Monday, May 21, 2012

A Justification Of English Majors Who Don't Want To Be English Teachers

A few days ago I was checking out with my bounty of fruits and vegetables at the Market Fresh United Supermarket (the only place here to get really consistently yummy produce) and the cashier girl, after complimenting me on my sundress, asked me pleasantly what I was doing for the summer.

"School," I said, with the half-laugh. I am not used to being Grown Up. At the same time, it is extremely Grown Up not to have a summer vacation.

"What's your major?" she asked.

Rejoicing that at least she didn't think I was in high school doing remedial classes, I replied, "English," and she asked enthusiastically, "What grade do you want to teach?"

I felt my pleasant-making-small-talk-with-strangers politeness floating away like bubbles on a breeze. "I don't want to teach," I mumbled.

"Oh! I thought when you said English, you'd want to teach," she said breezily.

"No," I said, trying not to sound too brusque, and paid for my zucchini, and left.

Later at home I raved to the Pilot, as I am wont to do when I encounter yet another person who believes that apparently the only reason for the existence of English majors is so they can teach English in school, thereby creating a continuum of English majors who become English teachers injecting Englishy information into hapless elementary and high school students that has no reality or use outside the classroom.

What's an English major to do?

If people ever follow up my negative to their first inquiry about teaching with a "well, what do you want to do?" I always say, "I want to write." And then they say, "Like what?" and I say, "I'm really interested in creative nonfiction," at which point I usually get a blank stare and the conversation shifts.

After all, of what practical use is a lyric essay? Or a writing collage? Or a braided memoir?

But then, what practical use is any but the most technical of writing? Who really "needs" a novel? Or a poem? And then it's a rather swift slide into dismissal of the rest of the arts... because really, what's the practical, utilitarian use of a painting? Or sculpture? Or a play? Or music?

I just googled Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and at the very top tier, the "self-actualization" triangle at the top, mashed up with spontenaity, and morality, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts, is the little bone thrown to English majors– creativity. I must be extremely self-actualized.

But isn't creativity everywhere? Is it really only limited to a few impressive self-actualized individuals?

My laptop sits on a desk– a gift from my parents-in-law– that is satin soft and cherry-colored, with shiny little handles and handle-plates on the three drawers. The legs have a slight, rounded curve as the bottoms curl up like paws on the ground. Someone had to design it, someone had to build it. It could have been ugly, but whoever made it took the time to make it beautiful.

In the daily pressures and stresses, creativity can be a song that helps to make life beautiful. You can live a perfectly useful life without ever having read– or written– a lyric essay. But I am an English major because I have a deep need– sometimes it even feels like a compulsion– to take an image, or a moment, or a story, and change it into twenty six letters of the alphabet on the page, and sometimes the form those letters take is a lyric essay.

Other people translate life into music or painting: I try to translate it into words. And that is why I am an English major, because by surrounding myself with authors and teachers and other students who are all doing or trying to do the same thing, I hope to learn to do it better. I am an English major because I believe that we are all living stories that intersect each other in mysterious ways, and by learning more about Story I learn more about Life. I am an English major because I am in love with words and the power and the beauty that they possess. I am an English major because I believe that we all speak multiple languages in our hearts and minds and mouths, and I like trying to untwist them. I am an English major because I believe that good writing makes life richer and more meaningful, the way spices make a soup more savory.

"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art..." wrote C.S. Lewis, "it has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things which gives value to survival." He threw "art" in there for a good reason, I think; maybe in 1960 people didn't see the use of artists, including writers. For English is an art, the art of words, and what they mean, and how they can mean it, from the briefest nine-word poem to the greatest epic.

But what can you do with an English degree if you don't teach? is the question.

Revel! Revel in the words and the works. Revel in the scribbling. Revel in the questions and doubts and anxieties. Revel in the stacks of books on your nightstand and your coffee table and your floor. Revel in the way the sentences twist and squirm and finally flow out of your fingers. Revel in the thing that helps make your life– my life– beautiful... and maybe someday it will help to make someone else's life beautiful too.


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