Because Muffins Don’t Bitch

A co-worker and I once had a lengthy discussion about how wonderful it would be to own a bakery/coffee shop in a small town square, one where patrons came each day to get a cup of well-made joe and one or more of our homemade baked goods. In our version of the story, everyone was whistling, walking or driving to their own joyful place of business, or taking it easy on a lazy Saturday morning in our establishments, reading the paper (either in print or on their laptop…using our free WIFI access provided for customers of course!), and generally enjoying life. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? What could be better than doing something you enjoyed, something that made the lives of others more pleasurable, and then being home by 3:00 PM? After all, I could use that time to write, to participate in local theater, and to volunteer at church to help others. My time would always be spent doing something useful and that would, I’m sure, make the world a better, happier, and shinier place.

This thought was only strengthened and reinforced during a recent weekend trip to Memphis, Tennessee. Wayne and I chose to splurge and have breakfast both mornings there in a little cafe/diner known as Cockadoos rather than the cheaper and more pedestrian options like Denny’s or any analogous variations of it. While there, we gorged ourselves on chocolate chip pancakes, cathead biscuits and sausage gravy, a pulled pork omelette, sweet potato hash browns, and a Memphis special known as “The Shag”–an Elvis inspired dish made with two pieces of French toast filled with peanut butter and bananas and topped with whipped cream and blueberries.

I can’t imagine what kind of dietary seppuku I committed that weekend by beginning each day with the food there, but I didn’t care. (Granted the other places we frequented–Gus’ Fried Chicken, the Rendezvous, and the Peabody Hotel bakery among others–likely didn’t help either!) It tasted great, the service was fantastic, and we were able to mingle with locals and fellow visitors before our day began.

Just click on the link and look at the place; I dare you. From the decor to the food to the attitude, this is exactly the kind of place I’d like to own and run each day for both breakfast and lunch. Everyone there was happily working, eating, and talking, including the kitchen and wait staff!

Oh, and did I mention that the place was completely and utterly PACKED both mornings!? Really, I think they bordered on a fire hazard on Saturday because there were so many people sitting around waiting to eat or who were engaged in the act at a table or at the bar. The place is making money; it has to be. Imagine that!? They simply use their creativity and work ethic to create a pleasing place filled with quality food, and people reward them as we did–by becoming repeat customers and spreading the word to others. There’s something beautiful to that for someone in my situation. Their rewards are immediate and tangible after all. People pay them in cash and in praise for their efforts, and as long as the results are the same each time, that cycle of unmitigated awesomeness will continue to repeat itself into perpetuity.

The thought is positively intoxicating and leaves me high on a sugar and blueberry fueled endorphin rush each and every time I allow myself a moment to think about it. And that isn’t often. I liken it to a bright bird in a pet store left looking out the shop window at its fellow aviary friends happily eating birdseed under a park bench. Why think about something you can never have or torture yourself with dreams about life outside the bars that define your world? Paul Laurence Dunbar captured the impulse perfectly in his poem “Sympathy” in which he, as a black man in a white world, identifies with a creature that’s told it must deny its innermost self and be content with its restrictive lot. Granted, I am by no means oppressed. I do not live in fear of lynchings or of being barred from doing something because I’m X instead of Y. However, I do understand the concept of a gilded cage. I am relatively safe–my job makes me a solid living, I occupy an apartment in safe (albeit painfully vanilla and WASP infested) town, and I am never required to go without basic needs like food and clothing. Do I have everything I want? No. But I cannot complain, and that is why I feel truly guilty each time I do.

At the risk of sounding like Quint in the town hall meeting in Jaws, “You all know me, know what I do for a living…” Yes, I teach, and I do so in a place where I am the living embodiment of a fifth wheel. In a nutshell, I teach English in a technical college. Please know that I am a firm supporter of the technical college system; I think it is a valuable place for an ever-growing populace in America. People who come here get training for work that more Americans need to be doing if we ever want to get back to our roots as a nation, one that knows how to get things handled and make things that last. Our soul is in that which is technical.

However, ENG 1101 and 1102, the two classes I teach, are often the barrier that stands between them and that job training. Often, I am nothing more to them than a hinderance and a nuisance, something that must be checked off a required list of classes, and that, I must say, can sometimes be hard on someone who does love the subject. Yes, there are many students who enjoy my classes and who thank me in some small way for my help over the course of a quarter, but they are rare. There are a great deal more who come to me with only complaints, excuses, and threats than there are with praise and thanks. I work long hours grading, lecturing, and handling other forms of paperwork and minutiae that I don’t plan on elaborating on here. (That’s a blog for another time.) In short, I make a living, but I rarely feel alive in my chosen career. More often than not, I’m going through the motions and trying to do the best I can.

Is there any wonder then in the fact that I often fall prey to the siren song of my imaginary muffins sitting on the shelf in my equally ephemeral cafe? After all, as I’ve said to others, muffins don’t bitch. They don’t send you to pointless meetings or require you to earn continuing education credits; they don’t question your motives or your knowledge and why they need it. Muffins simply wait in their elemental form for you to mix them in the correct proportions and slip them in to rise, like gooey fruit and chocolate filled phoenixes, from their own floury ashes.

I know what you’re thinking–Jamie, you’re not thinking of the early mornings, the customer complaints, or the other problems ranging from product delivery to paperwork and taxes. Your glass is unfairly half full. And you’d be right–I’ve worked in a restaurant, but I have little knowledge as to how to actually run one effectively. And I am certain that if I did undertake such a business now that it would be doomed to failure no matter how good my recipes were or how cheerfully I crafted them. I am a realist in this regard. However, as Jane Eyre says in the novel by Charlotte Brontë:

I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: ‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude!’

In this scene, Jane has been working for eight years as a teacher at Lowood School where she herself was taught, and as she looks out the window of her room to an open road, one she has never travelled, she begins to think of a new career as a governess. Like her, I’m not asking for perfection, for true freedom to be whatever I wish whenever I wish it. I only desire a change of scenery, a new world of work built on different expectations and principles that I can use to challenge myself and see just how successful I can be.

It’s the Write Thing to Do

I know times are tough and that everyone is going to have to tighten his or her financial belt a little in the coming years if our country is to remain solvent and prosperous. Therefore, as a fiscal conservative, I am normally all for the cutting of programs that are wasteful and produce nothing beneficial for the country, and I’ll be the first to admit there are arts based programs out there that are either wasteful or, in the case of PBS and NPR, are profit-making entities that no longer need our tax dollars to thrive. The National Writing Project, however, is not one of those. I attended this summer institute in 2001 when I was a first year teacher with a head full of ideas and a zen passion for writing and reading, and I later returned as a presenter, a technology liaison, and a writing group leader. Performing all those functions, I was able to put the lessons I’d learned after another year of teaching back into the program in order to help teachers both newer and younger than myself grow in the profession.

The Blackwater Writing Project, the branch I worked with, was amazingly responsible with its funding and found ways to save money and use it effectively at all points during the summer institutes. This is the kind of behavior that should be rewarded rather than slated for the chopping block like all other wasteful programs. Also, unlike so many programs funded by tax dollars, the NWP actually provided results for teachers and their students. It encouraged writing across the disciplines and allowed writing teachers the chance to directly instruct those who are experts in science, math, history, and other fields on the best methods for including writing in their classrooms. Rather than generic lessons given by a state or federal training program, teachers who wanted to do a better job in their classrooms were given specific instruction from teachers who had tried new techniques in classrooms much like theirs. The instruction was targeted and practical, and after a two-week period in the NWP, many “non-English” teachers have begun to utilize writing and enhance student learning with it.

I recently found an op-ed piece by Dana Giola at the Boston Globe regarding the importance of reading and writing and its decline in the teenage population of this country. She touches on several key benefits of literacy and writing including increased problem solving skills, increased creativity, and even increased social and civic awareness and participation. It seems obvious, therefore, that students must be told about the importance of reading and writing to their overall education, but without programs like the NWP, teachers will be ill-equipped to show students just how essential and beneficial both truly are. If we have a passion for it, it comes through in what we do. Students see it, and whether or not they admit to this truth, they respond to it. The NWP helps teachers gain that confidence and joy that is needed to motivate students in this new electronic age, and, for that reason alone, it should be given continued funding.

On a personal note, the first summer I spent in the NWP sparked a fire for creative writing in my life. Because of the support and guidance I received from amazing teachers like Dr. Donna Sewell, Dr. Chere Peguesse, and Mr. Adam Hathaway of the Blackwater Writing Project, I began to write, and I have continued to progress in that area ever since. I am now currently working on a novel of my own, I teach creative writing classes to students and adults in my area, and I participate in online writing groups such as The Herscher Project, a group of fellow scribblers from around the world who support one another in their literary and artistic endeavors. I might never have known that part of me was there had it not been for the Blackwater Writing Project at Valdosta State University.

In short, I am a firm believer in accountability, and I’ll be the first to run through the 2011 federal budget with a machete in an attempt to bring our country back to financial solvency. However, to say that all of the programs out there that relate to the arts or eduction need to be cut is not the best way to spend our money wisely. The National Writing Project, and several other programs like it, deserve continued funding and support from communities and the government in order to continue preparing teachers, those people on the front lines who have the best chance of creating productive and thoughtful citizens for the future.