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Who Am I?, or Harlan Ellison is 80 Tomorrow & I’m Just Coming to Age at 36

Something happened recently that made me question myself. I won’t go into specifics but it made me really question myself. I came out stronger, I think. And a better person, I think. It may have even been one of the last real steps to me becoming–gasp!–an adult.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to sell my action figures or relinquish my love of comics books, superheroes, space fantasy, Muppets, or Mister Rogers anytime soon. But for the first time I feel…well…like a man.

Let me explain, if I can….

As a teacher, I began telling my students to grow up to be the kind of person they want to be. If they see themselves as a good person, then work their asses off to become a good person. Everything else will fall into place. Now, as I reread that, it looks a little hippie-dippy to me. The best way I can explain it is this….

When I was a kid, I hated to be asked the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hated that question because I didn’t know. I was 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, fucking 10 years old! How the hell would I know?! (An aside: This is one question I will not ask children until they are teenagers. I’m more interested in what they want to be now. Childhood is such a short period of time, why sully it with a glimpse into the grown-up darkness that awaits?). So I’d give them some bullshit answer that would shut up the grown-up and get them off my back.

“A baseball player,” I’d say, though I never played Little League, didn’t watch any sports on TV, and generally despised competitive athletics (I still do).

“A police officer.”

“A weather man.”

“An actor.”

“An astronaut.”

In other words, I’d give the standard answers that adults expect. The only one that really came close to what, in my heart of hearts, I’d hoped to do was be an actor. I’ll explain why I think I never pursued it another time, perhaps.

But around the time I was 9 or 10, I began to get a glimmer of what I might want to do as an adult. Not a job or career, but a general way of being. I knew that I either wanted to help people or entertain them. Those were the two things that I decided I wanted to try to do.

Now, my choices were limiting, because even as a 10-year-old, I knew I couldn’t work in medicine. I’m too squeamish. And I knew I’d make a horrible police officer (although I think I’d make an excellent detective, but I could be full of shit). So that left…what?

For awhile, I thought I would be a comic book writer and artist, until I decided to focus solely on writing when I was 13.

Fast forward 23 years. I’ve had many bouts of wondering what was happening in my life in the last few years. Turning 36 last August was hard. In age, I was an adult. I could no longer blame my stupid actions on being young and naive. Maybe naive, but certainly not young. And I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I had a job—a career—that I really liked, that I’m really good at, but…it wasn’t the career I wanted. But…I liked it. Loved it, even. Not the paperwork, and certainly not the politics, but the interaction with students. The knowledge that I’ve made a difference in lives. I mean, I have students who have given my cards and notes and vlogs telling me how much my classes, how much my work, has meant to them!

And yet…I was so sad. Because I wasn’t writing full-time. Or working on movies. Or comic books. Because I wanted, in my mind, more.

So one day I was talking to some students after school. This was about a year ago. The two were best friends and one was leaving to go to another school. And I told him that I would be there if he needed me. And then I said:

“One of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison, has said that his definition of success is ‘achieving in adult terms that which you longed for as a child.’ I’d add to that that if your childhood self met your adulthood self, would he be happy? Would he say, ‘That guy’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind becoming him.’

“When I was a kid,” I continued, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I wanted to either entertain people or help them.”

And before I could go on to whatever I was about to say, one of the young men said, “And you do both every day right here.”

“Yeah,” said the other. “You’re a success, Mr. Gauthier!”

We laughed and talked a few minutes more before parting ways for the day, but it stuck with me.

This year, I began telling students not to worry about future careers. To have an idea and work toward it, but to decide what kind of person they wanted to be, and the career would present itself.

So I went through a little bit of a fire this year. It made me question myself, and the way I got out was by realizing who I wanted to be. I’ve known since I was a boy. Now it was time to actually be that man.

I’ve always wanted to help and entertain. I’m a teacher and a writer. In my classroom, I help and entertain. If I can make a student laugh, or cry, if I can make a student feel, then I can make them care enough to learn what I need them to learn. In my stories, I can help people escape their lives for a little while, make them laugh, cry, or frighten them. I may try stand-up comedy at some point. I may try acting. I know I’ll write a comic book. I may even try screenwriting. And while I’m still hungry to make the creative part of my life my sole profession, for the first time I’m truly happy with the part of my life that pays the bills.

As a result, I’m a better teacher. I’m a better writer. I’m a better father. I’m a better husband.

I’m a better man.

Harlan Ellison, one of my heroes, turns 80 tomorrow, 27 May 2014. I will leave my usual birthday greeting on his website, and go back to lurking. But I now lurk as the man I know I want to be, not the guy who’s unsure of himself.

It feels pretty great.

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School’s In Again, When’s Vacation?

That title sucks, but what can you expect from a teacher after the first week of school is over? I went from spending the day working on the novel, reading other people’s novels, watching movies, being a husband and father (and father-to-be-again) to being Mr. Gauthier. The week was pretty good. There were some issues, there always are the first few weeks of school, but I had a good time and I think the kids did, too. One of those kids is my 14-year-old daughter who started the high school I teach at this week. I decided to bring her to school and bring her home and so have seen her every day this week. We’ve talked more this week than we have for the whole summer. Part of that is that she went to Florida to visit my sister and her family for a month, part of that is that, at 14, when she comes over she sits on the computer. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I were in her place. So the week has been good.

I never thought I’d be a teacher, when I fell into the whole education thing, I didn’t think I’d be good at it. I have found that I am good at it. I think it’s the natural storyteller in me, the entertainer.

This may shock some people who are of literary persuasion but I see writing and literature as a form of entertainment. I don’t just mean media tie-in novels and books written by or about celebrities, either, I’m talking all literature. My to-be-read pile (which somehow never diminishes) has novels by Proust, Pynchon, and Steinbeck next to (or underneath) a volume of the pulp The Shadow and two A Nightmare on Elm Street tie-ins written around 2004-2006. One pile has You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry: A Hulk Companion by Patrick A. Jankiewicz on top of Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, which sits atop 3 werewolf anthologies, a nonfiction book about Harlan Ellison I bought in 2003, and several books about Bruce Springsteen. Enterfuckingtainment, man! I think most people who read my blog feel the same way about literature. Most of my immediate colleagues probably do as well.

A good teacher, he says humbly, is a good entertainer. Don’t take this wrong. I do not feel that class has to be fun or that students should be coming to school to be entertained. Schools are places for learning and education is a serious thing–a look at the current Republican Party and the Tea Party movement shows what can happen when people aren’t well educated–but I do not believe that education needs to be boring. I will cop to education not always being fun, but I will not give in with the idea that you must be serious every minute of every hour of every day. If you ask me (and if you’re reading this, I’m going with the notion that you did), passing by a classroom with laughter coming through the door means you’re most likely passing a classroom where serious education is happening.

Humans learn best when their emotions are being played. You may not remember when the Magna Carta was issued (I had to look it up to even remember what it was!) but you remember the date a favorite song was written by a favorite artist because the song means so much to you, and so does the artist. Just as you remember where you were for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, because the immensity of the event played your emotions. Or maybe you remember a key piece of history or historical figure because of a comedian’s passing reference (Robin Williams is great for this) or a comedy movie. How many people born in the late-1970s learned about Genghis Khan because of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Sure, we didn’t necessarily learn everything about him, but we learned the name and could then check it out.

So I find that my natural ability to tell stories, my sense of humor (which doesn’t get much play in my writing yet), and my enjoyment of entertaining people helps when I’m in a classroom. I have the ability to make students laugh when I want them to in order to help them understand something. I’ve made students cry by telling moving stories from the Civil Rights movement or even by telling them ways that movies and literature have moved me and made me who I am today (I teach a media class, which is why I can jump around to different subjects).

I hope I’m not coming off as conceited or arrogant. I’m basing this on student and colleague reaction. The best teacher I ever had, a woman who became my mentor, has called be a great teacher. From a writing perspective, that was like when Greg Gifune basically gave me a free writing seminar by helping me a shape my second published story, or finding out Tom Monteleone was going to write the introduction to Catalysts and then reading that intro a couple of years after he and his wife bought a story of mine for their Borderlands 5 anthology. Or doing a signing with Christopher Golden, or receiving complementary emails from John Little. Or the voicemails from Harlan Ellison (I never did call him back, out of fear, and now–six years later–it’s too late). Or various other cool things that have happened as a result of my writing. My former English teacher’s opinion of my teaching is validation that makes me nearly too happy to put into words.

I will try to keep the blog up as well as I did during the summer, and perhaps even better. At some point, I’d like to write about trying to keep my writing life and teaching life separate. Perhaps next time. Until then, happy learning. We never really stop being students, do we?

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