine myself walking into a classroom, my morphine drip. In class, it’s all about new focus, finding, making, and re-creating meaning; and most of that is, quite selfishly, for me.

And that’s the answer: I’m re-creating my Self. And looking in this mirror, it’s the rare example in which I’m pleased with who’s reflected back. The optics are transformative. I could be Kafka’s giant roach or my own humble bag of jumbled, broken pieces. But this reflected Self is redeemed, born again. Save Sunday for the pious. The really flawed character of me will look forward to Monday morning, chalk in hand.