I was an English major in college, so I can’t even begin to think about how many papers I have written over the course of a lifetime, especially when I factor in that I also took more than my fair share of other Humanities courses. But being the procrastinating creature that I am, it was very typical that I would write papers the night before or in the hours before they were due in class. My strategy was that I could produce one quality page an hour, so if I started a five-page paper at midnight for a class that didn’t start until 11am the next day, no stress. What I didn’t comprehend until later was that I was mashing all of the steps of the writing process – you know, the ones I would eventually have to teach high school and middle school kids as an English teacher — into one: brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit all at the same time. I’d jot down quotes I liked from the text or texts (that’s how I do outlines), ponder them, start writing, re-read, make some changes, and eventually jump back to the beginning and write an introduction with a thesis once I had some paragraphs written. A weirdly advanced skill.
When I became a teacher, I learned quickly that teaching students how to revise their own writing was tough. For a lot of students, producing a draft is hard enough. Revising is that much harder. Make changes? Re-read my work to see if it makes sense before I publish it? Find a different supportive quote? Delete stuff? Ugh. Most of my students, in our first go-rounds of writing some kind of narrative or essay, would think that fixing some capital letters and punctuation was enough. I realized that I needed to make a clearer distinction, then, between revision and editing/proofreading. Revision, I told them, literally means “the act of seeing again” — that is, to look at your work through fresh eyes and make changes for the better as needed.
Lately I think I’ve been in the process of revision for the draft of my life and probably always will be. When I was fresh out of grad school and in my first year of teaching, I was completely idealistic and fully prepared to “teach to change the world,” as my grad program encouraged. I wanted to be someone who made a difference for that one starfish, as the parable goes. Thus I spent millions of hours at school, prepping and grading and figuring out how to plan curriculum, and I did that alongside fellow young teachers who were equally dedicated. And for a long time I believe that we did make a difference for more than one starfish, just by being teachers who really cared. Many of our students became the first in their respective families to graduate from high school, and some went on to finish college. Some are still working on finishing their college degrees and grinding away with gusto. By being at our school, many students started to revise their views of their lives and what was possible.
In my sixth year of teaching, I became really unhappy. I still deeply loved my students and pushed them to reach for my very high expectations. In fact, I will always remember one of my sixth graders sharing out her reflection (a requirement of mine on the day that they turned in final drafts): she said she felt so proud of herself for turning in work that looked like a college student’s, as she had taken the time to type it and format it exactly as I had shown them. It was, in retrospect, a very rewarding year from a teaching perspective. But around this time of the year — February — I knew in my heart that I couldn’t go back in the fall. I loved them, but I loved myself and valued my own well-being more. I couldn’t go back to school and be what I call a paycheck teacher; I believe that all students deserve more than that. So I had to start revising: what was I going to do now?
I think that leaving that position behind gave me fresh eyes. I had to think about what my priorities were in life and what other directions or paths I could take. Go back to school? Try to have kids while contemplating a career move? Do nothing for a while and just work retail for fun? In the end, landing in a mentoring position was right for me because I could still have an impact on students by working with new teachers. It was sort of an exponential increase in size of impact, because now I was working with three teachers who each had at least four different sections of students. A revision of my role in education.
Since we moved, though, that position only lasted for one school year. Now I am in an elementary school and essentially working as a mentor, even though that is not my official title. I have spent my time there since September constantly trying to revise my role and shape it into something that fits me and the school. I don’t think I’ve fully figured it out yet, but it’s getting there. It’s evolving. Who knows how/if they’ll want me back next year, or if I will want to be there next year. In the meantime, I’m still trying to revise how I see these next few years of my life here in Alaska. Are we going to be lifers here? Will one of us stumble across an opportunity that will move us somewhere else in the world for a time? Will we — fingers crossed — start to raise a family in the next few years? I’m trying to look at myself and my life with fresh eyes. Maybe that’s the real reason why I’m writing now.
What I know for certain is that revision, or re-vision, is not just about writing a paper. So far, I’m thinking that the 30-year-old draft of me is solid, but we all know that good is the step before better or great.