Tobacco and Patchouli: Writing about Teaching

In one of the last conversations we had before he died, my father sat across from me at his small dining room table—among assorted framed pictures (of Native Americans, of Abraham Lincoln, of faraway mountaintops sketched with the plunk and pick of a banjo), curios, carved boxes, feathered dream catchers, and incense burners, all which he’d gathered from garage sales in the Hollywood hills and visits to Venice Beach—and he told me about a bar brawl he’d been in. By then, he lived in Sacramento, far from the hazy highways and cloistered neighborhoods of Los Angeles where he’d lived for years, toiling at the making of a screenplay. That city had overtaken his dream, and he surrendered to a life of business. His move to Sacramento had been a seeking after some new dream, one that might arise from the move itself.

But in fact, by the time we spoke about the bar brawl, his business had been purchased. He lived alone in a small apartment, as nondescript as the central Illinois farming town he was raised in.

My father had always wanted fame. He would have given anything to fly in a private jet. To attend celebrity parties. And I, dutifully, scorned his dreams, as any son of any father is wont. But equally dutiful, I attended to him as he grew older. With phone calls and visits, letters of support. He had been there for me when I came out as gay—the only one who didn’t waver in his encouragement of me. And I pilgrimed regularly to Los Angeles (and later to Sacramento) to see him, to watch his face turn equal parts soft, equal parts granite. To listen to his wheeze. To hug him—tobacco and patchouli—because he gave hard, solid hugs that lasted, and that reminded anyone in that embrace that this was a person with his arms around you, and you were a person too.

Hugging my dad was downright Zen.

William to my mother, Billy to my stepmom, and Bill to most of his friends, family, and local world, my father was not my inspiration for going into teaching. He was a hard man to love when I was growing up: alcoholic, unfaithful, unabashedly patriarchal, idly racist. He never graduated from college. He came from farm stock, from chickens butchered in the kitchen sink, from slopping pigs, and from hard-scrabble parents. He dreamed of being famous, of living in Hollywood, rubbing elbows, attending red carpet events, wearing expensive clothes and cologne. He had no intentions toward the academic life whatsoever.

He flirted with waitresses. It was embarrassing to watch. He said he did it because he wanted to make them smile. But I imagined they found it annoying, that their smile was artificial, placating. That they didn’t love him so much as they loved his habit of tipping beyond his means. Generosity or flourish, I couldn’t be sure—but he trained me to always tip large.

Because behind every waitress, behind every busboy, behind every single fake smile in Hollywood was a real dream that belonged to a real person. And that waitress or busboy would go home to some apartment later in the day and, if they had enough energy, they would practice their dream. Which is what my dad loved about them all. What he loved about Hollywood and L.A.

And which is actually very pedagogical. To travel to Los Angeles is to learn that glamour is less than skin-deep. Glamour gives way to broken sidewalks and wide streets, long blocks of torn-looking shops and fatigued window displays. It’s a hard city to love: alcoholic, unfaithful, unabashedly patriarchal, idly racist. To love it, you have to look under its veneer, to find the people who grew up on farms, and the people who crossed the border, and the people who still dream even though they are already living someone else’s dream well enough. To be weak-kneed at the sight of someone still trying.

To teach, we must believe in the potential of each person in the room. Unwaveringly. This is not to say we don’t get to have our bad days, our off days, the days when we really can’t stand to talk to another student or plan another lesson. But it does mean that we teach for a reason, and that reason lies in what lies in the heart of a student. What lay in our hearts when we were students. Hope despair melancholy desire passion hunger confusion. All the things it takes to learn to walk. All the things it takes to learn to do anything. All the things it takes to live in Los Angeles, or to love someone who is hard to love.

In the story of the bar brawl, my father is the hero. He stands up to defend a woman who is put upon by a stranger or by her boyfriend (the details are either foggy in my memory, or they varied with the telling). He punches the man. An honorable punch, chivalric. And he’s rewarded by being ejected from the bar, and blocked from ever returning there again. The police were involved, or they weren’t. The woman thanked him, or she didn’t. By that time in my father’s life and descent into alcoholism, truth was hard to discern.

I couldn’t stay very long during my visits. As hard as I loved my dad, I found his company trying. And so at the end of our time, I would hug him—tobacco and patchouli—and leave him to his small apartment. He’d stopped practicing his dream by then. Mostly, he watched TV and drank.

When I returned to his apartment to clean it out after he died, I got to see the apartment as he lived in it. Garbage piled everywhere. New pictures from recent garage sales sitting on the floor waiting to be hung. The recliner in front of the TV, soaked with a combination of urine and vodka; stacks of unopened bills; a mattress in the corner of the bedroom, unmade; and soiled laundry thrown, with a strange regard for order, into a tidy white laundry basket. And on the wall of the dining room, a cork board pinned with an old picture of me and my brothers in front of my dad’s green Chevy. 1979. Bowl cut and tube socks. The Colorado sun. My father and my mother, together.

On the way out of the apartment, I met one of my dad’s neighbors. He said that each day when he left and each day when he came home from work, there was Bill. A cup of coffee. Incense burning. “Good morning” or "How was your day?" This neighbor said my father was one of the best moments of his day, and he was very very sorry he had died.

We cannot know what lies on the other side of someone’s life. Our parents, our friends, our students. People we pass on the street or get angry at in traffic. We grade harshly, we curse bad drivers, we play by the book and by the rubric because that’s what keeps our work straightforward. And safe.

But maybe instead we should tip large. And give A’s. Believe reasons for missing a deadline. Refuse to get to know students through the window of a rubric. We are not dealing with students, but people with dreams, people who will fail and people who will succeed, people who may end up alone and people whose high point of the day may be a conversation with us. Being kind may seem counterintuitive to the academic ethos—especially when being kind can sometimes mean being wrong—but we owe it to ourselves to think outside our setting, to see past the artificial boundaries of generation, expertise, and authority. And while we’re at it: race, gender, sexuality, religion.

This is how we should write about teaching. From a place less studious and a place more generous. I was never inspired by anyone to become a teacher. I found myself in a room full of students who were looking to me to make their work matter, and I decided to trust them. Because they had to trust me. I decided to smile at them, ask them about their day, and hopefully give them the energy and heart to practice their dream when they got home.