On Being a Professor Who Has a Disability

In one of his wise and funny essays the poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “Stick out your can, /Here comes a lesson plan.” Roethke was for many years a professor of English both at the University of Washington in Seattle and at Bennington College in Vermont.

I used to think the lines were merely lowbrow comic relief from a man who was universally judged to be a great teacher of writing. Pursuing the rounds of a teaching life we’ve all longed for a moment of well-timed irreverence. We love it when in the film “The Paper Chase” Professor Kingsfield (played by John Houseman) hands a student a dime and tells him to call his mother. “Tell her,” Kingsfield says, “tell her that you will never be a lawyer.”

I am a blind professor and I labor steadily. Theodore Roethke was profoundly disabled—bi-polar, manic depressive—after forty years we still don’t know Roethke’s true diagnosis. Lately however I’ve begun to understand Roethke’s sharp and private marginalia as being part of a disabled teacher’s life. Certain disabilities, particularly blindness and the emotional and learning disabilities, assure that the labor of pedagogy will be intrinsically steep. One may think of Sisyphus, Camus’ version, laboring with the consciousness of his own labor—Camus’ Sisyphus climbs and knows all the weariness of the climb. The teacher with a disability does not work harder than his or her non-disabled colleagues, but the disabled teacher knows in minute ways how the acquisition of that old fashioned and bourgeois clarity “costs” the body. Teaching in pain is not heroic. Still it’s a shaman’s art: the slow acquisition of a text by a learning disabled teacher can singularly change a reading of a text. As a blind reader I am called upon to listen to cadences in every line of the text before me. We are slow and methodical and this pays off.

I begrudge lesson plans and IEPs and the gum chewing of education department types not merely because I am a poet who studied poetry writing but because I suspect that most learning comes from the discovery of the irrevocable and private passion of study. A good teacher is the one who causes a revolution in the personal argument inside a student. After reading Whitman with a person who has read Leaves of Grass over and over in Braille you may hear some engagement with Whitman’s great and passionate heart and some ironic ideas about the poet’s lousy ear. The student will hear that according to his blind professor Whitman lived and wrote as though the words might run out at any moment. Forget D.H. Lawrence’s portrayal of Whitman’s poetry as a steam engine chuffing with amorous love. The blind professor will say that Whitman was throwing those long lines out of fear. Whitman, for all his love of health and robust affection lived in expectation that ill health or madness would stop him prematurely just as it had stopped his mad brother and his fragile father. Just so, says the blind professor, these lines proceed without room for breath. Does reading Leaves of Grass in Braille make such observations more probable? Yes. You come to feel it. Just as Whitman felt it when he loaded all the lead typefaces into racks after hours in a darkened newspaper office.

Roethke was afraid that hard won clarity would leave him. He knew that poetry came from disorder and that the making of poetry was therefore essentially risky as an anodyne for depression. Forget Freud’s naïve contention that poetry is merely a variant of the talking cure. Poetry and the teaching of it both spring from the chaotic and impure regions of the cave of making. Each requires a deft arrangement of logic and imagination. Work. Evanescence. Painful encounters with the consequential difference between what we think and what we like to think. In poetry this difference requires exquisite self-awareness. In turn such self-awareness comes after taking a walk in the dark. If you wish to write poetry a lesson plan may be of almost no value. Even Milton’s Areopagitica can’t help. The Lesson Plan may in this context be a kind of permission to take shortcuts by assuming that the reading list in hand offers the proprietary secret to imaginative life. Roethke read everything he could get his hands on. He read while he was receiving hydrotherapy in the mental hospital. He read and in his mind’s eye moved the words around and found new rhythms and new locations for the syllables and consonants. This isn’t Romantic and it’s not on the syllabus. I like these lines by Ikkyu, the fifteenth century Japanese Zen master:

break through one impasse there’s another let the sweet

lychee slip over your tongue and down

Ikkyu was not disabled as far as we know. But try to eat properly and with spiritual awareness and you will find that almost everyone faces physical difficulties. This Zen fragment offers a glimpse into disability consciousness—which is inherently a poetic realization. The poem comes to mind because the way is steep.

There is no lesson plan for this minute by minute mind’s flight.  One learns the body’s  poetry without a syllabus.

 

S.K.

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