Making Out is a series centered on how issues observed in the high school classroom by writer and teacher, Jess Burnquist, translate to daily life in the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.
Seniors in my Creative Writing class are writing about balance. They are trying to maintain grades, jobs, relationships with family and friends, external expectations, and their own desires. I practice a vigil-like empathy for them. This doesn’t mean I coddle. Rather, I’m on a sort of emotional alert and am working hard to never demean them when they let me know they feel like they’re drowning. And they do feel this way.
At some point, I am on the receiving end of their feelings and most often it is when they are most overwhelmed. I might get direct sass, or detect defeat in their mannerisms. Or, they may just drop by to ‘say hi’ and then take a seat and my prep hour to spill their stress. I think my best teaching is often done when I simply listen.
Sometimes I tell them about Maria Spelterini, the early 19th century tightrope walker.
I share that she is most famous for crossing Niagara Falls on the American Centennial. And then I let them know how she returned after the celebration to cross the Falls three more times.
The first time she returned, she walked the rope with peach baskets attached to her feet. I wonder aloud to my visiting student, still immersed in his or her own misery, Why peach baskets, do you think?
Responses vary. If the student opposite me is starting to feel less weighted down, he or she will consider my question a bit harder than if he or she can’t see beneath the surface of his or her frustrations quite yet.
I say, if Spelterini could have placed her anxieties about traveling over those rough waters in writing, then into those peach baskets, what would she have written?
I ask my student to write down his or her ideas about that and go about my work if he or she is game. I love when I detect an increase in the pace of the writing because it’s usually when Spelterini’s anxieties have become their own. And there is something beautiful about my students imagining themselves placing slips of stress in empty baskets. Fruitful, indeed.
If time permits, I might let them know that the second time Spelterini walked the thin line, she did so with a paper bag over her face as a blind fold. What do we see when we stop searching outside of ourselves, I might ask. This makes me feel like a hypocrite.
At their age (and now though definitely not as often) I sought approval from everyone but myself. I don’t share with my students how the older I get, the more clearly I see and approve of my truth. It’s not in any mirror, rather in my actions or lack thereof. I don’t think this can be taught.
When I was their age, I told my father that Shakespeare was outdated and boring. What I wanted when I bated him with that dreadful argument was to simply be seen and heard. Mostly, I wanted him to ask to see my writing—even if he was viewing it critically, at least I could say my father read something I wrote. Such longing can be found in my students from time to time.
I ask them to visualize themselves above waters that are rushing so loudly no human voice can rise above the din. The only sounds they can detect are their own heartbeats and inner voice. I instruct, Now, just as Spelterini did, imagine your head being covered. When you listen to yourself, what do you learn? Write it.
Recently, I tried designing a lesson having to do with Spelterini’s third pass over the Falls. That time, she placed her wrists and ankles in shackles. I tried to leave room for the consideration of self imprisonment and self limitation. The lesson is on hold because I’d rather share the prompt with a room full of women—mothers, sure, but also every kind of woman. To women, I could say what I rarely reveal about Spelterini, as if not keeping a fact hidden inside translates into a small kernel of magical insight.
I can’t contain it, though. It is public knowledge. Listen. Listen to this—Spelterini walked the line while shackled—traveling backwards. Bound and moving in reverse by a surefooted trust in herself. When she successfully finished each pass across Niagara Falls, I’m thinking applause from others mattered to her not one bit.
I’m certain that if someone had shared this fact with me when I was at the height of my adolescence, I would have missed its remarkability. Now, though, when I think of it—I experience an instantaneous amount of joy and grief. The wonder of that kind of balance coupled with my fear that her meanings were lost to the spectacle of it all.
I watch my students regain their balance at the start of their own passages. They do so with pen and paper. I want them to know that the tensions remain. The wind and rush of the world effect our pull against ourselves, each other. I suppose I want to wave them in—weathered but proud having successfully made it to solid ground.