When the (Mr.) Chips are down | AspenTimes.com

When the (Mr.) Chips are down

The sexual harassment video gave me an uneasy feeling.

Those amateur actors saying suggestive things to one another gave me the creeps. Surely, I could deliver a suggestive line better than they did.

Watching the tape in a class-

room at Colorado Mountain College a few months before the start of my writing class made me aware of how vulnerable I was as a new teacher. I wanted to be more Mister Chips than, say, Jack Black, and I’ll bet Mister Chips never had to endure sexual harassment videos.

Last summer I signed up to teach a course titled: “Writing for Passion and Profit.” I was required to watch the harassment video as part of my orientation,

and I learned that the nuances of sexual harassment make a punishable offense rather vague.

Using certain vocabulary, dressing in a provocative manner, employing the wrong analogy, touching anyone or, God forbid, giving someone a ride home could have an ugly outcome. Even bending over the wrong way at a drinking fountain could have had me slapped with a lawsuit and booted out of my first job as a teacher.

My fears were unfounded, because over the course of the eight-week class, sexual harassment took a back seat to writer harassment. My students learned from visiting local professionals that writing is no panacea. In fact, they learned that you’ve got to be crazy to do it.

Freelance writer Jay Cowan, a skilled wordsmith with a sharp wit and a glib tongue, spent an evening with my class and referred to writing as a “disease.” So, who wants to pursue a career that is communicable and hazardous?

I tried to be upbeat and positive, suggesting that writing is gratifying and fun, but the topic of wage earning kept surfacing in dire tones. Maybe that’s why my class dwindled from 16 students to five.

This was not my intent. But in the interest of honesty, I was compelled to put writing in perspective as a livelihood. Perhaps I should not have placed so much emphasis on unemployment benefits, food stamps and the critical advantage of a working spouse.

Instead, I should have stressed the joys of working with encouraging editors, the pleasure of seeing your byline on a feature article, the sense of accomplishment in publishing a book. Then, with all the money you earn, you can live the life of voluntary simplicity that Thoreau advocated.

When Aspen Times columnist Roger Marolt joined us for a session, he described his life as a writer, saying that he was so driven to write that he invented 18 fictional personas to carry on a written dialogue through phony letters to the editor.

Marolt is one of the most creative writers I have ever met, and he made writing fun and irreverent. He even published an amusing book about his experiences: “Dear Editor.” Roger also made the point that he has a day job.

When a local novelist came to my class, she shared her writing techniques and her search for literary agents. Her recipe for rejections was particularly informative: drink a bottle of red wine, consume a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, then cry yourself to sleep.

Jack DePagter, owner of the Holland House and an Aspen fixture since 1949, humbly confessed to the class that he is not a writer. But Jack wrote “Destination Aspen,” a book about his youth in Nazi-occupied Holland and his eventual immigration to the US.

The story is inspiring and uplifting, but it is the only book Jack will probably write, not because he is not a writer, but because he had but one book he needed to write. This deep-seated need to write is what provides the greatest impetus for putting one word after another.

All I really wanted from teaching this class was the opportunity to walk in the door, acknowledge the smiling faces beaming up at me and say, “Good Evening, class!” The response I hoped for, wished for, was a cheerful chorus of “Good Evening, Mister Andersen.”

My fears of sexual harassment made this connection uncomfortable, so it never happened. And, sad to say, no one even offered me a ride home. So it’s goodbye, Mister Chips, until next time.

Paul Andersen’s column runs on Mondays.

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