Issue #63, How We Teach
I’ve Taught Monsters
I’ve Taught Monsters
I’ve taught monsters—ancient, ravenous monsters. Scylla and Charybdis, Grendel and his mother, and Polyphemus hurling rocks at the sea. Their stories are best taught out loud and without irony, lest dramatic interpretation give way to camp. When Beowulf dives into the “heaving depths of the lake” in pursuit of Grendel’s mother, I let my voice slip down as well, into dramatic, low tones to convey the dire threat as “the hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, / the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength,” then pitch my voice up into a frenzied crescendo, volume rising in tandem with the stakes, as Beowulf struggles to clout the fearsome she-monster on the head with his “war-sword.”
For over a decade, I taught monsters to the compliant, privileged, and well-nourished learners of a private school. My duty was clear: to guide them through the rigors of a classical middle school education, thus ensuring acceptance at the vaunted secondary school of their parents’ choice.
No matter how earnestly I threw myself into a no-holds-barred dramatic monologue, the vast distance of Beowulf’s time, language, and culture from our own would blunt the impact of the “tarn-hag.” Yet, even when I couldn’t deliver fearsome drama, my students would toss me a few points for commitment and effort. They appreciated that I was willing to humiliate myself in service to their education and a thousand-year-old horror story.
Sure, these students knew monsters: a few of the smaller horrors slipped through the cracks in their defenses—divorce, bad grades, the death of a pet. But, like Grendel and his mother, true terror remained distant, held at bay by a carefully crafted and maintained force field of wealth and privilege, safely and neatly shelved among Tolkien, Rowling, and Paolini before darkness fell.
Yes, yes, they’d nod. We understand, Mrs. Lahey. These monsters would have been terrifying for a Geat. Yes, yes, we know, Mrs. Lahey. Grendel and his mother represent the deep, eternal fears of humankind. Yes, we wrote your assignment in our plan book. We solemnly swear to read actively and reverently—one point for imagery, two for alliteration, three for a kenning.
And then, two years ago, I bade these privileged learners a tearful goodbye and set off for a distant socioeconomic shore inhabited by a very different type of student, where the teaching methods I’d used for years no longer translated.
Now, as a writing teacher in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility for adolescents, I teach the walking wounded of the opioid epidemic. Most of these kids have never heard of the swirling, toothed creatures of Greek mythology, let alone Grendel’s mother. However, they know monsters: monsters as ancient as their earliest memories, as harrowing as any nightmare.
A few lucky ones have supportive families, and some have even attended great schools staffed with effective teachers. They arrive well-prepared to continue plugging away at their grade-level work. Many, however, have no families and have attended dilapidated schools riddled with educational and social cracks. These students don’t have time to waste on dactylic hexameter or archaic imagery; they need a battle plan, and they need it now. Their monsters loom large, terrible, and close.
We don’t have a lot of time together due to the rehab’s therapy-heavy schedule and the perils of inadequate insurance coverage, so expediency is the new name of my teaching game. I have traded in Beowulf and the Aeneid for the more immediate and accessible works of Jandy Nelson, Sherman Alexie, and Stephen King.
I show up to class every day with a lesson plan, but until I take the emotional temperature of my students, I can’t know what lessons will work. I arrive at school armed with plans B, C, D, and E, with F and G filed away, just in case.
School begins with a walk from my renovated farmhouse classroom on the rehab grounds to the locked adolescent unit housed in the east wing. I enter the main door, pass a security desk, and enter a key code in order to gain entrance to the facility. The rehab treats men, women, and adolescents, but these populations are kept strictly segregated because estranged spouses, broken families, and abusive partners often occupy opposite wings of the same building.
Paper covers the windows of the entrance to the adolescent wing in a vain attempt to maintain visual and symbolic distance from the mental and physical threat of the adults, but voices seep in through the thin barrier.
As the students gather in the common room, I read their faces, take in their postures, listen to their complaints and questions. By the time my students are assembled and the alarm on the exterior door is disabled in preparation for our departure, I’ve already calculated the likely success of lesson plans A through E and have hastily cobbled together H and I in response to the emotional temperature of the group. The class changes from day to day as wary new admissions come in and trusting veteran students are discharged. A single charismatic ringleader can persuade the rest of the class to give me the benefit of their collective doubt or upend the confidence of the entire group.
On the worst days, when fuses are short and emotions are brittle, I toss my well-laid plans to the winds as we walk the short distance from the unit to the classroom and, once again, put my trust in Stephen King.
King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has become a particular favorite among my students. My students know kids like the young Stephen King—heck, they may even be young Stephen Kings—writing stories in their beds under the eaves and playing in the Barrens of their small New England towns. Many of these kids have also lived poor—“Dogpatch with no sense of humor”—but it’s King’s struggles with addiction that give him immediate credibility in my classroom.
My copy of the book falls open to the sections I read most often in order to frame writing assignments. Sometimes, it falls open to the first section of the book, where King recounts his earliest memories, expressed as snapshots from a “herky-jerky” childhood. He writes of medical horrors, farting babysitters, and wasp-filled cinderblocks with a clarity and humor that captures the attention of even my most distractable students. In response to these scenes, I ask my students to emulate King’s style and describe their own snapshots, no matter how fragmented. Most of the time, this assignment is a hit, but for some, it’s torture. Students who’ve endured nightmarish years in group homes and foster care, or under the wrath of abusive parents, push their chairs away from the offending blank paper, proclaiming, “I don’t remember anything from my childhood.” These protests usually give way to a storytelling session in which they tell, rather than write, their histories while I take notes and guide them back toward the intimidating permanence of ink on paper.
A student may begin her essay in the first person, up close and personal with her memories, then pull back as her story begins to swerve too close to the painful territory. Her first-person “I” falls away to a second-person “you,” or even a third-person “she,” as my student struggles to distance herself from the uncle tapping on her bedroom door or her mother passed out on the hallway floor. My job is not to analyze the reasons for her distance, but to help her locate her first-person “I,” to face her monsters head-on, from the introduction all the way through to the dénouement.
On other days, when the class needs to be swept up in the vast panorama of a narrative rather than a mere snapshot, I read the final section of On Writing, in which King recounts being run down by a negligent driver on the back roads of western Maine. Before I begin, I ask my students to raise their hands when they hear something that strikes them as great descriptive language, writing that transports them out of the classroom and onto the shoulder of Maine State Route 5 or the helipad at Central Maine Medical Center. Hands fly up as they hear about King’s leg, reduced to “so many marbles in a sock,” and the Pepsi that his wife, Tabitha, brings him, described as, “sweet, and cold, and good.” Maybe, just maybe, a student will remark that the description of the Pepsi sounds a lot like the plums from the poem I read to them the week before, which were also “so sweet, / and so cold.” It’s only happened once, but it was glorious.
My favorite assignment, however, is one in which we name our monsters, and the excerpt I read for this assignment is a favorite among my students. In it, King recounts the moment he realized his drinking had spiraled out of control. Rather than deciding to get well, he doubled down on his addiction with the only hand he had left: lying and secrecy.
But, for the ten years when King’s conscious mind was occupied with that losing hand, King’s unconscious was hard at work, obsessively chronicling in his stories the circumstances, narratives, and, most notably, the monsters of his addiction. This was the decade of the alien-cum-cocaine protagonist in The Tommyknockers and of Annie Wilkes, the drug-pushing, psychopathic nurse in Misery. As King admits in On Writing, “Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer.”
My students get it. Even when they have not yet admitted out loud that they have a problem with drugs or alcohol, even when they have been committed to rehab against their will, even when they are fighting against the reality of their addictions with teeth and nails and tears, they get it. They know what it’s like when the monsters escape from their subconscious even as they painstakingly lock their doors and cover their windows with the thickest paper they can find.
Once Stephen King has revealed the true form of his most secret monsters, I ask my students to do the same. “If Annie Wilkes is Stephen King’s addiction incarnate, what’s yours? Journey into the dark places—the black tarn, a haunted basement, or back alley—and report back to us. Show; don’t tell. Help us see your monster’s sharp teeth or lice-infested pelt; smell its moldering rot or acidic tang; and hear the drip, drip, drip of its copious, greenish drool.”
The goal of the lesson is to help them expose, describe, and contain their private terrors on the page, to imprison them within the safe confines of ink, line, and margin. If I’ve done my job well, and have managed to infect my students with a tiny bit of the enthusiasm that I worked up during my introduction to the assignment, nine out of ten students will agree to put pen to paper. I used to let the tenth student off the hook, particularly if he’d just come off a bad detox or if she’d recently had a grueling therapy session, but not anymore.
Now, I view a 90 percent response rate as a solid starting place, a preliminary offer, if you will, and an opportunity to hone my negotiation skills. I distribute pencils and paper to the 90 percent, and while they work on their first drafts, I guide the tenth toward the creepy Barrens of his own history and hand him back the pencil he tossed at me in frustration. In the two years I’ve been teaching in the rehab, my win-loss record has improved steadily, mainly because I’ve heard all the excuses before.
I’ve already dropped out of high school, so this is bullshit is popular, usually uttered while tipping back on two chair legs and pushing my proffered pencil and paper to the far side of the desk.
I know how to write already is another perennial classic.
You can’t make me do jack shit is my favorite—and, unfortunately for the student, not strictly true. Participation in an education program is a mandatory part of graduating from rehab, and a gentle reminder usually clears up any confusion on this point.
While I’ve learned how to respond to these protestations, I’ve also learned that the excuses which students offer are hardly ever the real cause for their reluctance to write. My job, then, is not to deflect or smack down their excuses, but to find out more about the journey they’ll have to take in order to get a glimpse of their monsters.
For many of these kids, writing can be just as frightening as conjuring the monsters of their addictions. Some of my students fell through the gaps years ago and have remained undetected or overlooked for so long that they can hardly string together a coherent paragraph. Others have undiagnosed learning disorders that render their printed work illegible—and unintelligible when read aloud. For others, the monsters are simply too big to fit on one sheet of paper. Fortunately, the team of therapists who support my efforts in the classroom and counsel the kids once they return to the safety of the ward stock plenty of paper for their use. Reams of it, if needed.
Once I’ve persuaded my students to participate, and they have begun to get those first stubborn and awkward words down, I write, too, even if it’s just my grocery list. They need me to go away for a bit, to give them time and space to establish a rhythm. As distracted as I may appear, I’m in full-on, peripheral-vision, class-monitor mode. I hold my breath as the scritch-scratch of pencils on paper begins hesitantly, then rises to a crescendo, and eventually slows as they find natural endpoints to their descriptions.
As they finish, I ask for permission to read their work and thank them when they give it.
Their monsters are as diverse as the students. Some are literal monsters lifted straight from horror films or comic books, caricatures of evil crafted under the sixteen-point, centered title, My Monster.
“My monster is green and orange. It’s something that is fun but not good for me,” one student writes in a page of simple sentences and elementary vocabulary.
Another student conjures his monster in more subtle shades: “something like impure, filthy, conspicuously unclean” that “walked on two feet, kind of dragging himself along like he was both emotionally and physically exhausted.”
Some of these monsters lie, feigning love and comfort. “My demon feeds off me making mistakes and bad decisions. It knows that when I feel bad about myself, I’m far more likely to run back into its arms, so it’s always there. Just waiting.”
Some monsters are not monsters at all but rather ordinary people or objects in situations beyond their control. One boy likens his addiction to a baseball that craves flight and the free trajectory of a home run yet knows it will crash to earth, unprotected and adrift. The ball secretly yearns for the safety and comfort of a catcher’s mitt, and thus, “My monster is a baseball game with a batter who will never miss.”
Once they have completed a preliminary description of their monster, I then ask them to imagine their monsters’ vulnerabilities, small chinks in the impenetrable armor, the soft underbelly hidden beneath the poisonous spines. The students who are just beginning their journeys through recovery often report that they don’t see any vulnerabilities. Their monsters are omniscient, omnipotent forces of nature, too big to defeat in battle. Two or three weeks in, after patient, thorough examination with their therapists and counselors, they begin to spot potential weaknesses in their addictions, small imperfections where an arrow or well-sharpened spear might find purchase.
I ask them about these weaknesses because once we’ve dragged their monsters into the light of our classroom, it’s time to muster our collective forces and form a plan of attack. Some monsters are afraid of the light; others run shrieking from a show of courage; and yet others can be vanquished with a blade thrust straight through the heart. We plan, we muster, we sharpen our weapons, and we find the surest path to victory over our addictions incarnate.
No matter the assignment, I’ve had to adjust my perception of what makes for a successful day of teaching. I used to measure successful teaching with points, grades, and handily completed units. Wins and losses were calculated in neat, orderly rows of numbers in my grade book and on report cards full of letter grades. Today, success is an independent reading book opened, an emotional bond forged, a trust extended.
On my best days, I collect a full complement of essays, and one or two of the kids thank me for class as they head back to the adolescent unit for group therapy or to the basketball court for a game of Horse. On my worst, when I’ve been called a fucking bitch or, worse, ignored for two hours straight, I drive home wondering why I subject myself to such frustrating, recalcitrant hoodlums.
The answer, as many teachers know, is that the kids who call me a fucking bitch and make a show of ignoring me for two hours are the ones who need me the most. I don’t go back week after week in order to feel good about my own teaching; I go back to feel good about their learning. I go back to help them find their first-person “I” and to help them translate their stories into a language the rest of the world can understand. But most of all, I go back because my monsters look a heck of a lot like theirs: slippery, sneaky assholes that clamber from the mouths of sweet-smelling wine bottles and drift on the air in a beckoning, sly reminder of the high life.
Sure, I miss Grendel and his mother, and I admit I can no longer recite the family lineage of Scylla and Charybdis with the ease I once did. I miss being able to go on autopilot, knowing my students will complete an assignment on their own while I get some grading done. I miss the warm glow of my students’ reflected academic glory.
My students don’t win awards, academic honors, or graduate with golden cords draped over their shoulders. They do, however, slay terrible, fearsome monsters, armed with nothing but a pencil, plenty of paper, and faith in their first person.
* Illustration by Mary Dorfner Hay
Jessica Lahey is a teacher and author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So... read more
An interview with Brenda Stumpf
Brenda Stumpf is a Pittsburgh-based artist, intrigued by mythology, mystery, and the unknown past. Acutely attune to materiality, she uses... read more
Tell myself: Trust in experience... read more
Our spring issue, Creative Nonfiction #63: “How We Teach,” reaches far beyond the traditional classroom. Contributors travel to...Our spring issue, Creative Nonfiction #63: “How We Teach,” reaches far beyond the traditional classroom. Contributors travel to... read more