On Caribbean Rum Cake and Composition

My legs finally still, and the ground beneath them, too.  The dimly lit street fights blackness earlier each week, though I notice it only when I collapse into the worn, wicker love seat.  The mellow hum of neighborhood insects hypnotizes, urging the teacher to forget about Homecoming festivities and picture week long enough for the writer to emerge.

It’s getting harder to distinguish between my career and my passion; the two complement each other like lettuce wraps with the Korean beef I fixed this weekend.  When I taste-tested the ginger and spices marrying with sautéed garlic and onions, my taste buds were please.  It wasn’t until I served the ground beef on a crispy, green shell garnished with sesame seeds and scallions that my taste buds took it back.  The cool, bland lettuce consoled the spicy Korean beef, like rice and peas with Jamaican curry chicken or some dairy ingredient to top every Mexican recipe.

The writer’s voice is breaking free, but I can barely type a sentence without dismissing the grammatical lesson or figurative technique it would illustrate for my AP Language and Composition students.  AP kids carry high expectations, and either their acting careers will be successful or they’ve bought into my ability to shepherd them toward their writing goals.  I began our year with a game plan and a calendar like I’ve done for eleven prior years of teaching.  When a hurricane shifted the dates, I told the kids I’d make a new calendar.  The Type A student that typically scores a seat in that class likes the order, structure, and consistency as much as I do.  The winds settled two weeks ago, and I’m not sure there is going to be a new calendar.

We’re not just surviving the ebb and flow of an authentic learning community – we’re experiencing an awakening.  When I faced my first AP class in Nashville so early in my career, my thorough syllabus and rigorous coursework compensated for my lack of experience.  Teaching the same class with a new batch of analytical thinkers after three and a half years of writing nights and longer still shuffling students toward the finish line with passing scores on the end of course test is the fulfillment of a dream I didn’t know I had.  Every other day, these nineteen students share ninety minutes with me, and when they leave, I am confident of these two things: I am a writer, and I am a teacher.

That’s why, with every varied sentence combining technique I employed in the last four paragraphs, I was thinking about how I would explain the choices I’d made to budding seventeen year olds.  On the first day of school, their sea of stoic faces only wanted to believe that I wouldn’t waste their time or give them busywork.  A month in, the on-task chatter and myriad “light bulb” moments remind me that my AP kids now enter my room expecting to take something away.  Sure, a few might be flying comfortably below the radar allowing me to hope in the generalization, but even if it’s majority rule, I feel like these seventeen minds were appointed to challenge me, and I to deliver on my promise to equip them to write powerfully, persuasively, and passionately for any purpose.

Eight years ago, I was striving to be an AP teacher, and my curriculum was engaging and standards-based with valid, reliable assessments featuring a dozen types of rubrics to reduce subjectivity.  Even sitting in my teacher chair in Nashville, I stood ready to defend my plan and my grades.  The hunger of teenage motivation is almost palpable, and the discernible climate change in Virginian classroom reflects an unmistakable desire to be better writers.  Two to three times a week, we meet together to talk about reading and writing about reading and writing, and it’s sufficient to me that the class has a binder with the material we’ll cover this quarter.  It’s sufficient to them, too, because they’ll complete a lesson for homework that we didn’t get to in class because authentic, unscripted learning was happening.

Forcing myself teach in a different way puts me outside my comfort zone.  Cooking entrees is where I clocked the most training hours, so while my curry and rice meal simmered confidently on the stove, I slapped about at flour and sugar hoping that with some divine intervention and about an hour in the oven, my efforts with the food processor would satisfy my craving for the Caribbean rum cake my family used to buy from vendors outside a Walmart in the Adirondack mountains a lifetime ago.  The messy undertaking and dish duty were well worth the effort. The first bite was heaven, and I’m not sure how many bites I’ll share.  I surprised myself, perhaps because I’d been expecting failure.


When I click “Publish” on this post tonight, picture me closing my laptop lid and scurrying into the kitchen to remove the lid from the cake pan and cut into the rum-soaked delight.  With gardening and with writing, I’ve improved in successive measure equal to my consistency in practicing the craft.  I didn’t really know I was a gardener until I had seen enough small gains to start taking big risks.  I started with a garden bed in the front yard, and then I built the vegetable garden out back the next spring.  Granted, I still cook with more confidence than I bake, but like the two different gardens, taking the risks means greater rewards, too.  It was needier than the flowering plants, but my back yard fills my dinner table for months at a time.

And, had I not gained confidence tending a simpler garden, I would have never imagined the possibilities if I were actually a gardener.  If I were a cook.  If I were teacher.  If I were a writer.  A year ago, I baked boxed brownies and was pleased if they weren’t visibly burned.  Last week, I made my imitation recipe for Otis Spunkmeyer’s chocolate chip cookies for the third time this month, and I’m inching ever closer.  The rum cake was a personal challenge, and the session warmed my mixing bowls for last night when I made German chocolate cupcakes for my department chair’s birthday.

If I were a good cook, I would try to make the things that are just out of reach.  Not everything took root in my vegetable garden, but I learned from the failures as much as I benefitted from the harvest.  My AP students might not all genuinely believe we’ll be better writers together by the end of the year, but the sentiment is irrelevant.  I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t more to self-fulfilling prophecy than doom and gloom.  I’ve taught in public education for more than a decade in three school districts in two states, and every class I see every other day, year after first days of school… the teacher my AP kids experienced in Nashville was a good teacher who loved writing.

The magic in my room every other day happens when nineteen disparate minds find intersect within the art of rhetoric, where light bulbs illuminate the room because language conventions are no longer a set of antiquated rules but rather arrangements of words just waiting to be manipulated for the author’s intended effect.  For their effect, as in my students’ to make the pronoun reference clear, because they aren’t just writing about writers like they were during their summer reading projects.  I think they’re starting to get that they can be great writers, that they already are writers if they know they could be great.

It seems to me that those things at which I’ve excelled and come to identify began as things I wanted to be able to do well, even if I wasn’t sure I would pull it off.  It was that way with my garden, it was that way with the rum cake, and if the irreplaceable investment of time mounts in tandem with mastery of craft, then it makes sense that I feel like the best writing teacher I’ve ever been, so much so that I’m willing to throw my calendar out and let the students drive the content forward.  As it is, I haven’t seen them in thirty-six hours, and their still inspiring me to write well… while taking correctly punctuated risks in language convention.

Maybe it’s because I believe I can take them to the next level that they believe me, but I’m grateful that they keep coming in and out of my classroom, challenging me to deliver on my promise to make them better writers.  I hadn’t anticipated this bunch of brainy teens would do the same for me, week after week, as the night settles in earlier, and I write.

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