Stepping Aside, the Magic Still Happened

Anxiety will be the death of me.  I am convinced of this.  I will come up with a great idea for such-and-such a project, will start the process of going through the steps of getting the idea off the ground.  I’ll do the research, start the planning, buy the materials.

And then, all of a sudden, the final product is about to be revealed and I stop.  Dead.  In my tracks.  Insert as many cliches as you want.  I won’t finish off whatever it is that I am doing  because I am nervous that….

This is the part that destroys me.

I don’t even know what I’m nervous about.  But I am.  I am internally and emotionally cringing with wracking anxiety that something will….

I can’t even finish the sentence.  I don’t know if it’s about failure or some other nebulous point.  But the anxiety is there.

So many phone  calls haven’t been made…because I am nervous…because I am anxious.

So much has been unwritten because of the fear that I might….upset someone?  Because I find the work and process of editing overwhelming.  I know what I need to edit but won’t do it because I find the process exhausting and I’ll likely be rejected again which really doesn’t bother me but I feel like this is just a crap-shoot in the dark and I really wear out with the fact that I really don’t know what I’m doing but I want to know what I’m doing so I can succeed.

Last year, I met my poet friend, Robert “Bob” Okaji.  I hesitantly read his poetry because, a lot of the times, I didn’t think I understood everything.  And this made me feel incredibly stupid and intellectually impotent.  But his kindness drew me out of my self-doubting and eventually, we started communicating.

I emailed him.  He emailed me back.  I asked him if he would be willing to let my students read and analyze some of his poetry.  He accepted my invitation/request.  And then, things started getting even more incredible.

I was given five of his poems which I photocopied (with permission).  For days, the students plugged away at the works, analyzing, peeling out meanings and points of analysis.  The poems went from black text on a white background to a spiderweb of lines and colors…a mosaic of analysis and critical thought.

The students wrote questions, harbored their own anxieties.

Because Bob also said that he would be willing to do video conference chatting with my students.  In some respects we were strangers reaching past boundaries and creating something wonderful.

I have never done something like this.  Usually, when I meet professional writers, I’m downright stupid.  I allow my anxiety to stifle my ability to think and speak and I am a babbling idiot.  Really, I am.  My daughter has been with me to many National Book Festivals and she is proof that I am a babbling idiot when I am in the presence of professional writers.

Fortunately, the professional writers love my daughter so they’ll usually overlook my inane dumbness and chat with the Girl.  It’s kind of cool.  Except now she feels like a big-shot.  But I have the autographs so take that!

Anyhow, last night, I did a trial video chat with Bob.  The conference call connected.  Great.  I could see him.  He could see me.  He could hear me.  I couldn’t hear him.


I raced around the house, found a set of headphones, plugged them into the computer, and I could hear him.  Given I was going to be using the projector’s speakers during the video conference call today, I prayed that everything was going to work.

This morning, I was anxiety and nerves.  I flailed my way through attendance, accidentally marking a student absent who was actually present (don’t worry, I fixed that mistake too).

I called Bob.  The connection went through.  But the students couldn’t see him.  After pressing a bunch of buttons and trying everything I could, the students could see him.  But then they couldn’t hear him.

NOOOO!!!  At that moment, I felt like the flailing Darth Vader at the end of the train wreck Revenge of the Sith.

But then the sound came back.  And the video conference started.  I found that I couldn’t stay in one place so one student served as a “host” while I wandered the room and encouraged the students to ask questions.

The first session didn’t go as well as I hoped.  But I figured out, quickly, what I needed to do for the subsequent sessions.

They were brilliant.  I asked Bob to give the students insight into his writing process.  Then, a student acted as the “host” and basically ran the sessions.  The students would invite Bob first to read a poem (God, his voice is wonderful.  I could sleep to the sound of him reading his poetry).  Then, the host would ask a question.  And then, the magic started.

The first block, because I tried to have them run the session and ask the questions as they thought of them, wouldn’t move.  Because we went in order of the poems, the students in the other sessions were more likely to leave their seats and their comfort zones and ask questions.

Good questions, by the way.  Questions about word meanings, word origins, images, color symbolism, philosophy, politics, religion, speaker, characterization.

Questions about writing process and meaning and intent.

Questions about inspirations and line endings.

Bob was brilliant.  In his compassionate and understanding way, he encouraged the students to stop worrying about looking stupid and encouraged them to show him what they saw.  And by the end of the day, the students were doing just that.  They told him what they saw, not ask him what he meant.  They had the courage to tell a poet their interpretations of his poetry.

And he welcomed their insights.  And if their analysis was different from what he intended, he didn’t smash their ideas.  He responded with “Well, that’s interesting.  I didn’t mean that, but I like that.”  He showed them how their ideas, even if they were different from his intended meanings, had merit and weight and purpose and enriched the meanings of his own poetry.

After each session, I asked the students their thoughts.

They loved it.  They felt validated.  They felt confident in what they had done.  They loved the fact that the person who had written the poetry had listened to them and accepted what they said and didn’t talk down to them. They wanted more.  More time with Bob.  More time with the poetry.

It’s the end of the year.  I’m exhausted.  I’m exhilarated.   I want to sleep and I want to write and I want to just bask in the memory of a lesson so perfectly done I couldn’t even hope to dream it through again.

I could have caved into my anxiety.  Instead, I walked my classroom a million times today because my nerves would never have let me stand still.  And when I walked away, the magic happened.


A line of students waiting to ask questions.  Amazing.  Bob is on the screen, by the way.

15 thoughts on “Stepping Aside, the Magic Still Happened

  1. Reblogged this on O at the Edges and commented:
    I spent half of Thursday video-conferencing with students from Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, Virginia. We discussed poetry. The students, all sophomores, were incredible – bright, engaged, and very kind. I was honored to participate. Truly a highlight of the year. Their teacher, Heather Curran (oh how I wish I’d had a teacher as committed and interesting) reported this via her blog:

  2. Wow! Very cool teaching method. And, you picked a great writer to share with your students. So inspiring!

    • Thank you so much!!! Bob is a fantastic gentleman and I am so honored that he was willing to do this. Everyone’s lives was profoundly affected that day. Next year, this will happen again. Next year, this will be even better.

  3. Heather,
    I shared with Bob that I wish I could have had a similar experience in HS. You have given your students the gift of trusting their own experiences and interpretations. Nothing that th SOLs test (fellow Virginian here).
    Sometimes what I find is that the more I need to do something, the more fear and self-doubt crops up. Glad you word through that here!
    In this experience, you saw from earlier classes what you could do to help support later ones. This is a beautiful story of triumph of woman va herself. You were, even in your anxiety, learning in the moment. Leaders lead by example.
    You have given your students intangible gifts that they may not even see now.
    My favorite teachers and professors were the ones whose passion (even in subjects I didn’t like as much) was apparent in their ability to push the envelope and think outside the box. You may be surprised how many students you affected in your ability to allow your passion to show up. (Please excuse typos and autocorrect, my mobile is not allowing me to scroll back up!)
    ~ Tiffany

    • Dear Tiffany,
      I am honored. Truly humbled and honored by your words. I love my students and love my subject matter but worry that the lesson I will present will be dumb or worthless. So then I go back to the tried and true discussion techniques. I am thankful that you validated this experience. Your words will give me courage to try this again. With Bob. With other writers. With other experts in different fields. Because literature isn’t always about the words; it’s about the topics, the people. And this just blows open the door to new things. Thank you again!

  4. Bob is a wonderful poet and human being. His willingness to share his work and knowledge is an example that benefits us all. Heather, you could not have chosen better. I’m so intrigued by this experience and wish the session was available for anyone to watch.

    • He truly is. His kindness and grace is barely conveyed through his words. But he changed my life the day he started following my blog. And now, he has changed the lives of another hundred people. Can you imagine how this chain reaction will continue to move throughout the world? These students were shown that their thoughts and opinions mattered, were important. This will have such a butterfly effect….

  5. I know what you mean about Bob’s voice. I’ve seen him read via video and wondered how my impression of his poems would differ once I heard his poetry in his own voice. Since then, I’ve imagined his voice and cadence as I read.

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