Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
-Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”
As an introverted writer, I’d be happy to spend my days at home doing writer-things–talking to people who don’t exist, consuming vast quantities of caffeine, and succumbing to the occasional crippling wave of angst and self-doubt. But it’s good for me to occasionally have to put on pants and interact with people I didn’t make up. So, to supplement the single teacher’s salary with which we live it up, indulging in such luxuries as toilet paper and ramen noodles, I tutor part-time at the boarding school where I used to teach English, creative writing, and a lone French I class.
Tutoring involves all the things I loved about teaching–interacting with teens, sharing knowledge, giving feedback, exchanging ideas, hopefully making a difference–without all of the things I didn’t like–standing in front of a bunch of people, making lesson plans, doling out evaluations via letters of the alphabet, meetings. And, as with most life experiences, I realize more and more as time goes on that I’m getting much more out of it than my students are. Tutoring has its frustrations, but it also has its warm fuzzies. Even more importantly, though, I benefit as a writer.
Most of my kids are ESL students from Korea or China. Some are talkative, others taciturn. All struggle with English, either written or spoken but usually both. I am fiercely proud of each one of their little successes, devastated by every one of their little earthquakes. These kids are mighty. They come to the States, half a world away from their homes and families, to immerse themselves in an alien culture and a language that not only doesn’t sound anything like theirs, but is predicated upon an entirely different worldview. They struggle. Every day, I watch them grapple with the bizarre complexities of the English language. And every day, their battle with the perversities of my mother tongue yields new insights.
There is, of course, the basic unfamiliarity with Western culture. One of my classes, when I taught, was 8th grade lit. Every year, we read To Kill a Mockingbird. One day, an American student announced (days into the reading) that she couldn’t find a copy of the book. Exasperated, I told her to walk around the dorms, knocking on doors until she found someone who’d lend her a copy. She returned without a book, but with a story. She’d gone door-to-door, begging for a copy, and eventually knocked on the door of one of the Korean students. “I need a copy of a book,” she said. “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Without hesitation, the other student grabbed a hefty Korean-English dictionary and said, “This should kill it!”
A couple of years ago, I tutored a Chinese student with a personality–and a temper–barely contained by her tiny frame. I remember her asking me where she could buy wine, which for some inexplicable reason the local restaurants refused to serve to her fifteen-year-old self. “You can’t buy wine here!” I told her. “You’ll get in trouble.” She proceeded to tell me that in China, she and her friends had just bribed the police not to tell their parents.
It was this fey little person who recounted to me the story of a disagreement with her “helper.” Reading between the lines of intercultural communication, I eventually figured out that this meant “housekeeper.” My student and this housekeeper were not exactly on congenial terms. She told me about a fight they had, ending with the declaration, “So, I pick up a–a thing–and, I kill she!!”
ESL tutoring isn’t exactly a Law & Order kind of job. For half a second, though, I feared I’d just become the witness to a murder confession. With some very pointed questions, I managed to uncover that my student had not in fact committed a major felony, but had thrown a vase. Case closed.
In thinking back on her story, though, a couple of things strike me as interesting. First, the use of “kill.” It’s strong–inaccurately so. And yet it was somehow appropriate. I’d gathered over the course of many stories about the Evil Helper that my student probably did not wish her well. And then there’s the “she.” Of course, it should have been “her”–“I kill her.” But there was something appropriate about that, too. Her is an object, something acted upon. She is a subject, an actor. And, if my student was to be believed, Evil Helper had been quite energetic in all their battles. Despite her subordinate position, Evil Helper was no object.
It’s these kinds of linguistic mistakes that underscore for me the power of language and the force of good writing. I’m reminded of all these quirky tutoring stories I’ve collected as I hear people talking about how Dylan Thomas’s hundredth birthday would have been this past Monday.
If there was ever anyone who knew the force of language in all its gorgeous malleability, it was Thomas. His words sing with connotation, with hints and whispers of meanings beyond easy definition, because he didn’t just use language, he played with it. He coaxed a certain fey quality out of everyday words.
The first year I taught creative writing, I handed out a photocopy of Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill.” My three valiant students and I–we few, we happy few, we band of writers–read the poem and discussed the ways in which Thomas plays with language. I set them an assignment–to write poems about their own childhoods in which they, too, played with words, pushed their boundaries, messed with them. The results astonished me. Lines from those student poems still haunt my imagination to this day, a decade later. I think Dylan Thomas would have approved.
Just as children play to learn about the world they inhabit, my students are playing with language. They’re messing with it, trying to get it right, sometimes discovering humor and even power and beauty in the process. Watching them grapple with the English language, I’m reminded that we are all always grappling with it, that we are all, regardless of our native tongue, always butting our heads against the limits of the spoken and written word. We are all always coming up short. We try to communicate. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes, gloriously, we succeed. And when we succeed, it is sometimes because we’ve managed to perfectly conform ourselves to the proscribed meanings, and sometimes because we’ve shaken our fists at them and spit in their faces.
My ESL students remind me that it is my job as a writer to find a balance, to walk the delicate line between expressing my thoughts clearly and making magic with words. They remind me that the power of language inhabits this tension, thriving in a liminal zone of meaning and possibility.
Sometimes I lose perspective. Sometimes tutoring seems to take time away from writing. Sometimes I wish I could be like all those fabulously published authors who don’t have to cobble together odd jobs to help make ends meet. But then I remember what, for me, has become one of the few cardinal truths of writing–it is ALL writing. Life is writing, writing is life. I inhabit the liminal spaces, the in-betweens, the sketchiness where the people inside my head draw their voices from people outside it.
And, as much as I’ve learned about language from studying the works of great writers as if they’re a sort of Gospel, I’ve probably learned as much from a handful of teenage kids who think that Harper Lee wrote some kind of freaky instruction manual. Within the chains of a foreign tongue, in the prison-house of language, sometimes they sing like the sea.