Passion, Fire, Hope 101

When I returned to school in 1989 I began to teach. Or rather not to teach but to participate in classes. I knew from my own experiences in school that I wanted the classes to be different from what I had been put through. I knew that the most important words any instructor had ever said to me were, “Never believe anything you read, and rarely believe anything you think.” I knew I was somehow supposed to be helping students become better writers, but I knew also that the best writing springs from passion, love, hate, fear, hope. So by definition the class had to be as much a class in life as in writing.

I walked in the first day and changed the name of the class from “Principles of Thinking and Writing” to “Intellectual, Philosophical, and Spiritual Liberation and Exploration for the Fine, Very Fine, and Extremely Fine Human Being.” Many of the students reached for their class lists to make sure they were in the right room. As I took the roll, I asked each person to tell the class what he or she loved. At first suspicious, they began to open up.

I SOON REALIZED THAT that I could not give grades: It would be immoral to ask someone to write from the heart, then give the writing a C. This created a problem, since the department required me to assign grades. I suggested assigning grades randomly, but neither the students nor the department liked that idea. I suggested giving everyone a 4.0. This was fine with the students, but not the administration. My next plan was to give everyone a grade of 3.14159, or &Mac185;. Math majors in the class thought this was a hoot, but the administrators didn’t get the joke.

Eventually, the students and I devised this plan: Because people learn to think by thinking, we would spend most class time on open discussions of important issues. What is love? What is the difference (if any) between emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical intimacy? Is there such a thing as a universal good? What do you want out of life? If you had only a limited time to live (which is of course the case), how would you spend your time? Is the universe a friendly place or not? Similarly, the way to learn how to write is by doing plenty of it, so I decided my main job in the classroom would be to cheerlead them into writing more. The students could, of course, write anything they wanted about anything they wanted. I would not judge any papers, but merely give the writers positive feedback, and I would try to guide them wherever they wished to go in their explorations.

I asked (not told, but asked) students to write about what they’d done that they were most proud of, and about what caused them the most shame. We took the shame papers (mostly unread) into the hall and burned them. One student, getting married the next summer, wrote her wedding vows as well as a letter to her fiancé, to be delivered moments before he walked down the aisle. Another, a wine salesman by trade, spent the quarter writing sales pitches. For each piece of writing a person did, he or she received a check mark (longer pieces received more). The final grade corresponded to the number of check marks. If a person had 34 check marks by the end of the quarter, for example, the grade was 3.4. Simple enough.

I asked each student to hand in a couple of pieces composed in forms of expression other than writing. Many brought in food, some paintings, a few tape recordings of their own music. A chef from Kuwait cooked us a seven-course meal and showed us pictures of his country. Another student brought a videotape of himself doing technical rock climbing.

It took us a couple of quarters to realize that something was still missing. Experience. It’s madness to think all learning comes from putting pen to paper. What about life itself? We decided that people would get check marks every time they did something they’d never done before. People went to symphonies, rock concerts, Vietnamese restaurants. They watched foreign films (“That Akira Kurosawa guy can be pretty funny”). They got in car wrecks (not for the check mark, but, since it happened, they might as well get credit). They got counseling (I hope not as a result of the class). One fellow told his father for the first time that he loved him (a big baseball fan, he watched the movie Field of Dreams over and over that day to psych himself up).

Something else was missing. I still had too much control of the class. How to let go more? I didn’t know. Finally I broke them into groups and asked each group to run the class for one two-hour period (we generally met two evenings a week). They could do whatever they wanted. One group wanted to play Capture the Flag. I thought, “What does this have to do with writing?” But we did it, then wrote about it, and I felt closer to that class after our group’s physical activity than I had even after intense emotional discussions (besides, my team won).

Next class period we talked about the relationship between shared physical activities and feelings of intimacy. Another group had us eat Popsicles and watch cartoons, then draw pictures from our childhood with our opposite hands. In the same group we played Duck Duck Goose and Hide and Go Seek in the basement of the near-empty building.

Many of the people were continuing education students, and thus were older. Looking back, I don’t know how anyone could possibly say that he or she had successfully run a writing class without having played Hide and Go Seek with overweight old men, 20-year-olds, middle-aged mothers of five, and a half-dozen men and women whose native language is not English, all of them dead serious about finding or not being found.

One group taught us how to do the Tush Push, a country-western dance. This was especially difficult for me, a confirmed nondancer. Because the room was too small, we did this in the building’s central courtyard. Midway through one of our tush pushes, a couple of the department’s most humorless administrators walked by. I smiled and waved. Even this class taught me much. I had been working on letting go in my writing for years, and I sometimes became frustrated at the baby steps many students were taking toward manifesting their passion in words. But when it came to dancing, I suddenly comprehended their inhibitions: I would push my tush only three or four inches, while many who were too shy to open up in words were wildly swinging their hips (including a 50-year-old sheriff’s deputy I never would have pegged for a tush pusher).

I did assign one topic each quarter, for the final paper. The assignment was for each of them to walk on water and then write about it. They had to decide to do something impossible, do it, and then describe what is was like. A few people filled their bathtubs with a quarter-inch of water, walked across, and considered themselves done. Others walked across frozen lakes. But one quit smoking, another ended an abusive relationship, a very shy woman asked a man out (he said yes), another woman for the first time admitted her bulimia and sought help, one man told his parents he did not want to be an accountant but instead an artist.

The people in my classes, including me, did not need to be controlled, managed, nor even taught. What we needed was to be encouraged, accepted, and loved just for who we were. We needed not to be governed by a set of rules that would tell us what we needed to learn and what we needed to express, but to be given time in a supportive space to explore who we were and what we wanted, with the assistance of others who had our best interests at heart. I believe that is true not only of my students, but of all of us, human and nonhuman alike. All we want is to love and be loved, to be accepted, cherished, and celebrated simply for being who we are. Is that so very difficult?

From A Language Older Than Words (Context Books, 2000). A former beekeeper and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Derrick Jensen lives in northern California where he conducts interviews with radical truth tellers, some of which appear in the independent magazine The Sun. A collection of such talks, Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture, and Eros (Sierra Club Books, 1995), will be reissued this year by Context Books. His forthcoming The Culture of Make Believe (Context Books) examines the relationships between economics and hatred.

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