Hello. My name is Lisa Dennis and I used to be a writer.
For an English teacher, that should be a pretty scary admission, but this year didn’t go at all the way I planned, so admissions seem like a good place to start. This was going to be a year of new beginnings with an English 9 reunion tour, and plenty to blog about, but instead it was a year of loss and uncertainty. Both stole my voice.
But I cannot let that loss roll unchecked from this year to the next. Neither I, nor my career could survive it. So, it’s time to reclaim my role as writer. I want to relish the feeling of the keys under my fingers and the possibility that this post will release what’s been building up in me for months now. Perhaps it must be as Louis L’Amour suggests and I should just “start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Here’s to releasing some flood waters.
November of 2018 was supposed to have been a time of great achievement and celebration. I was speaking at NCTE with some of my dearest friends and colleagues at a session chaired by Cornelius Minor. I was headed home from that event to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. As it turns out, very little went as planned that month.
At NCTE, our incredible session entitled “Accomplice”ing Great Things – An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms” was a well attended (thanks for the boost, Corn!) multi-presenter talk and was generally well received. After weeks of work with my dear friend Alejandra on a presentation celebrating cross-categorical partnerships, the two of us spoke on the joy we feel in working cross categorically to build both community and highly engaging/challenging work for our students.
During our presentation, however, an audience member took umbrage – on Twitter – with our suggestion that fellow educators create their own “Teacher Tribe” with colleagues in order to build a supportive culture amongst staff to positively influence student outcomes. For the offense, though we had no idea at the time that our wording was offensive, we took great pain in having misstepped. For the public Twitter shaming, however, I was horrified. Our group was still presenting when someone showed me the tweet. Instantly, my stomach dropped and my heart began to race. Though we weren’t even finished presenting yet, the hard work of all our entire group now had a shadow over it and I felt that I was to blame. I wanted to melt under the table and disappear. It took everything I had to keep from crying through the rest of our presentation. Jon Ronson, if you need a subject for a sequel, I’m your gal. Talk about an instant lesson in the power of embarrassment to halt learning.
A bit later, after apologizing to everyone involved, including Cornelius Minor (shame, shame, horror, and shame), I took stock. Our work had been heartfelt, sincere, and intended to support the awesome work of educators of all backgrounds in raising student voice. Instead, for me, the entire experience was tainted by my feelings of having failed my fellow presenters in some way I could never have anticipated.
And then…I got mad. Overeat takeout in my hotel room, angry text my husband, downright mad. In my humble opinion, a community of educators working to support one another deserve the same grace we grant our students when they take risks and try new things. A conversation to teach, versus a tweet to publically call out, would have been the most appropriate, and helpful, way to move a fellow educator forward.
I fully understand that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, and as leaders we must do and be better, but when a learner is unaware of new rules and changing guidelines, we teach.
When we see a need for change, we teach.
When we know more or better or deeper than our students, we teach.
We teach because the need is great and the best learning occurs with support. That’s the teacher I strive to be.
So, I worked to turn the corner and do better. However, when I returned home to Wisconsin, things did not improve. In fact, the hit and run of NCTE was nothing in comparison with the imminent head on collision to come. I wanted to write about the experience, but couldn’t find the words. Before I knew it, that turned in to not wanting to write about anything. At all. I felt afraid to speak, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Afraid to offend. Afraid to suggest I knew much about anything at all.
Then, just after the holiday, my father, who had been in remission from stage four cancer for well over a year, announced that his cancer had returned. A surgery was scheduled for mid-December and all the fear, uncertainty, and helplessness that accompanies the aging of our parents, washed over me once again. Anyone who has supported a loved one through cancer knows…the tide can be swift and merciless.
The next four months are sort of a blur. Dad’s heart stopped unexpectedly during surgery and added both time and difficulty to his recovery. Though the procedure had been successful in removing the cancer from that one area, it was determined just a few weeks later that the cancer had spread even further. Dad’s treatments intensified and his quality of life simultaneously plummeted. My vibrant, funny, energetic, all around amazing Dad was slipping away. Quickly.
It was during these bleak midwinter months that I desperately wanted to write. The feelings, longings, and bottomless black holes opening inside of me made me ache to release my uncertainties and insecurities, but I couldn’t. I would sit and nothing would come. I would open my notebook and cry instead. I would wish the pressure in my chest onto the page, and I just couldn’t make the pen move. I felt so hollow and so desperately full of pain at the same time.
And then, in late March, Dad’s body could take no more. In a sterile, ugly, impersonal ICU room, my father, who only weeks before had been so hopeful, and full of life, passed away of an infection he contracted just days before. After five years battling cancer, he was suddenly gone, and what had been my seemingly endless fears, and questions, and longings, tiny explosions ripping through my body at all hours of the day, went completely numb. My little nuclear family, just the three of us, was down to two and the man who had taught me to love reading, think critically, and write myself into existence no longer existed himself. I could barely breathe.
In the coming days, I knew I would need to return to writing, and it would be the most important piece I had ever crafted – my father’s eulogy. The doubts and the writer’s block had to melt away. I had no choice. I must find my voice to sing the praises of the man who gave me life, taught me to love, and showed me how rich a life of learning could be. Weeks later, I would read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and see how it was possible for me to suddenly pour myself onto to page after months of nothing. Lewis writes, “We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand least.” Such is true of both what is lost and what is found. I obviously wish that the finding could sometimes happen without the losing, but this was not my truth this time around. I had to be completely empty. Only then could I pick up a pen and squeeze something from nothing.
It’s an appointment with my therapist that brought about this post. As she is helping me to process my grief, I’m starting to see the possibilities in myself, and my writing, again. It was her suggestion to write. Now I ponder the implications on my students for next year. How different I will be in fostering their writing lives and advocating for the saving graces that accompany a release of emotions onto the page.
Here’s hoping that turning on the faucet of my writing leads to a mighty monsoon. I miss this…and I cannot be the writing teacher my students deserve next year unless I get back to it.
Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout. She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.