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Teaching: A Journey

The first time that I entered a classroom as a teacher, I was only 19 years old. I lived in Havana, where I had been born, and the year was 1971. The shortage of teachers forced the government to prepare emergency teachers who could cover the positions left by others who had chosen the way of exile. Behind my decision to volunteer to participate in a two-week seminar that would qualify me as teacher of literature was, I must admit it, a painful failure.

In 1970 I had been accepted into the most prestigious fine arts school on the Island, the San Alejandro school. My dream was to make a career as a painter, but the rules of the school demanded that the students should obtain not only the best grades in art studies, but also in general education. As time went by, my grades in sciences – without exception – only got worse, and in sculpture class things did not go better for me. My only successes were in the classes of painting, drawing and art history. But even in painting class, the failures soon arrived. And this happened in a most unforeseeable way for me. We were doing an exercise on pointillism (trying to follow the technique of the impressionist painters). One day, the professor stopped the activity of the class and asked all the students to approached me to see my work: “That’s the way it should be done,” she said. It was at that moment that I realized that I did not know, myself, what I was doing. I had been painting intuitively. Of course, since that was “the way” I was supposed to paint, I began to become obsessed with the idea of discovering “how” I was really doing it. In the end, my work obtained the lowest grade, and I was literally paralyzed with fear.

One of the requirements of Art History class was to teach a class (one of the objectives of the school was forming art instructors, since it was expected that not all of us would end up being famous painters). We had to teach a class on a subject area that already had been covered in the course. For example: if we were studying the Greeks, the student could choose to give a class on Egyptian statuary. But I wanted to do exactly the opposite. Although we were studying neoclassical painting, I insisted on teaching a class on romantic painting, and for that matter I chose the work of Eugene Delacroix. My professor, whom I remember with great affection and admiration, accepted on the condition that I prepared myself on my own without counting on any advice from him. And so it was. It went so well, and my professor and classmates enjoyed the class so much that the former requested that I repeat it for the third-year students (I was in my first year of studies) as a “model class”.

In my regular high school classes things mirrored more or less what was happening in my fine arts courses. My grades in mathematics, physics and chemistry, went from bad to worse, and I got the best results only in history and literature. I remember that my history teacher taught me something that, especially in those times, was really dangerous: she taught her class not to read history as a succession of heroic feats and figures, and, instead of accepting blindly what the books said, to read critically what was affirmed or narrated in them. “In most history books,” she said, “heroes appear frozen, fleshless, cast in bronze”. This approach had a great impact on me, on the way I starting perceiving and questioning everything around me. My fascination with the subject, and my grades, caused me to be chosen as “monitor”. The monitors of each subject were those students who, because of their academic performance, functioned as teachers’ assistants. They took care of specific tasks: they helped the students who were not getting satisfactory grades; they had to read and to study additional, more complex texts, and, in the case of a teacher’s absence, they had to take responsibility for conducting that day’s class. There was a “monitor’s day” dedicated to recognizing their work. That day, in all classes, it was up to the monitors to teach the first 20 minutes of the class. In addition to the teachers, the students’ parents were invited to those classes.

If I have wanted to recount these experiences it is to show how, while on one side I was seeing my future as an “artist” being frustrated, on the other side, failures and success combined together to form in me my vocation for teaching, even if at that time I was not completely aware of it. If I did not paint well, I could tech well history of art. If my grades in sciences were really bad, I was good at literature and history, which I also knew I could teach. However, if I truly enjoyed my history class, I must say that I became obssesed with literature, which also was linked to my almost simultaneous discovery of music, and, in particular, of poetry.

In school we studied world literature, and I still remember the impact that works like Homer’s Iliad or Balzac’s Father Goriot and Lost Illusions had on me. Literature, I began to suspect, was about inquiring the human condition, and deeper the writer was willing to descend into it, the more unsettling the truth became. That was exciting. It was the time when I began to devour one book after another: Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and The Red and the Black; Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot and Crime and Punishment, and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables among other delicious dishes. From these master works I learned the power of literary images. I will never forget the beauty of the scene, in The Red and the Black, in which Mathilde de la Mole kisses the lips of Julian Sorel’s severed head. Perhaps Salome was already dancing in my head.

On the other hand, I remember vividly, as if it were today, the first time that I listened to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the school library. But it was not until I listened to a one of Chopin’s nocturnes that another frustration came to add itself to those that were already accumulating. For listening to that nocturne and longing to put it into a poem – to transcribe it, that would be the best way to express it – it was one and the same thing. I wrote as many “nocturnes” as I listened to. And the feeling of failure was repeated again and again. Chopin’s nocturnes made the night happen; mine lacked that magic. I concluded that music was superior to words, and I stopped writing nocturnes. But from that failure was born the intimate conviction that I would not be composer, but a writer, a poet. I began to write poetry. There would not be nocturnes, of course. At least for awhile.

When in 1971 I actually began to work at last as a teacher, I had begun to write my first verses, and to discover Julián del Casal, who soon became my model of a writer, and it was through him that I rediscovered my city and came to love it with a love with which only New Orleans could compete. But this new love, of course, was not in sight yet.

In Cuba I worked as a teacher of literature for twenty years, before going into exile in the United States. I taught at high school and college levels. My experience as a teacher has been highly enriching. Some of my students in Cuba and the United States have come to be true friends. Wherever I have worked I have been demanding with my students, but I have been so because experience has shown me that they are really interested in courses that present them with new challenges, that stimulate the development of their intellectual potential. My rigor, far from alienating my students, has brought them closer to me. I know that most, if not all students, can perfectly discern the real motivations behind a course or of a text that demands that they rethink or reconsider (not to change; since this is their option) the vision that they have formed of the world and of themselves. I am going to briefly recount two stories to illustrate what I mean.

The first is from when I taught in an Instituto Preuniversitario in Batabanó, on the outskirts of Havana, in the countryside. The students – almost all coming from the country’s interior – lived at the institute, far from their families. I remember that we were studying Greek literature: the Iliad, Medea, Oedipus Rex. What usually it was asked the students to do was that they identify conflicts, distinguish protagonists from antagonists, that they explain the Greeks’ vision of their divinities, etc. I began to introduce in the discussion of texts the notions of hybris, sophrosyne, paideia, arete, pathos. I invited the students to investigate what was behind the Oedipus’ act of blinding himself; I spoke to them of the importance that the story of Oedipus had had in one of the most famous Freudian theories: the Oedipus complex. The students began to exhibit more and more interest in Greek literature. A group organized the performance of a fragment of Medea and the same student-actors, after the performance, discussed to the characters’ motivations, incorporating the concepts discussed in class into the discussion. One of the most interesting moments occurred when the student who played Medea conducted a defense of her character, and successfully refuted, one after another, the arguments that many students made against her stance, in what came to seem like a trial. At the end, and after "winning" the debate, the student left her classmates and me perplexed when she said that her intention had not been to totally justify Medea’s motivations and actions, but to demonstrate that, " if one could find a convincing way to express things, anything could be justified." My enthusiasm grew to the point that I proposed to the students that those who were interested could have a "graduation in literature," although this, of course, would have only a symbolic value. And at the end of the course we had that graduation: a student presented a "thesis" on the concept of the hero through the comparison of two different texts: The Red and Black and the Iliad. He based his discussion on Carlyle’s concept of the hero. For other students, the "graduation" consisted of putting on the third act of La casa de Bernarda Alba, by García Lorca, and José Martí’s Versos Sencillos known as “La bailarina española” (the female Spanish dancer). These performances were followed by commentaries from the students in charge of set design, makeup, costumes, lighting and music. When explaining to the audience how they had approached these aspects of the theater, they demonstrated a meditation on the nature of theater itself and of the works that we had studied in the course.

The other story is about a student who made a deep impression on me. I am also pleased to say that she was an S.M.U student. It is about Catherine M. McMillan, who took my course Introduction to Hispanic Literature (Span 4395) in the autumn of 2004. Catherine – in a group that was in itself excellent with outstanding students such as Alberto Antonio Alemán – demonstrated an intellectual eagerness that for me was quite stimulating. When the course was nearing its end, she approached me to ask me if we could work together on an independent study project. I consulted first with the head of the department about it, who explained to me that the administration wanted to make sure that the professors who were in tenure-track positions were not overloaded with excessive work so that we could focus on our goal that was, of course, to obtain tenure. I explained this to Catherine, but I added that if she insisted, that is, if she were willing to dedicate the time, she could count on me. I made it clear to her, however, that that course would not earn her any credit. Catherine agreed and we began to meet in my office. I assigned her material and then we discussed it. As I was already interested in orientalism, we began to work with the figure of Salome. As a result of this work, Catherine also helped to advance my own research by calling my attention to essays related to the subject that I did not yet know about. We worked in this project together and discussed different approaches to Salome’s figure from a feminist perspective.

When speaking of Catherine, I also mentioned Alberto Alemán who, later the following year, took the short-story course (Fall 2005) with me. In this course, as in other courses at the 5000 level, I introduced outlines of theoreticians like Sigmund Freud, Georges Bataille, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and so on. I remember the day that Alberto approached me to suggest that I recommend that the class see the film "A History of Violence," adding that it was an excellent film, ideal for a better understanding of what we were discussing in class. For me, the most rewarding thing was knowing that there were students who, after leaving my classroom, could continue thinking about discussions of texts while they were seeing a movie. Similar things have occurred, and continue to happen with other students. There are students who keep in touch and tell me about their projects and changes in their lives. Interesting enough, very often our interaction includes comments on the courses they took with me. What all this suggests is that, once an intellectual atmosphere is created in the classroom, the very dynamic of that environment takes a life of its own and enriches both students and professors.

My students have taught me that they can become engaged and are interested in doing so in a true educative experience that challenges them and that, at the same time, respects, stimulates and welcomes even disagreements. As a rule, students deserve more credit than we are often prepared to grant them, in this regard. Just as at the institutes in Havana where I taught, as at the University of New Orleans, the University of Georgetown, George Washington University, in D.C. and now at Southern Methodist University, to teach and to learn have formed part of a single experience. And to say that my work has also won me good friends among my students is certainly no a small thing. So, I would like to leave here a testimony of my gratitude and admiration, as much to my students of the past and the present as to those that are thinking about taking some classes with me in the future. And to all, without exception, I wish them success... and I hope that they will never stop reading. Or that they prepare themselves to do so and to discover the unexpected, which is a reason good enough to, sometimes, turn the tv off and open a good book. As it happened to me many years ago, opening a good book, listening a recording, or just helping a classmate to understand a subject that you really care about, can be the beginning of an exciting journey. And mine is not over yet.