Letter to a Young English Teacher

“In your light I learn how to love.

In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest, 

where no one sees you, 

but sometimes I do, 

and that sight becomes this art.”

                                                            —Rumi

* * *

Dear Young English Teacher,

I have recently wondered about the stage on which you dance at times. When I suddenly have an urge to write, I can feel your listening presence, or your warm, enrapturing fold-your-arms eyes breathing encouragement behind my back.

Other times, when my page clings to silence and I know that words are far from me, I lean closer to your gentle lessons. Do you ever feel me?

Your lessons dance in my chest like felt pen strokes gliding across a gentle page, fluttering between my ears like secret whispers that transit the depths of Odysseus lost at sea or the peeks of Mother Sula bathed in the calm waters of literary fantasies. How magical will your words be tomorrow, particularly when they give life and meaning to the young long enough for the young to recognize the power within them?

Did I think I would ever hear from you again? I had doubts, but I also believed that I would, particularly because you always made sense of the world for me—and have helped to make me the man that I have become (a better man than I would have been without you).

Did you know that this meaning, this sense that you will make for your students, will become their yearning, their treasure? They will thank you for your charmed notes and pressing queries. You don’t know it yet, but for each student you touch, you will open a new world of possibility for us all. For we are linked, in some indisputable way powerfully interconnected.

Your students’ lives will be busy and weird and messy and lonely and sometimes difficult. However, you will charge their expectations for tomorrow with the power of transformative vision. With it, they will no longer simply read the word; they will read the world with fascinating curiosity and through critical lenses that you will help them shape. They’ll do so earnestly and delightfully and painfully all at the same time. And in reading the world, they will dare to transform it for the better.

As they reflect on this world—the world as text—with gumbo feelings that merge within them the shrill stories of tragedy and the more hopeful chapters of triumph, each page of their new world will stew together a hunger for remembrance, a taste of doubt blended with cravings for lasting images of progress.

Through literacy, you teach them that they can change the world. But will they ever know what becomes of the illiterate? Or will they persist in a state of forgetting, resident to the bondage of remembrances loss or impaired or, even worse, imposed? Because of you, they will treasure memories—“because this is what the literate do,” you will teach them.

The memories will be fond, as if everything in the world could be a utopian dream fastened to the mindscape of our various existences. All of the alternatives of the universe live here, inhabiting the forges of possibility long enough to kindle hope. They are beautiful and awful all the same—beautiful in that your students will know new suns arising, but awful in the same way that they will constantly see these same suns setting but ingloriously at a distance. This is literacy’s torture, which is the chronic ache of longing to rescue a read world from the nightmares of oppression, to hold onto those liberating passages that echo like dreams passing through the chambers of praxis.

I know now, for truth, that I fell in love with words and the world because of a teacher who resembled you. The evidence of my heart bears its lament as artifact of this love. I am not sure what tomorrow holds, but I know today that I am in love with words and the worlds that they have revealed.

For this love, I am grateful for you, young English teacher, for the purchased time with which you shall gift many others. This gift remains a lesson itself—a text to be read and reread with fervent intensity and for all time. The story it tells will remind countless young souls that they are worthy of love and, more, that they are capable of sharing the same. And share they will but through words customized to fit their heart’s good intentions, finally liberated to bring forth the tender song of their hands.

When I started my blog two days ago, I wish you could have seen the deep curve in the crescent of my smile. How lucky will your students be to learn that they can write themselves into existence? To learn about Alice Walker and her silhouetted stories of Black female aesthetics and identity? To hear the poetical voice of Arundhati Roy and her cherished narratives of small things that are delicately handled by God. O, what a privileged place you hold!

You will do more than teach stories, though. You will teach hope through stories—and the basics of beauty encased in all things—a rotten apple or jewel-crested crown, stone benches connected by bands of strangers or the deep humanity of girls and boys stumbling in dark places to make light of life.

Your students will wonder how the world looks through your eyes, the eyes of an artist. They will ask difficult questions deep inside themselves: Is your world the same as theirs? Or is it more involved, more colorful, more tempestuous? Do the colors carry an intensity that only God understands? How gifted, then, are you, young English teacher? I know that this refrain is on repeat, but how glad will your students be to have met you!

Whenever I think of you, I am reminded of the final line in Fanon’s classic book Black Skin, White Masks: “O my body, make me always a man who questions!” Sitting with my thoughts of you, I realize now how vital you are. You will raise important questions about the world, about power, about philosophy, about politics, about history, about supremacy, and about love. Because of your unique place in our world—a stage for dreams and the development of difference—you will dance to rhythms of genius curried and cultivated out of curiosity and the power of knowing. You will make a difference. And simply knowing that you exist, you’ve already made a difference to this one.

All of your lessons will have everything to do with how we as humans understand the world, how we might bear witness to the spectacle of a universe unshackled. This is your art, understood only through the artist’s eyes. It is the brilliant painting of development, which emancipates the bound soul through tiny—but profound—brushstrokes of revelation. Do you feel me?

Each writer has her gift. But more importantly, she has a teacher who helps her understand the magnificence and power of words. From you, she shall learn what she produces in knowledge is something that the world needs to hear in order to fully understand itself? Your students too will need this lesson in order to understand themselves and articulate a space of their own within its crowded limits.

But to me, your lessons will not only forge the smithies of our radical, rewrite-yourself-into-existence epistemologies. They will also be fundamentally rewriting Fanon’s call in Black Skin, White Masks, transforming existence into one continuous body to behold, embracing its liberation as well as its oppressions, its interpellations as well as its possibilities in requiems of a life that only a muted future knows.

The greater lesson that you will teach your students through your readings and waitings, yearnings and listenings is that redemption toward want, desire, even love is not found in the loose nostrums of economic enterprise or the day-to-day gallantry of excess. Not in conquest or purchasing, but in a deep and divine respect for patience. Here, you and your students will be revealed as both fragile and enduring, profoundly carved out of your circumstances, bound to those regimes of thought and delusions of fantasy that imprison us all.

Although we exist in the restrictive scenes of our experiences, we live more freely in the possibilities of imagination. It is here within the fertile planes of the mind that you and your students will race both as Atalanta and Hippomenes through the sheltered valleys of Arcadia, purging and picking golden apples as you sprint freely in this endless marathon of dreams. It is here that your stubborn wills will merge, offering—beyond the strains of such colossal escapades as flaw and perfection—humble strategies of hope, spinning the threads that will make escape from the bondage of reality more possible.

In the end, you will learn that prerequisite to all literacies, to all life, is a courage to play, a hunger to learn, and the fulsome amusement of curiosity.

Thank you for all that you will do. I know that you will do great!

Sincerely yours,

name

David E. Kirkland

 

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8 thoughts on “Letter to a Young English Teacher

  1. Pingback: Letter to a Young English Teacher - Literacy & NCTE

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