Hannah and I were selected to participate in the June 5, 2022 Public Reading in Gualala, California for KGUA Radio Writers hosted by Peggy Berryhill and Mark Gross. As you might have guessed, we didn’t make an appearance but recorded our voice memos and sent them to Mark. We were asked to freewrite to the following prompt:
How did I get here?
Long after our personal heroes pass on, they dwell within. Lynn Nelson is one such hero and played his part to get me where I am today.
It’s Phoenix, Arizona. I am at loose ends wondering if this teaching career of mine, now six years old, is right for me. I teach fourth graders at Nevitt Elementary School on the edge of the inner city. As a self-contained classroom teacher, I am expected to teach all subjects (i.e. reading, math, spelling, science, social studies, and handwriting).
Even then, standardized testing was doing its best to screw up American education. The focus of my teaching was reading and math, the subjects that were tested at that time. Though I was pretty good at organizing masses of kids (class sizes were 30+), such teaching just wasn’t making it for me. I was floundering.
To save myself, I took an unpaid leave of absence to return to Arizona State University to be certified in the teaching of high school English. One of my classes was Teaching English in the Secondary School with Dr. Lynn Nelson. On the first day of class, I couldn’t miss that this professor didn’t dress like a professor – jeans and a shirt with no tie. Immediately that put me at ease. He wasn’t Dr. Nelson, he was Lynn.
We were going to keep a journal to experiment in writing. We had a voice in his class, both in writing and speaking. Lecturing was just not his style.
During this fall semester, I was also taking a poetry writing course. Each week students would submit a piece of poetry and a few would be selected to read theirs in class, then the class would give feedback to the student poet.
Mid-semester I wrote about dealing with troubling relationships. Did the professor ever mock my efforts! He called my piece “doggerel.” One, though I got the sense this description wasn’t a compliment, I had to look up what doggerel meant (poetry that was badly written). Two, he said it to the whole class.
His shaming crushed me. I just shut down. I quit going to class which was so unlike the obedient student that I had been through high school and college. I was going to fail my first class. I didn’t care.
One afternoon in mid-November three weeks later, I saw Lynn in front the Language and Literature building as he was advising students. Feeling safe enough to tell him of my experience with the poetry professor, I appreciated that he was offended that any professor would treat a student that way. He then said, “I’ve seen your writing. You’re good. Keep at it.” He threw me a life preserver right when I needed it.
I did eventually return to the poetry class, silenced and docile. I ended up with a D in the class.
Lynn’s teaching showed me that the relationships in the classroom are what matters. We teachers are to support our students and give them hope, not judge and rank them with grades. Every kid has a story and needs to be seen as the individual they are.
I got here to have the courage to freewrite for KGUA on the shoulders of Lynn Nelson.
Postscript: Fifteen years later, I published a book of poetry, Sweet Dreams, Robyn, a narrative series of 60 poems about our family dealing with our four-year-old daughter’s leukemia.
We were asked to write a brief bio to accompany our piece.
Dan Rothermel of York, Maine is a decent sort. He and his ilk like to get after it. Working out at the Y, pickling on the court, walking the beach, and hiking the trails in Utah and California. With his wife Hannah, when it gets cold, he gets away to Carpinteria, California, their winter time home away from home.