How Bill Moyers, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Ruth of the Brown Jacket Taught Me About The Language Of Life

The Language of Life

Ruth was a boxy little woman with sawed off brown hair and brown eyes as bright and glinty as M&M’s. She wore a brown work jacket with a trucking firm’s logo on the breast; her name scrolled underneath in gold embroidery. Brown-haired Ruth dressed all in brown, I labelled her mentally, going over the names and personae of my class after that first night we met. She had a spunky, pugnacious attitude–kind of chin up, ya want a piece o’ me?–but whenever she wanted to say something to me, she’d turn around and address the whole class.

“I ain’t never met an English class that loved me, or vicie versie,” she quipped to her classmates that first night, her back to me. The other students smiled and rolled eyes in agreement. I felt, and I accepted, the challenge.

I thought of Ruth last night after I finished JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm and went searching for a book to keep vigil with me. I was on the midnight anticipation end of a standard medical procedure; it’s one of those tests we oldsters have to undergo periodically, involving fasting, then power-imbibing all kinds of weird potions that meet and meld, and, as Bill Cosby used to tell his TV children, begin to ‘part-tay in the tummy’.

I thoroughly enjoyed the plotting and characters of the Galbraith book–even though the crime was oh, so, much darker than those in the cozier mysteries I usually devour–but afterwards, I needed something with beauty and flow and words that could soothe my nervousness. I was waiting for the belly partiers to drift off so I could do the same, and I wanted some lovely, wordy company.

I picked Bill Moyers’ Language of Life, his conversations with poets–he calls them a “Festival of Poets” in the subtitle–published by Doubleday in 1995. Moyers introduced me to the poetry of Jimmy Santiago Baca, and I took Ruth’s class to hear Baca read and talk at a lovely, button-downed private university in western Ohio.

I started my college teaching at the SUNY college where I’d done my undergrad and master’s, a beautiful green and brick campus on the westernmost end of New York State. It was a school renowned for its music program and infused with the artsy-ness of its students; in the late 1990’s, I enjoyed the gentle wordy rebelliousness of my students, who were thrift-shop chic, many-hued of hair, and interestingly pierced and tattooed.

Then we moved to Ohio in a grand mid-life adventure: Mark was taking the leap, mid-forties, into law school. Careful exploration led him to choose a wonderful option near the western border of Ohio, a private, liberal arts school with outstanding graduate programs, and that offered, in its law program, small classes and high quality.

The young male students on that campus wore white shirts with oxford collars and jeans with carefully ironed creases; the young women wore Pendleton plaid type skirts to class. It was a small and well-kept college, dedicated to quality, and it was a completely different campus environment than we were used to.

Perfect, Mark said, for an old guy, feeling the click of rightness from his first contact. (He was very pleasantly surprised, too, to discover that he was NOT, by far, the eldest student in his class.)

We decided, frugally, to live in a mobile home court, which turned out to be an adventure in itself; we fixed up a two bedroom trailer on the corner of a cornfield, (we would learn about Midwest prairie winds in that cozy little home), and I went looking for adjunct teaching to augment my half-time administrative job. I found a couple of opportunities. One was Ruth’s class, a basic comp section, in a nearby small-city, a satellite outpost of a larger state university based seventy miles away.

The larger university was known for its liberal arts and grad programs, but at the outpost, only two degrees were offered, both in lockstep: a bachelor’s in business, and a bachelor’s in criminal justice. The classes, held in a quickly erected cinder block building, ran in a compressed format during the evening: ten weeks of English; ten weeks of Sociology; ten weeks of Business Math. On alternate nights, the students had a program course, delving into the meat and potatoes of the discipline that drew them back to school.

They were working adults; they brought their McDonald’s dinners to my clean spare cinderblock classroom, a space that smelled of “new”; they brought, too, a palpable attitude of ‘don’t waste my time.’

Cindi, a grad of the business program, working on her master’s online, was my contact at the site. She provided me with a text and a syllabus from the department at the main campus. I looked through the list of suggested readings–“Bartleby the Scrivener,” some hefty essays by Emerson and Thoreau, excerpts from Theodore Dreiser–and emailed the department chair.

As long as I stick to the era and the genre, I asked, could I substitute some readings?

Have at it, he wrote back. That’s an interesting bunch you have to work with. Ha ha. You won’t be teaching Shakespeare to that bunch any time soon.

His condescension pissed me off; I had to keep myself from snarking back about the idea of teaching Shakespeare in a course that required only American lit. My roots are firmly working class; those working class experiences, rough and smooth, deepen my love of the written word. These people–my students; not yet having met them, I was already feeling proprietary,– needed the chance to immerse in rich, meaningful literature, too; needed it just as much as traditionally aged residential students– but their entry point must make sense.

I haunted the university library and the local library; at the local library, I found the Moyers book, and Baca’s poetry drew me in. He wrote about prison, and he wrote about work–the kind of work you do with hands that are callused and cut. He wrote about family. There were old trucks and hungry days and celebratory meals in his writing. And there was a chance to explore all those familiar things in the framework of an unknown culture, the Hispanic southwest. Familiar themes in unfamiliar settings: perfect, I thought. I located other books by him; I felt an immediate connection to his description of the food his grandmother cooked; I would use this, I decided, with my night class.

I am a product of my 1970’s, let’s all get in a circle and read Shakespeare on the lawn, education; I start each class I teach with community-building exercises. I believe earnestly that every class is a community of learners. I believe that a life immersed in words is a considered life, whether one’s livelihood comes from driving a truck or slicing a perfect incision in a patient’s tender skin. I had a mission: to get my students, whoever and wherever they were, to love the words around them.

I re-wrote some ground rules for Ruth’s class. There were eleven students; five were burly men, working in law enforcement already, getting the degree to help their upward paths. They were polite and quiet; they called me ma’am, a new experience in my teaching. Their skepticism was palpable.

I wrote some of Poe’s murder mysteries into the syllabus.

There were three young working women, all mothers of toddlers or babies. They were pursuing business degrees, hoping to get a job that could, should the husband or boyfriend fade from the picture, support their little families. Their mamas had raised them with eyes wide open.

There were two young men, both in business, too, both working in some sort of retail position; their companies were paying for their education. They arrived with their oxford shirts emblazoned with company logos. They wore ties that gradually loosened and finally came off as the class progressed. They were weary and anxious to do well, but leery of a course that required things they had previously done poorly in.

And there was Ruth. She was in the CJ, program, too. She hoped to end her truck driving career and get on as a dispatcher with the county. She was getting old; she was ache-y; she had a daughter in the business program at this college who urged her to try it. She had a grant, Ruth did, and a hefty dose of self-doubt. Who am I, she seemed to be saying, to think I can go to college?

I added the poetry of Anne Bradstreet into the syllabus. We would watch Death of a Salesman for our play.

I made the students get up and talk to each other in a first day, ice breaking activity. They muttered and groaned, but they were not ones to argue with the instructor: they got up and did it. They learned that Emily had a new puppy; that Matt’s grandmother was dying of cancer–he might have to miss class sometime soon; they learned that Ruth had six kids; and that Josh had done a stint in the Middle East. Josh hoped this wouldn’t be one of those classes where people felt obliged to diss the military.

I told them they were adults and could make their own choices. If I asked someone to read and they didn’t care to, they could pass. They could do this every time; they could do it once. It wouldn’t affect their grade or my respect for them.

They did not need my permission to use the restroom.

I hoped they would attend every class they could, but I trusted them to have their priorities in line, and to know they were responsible for the work we’d cover in their absence.

I promised I would always return their papers within two weeks, and I promised them those papers would be covered with comments. They groaned–THAT they were used to. I asked them if they’d maybe noticed that I liked to talk. They grinned and rolled their eyes. The comments, I vowed, would address strengths and weaknesses, not just be a litany of ‘wrongs’; that would be part of our on-going dialogue.

I tried very hard to live up to all of those guidelines. I soon realized that these busy people always did their written homework on time, but sometimes couldn’t squeeze the required reading into the wee morning hours when, I learned, they usually did their schoolwork. I began to look for short videos that highlighted pivotal moments in the texts. I would pick out key paragraphs or stanzas, and ask a student to read them aloud.

Often someone would pass when offered the chance to read, and we would move on to the next person. Never, though, did I have a night where no one agreed to read.

When I called on Ruth, she carefully plodded through whatever reading I asked of her, slowly, thoughtfully. She thought about the words; she gave them great meaning.

One night she turned to her classmates from her perpetual first row seat, and asked them, “You know why I always read?” They looked at her. “Because,” she jutted her thumb at me, “she told me I don’t have to. My other teachers always made me read, and I just refused. I guess I’m just obstinate.”

More grins from her peeps. The class moved on.

They loved Poe’s short stories. They were incensed by “The Lottery”, especially the peace officers in the class, who took it as reality, and wanted, in their outrage, to go fix that cruel and crazy place. They differed on Death of a Salesman, although they liked Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich when we watched the film in two sittings.

I was not catching them with poetry, however. They would politely agree that yes, this was moving, but I could see Bradstreet seemed a little antique to them. Sylvia Plath was strident, one of the CJ guys, volunteered; and what kind of mother leaves her children that way? They felt a little taken in when they discovered her father was not some mad Nazi war criminal.

“Is that,” Ruth turned and asked her classmates, “really poetry? That’s not what I mean when I say poetry.”

Whitman? Ho hum. Robert Frost? Kind of…country, wasn’t he? asked these denizens of a tiny Midwest city surrounded by acres and acres of soybeans and corn.

They were getting bored, I could tell. And then I read, in our little weekly paper, that Jimmy Santiago Baca was coming to Mark’s college in two weeks, on–as luck would have it–our meeting night.

I called the ticket office; they said they’d call me back. Later that day, a vice president rang up and said they would be happy to donate the tickets so my students could all attend. There was a little whiff of noblesse oblige about the offer, a sense of “Gosh, let’s embrace these scruffy citizens from the night school.’

I didn’t care. We’d take the free tickets.

We arranged to meet at a nearby coffee shop, and the whole class eventually trickled in, some still in their work clothes. We wended across the street through a sea of crisp denim and plaid, a motley crew in police uniforms, truck driving gear, Best Buy chambray, and rumpled mom clothes, to the august meeting hall. Our seats were right up front. We climbed over immaculately turned out coeds; they looked at us and turned back to their conversations.

“This’ll be a first,” one of the CJ guys had said to me the last class, and they all jumped in, agreeing. None had ever been to a poetry reading before, and I could tell they were doing it only for the novelty and only because, in our seven weeks together, that had come to feel a grudging respect for me, and a sense of bonding with the rest of the class.

The lights dimmed in the grand auditorium, and Jimmy Santiago Baca walked out on stage.

He read his poetry; he was calm and earthy. He talked about prison and about the words that saved him. He talked about his hungry childhood. He read poems that broke my heart; that pushed my boundaries; that made me wince.

I looked around; the traditional college students looked, a lot of them, bored and dreamy. But my students were leaning forward in their seats. They nodded in understanding. Ruth leaned back and sighed audibly several times, crossing and uncrossing her arms, sleeved in the ever-present brown jacket. One of the young moms was shimmer-eyed when Baca spoke of childhood desertion and betrayal. The CJ guys were mesmerized by the prison discussions.

Baca gently challenged the undergrads about the responsibilities of privilege; they were stone-faced and unimpressed. My students, each one, nodded in full agreement.

The reading ended; we dispersed into a star-studded Midwest night, and did not discuss it until the next week.

At that class, the students told me about the parts that impressed them most, angered them most, made them feel. Baca had shared a story about a time right after he’d gotten his first publishing contract: scruffy, clearly Hispanic, dragging a recalcitrant child, he’d gone into a bank. The teller looked at the publisher’s check, looked at him, and assumed larceny. The bank refused to cash it, and Baca could not feed his family until he found a bank, in a far off city, that would honor his payment. That angered them; the injustice of it seemed to resonate with all.

They talked about when shocking language is gratuitous and when it is meaningful, and they talked about bad choices and good choices. Ruth turned to her peers and shared some thoughts about how where you were born, and who you were born to, made a big, big difference in how you looked at life.

I gave them their assignment, passed back last week’s paper, and let them go. They tromped out the door, and then, for the first time, Ruth doubled back. She looked me right in the eye.

“THAT,” she said, “was some real poetry. Bye.”

And she was out the door, fast.

Teaching means making yourself vulnerable to failure and disappointment, to misunderstanding, and to reams of efforts never appreciated. But the moments when the veil lifts and one can see the purpose, even if those moments are few and far between, are the quintessential pay-off.

Ruth’s comment was one of those veil-lifting moments.

Since then, I have read and re-read Santiago Baca’s poetry, every volume I could put my hands on; I marvel at his teaching words, his feeling words,…and I thank him for the ability to make poetry a living thing for an uncertain woman in a gritty Midwest city who often seemed to wonder what the hell she was doing in college.

*********

The procedure is over, the anticipation, of course, much worse than the reality, and I sit by our tall kitchen window, half nodding in the afternoon sun, as I write this. I will take The Language of Life and retire to the reading chair; I’ll cover my chilly toes with the BookWoman blanket; and I will read the words of Moyers’ festival of poets: Coleman Barks and Donald Hall, Lucille Clifton and Joy Harjo, Gary Snyder, Mary TallMountain. And Jimmy Santiago Baca.

I’ll let the music of their lyrical writing play in my mind as I drift off for an anesthetic-induced afternoon nap, pondering the power of the right words at the right time.

And pondering, too, the benefits of a lifetime spent teaching; a lifetime in which, truth be told, I hope my students have learned one quarter of that which they’ve taught me.

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