Jane Kurtz Was Here…and There…and Everywhere
When I studied for my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I had the privilege of working with Jane Kurtz, who helped me to shape Rogue into a published novel and who, more importantly, served as a model for what a great teacher should be. I could talk at length about the lessons I learned from her, but I’d rather let her speak for herself. She is currently on a blog tour for her new novel Anna Was Here, for which I used my LEGO people to illustrate one of the early scenes. For more information about Anna Was Here, the blog tour, and her other stops, visit www.janekurtz.com.
When I’m answering questions during author visits, one of the common ones is this: “What would you be if you weren’t an author?”
I always say, “I would be—and, in fact, I am—a teacher.”
During my childhood in a remote area of Ethiopia, my sisters and I spent days entranced by imaginary games ad stories. In one of them, my older sister got to be a nurse and feed the rest of us bitter, unripe ground cherries as pills to cure our various diseases. Sometimes I was a storekeeper. That was a stretch, though, because the magical spot on the earth where we were growing up had zero stores. Sometimes I was a teacher.
“You can’t switch,” my older sister said.
But I was born stubborn.
In those days, my own mom (who hadn’t finished college yet) was teaching me how to read. I also saw boys and young men (and the occasional girl) gathering around the Ethiopian flag every morning to sing the Ethiopian national anthem and go inside the adobe-mud-grass-roof school building right outside the fence beyond our house. When my sisters and I ran by the school, I heard the chanting of Amharic. It sounded like a song…but was, in fact, a very different way of learning to read.
So I had some models for teaching. I have one photograph of me as an eleven-year-old proudly teaching my little siblings to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag that had showed up in the luggage of a family who was in Ethiopia to work on helping improve water quality and agricultural practices.
Anna in my new novel Anna Was Here does not want to go to school in Kansas in the small community where her parents have suddenly plopped her down. She doesn’t want people staring at her. She doesn’t like the sensation that everyone else’s roots go so much deeper in this place than hers do and that old family fights might swim up suddenly and catch her unprepared. Those were my feelings when I had to go to school in the U.S. one year when I was seven (in Boise, Idaho) and one year when I was thirteen (in Pasadena, California). When I was nine, I went off to boarding school in Addis Ababa, the place where I discovered a library for the first time.
Maybe it’s not surprising that figuring out how to teach myself and other people how to capture and share the stories and details of our lives became one of my lifelong passions. I’ve taught writing at the elementary, high school, college and now graduate level.
When I graduated from college, I had a dream of pursuing an MFA degree, but my life’s path wandered in other directions. Teaching in the MFA program in children’s and YA literature out of Vermont College, though, I feel as if I have that dream finally. I’m both teacher and student. As a reader, my highest pleasures are dazzling, unexpected details of voice and character and setting. Those are the things that give me pleasure as a writer, too. As a reader, I resist tension. So it’s no wonder as a writer I struggle with how to craft a decent plot. What did I choose to study and lecture on for several years?
What we teach, we also learn. What baffles us is part of our material. I worked on Anna Was Here for four years, and I can almost point to the spots that came to life as I was participating in Vermont residencies, learning from my fellow faculty members and from my students.
Probably the most surprising place my teaching has led is back to Ethiopia. After I had been gone for 20 years, I was invited to speak and teach classes at several international schools in Addis Ababa. Returning to Ethiopia led to my helping organize an NGO to experiment with literacy issues in Ethiopia (www.ethiopiareads.org) and fifteen years later, I still volunteer with that project.
Much of learning to read in Ethiopia is still organized around the chanting of letters. Thousands of kids learn how to read without ever getting a book to read. One of the Ethiopian women who helped with a fundraising event in Seattle told me that she didn’t get to have any textbooks in school until she was in seventh grade—when she shared textbooks with several other students. “My older sisters would wander through as I was studying and say, ‘Oh, I remember that book. It’s the one that so-and-so used,’” she said. “When I heard there was a children’s library opening, I said, ‘I give it a year.’ But Ethiopia Reads is still around.”
It pays to be born stubborn.
What kind of power do we unleash in the world when people have the power to tell and write their stories for others to hear and read? I asked an Ethiopian educator, “Is there writing in most of the schools?”
He said, “If there is writing, it will be a teacher writing a sentence on the board and children waiting for their turn with a pencil to copy it down.”
What kind of power is unleashed when people are encouraged to innovate rather than copy?
And how does innovation and risk-taking get taught, anyway?
Those are my life questions, lived out every day, endlessly fascinating.