On Pedagogy: or, How I Almost Quit Being an English Major

I frame the first day of teaching with this statement:

Writing is not hard because grammar is hard. It is not hard because sentence structure is hard. We all know that our education is difficult, and we deserve for it to be. It being hard is not a good enough reason not to write…Writing is hard because each time you confront an assignment, you are confronting more than the assignment. You are confronting yourself. You are encountering your silences, your pain: the terms by which others deem you as inadequate; the terms, however, that also empower you beyond those claims.

For most of my students, the English classroom is a site of trauma. For my students of color and for my queer students, it is more so. They have an alienated relationship to writing. They face antagonism with the language they are using or are being asked to use. They feel already positioned outside of the classroom. They feel wrong. They feel silenced. They feel unheard.

And it is no wonder that they feel this way. Though I am now an English teacher, I hated the English classroom. Sometimes, I still do.

I grew up during the eradication of bilingual education, when Proposition 227 passed in 1994 in California. Many states in the US with high Latino populations passed similar laws. When I was forced into ESL classes where instructors, too, were learning how to navigate the new English Only! law, I learned to leave Spanish behind in my home. I took the language off like a physical attribute of Mexicanness, like the brownness my darkest sibling could never take off, and left it in the doorway each morning. As soon as I entered the class, I felt the words “English Only” sting the lined paper I wrote in.

Now as a teacher, I’ve attended numerous workshops where the ESL student (always already seen as Latino) is the standard example for “horrible writing.” Their paper is already marked as a “C” or “D” in grade norming packets. The default setting of the university assumes that a poorly written paper “must have” been written by an English language learner, or a “disadvantaged” student. That word, “disadvantaged,” posits the minority student as a burden rather than as someone who might actually need help beyond the contours of university writing. The students become the “saved,” and the university, almost disturbingly, the savior.

While I’ve certainly received papers from ESL students that undeniably need a lot of help (and my ESL students do need help), some of the papers that have needed more help come from my US born white students  who have had access to resources their entire lives. I still hear the argument against bilingual education claiming that Latinos will feel too comfortable with their home language and will therefore not aspire to learn English. One might say the same, however, about a population of white American students that live with that comfort and become complacent writers.

So for me, as a student and now as a teacher, “silences,” my own and those of my students, influence the way I approach my class: the way I encourage my students to turn to the page in which we must write ourselves into the world, whether or not the clamor registers for those with whom we speak. I tell them to write themselves in the only ways that they know how with the hope that in my class it will manifest in the medium of writing on a page–though I certainly know this is not of more value to the other forms of writing in which they might turn.

Music, for example, has often functioned as another form of “writing” for me, now especially as a dancer. When I first took music class in the fourth grade (there was enough funding for music teachers at the time), the piano offered me a language that initially did not feel policed like the Spanish language I spoke at home and like the English expected of me at school. I thought that because playing music required no “words” that I was free. Like all languages made manifest, however, music was no more free from criticism. Soon enough, students would make fun of me for not playing outside with the other boys. Because I sat on a stool for a half hour during lunch recess trying to memorize a new tune, my friends began to inquire what I was doing during my breaks. When I told them, they found the most powerful thing children find the day they step foot on the playground: difference. Though my difference as an effeminate overweight Latino was already deeply visible at the time, my piano playing offered them a tool from which they could locate and target that difference. It gave them a language for it.

“The piano is for girls, you faggot.” I attempted to play, still; and my music teacher, inspired by my success, donated a piano so I could play at home.

I practiced and practiced until the name calling became more violent, until I had to tell Mr. Pike that I was going to start playing outside during recess to rest my “injured” thumb (I had not actually been injured and the excuse made no sense, especially since the games I played outside required my thumb). So I stopped playing the piano, eventually even in the privacy of my home. My parents did not inquire why I had stopped playing. My father, who only ever registered the music as disruptive “noise” that kept him up when he was trying to take siesta or watch a soccer game, ultimately affirmed what all those boys thought of me one day. As my mother drove into the driveway after having picked me up from school one evening, I spotted a pile of broken and splintered wood that would be collected for trash the following morning. He’d rolled the piano down the slope of the driveway leaving on the ground the keys that had, if only fleetingly, helped me speak . The image of that piano would impossibly make the loudest silence I had ever heard or could ever bear in my life.

The following morning, I decided to stop playing. And I did, or thought I had.

In retrospect, now as a writer, dancer, and teacher, I find that I perhaps never did stop playing music. Like all writers, I still have to find alternative avenues from where I can write. My body, as a queer identified Latino, is always being policed and is no more free in any medium of “writing.” This awareness, affects how I disrupt the forms that attempt to restrict me and how I choose to survive when there feels like there is no place for resistance or for writing. When there feels like there is no recourse, it remains difficult to convince my students and myself to move in a place that feels like paralysis.

Sometimes all we can do is scavenge what might cultivate a safe space for our silences to transform, to evoke Audre Lorde, into language and action. Sometimes all we can do is write not because we will be heard, but in spite of the fact that we might never be heard. Most times, however, I have to believe for my students that we will be–and I do, that is only if our writing moves away from our individuated selves and becomes something more collective: not my difference, but our differences. That is what writing and teaching means for me now; that was what playing music had meant for me, then.

Near the end of my sophomore year of college, I realized I was still playing music when I received my first C on a paper. I had already declared an English major and I had, until then, only experienced deep encouragement from my teachers to pursue it. I was horrified when I received that grade. I thought I had failed. When I set up a meeting to discuss the grade with my Professor, what she said surprised me. After asking me if I was a creative writer, I sat in her office wondering if there were really such a difference between a creative writer and the kind of writing we were being asked to do as literary critics; for me, I thought all writing was creative. After telling her that that was not my major but that I did attempt creativity in my writing, she said, “Jose, you obscure your meaning and so I feel I have to think a lot when you write.” I left her office in tears. My entire goal as a writer had been to obscure my meaning, to make myself untranslatable, to make my teachers think as I had to think whenever we read a piece of literature or attempted to fulfill their assignment. It is only now that I wonder if she could not understand my writing in the same way that those same students could not understand the music I played at school in the fourth grade. I had to come to terms with the possibility that people might never understand that I had chosen to use a form of writing and that I had purposefully betrayed a form that had already betrayed me; that writing was a painful tool of necessity, and that like all the tools we choose to live with, it often left me feeling wrecked, drained, alive.

That day in office hours, I believed that I certainly wasn’t cut out to use the tools that required one to be a writer, or an English major, or a teacher. I only knew I wanted to quit. Because of that knowledge, however, I also knew that I never would. And so I walked into my other literature course the following day, where the Professor gave me feedback on my paper that said, “Jose, you know how to express yourself so well.” I went back to class the following week wanting to write and and wanting to teach one day so that my students might actively learn to write, make me think, and obscure their meaning so that they could express themselves.

I want them to, desperately, show me their untranslatability. Their fault lines. Their mistakes. Their borders. Their failures. And though I struggle, still, to balance this desire with an institution that is set up to ensure that we will not succeed in speaking or being heard, we write collectively. We take in each silence, como un suspiro, and attempt a translation until it is as if we have never stopped writing, never stopped dancing, never stopped playing the music, never stopped telling the only stories we know we can: the ones where we tell the story with someone until others hear and help collect the keys that, together, might strike like music.

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