Searching for a New Vocabulary
I joined a writers’ group last night. Run by a local woman trained by Pat Schneider and the Amherst Writers and Artists Methodology, my new writers group consists of twelve people of varying ages and backgrounds, including some who are published writers.
It’s hard for me to think of myself as a published writer, though I have three chapters included in books about education edited by prominent people in the field. All three of my chapters are similar: all are pieces of practitioner research; long analyses of and ruminations on my work of 34 years as an English and Drama teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. They are written in the 1st person, they tell a story about my challenges and struggles in the classroom to make my work real and meaningful to my students and they connect to and build on the work of others in the field, most notably Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene.
But I am no longer a teacher. I retired one year ago last week. And during this year of transition, I have been desperate to write. I have been planning books in my head and cornering anyone who will listen to tell them the details. Yet, throughout this year whenever I would sit down at the computer, with no distractions and all of the time in the world, I couldn’t write a word.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I could write long emails to cherished friends. I could write angsty journals exploring every aspect of my troubled psyche. What I couldn’t do was write anything that I thought would be of interest to an audience outside of my small circle of friends. I couldn’t find the words.
I need a new vocabulary.
I have lived cloistered inside of the classroom for my entire adult life. I know it intimately – its smells (the slightly acrid scent of moldy books and the whiff of a fine dry dusting of chalk) its colors ( beige walls tinted the color of corpses, burnished wood floors with dents and scratches, and splashes of rainbow colored cut out letters tacked on the walls) its sounds (chalk clicking on the slate, fire alarms exploding through silence, the roar of laughter, following the sound of a dish breaking in the cafeteria).
The world looks different from outside of the classroom. As alive as I felt as a teacher, as deeply committed as I was to my work, as thoroughly engaged as I was in the lives of my students, in many ways I was hiding from the wider world in school.
Wendy Wasserstein, in her final play Third writes about the third act that women in their fifties and beyond can have. We have the opportunity to remake ourselves after we have raised our children, attended to our partners, created and maintained our homes. How sad and ironic that she died of cancer before she could have her own. In her new book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, Sarah Lightfoot Lawrence writes of men and women engaged in creative and purposeful learning in what she calls the third chapter of their lives. It is in the process of learning something new that people are able to live through upheaval and transitions in their lives.
One quote that she includes at the opening of the chapter “Loss and Liberation” helps me understand what has been happening to me this year:
All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” ( Anatole France)
I have only begun reading Lightfoot Lawrence’s book and already it is comforting me.
After a long and dark year of leaving behind my teacher self, the self I had been developing for almost four decades, I have begun to take the steps towards the birth of a new self.
I am engaging in the process of learning. And in that process I trust that I will find the new vocabulary I need to express myself to others.
I have resumed ballroom dance lessons and yesterday my teacher John lead me through a tango for the very first time. In rumba, we worked on cross-overs, spins and swivels — new words and phrases for my body’s vocabulary.
Tomorrow, I will begin jazz piano lessons with a young teacher. I hope to learn notes and scales and rhythms that I have never known before – a new vocabulary of sounds for my mind’s ear.
And last night in my writers group, inspired by the group leader’s prompt, I wrote a wry piece about a dyspeptic talking squirrel who confronts a tequila soaked troubled middle aged man on a motor cycle and offers him a few words of wisdom that help him unlock the meaning of his past.
The beginning of a new vocabulary?