As I flipped their switches, fluorescent tubes of light flickered and warmed reluctantly to their task of illuminating the empty rows of desks aimed dutifully toward the lone desk facing in the opposite direction. I swallowed down the lump threatening to rise up and choke me, claimed the lone desk and chucked my bags to the floor beside it. Then, I waited. Tried my best to look “professorial.” Failing in the effort, I took to the white board to scratch out the equivalent of the ‘name/rank/serial number,’ and tried to arrange my opening lines before they scattered too far from their rehearsed position in my head. Well-worn carpeting muffled the footfalls of students as they shuffled in for a 3 hour night class that would require not only their attendance, but a bit of their souls as well. They didn’t yet know that English Comp would be their introduction to my obsession with ‘the writing life.’
I had stepped into the instructor’s spot after four weeks of the semester were already gone. Instruction had been reduced to a syllabus and a reminder to get the textbook. Actual writing had been minimal. As for attendance, well, class had been cancelled. Twice. No wonder they shuffled, slumped, grew silent. The lights occupied a presence in the room, buzzing overhead and mercifully filling in the uncomfortable gaps as the rest of us got to know one another. After the pleasantries subsided and the syllabi were distributed and the expectations clearly established, it was time to write. Most of them pretended. I tried not to mind. I failed. By evening’s end, ‘deer in the headlights’ faces dotted the room, but I also recognized potential ideas glimmering behind a few pairs of novice writers’ eyes. They nearly stampeded the door when the clock’s hands swept past 8:50 p.m., and I, left to straighten the chairs and silence the lights, doubted their return.
One class per week. Was it too much to ask that they be on time? Apparently. The following week, the straggling began in earnest. A few acknowledged my ‘be on time, please’ request. Others did what they could to slip in just ahead of the ‘after 20 minutes you’re considered absent’ rule established by the previous instructor. All of them knew they needed to pass the class; many of them knew precious little about ‘the six traits of effective writing.’ Most of them wanted to succeed. None of them knew how. All of us had a good deal of learning to do.
Lesson One: Writing Matters. Well, sure. It does. But to whom? In the busyness of every day, with rent to pay, children to tend, bosses’ demands to be met, who, in that room of would-be writers, had time to write anything at all? Who, amongst them, had time to read? Who, amongst them, knew that a simple change in emphasis would shift the focus to the Writing Matters? Ideas, organization, voice, word choices, style & fluency, the mechanics of the language in its written form… narrative, exposition, argument… point of view, audience, resource citation… who, amongst them, cared? For my part, I had to re-invent my teacher’s wheel — find ways to reach students who had lived lifetimes past high school (where most of my experience was gained), and make what seemed so obvious to me (you know, the writing matters!) relevant to them. For their part, my students had to trust me, and even harder, trust themselves enough to take a learning risk.
Lesson Two: The Projector Needs a New Light Bulb. ‘When all else fails,’ I thought, ‘use the interwebs.’ Show them the relevancy of good writing. Remind them of the power of words — reference the rhetoric of politics, discuss the prevalence of opinion sharing via social media, push a button or two. Nothing spurs us to spew words like the word spew available online. But that only works when the machinery works. Back to pen and paper, everyone. Some lessons are harder than others. Aha…
Lesson Three: Let’s Read Together. The week before their first paper (a personal narrative) was due, I thought it might be wise to examine a couple of good examples of the form. ‘Turn to a great essay entitled “Letting in Light” by Patricia Raybon,’ I said after most of the students had assembled, including the one who, when he came at all, was nearly an hour late. The brief memoir chronicles a family history of women who serve other families in addition to their own, cooking and cleaning and tending to the housekeeping they were hired to do, including the seasonal task of washing windows. Though the writer experienced a “lifetime of relative comfort” she realizes that she “owes those women everything” because they “taught [her] to wash windows.” She taught her daughter to do the same. Because, after all, clean windows ‘let the light shine in,’ and no one is too young (or old!) to “look at [that] truth and understand it.”
Truth is, I was under the influence of my own superiority complex when we finished reading that essay together, and in a spiteful spirit of oneupmanship, I asked a rather pointed question no one wanted to answer. Never one to let the sleeping dogs continue their slumber, I singled out the one student I knew would stumble and fall over his own words — the one who always arrived late, who never bothered to explain why, and who eventually stopped coming to class altogether — and he said of the writer and her mission: “She just be doin’ what she do.”
In that moment the grammarian in me cringed and shrieked, in a manner much like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West‘s “You cursed brat! I’m melting…” while the instructor part of me tried to link what seemed a non-relevant response to the writing work at hand. As a class, we moved on to framing their own narratives, a bit of peer review, and a reminder that hard copies of their essays would be due next time.
Lesson Four: Mirror, mirror, on the Wall… ‘What do you see when you look in the mirror?’ ‘Oh, you mean reflection writing is part of the whole process?’ ‘Yes, otherwise how will you know what you’ve learned?’
Next time came, and the time after that came too. We continued to learn about and from each other, and to explore the intricacies of writing matters. I continued to emphasize how much writing matters, of course. Before I knew it, the semester was drawing to a close. On our last evening together, I didn’t even turn on the lights. Instead, we enjoyed the early evening sunshine streaming through the windows. I had some parting encouragements to keep writing, to keep reading — to always know how much words matter. I had some parting sorrow (O, a Shakespeare moment!) over students whose desks sat empty — not because they wouldn’t, couldn’t write, but because Life, doing what it always does, sometimes got in their way.
In a few days, I’ll walk into another classroom. Predictably, desks will be arranged in neat rows facing one lone desk pointed in the opposite direction. I’ll chuck my bags to the floor, and then I’ll sit. Waiting expectantly for writers to shuffle in. That’s my life, after all. And suddenly, a light began to hum…
“She just be doin’ what she do.”