The Reel Classroom by Margaret Finnegan

Apr 17, 2013


A little bit of a nervous breakdown brought me back to teaching. I had left academia when my daughter was born, and for a good while I loved everything about the stay-home mom business. I was that woman who wanted to see the first step and hear the first word.  I was the one you would see sitting on the floor at Vroman’s reading stories aloud and playing with puppets. I had a baby food grinder. I participated in a cooperative preschool.

And that was before I went crazy.

In the long run, domesticity was not a healthy lifestyle for me. By year four, with two daughters now underfoot, I was becoming the lady who sees prisoners trapped in the wallpaper. By year five, I would see open cabinets and worry that ghosts from The Sixth Sense had moved in. Then my eldest was rushed to the ER one day because she had a seizure. We learned she had epilepsy. I tried to keep it together.  I wanted to reassure everyone, especially my girl, that everything would be ok.  Mostly, I did this by smiling all the time.  My left hand took to shaking uncontrollably.  I could barely hold a glass.  But I smiled.

What happened next was inevitable. My husband was across the country on business when I was sitting on the floor with my girls, smiling, and I had my first panic attack.  The world became very small.  My heart raced.  My palms sweat.  I became hyper alert.  I experienced an overwhelming feeling of darkness and terror.  Abstractly, I knew this was anxiety, but that didn’t stop me from calling my mother-in-law and asking her to telephone in the morning, just to make sure I was alive.  I kept thinking:  Will my children be scarred for life if I die right now?  What will they do without a mother?  It never occurred to me to worry that I might soon be dead, which was surprising, since, by this time, all I did was worry.

I worried my daughter would have a seizure, fall and die. I worried my husband would crash his car and die. And after the panic attacks I worried that I would live forever in constant panic. I tried therapy, but it just wasn’t for me. I was tired of obsessing about myself.  I didn’t need a scheduled opportunity to do it more.  I realized that what I really needed was to participate in something bigger than me and my imagination, so I started looking for a part time job, and I found one teaching remedial writing at a nearby State University.

As if on cue, I slipped into one of those emotionally manipulative feel-good films where teachers and/or students learn important life lessons. Think Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver. I hated those movies. My whole life I hated the way they turned teaching into some sort of sacchrine, saintly sport. “Oh! Don’t worry about paying me; It’s a privilege just to teach your troubled youth.” It was such bullshit.

And yet—and yet—here I was becoming every scarred character that enters the classroom looking for a second chance and finds it in the jaded gazes of good-at-heart kids. Let me tell you about my students. My students are working-class immigrants and minorities. They are usually the first people in their families to have gone to college, and, besides school, they often work full time and have families who depend on them. They have problems with grammar and usage. They struggle to organize their thoughts and think critically. They scrape by, but just barely. That’s why they are in my class.  To take my class, students must first fail a mandatory, university-wide writing proficiency exam. By the time they get to me, they are usually humble and desperate because – and here’s the dramatic plot twist – they cannot graduate unless they pass my course.

Most of my students do pass.  They work hard. It’s what they’ve done their whole lives. But what impresses me is that they really want to know how to write.  If you ask them if they are glad that they are in a remedial class that has put their dreams of graduation on hold, most will say yes.  They believe that writing clearly will help them succeed in life, and they are determined to succeed. Just like in the movies, these kids are the real inspiration. You can’t know these kids and not believe in them.  I do believe in them.  And believing in them changed me. People say it takes a village to raise a child.  I think it takes a village to keep you sane.  A village helps you see beyond yourself.  A village gives you perspective, and when you have perspective your worries wither.

Vanessa gave me perspective. Vanessa was an older student majoring in accounting. When I asked the class to write about a personal hero, Vanessa wrote about her Uncle John, who was a teenager in South Vietnam when the U.S. began pulling out its troops. It was a chaotic time, and anybody with money was trying to get out, including John’s parents, who scrounged together enough dollars to flee the country with five of their six children. John’s father told the oldest sister that she would have to stay behind.

John was adamant. “She’ll die,” he said. “Take her. Leave me.”

“You are my one son,” said his father. “She is nothing to you.”

The next day John disappeared. No one could find him. Yet passage had been paid so the girl got to go.

John’s family never saw John again. They later learned he’d been captured by the north and killed.

I thought it was my wounds that needed healing. I thought it was my story—my salvation through teaching—that was so inspirational. But it wasn’t. Imagine that: not everything was about me.  It was a perfect cinematic ending: self-revelatory yet humbling.

Except that that wasn’t the end. Vanessa chose to revise her essay and include it in a portfolio of writing.  During the last week of class she came up to me and said, “Do you think it’s better to call John my uncle or my grandfather?”

The words floated over my head like a bubble. “But…wasn’t he your uncle?”

She tossed her long black hair back. “Oh.  I just made him up.  I couldn’t think of anyone to write about.”

“You made it all up?”

“Yeah. I’m not even Vietnamese.”

Then it hit me.  I was not the only one watching movies. The tragic Sophie’s choice scenario? The self-sacrificing son? This was Sylvester Stallone material.  Rambo had invaded my blackboard jungle and my heroes were M.I.A.

Still. It was a good story. The quarter was almost over. Vanessa had improved her writing, and that was the real objective. I said, “Stick with uncle. This works.”

So this is what I really learned: even when our lives mirror movies, we’re not all working from the same script, which is another way of saying that things really aren’t just about me.  And thank God. Stories may give us perspective, but it’s our engagement with the people who tell them that ground us.  Imagine that: a nice Hollywood ending after all.


09b23aa1MargaretFinneganMargaret Finnegan teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. Her latest book is The Goddess Lounge, and her story “Genius Unleashed” appears in the new anthology Literary Pasadena.



2 Responses for “The Reel Classroom by Margaret Finnegan”

  1. Oh, this is so good. I love that we get a little sap, then a little twist.

  2. Inez Leon says:

    This is fllippin’ brilliant



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