Every once in a while, I get advice that amounts to: “Go deeper into your own weirdness.”
A lot of this came up when I was teaching. Teaching can be a highly ego-driven activity. The teacher is the center of attention and the center of power. The teacher is the person who walks into the room and gets things started. The teacher is the one who can instigate, redirect, interrogate, require, maintain silence, talk nonstop, set the tone.
Over the course of 15 years of teaching, I failed completely a couple times. By this I mean that I made a conscious choice that interfered with others’ ability to understand my message (during my first quarter, tired of repeating myself and attempting to prepare students for a successful end of quarter, I told them they’d be much more successful if they learned how to insert “page fucking numbers”) or did not intervene in others’ disruptive behavior (why did I let a student call me “poop stain” without apparent consequence?).
Most of the time, I succeeded at my mission of creating an atmosphere for others to ask questions, engage with ideas, and stretch themselves.
Sometimes, I became a magician, pulling ideas out of thin air that crystallized into lifelong lessons that mattered. One of these was in the form of a simple question: “What would happen if you stopped being perfect?” I know this lesson lasted because for the past ten years, the student I asked it of has mentioned it repeatedly at intervals of no longer than three years. (I thank you, SBV, for helping me see what I can do.)
When I was deep in the throes of being criticized for whatever it was that made me untenurable in a department that had never not granted tenure, one of my best advisors gave me a combination of esoteric and intriguing advice. The esoteric advice: Turn yourself into a net or a sail, and when the harsh winds come at you, expand your back outward to absorb their power.
The intriguing advice: Take everything that people comment on in your behavior and exaggerate it.
That piece of advice came after one of my favorite quarters of teaching, during my final year at a College in the Puget Sound Region that Shall Go Nameless. Nameless Community College (NCC) had a portable classroom on the edge of its civilization, a classroom where I taught for 4 hours in a row with only a ten-minute break in the middle when I had the choice between a bathroom break and an eating break.
I made careful plans for how to deal with this break. I announced to the two classes, the one that ended before my break and the one that started after, that I considered that ten minutes to belong to me only, and that if they had questions after or before class, they had to figure out how to fit them in while I walked briskly to the restroom and back. Nothing personal, at least not to them; I just had to pee more than once in a 4-hour period.
In addition, I would have to eat in class. I announced that as far as I was concerned, regardless of signs on the wall, that I would be eating on an as-needed basis, and they should feel free to do the same, as long as they packed out everything they packed in, like a responsible backpacker.
I considered that a reasonable approach and thought the matter was closed. However, two things happened: students complained in evaluation forms that I ate in class, which meant I had to answer to my tenure committee in a non-defensive way the question how I could possibly eat in class in front of students who might later complain because eating in class meant — what exactly? That I was a human, with a human body? That I was grossing them out with my smacking lips? That I was undermining the dignity of the position? That if I didn’t have enough to share with others, I shouldn’t eat in front of them?
The second effect was much more wonderful. For a very good set of reasons I no longer recall, I assigned my students to give group presentations at the end of the quarter. (I’m sure there’s widespread agreement that better learning happens when assignments address a multitude of learning styles etc., and if I sound cynical it is precisely because I am, especially when it comes to learning styles, but that’s a different story.) One group I had decided to re-create the experience of being in my classroom by parodying me personally.
I no longer remember the content, but I do remember that the student who played me was male; he put balloons in his shirt to approximate my bust; and he ate nonstop during his “lesson.” The whole class was riveted by his performance, as was I, and there was a long, breathless silence at the end of the presentation while I sat and thought about exactly what I needed to say to show what I thought about being thus parodied and the rest of the class waited to see whether I was pissed or not.
“I thought you did a decent job of capturing my behaviors and attitudes,” I said, “though I’m pretty sure I have more underarm hair than Joe.”
In that moment, I was able to claim my own weirdness and to show the class that it was okay that they noticed it.
Later, as I gave up teaching while still teaching (which phrase makes me think of Flannery O’Connor’s “Church of Christ Without Christ”) and did the best teaching of my life, I think I was enacting a deeper kind of weirdness, embracing it, making it a living, breathing companion that entertained me while showing the students the true meaning of difference — well, it entertained me, for sure.
My point (and I’m pretty sure I do have one, to paraphrase Ellen DeGeneres) is that being more myself worked; it was a successful strategy, if only and circularly successful at being myself. Teaching is an ego activity, and I’m glad I was able to do it well enough that I really enjoyed it at the same point I stopped caring about it. The weirder I allowed myself to be, the better I was.
And am. And will be. Ad infinitum, ad nauseum, amen.