Yesterday, I taught my first proper creative writing class on the sentence. It went well, I think. The students were engaged and present. I had wondered if they would be interested or willing to discuss the political dimension of the language we use and how it undergirds things like what is considered professional, acceptable for public discourse, or respectable. I had also wondered if I was qualified to broach such a topic. But to my surprise, they went there all on their own, and we dug down into the weird, invisible rules that govern how one emails a professor and how you know you’ve trespassed with friends when they suddenly start punctuating their sentences. Apparently, there are a lot of teachers who have very strong feelings about how their students address them. Some teachers won’t even respond to emails that don’t open with a formal address.
In some ways, it was frightfully familiar. I grew up in Alabama, and hierarchies of power were all around me. They ran through every part of life, ordering interactions with the precision of a feudal French court. I remember moving to the Midwest as a graduate student and being told by my instructors to refer to them by first name. I’d respond with Dr. So and So, and Yes, ma’am, or Yes, sir. It embarrassed them, but they also found it amusing, as though my rigid politeness were a party trick. I acclimated, but it took me a year to stop calling my thesis advisor by Dr. So and So. It does feel like a trespass to refer to instructors by their first names. It feels like I’m saying that you and I are equals even though we exist in a relationship with a power differential. I think there’s also a part of me that is always ready to lapse into the role of the junior party in any exchange. Which is all to say that it was strange to find myself at the head of the classroom, leading the conversation, with a bunch of students looking at me as an authority figure.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a good teacher. I want my students to feel comfortable. I want them to feel as though they can ask me for help or seek accommodations. I don’t want to be punitive. I don’t want to be the “Hello, my fellow youths” teacher either. I don’t want to be naive about the way authority works. What I’m trying to say is that it’s very difficult and will take work and vigilance. And I’m learning how to do that.
I think it’s easy for authority figures to act in a casual, breezy way with people over whom they have authority. When you have the power, every interaction isn’t necessarily a high-wire act. I think a lot of the casual charisma that men wield in social situations is really just power. It’s always up to the person with power to decide how and when to deploy it. It’s up to the person with power whether or not they will enforce or relax formality. The person with power sets the tone. As long as there is power in a relationship, someone will always have more of it. Power by its very nature is rooted in disparity between parties.
It reminds me of this story I’ve told the internet, I’m sure. In college, I was friends with this guy, Balog. He was from Belgium, but his family was Hungarian. He spoke like seven languages, which is not that strange if you are from Belgium, which is kind of like the middle child of Europe. Balog was tall and had a real temper problem. We’d play table tennis, and when he missed a shot, he’d slap his thigh with the paddle and curse in Hungarian in a voice so loud it shook the cafeteria. Anyway, Balog was one of many athletes who frequented our table tennis table, and I became friends with them because they all spoke French, and they’d coax me into speaking French with them. All was great. Except one day, I spotted Balog in the computer lab and stopped to say hi. He was watching soccer and was slouched low in a chair, and I could tell he was in a bad mood, but I liked him, and we usually got along well, so when we started talking, I used the casual tu form with him, and he turned his head very slowly to look me directly in the eye. His lip curled a little, and he leaned toward me, and corrected me, vous. It felt like he’d slid something hard and blunt between my ribs while staring in my eyes the whole time, and it was horribly embarrassing because what do you even do when someone radically retracts intimacy in such a loud and obvious way. It was a relationship in which he possessed the power, and I had forgotten that somehow, and he quickly reminded me that that was not the case. Later, he found me at the table, and he plopped down beside me on the shitty couches and nudged me with his elbow, and just like that, we were friends again. He was a mercurial guy. He’s doing very well now.
According to the weather service, a warm front pushed through which first sucked in some cold air and then a bunch of warm air. The result was that Monday was balmy and gray. So wet you could almost drink the air. But the day only got warmer as it went on, not cooler, and at night, the temperature was in the high 70s. The rain came first. Hard, driving. Then the thunder and lightning. The wind was a surprise. For a moment, I thought the tornado watch had turned into something much more severe, but instead it was this really powerful wind. One of those strange, wild Iowa winds. I thought it would blow my windows in. It got in and around the AC unit in the window and knocked cups from my counter. I peered through the window, and it had twisted limbs from trees and sent rain in waves running backward in the street and up the hill. Then it was gone, like it had tired itself out.
It’s going to be hot for several days before breaking in about two weeks. Then we’ll be on our way to proper fall. But this is Iowa, so who knows what any of this actually means. At this point, it feels like I’ll be hot until I die, like it will never again be 50 degrees, and I’ll have to go on sweating and suffering until it all ends with the sun exploding. Is this how the dinosaurs felt? Is this extinction? Just constantly foul weather until your whole species ceases to exist? Amazing.
A few small updates, I guess. Galleys of Real Life appear to have made their way into the world. Or the slightly larger than my bedroom world. Pics have been popping up on social media, which makes me happy and also terrified because oh no, people are reading what I wrote, oh no. I have an essay about doctors and fear and masculinity coming out this week sometime. I’ll say when. And I think I have a short story coming out in a few weeks. Keep an eye out for my weird little scribbles. The issue of American Short Fiction with my story is out there in the wild. Grab a copy! There are some really great stories in it.
I’ll be at Brooklyn Book Festival, moderating a cool panel. Say hi if you’re there. I’ll also be at Wisconsin Book Festival in October. So say hi there too. Catch me before I’m gone, like a weird Iowa wind.