Road Taken: On Teaching
It doesn’t seem so long ago that we met as students. Rob Ackerman ’80 was in Spain on a junior-year abroad, and I was getting my master’s in Spanish. We met in a graduate theater class in Madrid.
Our homework was to see a play. Rob and I saw the play—and began seeing each other. This was in 1978. By 1990, we were married and had two daughters. In 2008, our second, Emme, applied early decision to Middlebury. One tense December morning, she leaned into her laptop and pressed in a code. She got in!
Two years later, Rob and I drove from Manhattan to Middlebury to hear her sing a cappella and to ski at the Snow Bowl. (Rob’s and my pre-nup agreement had been that I’d learn to ski. Why? Because if I skied, I might enjoy winter rather than hunkering down like a bear in a cave waiting for it to be over.)
January 2011, however, was brutal. After three freezing runs, I decided to warm up in the lodge. Rob kept skiing and met an alum, Sam Silver ’86, on a chairlift. Sam was teaching a J-term class and said it was incredibly hard, incredibly fun, and that his course on the death penalty ended with a mock trial at the Addison County Courthouse. When Sam learned that Rob and I are writers, he said we should think about teaching too.
Emme, Class of 2013.5, approved the idea, bless her. So we applied, sending in proposals and résumés. Rob would teach Writing American Theater; I would teach Writing First Person. When we heard back in June, it was the old-fashioned way: thick snail-mail envelopes. We got in!
Now we had to consider two important matters: (1) Who would take care of our cat? (2) How would we teach writing? Finding a cat-sitter proved easy, but preparing our syllabi took weeks. It was not easy to figure out how to squeeze everything we knew into just 16 seminars.
In November 2012, as I was sipping my coffee, I opened an e-mail: “I was really hoping to get into your J-term class,” it read.
“Unfortunately, somehow I was too late, even though I registered right at 7 am.”
Huh? I had a waitlist? I e-mailed Middlebury. Yes, 12 registered students, 14 hopefuls. Whoa. This was official.
Emme urged me to throw the classroom doors wide open. But I liked the idea of just a dozen Midd Kids discussing style and story, verbs and voice. We would read excerpts of memoirs, essays, and fiction, writing up a storm, and critiquing our pages together.
When I told Helen, who cleans our apartment each week, that Rob and I would be away in January, she asked, “How will you teach writing?” I said that I’d give a prompt, the students would run with it, and we’d share the work aloud in a supportive atmosphere.
“If I say, for instance, ‘your grandmother’s hands,’ the kids might look perplexed, but then they’d start writing a mile a minute—for 10 minutes.”
Helen nodded. “My grandmother, in Trinidad, had one hand that was bigger and stronger than the other. She never went to school, but she delivered all the babies in our village. All of them! I was one of nine siblings. Once, I was playing with my sister, and my grandmother and mother were in the next room. Suddenly we heard a cry, and we knew we had another baby…”
“Wow,” I said. “You get an A.”
Rob and I had a great time teaching writing last January. Full disclosure: We did some skiing too.
Carol Weston, MA Spanish ’79 is the author of 13 books including Ava and Pip (Jabberwocky), Girltalk (HarperCollins), and The Diary of Melanie Martin (Random House). She has been the advice columnist at Girls’ Life since 1994.