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Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma

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The Dawn, the Dark, and the Horse I Didn't Ride in On (an odd, philososphical, semi-romantic meandering)

 

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 Pedagogy, Philosophy, and Nonsense

My Version of the Autobiography Challenge

Forrest D. Poston

 

As I said in the initial challenge, I put my students through this process for years, while I resited doing it myself. Of course, my understanding of the process and use was limited while I wasted time being stubborn. Well, understanding is always limited. Let's say the limitations were far too narrow. Then the night came when I was driving across Indiana on I-64 once again, and around 2 AM, my subconscious pulled a sneak attack. Once a few ideas and images popped to the surface, I had to begin playing along, just as the insidious subconscious knows I will. After all, there really aren't many distractions on any interstate that time of night, and the adrenaline from pursuing ideas (when you don't have a boss or teacher telling you to do it) passes time and keeps you awake even better than coffee.

Below are lists of some of the possible book and chapter titles I came up with and potential pictures (none of which really exist) to go with some of the chapters.

 

* Betweener.
* When the Time is Right.
* When Fear is King.
* Isolation or Incubation.
* Control.

And for the pictures:

 

* Shoe tying.
* The cannon and slide.
* Running from school.
* Walk in the snow.

My original list has gone into hiding, but those should be enough items for me to play around with so you can get the idea. I kept the time frame to about the same period as my students would be dealing with, and I didn't use any of the traditional major moments (such as the death of a family member). We often deal with the major moments to the exclusion of the minor ones, and the emotion of such moments can overwhelm the meaning, sometimes to the point of over-sentimentality. The seemingly minor moments can be surprisingly rewarding, especially when you find the meaning shifts in unexpected ways.

The Betweener title would probably be my choice as the book title because it captures many aspects of the larger patterns in my life. In so many ways, I have lived between cultures. Most of my family comes from an agricultural, labor background (mine fields of central West Virginia), but we moved out to the fringe of that area one week before I was born. As a result, I got my education in an up and coming town where the major employer included a large number of management personnel, and the education I received reflected that influence. The local library was very well funded, and the assumption was that I would continue in school, not head for the mines at the first opportunity. I lived in the working class neighborhoods, but most of my friends lived farther up on the hill in management territory, and they usually had at least one parent who had been to college. I was the first in any branch of the family I'm familiar with. Even now, my mixed background keeps me a bit off to the side of many of my colleagues. I often have more in common with my students, many of whom are now coming from backgrounds similar to mine. We Betweeners are a growing subculture.

Many of the most important (even if I didn't know it) moments of my life have been controlled by timing. Very often I can't proceed until When The Time is Right. I can trace it back to tying my shoes, to my first date, and even to when I started teaching. So there we get the shoe-tying picture, and it connects to one of my earliest memories. Different people tried and tried to teach me to tie my shoes, but the process was an utter mystery to me (as most knot-tying still is for some reason). One day it was simply time to tie my shoes, a moment with no uncertainty in it. Everyone else was in other parts of the house, so I got my shoes, sat down on the floor on the north side of my parents' bed, and I tied my shoes. I didn't think about how to do it or experiment with it. It was time, so I did it. Now, I do tie my shoes in a particularly idiosyncratic way, but it turns out that almost no one ties their shoes in quite the same ways. I would never have imagined there were so many variations. Sometimes I still get annoyed when I want to do something that isn't "ripe" yet, but I have learned some patience and trust, two of the more important traits to develop when you have my temper and paranoia.

The chapters about fear and control are closely related and might end up as one chapter. Fear has been my number one enemy as long as I can remember, maybe going back before I tied my shoes. Mostly I've feared humiliation, and that fear controlled my life in too many ways for far too long, including being the primary cause behind my first romantic disaster. I had a recurring dream off and on for perhaps 30 years trying to teach me to control fear. I don't think I've won, but I haven't had the dream for quite a while now. Then again, maybe I just wore out my subconscious.

This is where the cannon and slide, both in the city park in my hometown, enter the scene. The cannon was from World War II, and the tip of the barrel was perhaps eight feet off the ground. One of the local games included climbing up the barrel, swinging under, and letting go. It wasn't that long a drop, but I couldn't do it. The slide was a similar story. There was that bar at the top, which many people used to flip over before sliding down. I'd done it before. I'd done a lot of things before. I had flipped and tumbled, fallen, gotten up and fallen again with the best of them, and I still don't know where the fear entered. I have at least identified it: releasing control. Each of the actions I feared required a moment of no return, giving up control to continue the flip, trusting myself and trusting that the universe wouldn't change the law of gravity to my sudden disadvantage. Eventually, I was biking through the park, stopped at the slide, climbed, flipped, and slid. I won that one. I think I was 22 years old when I finally got around to climbing the cannon and dropping off. I could finally mark it off the list, but it was too late to change my route.

The walk in the snow goes along with the question of incubation or isolation. I think it was the winter of my junior year in high school, and I was out walking that night, as I did many nights back then, working through my version of adolescent depression. The snow was falling heavily with 2 or 3 inches already on the ground as I walked up and down some of my usual streets covering several miles. Going down one of my favorite streets, I looked over as I passed the house of a friend. Someone was standing at the picture window looking out, but with the light at her back I couldn't be certain if it was my friend or a member of her family, but whoever it was seemed to have a strange, surprised look on her face. I thought it was surprise at seeing anyone out on such a night, but it was a beautiful world to be walking through. A moment or two later, I reached up to brush aside some hair on my hatless and head and discovered that the falling snow had melted and refrozen on top of my head, giving me an icecap. Perhaps I had found the cause of my watcher's surprise.

For many years, the image of the person in the window was an image of isolation and separation for me. My old buddy fear kept me from taking the risks necessary to form friendships beyond a certain level, and a number of family factors often kept me at home. I spent a lot of time with books in a very open relationship, but time with other people was often spent behind a series of protective walls, even when the other people didn't know it. It wasn't until I was explaining the image to my students that I began to see another possibility. After all, experiences and images are like poetry, fully capable of multiple and shifting meanings as we learn. Sure, the temperature wasn't suitable for sunbathing, and the snow would eventually make me cold and wet, while she was safe and warm in her house, but that window looks more and more like the frame around a cage. I was the one with the freedom while many people were being caged by a desire for safety. I've learned that safety is one of the most common and dangerous cages. Or maybe I'm just trying to make myself look and feel better. Both, and more, are true.

That doesn't cover the entire list, and I'm quite capable of rambling almost eternally about any of these items, but the idea should be there for you to play with now. Look for those images and moments that reveal the patterns in your life. Look for the metaphors of your individual experience. Dare I say symbolism? I know many people learn to hate the term before high school ends, but when you take symbolism down from the clouds and platonic forms, it can serve a purpose. Ground the symbolism in individual experience, and it can help you find the connection between your experience and the broader experience of being alive. Ah, now I'm heading toward one of my pompous moments, so I'll stop. Eventually, I'll add a page about To Kill a Mockingbird, and how I learned to hate then eventually love symbolism. Back to the Autobiography Challenge
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     Would you like to know when the site gets updated? Drop me an e-mail, and I'll add you to the list. Much of my writing has been for the antiques site lately, but I have a long list of essays in assorted stages of revision for this site. The people who e-mail often apologize because they assume I'm swamped with e-mails. I only wish it were true. I'm a teacher from the marrow out, so give me questions. I'm a writer, so I also need an audience. Sometimes that means applause, sometimes rotten tomatoes.

     From time to time, a student decides to use some of my ideas, or perhaps they even quote me in a paper. Great, I'll take what fame and traces of immortality I can get. However, I should also warn such students that my ideas are not always the things that your teachers want to hear. I'm a stubborn idealist, and that puts me at odds with quite a bit of education theory and literary criticism. Sure, I think I'm right about some things, and I'm sometimes convinced of my own brilliance, but don't jump into the fire blindfolded.

FDP

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