Maria and I were coming back from our morning walk in the woods. As we pulled into our driveway, Maria said “there’s a fencepost in front of the mailbox.” This was puzzling. People throw all sorts of garbage out of their cars and onto the road every day, usually beer bottles, coffee cups and fast food bags, but no one has every thrown a fence post out on our lawn. Not a big deal, I thought, we can toss it at the dump Saturday.
When Maria went to get it, I saw the lettering and I knew it had to be from John Greenwood, one of the first and most committed students in the writing workshop I had begun to teach. And also one of the most thoughtful and creative people I have known. John has the gift of being generous without ever being intrusive, of being thoughtful without ever being dogmatic.
His mission is to capture feeling and emotion, he is very good at it., because he has a lot and is in touch with it.
A former milkman now working as an executive at the Stewart’s milk and convenience store chain, John came to me on fire, with a yearning to write and unleash the very powerful creative forces inside of him.
He loves his job and his colleagues, but it was not an environment where creativity was much pushed or talked about it. It just wasn’t on the agenda. There was a loneliness inside of him in this way, he was in need of some direction and encouragement.
John was looking for help, something inside of him needed to come out. John was the reason I began teaching, he is the kind of intensely creative person who lived much of his life outside of the creative villages we call culture. He really had no way in as a working-class man with a tough job and much responsibility. He had no idea where to begin. He just needed to know he had as much right to do it as John Updike did.
It is a curious thing about teaching. Some people – John is a great example – are hungry for learning, grateful for it. Others come for fuzzy reasons. Many want to be writers, but they don’t want to work at it much, and they are often discouraged to learn it isn’t a magic or dramatic process.
I had a very gifted student once who took my classes for more than two years, she came a long way. I noticed after awhile that she was not following any of my advice or direction, she was almost doing the very opposite of what I taught, and she had stopped contributing much of anything to class.
I didn’t want to be criticizing her, but I wasn’t comfortable with the work she was doing. I could tell something was off, we were just not connecting. This didn’t mean she was wrong and I was right it, it just meant there was some other reason than learning that brought her to me, and I was not the right teacher for her.
So I told her that I didn’t ever want to be a source of discouragement, that we weren’t on the same page and she deserved a teacher she was more in sync with. It was the first time in my teaching that I ever felt I had to do that.
She said that was fine, she dropped out of the class and we lost contact. I asked if she was angry, she denied it, but there was no doubt in my mind that she was furious, when she didn’t hear what she wanted to hear, there was nothing much left. I guess I felt as if I had failed, but that is a dangerous response in teaching.
People come to class for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the teacher connects, sometimes you can’t. The teacher learns after awhile that there will be successes and failures, all you can do is celebrate the successes and let go of the failures. Teachers are not Gods, not even close to it. I have a student, a gifted artist named Rachel Barlow who has been in my classes for five years, and every year she gets stronger, more confident and her work radiant. She is selling art all over the place, something she thought impossible just a few years ago.
I used to teach my class in four sessions, I realized that was not nearly long enough to really know a student and connect with them. My classes go on for years now, the current class may go on for the rest of my life, we are all so much in sync with one another. They might tire of me, but I will not tire of them.
Rachel has grown and changed each year, she has written poignantly about her struggles with depression, and somewhere in our class, she figured out that the best way to deal with her depression was to paint beautiful and evocative things. She is transformed, and by her own determination, not by me. Four weeks would not have been enough.
For John Greenwood, it didn’t take much. If I mentioned a blog, he started one. If I said he needed to share his work, he did. If I advised experimenting with different forms – words photos, video – it just happened. A revelation to me, sometimes you can teach a ton with a whisper, it doesn’t have to be a drama.
The creative spark is in everyone, it just needs permission to come out. Teaching is not about telling others what to do, but seeing the bliss or passion in a student and helping him or her to bring it up.
I quoted Joseph Campbell to John, I told him to follow his bliss, something he still remembers and wrote about on the back of the Bedlam Farm sign post he left at my mailbox this morning. It is typical of John not to knock or disturb me. He is always convinced that he is bothering me, when he never is. People are funny that way, the people you want to see are usually too sensitive to come by, the people you don’t necessarily care to see have no compunctions about coming by.
John and I are very close, even though we rarely see or speak with one another. This weekend, he may be joining my new class at Pompanuck Farms, and I can’t say how happy that makes me. John understands that learning is a long process, it sometimes goes in fits and starts, depending on the rest of our lives, our distractions, and the teacher.
I love John’s sign and am grateful for it, but his real gift to me is the torrent of beautiful writing, videos, photographs and feelings he has expressed on his wonderful and much loved blog, Raining Iguanas. It was born out of my first teaching class in Cambridge.
The 12th and final step of the hero journey is that the hero returns to the ordinary world, bringing back what he has learned, sharing it with others. It’s about John Greenwood, really. He is already inspiring and teaching others. True creativity is infectious.
On the back of his fence post, John wrote, “You Gave Me Direction To Follow My Bliss.” And he did. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
I love the part where the pupil becomes the teacher. The fence is a wonderful gift, it points the way, it is the path.