I’ve been thinking about my 2nd and 3rd grade teachers lately, Mrs. U— and Mrs. B—. I loved them deeply, and still do. I was dead set on becoming a novelist back then, you see. Whenever I brought new stories to class to share with them, they always read them, asked questions, and invited me to share more. With that affirmation at my back, though I wasn’t consciously aware of it, I felt a great sense of creative freedom, the leeway to pursue and accomplish whatever I wanted.
4th grade was a different story. My brother and I were starting at a new school after our family moved, and since my last two teachers had been so affirming, I was excited to share my novels-in-progress with my brand new teacher, Mr. S—. But he never read them. He even shamed me once for checking in one day to see if he’d had a chance to read The Mystery of Arcila, one of my books from 3rd grade; he was busy, after all, and I was being impatient. I didn’t really write much after that.
Now, I’m not out to shame Mr. S—. He wasn’t my favorite teacher, but I’m sure he was someone else’s. My intention here isn’t even to show the difference between what I’d consider a good teacher and a bad one. What interests me is the story I tell myself about these three teachers, the differences between them, and the effects they had on me.
It’s a very simple story on its own. Mrs. B— and U— were scholars and angels; in their classes, I flourished. Mr. S— was a bit of a boob; in his class, my creative spirit withered. The former were good teachers; the latter was bad. Pretty straightforward, right?
But at the time, eight-year-old Mark wasn’t conceiving of things like “creative freedom” or “affirmation from authority figures,” certainly not the way I am right now. His idea of autonomy had much more to do with buying Power Rangers™ underpants the instant he turned eighteen (something that had mysteriously changed by the time he graduated high school). Like I said, what you read above is a story I’m telling myself right now about events long past. I’ve draped this story over those memories like a grid to help me make sense of them, explain how I got here, and make good decisions in the future.
However, the more abstract and conceptual I get (what does freedom mean to me? where did that thought come from? who am I?), stories start to conflict with one another. The dreaded specter of INTERPRETATION steps in. Memories that felt a certain way yesterday may look entirely different to me in the light of a new day.
With that in mind, how much do I really owe my creative habits to Mrs. U— and B—? Probably some, but perhaps not in the way I sometimes think. Did Mr. S— and his apathetic reaction to my writing harsh my creative vibe? Probably, but perhaps not as much as the story I tell myself would have me believe.
So is there a better story? Is there a more complete narrative than the one I shared above, one that zooms out and encompasses all the conflicting, intersecting stories I encounter when sifting through these memories? To answer that, I must consult a shrubbery.
The owner of the small house I rent recently did some landscaping in the front yard, laying down mulch and planting an assortment of shrubs, and he offered to take a small chunk out of my rent that month if I’d water them extra. If I hadn’t, many of them probably would have withered quickly, especially with the hot summer we just had. But I did water them, and today they live on.
Now, do these plants owe me their lives? I gave them water after all (not counting the sparse rains this over the past few months), without which they would have died. I tended to their environment, which gave them space to grow. From a certain point of view, hell yes they owe me.
But what about the growth itself? The DNA blueprints compelling the shrubs to grow on their own time and pace? The shapes they take day by day and the color of their flowers? The way they will lose their leaves this winter and squeeze them back out come spring? What about all the other factors that come into play—the sun, the nutrients in the soil, the millions of years of evolution? Did I do that?
In other words, I could totally tell a story in which I am the caretaker of these life forms and they depend on me for their wellbeing. There’s also another story I could tell, one in which the innumerable chemical reactions and cosmic coincidences that emerge as SHRUB meet the same innumerable variables that emerge as MARK GRISEZ, and they begin a dialogue with one another. The space where Mark Grisez ends and the shrubs begin (or vice versa) suddenly blurs. It’s not just a hierarchy; it’s a relationship, a conversation, a dialectic in which MARK and SHRUB are nested into one another and discovering each other anew in each and every moment.
As I reflect on my relationships with my favorite teachers, I like to think of them in the framework of this kind of story. It’s a story in which the teacher is not so much an authority/caretaker but a fellow explorer in an unstratified universe. I believe that this is much more reflective of my real relationships with Mrs. U— and Mrs. B— than the simple “affirmation” story I told earlier. As far as I could tell, they were just as excited to learn about the worlds I was creating as I was to learn about the wider world they were revealing to me.
Paulo Freire describes this alternative model beautifully in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. … Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in [other forms of education] are “owned” by the teacher.
But this is still just a story. Every story has its limits, and not a one gives an absolute account of the entire picture. My shrub story is just another rough metaphor. Shrubs probably don’t give two flips who holds their lives in their hands (for all I know).
And maybe that’s the point. So much of my life in recent years has been constructing and refining elaborate stories about where I came from, how I got here, who I owe, who I beat, who couldn’t hold me back and who tried. They can be helpful in navigating the world, perhaps even essential in some circumstances. But they never change the past, and they never fully explain how I got here or where I’m about to find myself.
Mark Grisez is made up of so many non-Mark Grisez things, from the jingles in Hulu ads that get stuck in my head to the cells of my body to the nutrients those cells eat to the atoms of which the entire circus is made. Where’d it all come from? To whom do I owe the pleasure? Some may call it God, the Source, Universal Mind, destiny, Brahman, etc. etc. etc. I have no idea.
I’m sure I’ll keep telling myself one story or another as I get older, trying to make the best meaning that I can. But I don’t think that’s a bug; I think it’s just a feature. It just means that no matter what I tell myself, I’ll never know the whole story. And that’s not only necessary. It’s also ok. ∎