Teaching, Writing, and Reflecting

The winner of Creative Nonfiction's "How We Teach" essay contest discusses her first teaching experience and the lessons she learned from it

Margaret Downey’s essay “The Month That I Taught English, We Had Prisoners Running through Our Backyards” is the winner of CNF’s $1,000 “How We Teach” essay contest. Downey’s story, selected from nearly 400 submissions, is a reflection on weeks she spent substitute teaching English in the tense atmosphere caused by the escape of two dangerous convicts from a nearby prison. Against this backdrop, she teaches her students how to write an essay and enjoy doing it, and they teach her the joy that comes from making a positive impact on a classroom full of people.

Margaret Downey is a trained secondary English teacher who spent the past few years living in rural, upstate New York. She now resides in Copenhagen, where she works in a child development office at a study abroad institution for American college students. She spends her spare time reading, writing, traveling, and playing with her coworkers’ children. “The Month That I Taught English…” is her first publication.

CNF: You seem to use this essay about your experience substitute teaching high school English to help process how that summer impacted you and how you affected your students. Did writing about the experience help you to understand it differently or on a deeper level? Do you often use writing to get a better understanding of your experiences?

Downey: Julia Alvarez wrote, “Unless I write things down I never know / what I think, no less feel, about the world…” and I couldn’t agree more. I have always had a hard time fully processing experiences, but once I begin writing about something, I suddenly understand how I think and feel about that event.

CNF: What led you to realize you wanted to be a teacher in the first place?

Downey: Throughout most of my childhood, I wanted to be a writer. When I got old enough to realize that “only” being a writer wasn’t completely feasible, I decided to combine my love for writing with my love for school (I proudly won “Teacher’s Pet” in my high school yearbook). Becoming an English teacher seemed like a good compromise because I loved working with students, and I was really interested in helping others love writing as much as I do. The current curriculum mostly teaches students to regurgitate sentences or fill in boxes, like the graphic organizer for ACE-IT my English teacher gave me in 9th grade. Writing can be so much more than that, though, and I was eager to share my knowledge and excitement about it with students.

I’ve realized in the past few years that I also enjoy working in higher education—still working with students, but more one-on-one than teaching. And I will of course always be a writer on the side of whichever career I choose.

CNF: How did the knowledge that there were escaped convicts in the school’s vicinity impact the atmosphere of learning? Was it harder for the kids to focus? Was the mood of the school fearful, excited, anxious?

Downey: No one could stop talking about the prison escape. Most people expressed excitement because we were in a tiny town in rural upstate New York, where almost nothing happens. A few of my students had dreams of being the hero—of finding and shooting the convicts on their own. Although no one talked about it, I know there was a lot of anxiety surrounding the escape, especially for the few days we had to go through roadblocks and open the trunks of our cars for armed policemen, just so we could get past the stoplight outside the school.

I would say that yes, the students probably had a harder time focusing in school during the prison escape, but it was also the last three weeks before summer vacation, so many students were already feeling the weird combination of sleepiness and rowdiness that comes from not wanting to do any work but also feeling happily antsy because the sun is out. What made the learning atmosphere most bizarre, I think, was my arrival. I was a new teacher in a classroom full of students who hadn’t learned anything all year, and even though they were ready for summer and excited or stressed out about the prison escape, my arrival automatically put them into “First Day of School” mode. They had great behavior, followed all my directions, participated in discussions, and didn’t check their phones in class. It was an interesting dynamic stepping into my classroom, compared to walking through the rest of the school, where everyone seemed ready to chase prisoners and then sit on the beach.

CNF: Your story combines several stories that aren’t necessarily connected: the escaped chinchilla, the escaped convicts, and teaching essay-writing. What is it that made you weave those components of the story together? Did you struggle with making the story lines work with each other?

Downey: I was only a teacher at this school for a short amount of time, and yet everything about the experience seemed like it was straight out of a movie. The stories students told me about their previous teacher, the way the school came together when the chinchilla escaped, the nearby prison break…. Each new day, I had to question, “Is this really happening?” The truth about why I wove the chinchilla, the prison escape, and the essay writing together is that those are the main events that took place in my three weeks at the school. I can’t imagine how many other crazy stories I would have to choose from if I had stayed longer.

In terms of making the stories work together, at first I really wasn’t sure how they were connected—I just knew, when I finished teaching, that I needed to write something about my time there. I’m pretty sure the earliest draft of the essay was just a giant, boring narrative of my three-week adventure, something no one should have to read. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but with time, I couldn’t stop thinking about my experience, and I especially couldn’t stop thinking about the chinchilla, when it seemed like everyone else was still focused on Richard Matt and David Sweat. I spoke with some teachers from the school after I moved back home to ask if anyone found the chinchilla, and they almost didn’t remember that he ever escaped. I felt so sad thinking about this small creature’s valiant escape from the science lab going unnoticed, just as I felt sad thinking about how little time I spent with my students, compared to all the other weeks they would be in school without me. I knew I would forever remember teaching them, but would they remember me?

And then the essay was born.

CNF: Did your summer of teaching affect your attitudes and expectations as you started graduate school that fall?

Downey: This subbing experience boosted my confidence and improved my ability to go with the flow. Packing up my belongings on short notice, moving into a house with strangers in a town where I knew no one, and taking over an immense amount of planning, teaching, and grading is a feat that not everyone can accomplish. It’s also the type of experience that makes you think, “If I can do that, I can probably do anything.” I’m not sure if it directly impacted any of my attitudes or expectations while in graduate school, but keep in mind that this past May, I packed up my belongings and moved across the world work at a higher education institution in Copenhagen. Certainly that decision was made possible by the confidence and adventure that this subbing experience provided me.

CNF: Many young teachers struggle in the classroom, and it requires a sort of bravery to write about those first teaching experiences. After processing the experience through writing about it, how do you think those three weeks influenced you the most?

Downey: I think that the experience impacted my professionality and my ability to “play it by ear.” I learned that no matter how well-thought-out a lesson or unit plan might be, you simply can’t predict what will happen every day. It’s important to be able to think creatively and adapt to the situation—not just in teaching, but with all aspects of life. These are skills that, if I were to be an English teacher again, I would promote in my classroom.

CNF: Have you written anything else inspired by teaching? What other life experiences and events fuel your writing?

Downey: I wrote a memoir in college about my connection to education. Under the mentorship of Dr. William Bradley, this independent study explored highlights of the semester I spent student teaching at a rural school with a 22% Native American population, as well as my life-long love of teachers.

For the most part, though, my writing is inspired by the everyday. I have certainly had some noteworthy moments in my current job working with college students in Copenhagen, for example, which I’m sure will blossom into personal essays over time. So stay tuned, one day, to read about the violent intruder panic alarm one of my students accidentally set off in an extremely impoverished preschool in London, or about the professor whose life I saved by performing heart massage and mouth-to-mouth, or even about the barefoot woman begging for change outside my office.

There are stories everywhere, if you just pay attention.

* Illustration by Mary Dorfner Hay

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