Phoebe MacAdams on Teaching

Friday, May 16, 2014

I first met Phoebe MacAdams after she moved to Los Angeles from Ojai, or at least that’s how she remembers it. I did, in fact, meet Phoebe very briefly in Boulder, Colorado in the mid-1970s, but the “hello” of introduction that occurred before some reading we both found ourselves at was so brief that I can’t fault her for not remembering it. We ran the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue for a couple of years and in 1989 both of us were founding members of the Cahuenga Press poetry collective. Somewhere I have a photograph of all six of us (Harry Northup, Holly Prado, Phoebe MacAdams, Jim Cushing, Cecilia Woloch, and myself) gathered together in front of the side wall of some store near Cahuenga Boulevard. We had met at a restaurant to discuss the launching of this project and when it came time to talk about the name, which we wanted to echo Los Angeles in some way, I thought how the street the restaurant was on would make a perfect allusion: Cahuenga Press. I dropped out after the first two books got produced, but that was due to my own financial situation, and not to any aesthetic disagreements.

Phoebe spend several decades working as a teacher; one of the books that Cahuenga Press published was her year-long journal-meditation on the craft of teaching. She recently wrote me that Susan Suntree made use of her book, Livelihood, and invited Phoebe out to talk to her class of students about the practice of teaching. Phoebe wrote up a set of notes to share with the students and recently sent them to me. With her permission, I enclose them in today’s entry.

THOUGHTS: TEACHING AND WRITING

For Susan Suntree’s students at East Los Angeles College

 Background:

 School has always been a refuge for me. I had a difficult home life, and school was a place where I felt secure. One of my earliest memories is of the library at my small school in New York City, nestled in a big armchair –sitting and reading and feeling safe, surrounded by books.

My feelings about school translated in wanting to do well, which added another level of pleasure. Nothing feels better than doing well and being praised for it. Once that started,  studying became a habit – a good one. It got me out of my house and into college. When I began to think about earning a living, teaching was a natural choice. My stepdad was a teacher and then a principal at Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, and one of the most inspiring men I have ever met. He, too, loved teaching. He thought it was a noble endeavor and the best job in the world. We had long talks about it.

I loved teaching.  I taught in a variety of situations – from a small boarding school in Ojai, California, with 100 students to Roosevelt High School with 5000 students. When I started in 1986, there were as many students at Roosevelt as there were people living in Ojai at that time.

I loved teaching for many reasons. I got to talk about various aspects of reading and writing all day – my favorite things to think about; and also, being with kids is good for the soul. It is never boring.

Teaching:

 I like teachers a lot. I found that most teachers are good people. People go into teaching primarily for unselfish reasons. Sure, there are some bitter and burnt out people in the profession, but on the whole, I think teachers have humanity’s best interests in mind. I made it a point to hang out with teachers who loved teaching and were hard working innovators, people who inspired me.

Inspired teachers are what make a good school – not test scores, not computers in every classroom, not State Standards or Common Core Standards – but good teachers who love kids and want to inspire and engage them. The most important decision a principal makes is who he hires. We had a principal at Roosevelt, Mr. Henry Ronquillo, who had a knack for hiring good teachers. He could tell by talking to someone who would work out well. Not every principal has this instinct. I was on a hiring committee at Roosevelt and I know how difficult it is to tell who will be good.

Teaching and Writing:

I am a poet. I am working on my seventh book of poems, and, in 1989, I co-founded a small literary press called Cahuenga Press. There are four of us in the Press: Harry Northup, Holly Prado, Jimm Cushing, and myself. We are about to publish our 22nd book.

Balancing a job and creative work can tricky. One of my poetry heroes is William Carlos Williams, an extraordinary poet and prose writer, who was also a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey. He had a typewriter (no computers then) on a shelf under his desk that he would pull out to type up poems in between patients. That impressed me.

Very few poets make enough money from their poems to live. It is rare. Most poets teach. Teaching English or literature allows you to think about writing all day. It also gives you time to write. Even in high school teaching, there are long breaks – Christmas, spring and summer – which are times that you can spend writing.

Teaching won’t make you rich, but it does provide enough money. I taught at Roosevelt for 26 years and retired in June of 2011. It is hard work, but because of its secure income, I didn’t have to spend time worrying about money. The lack of anxiety was important for my mental health. It allowed me to relax and therefore, to write more.

Being a Poet and Teaching:

 I consider writing poetry a sacred activity. Here is a poem I wrote about what a poet does. It is called Poet’s Work:

POET’S WORK

This morning the birds

ate most of the black sunflower seeds.

I fill up the feeder,

watch squirrels on grass

look at asparagus fern in garden

and read old poems.

I move from room to room,

think about my mother, my sister.

I sit quietly for a long time

then mail letters and observe the hummingbird.

I am thinking of the Eastern Sierras

and the sweep of mountains up to

the red tailed hawk’s air current glide.

Now I am looking at the yellow Buddha cat

and the bright red minutes of Holly’s clock.

The first time I heard a poem,

the poet fell right off the stool

and I thought:   why yes,

that must be the voice of God.

 

This poem talks about the noodling quality of poetry. The mind wanders – here, there, the bird feeder, letters, the Eastern Sierras, relatives, the swoop of a bird, and then in the last line, a memory of the first time I begin to understand exactly what poetry is. Poetry is a tracking of spirit: keeping track of spirit through the breath and through words. It is a very important job, but it is not a skill that is really marketable. Adding the market, selling spirit – how to do that? It would ruin it, no?

Perhaps it is a good thing that poets can’t market themselves strictly as poets. It is important to keep this activity separate, to keep it in a sacred space.

However, one has to figure out how to have a decent life while maintaining that space – not an easy task. I decided I wanted to do something that mattered to me, that I thought was an important job, and that provided enough money for me to live a relatively comfortable life. Teaching fulfilled all these criteria.

 

Process:

 I tried to write a little at night after papers and preparations were done. I tried to write on the weekends, to get something down on paper. Over vacations I would edit and expand what I written during the semester. Because my time was limited, I didn’t have any time for writers’ block – I just had to keep writing. The discipline of the job helped me. It kept me disciplined in my creative life as well.

For me, having a job in the world is important. Writing is an interior, lonely activity. I spend a lot of time looking at the inside of my mind, and at my computer screen. I can get very isolated. Teaching brought me back to the world and it was very good for me.

Here is a poem about a dream:

POETRY LEADS ME BACK

I sit in my red chair,

a quiet afternoon where

the poems of Frank O’Hara

are a lyrical bell.

 

I think of my room at school,

full of students, posters,

rubber bands and paper clips,

 

but this is a moment of poetry.

My neighbor is salsa dancing in her driveway.

I sit under my quilt and play hooky,

getting well, leaving my students with a substitute.

 

In my dream last night I was in a canoe,

rowing toward the light on a still lake.

I paddled first on one side,

then the other.

 

It is always the same:

the world leads me away,

poetry leads me back.

 

In my dream, I am rowing across a lake on a beautiful moonlit night, rowing towards the light. I row first on one side, then the other. If I row only on one side, the boat swerves. When I woke up, the meaning of this dream was clear. I need both sides of my life – my work life in the world, and my interior life as a poet. Only with both of these do I keep going toward the light.

Livelihood:

This book is about teaching. I asked myself – what is teaching anyway? What is it I do every day? I wanted to explore that. I decided to keep a poetry journal for a year, to write a poem every day about what I was doing that day during the 2001-2002 school year.  I kept it up, writing most days. I love the poetry journal form. If I don’t know where I am going next in my writing, I revert to it, sit down every day and write a poem as a journal entry. It is a wonderful form. Not all of the pieces are great poems, of course, but it is a wonderful way to track oneself. Because it is a poem and not a prose journal, it is an elevated kind of writing. Poems do that – elevate language – and it has a more significant tone than a regular journal. I recommend this form.

I had a lot of journal entries over the course of the year. I chose the ones I liked the best to include in the third section of the book. It covers all kinds of things that go on in a school – the classroom, teachers, teacher meetings, the insane goings on of LAUSD; it is all there.

At the end of the year, I had a book which tracked teaching for a year, but

I discovered that I still could not really explain exactly what teaching is! Teaching is a process of learning that you do together with your students, a dialogue. It is not something that you can exactly define.  I learned as much as my students did. I realized that you are teaching content, but you are also teaching yourself. You are teaching who you are and you are teaching your life. That is one reason why teachers can’t be replaced by a computer screen. It is just not the same thing. As a teacher you bring life to your curriculum – your life! I think that is what makes your teaching significant, what makes it matter. As you examine literature, you are also examining your life and helping your students examine their lives.

It is an honor to be part of this worthwhile occupation.

Phoebe MacAdams

April 18, 2014