As powwows go, it was strong

Bill McGlothing retires after two decades of teaching 

Bill McGlothing.jpg

Adobe walls, with their rounded surfaces and muted hues, might be soft on the eye, at ease on the land. Yet their gentle appearance hides hard edges and heavy weight. The force they carry is formidable. That force edged a young man who loved literature into the teaching profession. Nearly 40 years later, creative writing instructor Bill McGlothing will retire from Seward County Community College, his love of language intact, his respect for students still strong.

The adobe walls? They’re literally out west, but they live on in McGlothing’s mind.

“I was enrolled in a PhD program in American studies at the University of New Mexico, when I started building adobe wall, putting it up at my landlady’s house,” McGlothing says. “We were mixing the mud, making these 35-pound bricks when a friend called me and said, ‘They need an English teacher at Alamo Reservation.’ I told her, ‘Sign me up.’ I was scared to death.’”

McGlothing wasn’t afraid of hard work or manual labor —but he was, he recalls, “the tiredest I’d ever been of hardcore New Mexico construction work” and ready to explore something new. Flying over arid country to three reservations a week in a small plane, to teach literature?  He would give it a try, and that’s how he came to his first class, an experience he describes in a poem of the same name.  The Navajo cowboy student Raymond Apachito greets him, “Hello, Teacher, let’s get this powwow started,” and, as McGlothing recounts,

I know two words in Navajo, one for white man,

one for rattlesnake. As powwows go, this is my first.

Teach them something that you know, they said,

before I caught the Cessna flying down from Albuquerque.

Well, there’s poetry, I think I know …

The poem, which takes place in 1976, has traveled with McGlothing ever since, handwritten drafts giving way to revisions on the desktop. One iteration, printed with art as part of a graphic design class assignment, lives in a frame in the humanities division office. The most recent version served as the finale for the seventh annual SCCC Poetry Coffeehouse in April. As McGlothing read, the room quieted:

The class, they let me leave alive that day.

The next week, I am back. And so are they.

But I’ve been learning teaching ever since

for almost forty years each class the chance

to spot again the silver stallion, watersmooth,

amidst the herds of multi-colored horses …

Listen to McGlothing read the entire poem “First Class” here. 

McGlothing, grew up in Gurney, Ill., the son of a pharmaceutical salesman and executive father, and a stay-at-home mother. His grandmother fed his love of stories with picture books and classics. “Minn of the Mississippi,” a detailed chronicle of the journey of a snapping turtle, was an early favorite, followed by the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Ray Bradbury.

“I was always getting books,” he said. “My parents made sure we got a well-rounded education with the liberal arts. They bought a spinet organ for me and my two sisters and made us take lessons. When I told my mother I wanted to quit organ, she said, ‘You’re going to regret it for the rest of your life,’ and when I told her I wanted to quit football, she said the same thing. And she was right.”

McGlothing’s high school football career led to injuries, which “got me a deferment from Viet Nam,” he said. “I was drafted number 28 in the first lottery. We were required to report. I had to take the train to downtown Chicago — my mother had cried in the car on the way to the station. The doctor took one look at my knee and said, ‘we don’t want you in this army, you’re going to be crippled by the time you’re 40.’ I walked out of there with a 4F and got on with my life.”

A student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, McGlothing had chosen a double-major in English and German. Having attended high school when the pursuit of engineering, and German, “language of engineering” was in vogue, McGlothing’s teachers had exerted a lasting influence. Chris Knecht, Elaine Richter, Wendy Devine: he remembers their names, their mannerisms, and the material they taught him. He loved learning, competing with class- and teammates who defied  the “dumb jock” stereotype and went on to become college professors. Along the way, he began writing poetry after resolving not to be outdone by his peers.

“I didn’t have a goal. I loved being a college student,” he said. After graduating summa cum laude from Luther, McGlothing went home for a second knee surgery that took care of a summer, read Moby Dick with his leg in the cast, and returned to Iowa to paint houses full time, “to the dismay of my parents, who had just paid for a college degree.”

At the Poetry Coffeehouse, SCCC Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Todd Carter, read a poem of McGlothing’s that reminisces about the house-painting phase and gives voice to the themes that resurface over and again in the work of the man who describes himself as “an English teacher who writes poetry, not a poet who’s forced to teach.”

Listen to Carter read the house painting poem here. 

If he is first a teacher, he also teaches though his writing. In the poems, McGlothing examines the beauty of the natural world with a fierceness that is equal parts wonder, affection and outrage at its destruction. He writes about his bicycle rides, the wind farms that have poked up across the open land of the West, the people who alternately embody and ignore the landscape, and offers commentary in a voice sometimes wry, sometimes dark. He counts Monarch butterflies and frets over their absence. He relocates snakes on country roads, and pushes into the wind. He confesses to his lack of cool in the view of his five-year-old great-nephew. In Decorah, of course, none of these experiences had come to pass.

“We were reading pretty much all the young marginal hippie guy stuff — Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, poetry, songs. We were playing guitars, and living in the second story of this old farmhouse where you had to walk up the stairs outside and flush the toilet with a jug of water. I got tired of it.”

The solution was graduate school at the University of Oregon, where McGlothing embarked on a year-long adventure reading Beowulf in the original old English.

“The wonderment of that, three trimesters reading this thing. I was completely in love with everything but the rain,” he said. “I got the master’s and was going to go on to get the PhD, but it was during the gas crisis, and one morning, I had to get up at 5 a.m. to get in line to buy gas, and in Oregon at 5, it’s almost always raining, and there on the carpet of the front seat, there were mushrooms growing, and that was it.”

McGlothing went to Denver for nine months to be a poet.

“I had my ‘69 Dodge Charger my dad sold to me for $500 as a graduation present, packed with everything I owned, and I drove it to Denver, where I had other friends from college. Got an upstairs apartment. I wrote. I talked on the phone a lot because I was lonely. Drank a lot of Coors beer. Read a lot of poetry, Gary Snyder.”

Then a friend from Albuquerque called, and McGlothing kept moving. He drove a delivery truck, went back to school to study the American West, did poetry readings.

“I got so well-received, I got gassed by that kind of feedback and appreciation,” he said. “Just coming into that whole culture of the town, the books, the booksellers, the English department. It was a good time.” To pay the bills, he started building adobe wall. Another phone call came, and though he’d never considered teaching as his vocation, he said yes. Some teachers and professors seek out the job because they want to change the world, or make a difference. McGlothing just wanted to learn and teach, and build on the connections he had made.

“I don’t think I was ever a lost boy,” he said. “I was curious. Just by repetition or vicariously, or not having any other curiosities at the time, I started to love the teaching, and I received signals that I was doing a pretty darn good job.”

It wasn’t ordinary classroom teaching. Every week, three teachers would get into a Cessna airplane and fly to the Mescalero, Apache, and Zuni reservations. Closer reservations, they’d drive to.

“This was through the American Indian Pueblo Cultural Program, all through UNM,” McGlothing said. “I spent a glorious summer teaching on White Mountain Apache reservation. Then I got into the University of New Mexico freshman English adjunct cycle, and then I started teaching at a community college with a brand-new humanities division. So this went on for 14 years, and my mother would say from time to time when we’d go down to the lake, ‘Honey, you need to get a real job.’”

In 1988, McGlothing applied to Western Texas College, within driving distance of his sister and her husband. Unlike colleagues he’s encountered through the years, he didn’t do a nationwide search.

“There was always a connection, the Texas connection, the proximity to Abilene, the recommendations. I had built my reputation, I guess, my community. You had to have that first, or there’s no point in doing the work,” he said. “I got the job even though the business instructor, who later became a good friend, told the English department I was a ponytail. He based that on my letter. I worked hard on it. It was very creative,” he said.

At West Texas, McGlothing taught every variant of English class, from developmental to sophomore lit. He launched his first creative writing class. He met and married Janice Northerns, who he describes admiringly as “the smartest woman I ever met.” And he continued to explore the power of language and literacy in the lives of people who live on the fringes, whether that meant an oil patch town fallen on hard times, like Snyder, Texas, the reservation inhabitants who’d taught him to be a teacher, or the new batch of students assigned arbitrarily to English instructors at the new job.

“We had to teach at the penitentiary. The state of Texas built all these brand-new prisons, and filled those damn prisons, and the college saw an opportunity for us to make some money, so we went and taught,” he said.  “I dreaded it, dreaded walking in through those gates. But your feet don’t even touch the ground coming out.

“The inmate students are hungry, they are ferocious. Whatever level you give them, they want more. I knew who they were, you could guess what some of them had done, you could tell some would be there for a long, long time. But they wanted to learn more, whatever you gave them.”

As McGlothing empties the file cabinet in his SCCC office, he’s unearthed manuscripts from this period.

“I found a paper last week that an inmate had written about the Emily Dickinson poem, ‘A Certain Slant of Light,’” he said. “Inmates loved that poem. It was their favorite.”

More years passed, and another phone call came, this time from Dale Doll at SCCC. McGlothing had met Doll and fellow English instructor Ann Judd at conferences in Texas, “and really got to like those two. I’d look forward to meeting them every year. Then I got a call one summer, it was 1998, J and I were married by then, and Dale asked me, ‘Hey, do you want a job? We need an English teacher.’”

McGlothing was ready to move once more, and Northerns was willing as well, eventually joining the SCCC English department after a stint in daily newspaper and years teaching middle school and high school English for USD 480 in Liberal. In tandem with Doll — who eventually moved into the position of dean of humanities — and Carter, McGlothing contributed to core changes in cross-curricular writing goals for SCCC.

“Bill has been the champion for writing assessment for the institution for all these years,” said Carter. “He’s very passionate about good writing, and believes students should be able to communicate. Being able to write and think gives students the ability to evaluate and engage with the issues of today. Taking them through the process of being better writers actually gets them to that point as students and adults.”

Carter himself gives McGlothing teaching props.

“I’m a science guy. From Bill, I learned to avoid noun trains, and I also learned that I tend to write to my point, thinking through it as I write. As an editor, he figured that out rather quickly, and was able to pull out the points I wanted to make in our accrediation portfolios. That helped me later on as I was going through my doctoral program.” Beyond professional admiration, the two are friends, Carter said, starting with emails they exchanged to craft assessment strategies.

“We kind of spoke in the same code, and after a few satellite assessment sessions over on his porch, we became good friends,” he said.

Such personal connections mark McGlothing’s perspective on his years in the classroom. In a crowd-sourced tribute piece collected by Northerns before the Poetry Coffeehouse, she alluded to the parade of characters who have filled his classrooms.

“Some read, some listened, some came back for more,” she said.

As poets do, McGlothing retains vivid, detailed memories of particular moments, people, stories. There was Violet from the reservation who came to class without her paper.

“It’s in my truck,” she told her teacher.

“Why don’t you get it?” he asked.

“My truck is in the river.”

“It was the Rio Salado, which is usually a dry bed, and there’d been a flash flood,” he recounts. “We went to see it, and her pickup was half buried in mud.”

The students of SCCC also claim place in McGlothing’s mind. The Japanese student who possessed the “loveliest sense of dry humor and self awareness,” the Somalian who “writes about her life experiences with the most phenomenal courage,” and the military veteran who “blew me away with his ability to write about the real things, the hard things.”

“I have great classes even when I have awful ones,” he said, adding that he’s not yet reached the burned-out, bitter stage.

“I am tired of grading essays,” he said, tallying the blue book exams and end-of-semester papers still stacked in the bin. “I’m mindful of Bob Dylan’s way-back song, I used to sing and irritate my parents — ‘Don’t criticize what you can’t understand/Your old road is rapidly agin’/Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.’”

Student, class makeups and demographics may have changed, but they are not necessarily worse, McGlothing said. The essays, though, “send you out here on Saturday morning. It takes work on both sides to see students become independent writers, take ownership of their writing, care about the stuff you’ve been trying to teach.”

McGlothing is ready to read for pleasure once again, and to write. Unpacking the file cabinet has unearthed a mine of triggers for new writing, and reintroduced old pieces that want revising. There are back roads to ride on the bicycle, rattlesnakes and bullsnakes to rescue, monarch butterflies for which to keep watch. The curiosity, it’s reasonable to expect, is sure to rekindle.

In the first class so long ago, McGlothing asked students to say what gifts they would give the instructors for Christmas.

“I still have the notes somewhere, but I remember what Alta Rogers, the matron of the class, a big Navajo woman, wrote. She wrote that she would give Sandra a mirror to see herself, with all her makeup and her hairstyles. She would give Chuck a pipe for smoking. He was always sure he understood everything already.

“And she wrote, ‘I would give Bill a horse that’s good for running,’” he said. “Maybe that was the reason for the whole, long, strange trip.”

Bill and Janice

Janice Northerns laughs as Bill McGlothing explains the process of writing at the Sixth Annual Poetry Coffeehouse at SCCC in 2015.

Categories: Humanities Division, The SCCC Team

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