I’m so excited and happy to be participating in an amazing writing workshop through the Iowa Writer’s House. You can read the description here. Day one was totally stimulating, and it’s so nice to be in an academic environment again. I like it when I get 4/5ths of what the instructor is talking about, and the other 1/5th is over my head. Gives me something to struggle with.
Today we talked a lot of Thoreau, which is perfect, since I’ll be teaching it next year. My big takeaway was a discussion of lenses through which we write and live. We can experience things as immersion, where we are no longer aware of things outside of the experience itself, and this can be instinctive or mindful (being afraid for your life vs. deliberately trying to mindfully experience an event).
On the other side is the analytical, where we are aloof from the experience and examining it from multiple angles of time, space, connection, etc. This stage is highly reflective instead of in the moment.
For the first session, we were asked to come with a bit of writing. Here is the prompt: Bring a two paragraph (500 word) sample of prose that you feel is a written representation of your own voice, describing a moment that helped to shape you or a moment that epitomizes the person that you are.
Yeah, not easy… here is what I wrote, because it happened recently, and it was the only thing I could think of. I wrote about going to Washington DC, and randomly getting an email from a former student thanking me for helping her through the grieving process when she lost a close friend in a car crash. She chose to write about the trauma for an assignment, and through the process of revision and conferencing with me I think she was able to access a lot of her feelings and own her grief.
It was April. I was in Washington DC, and my heart was full. Monuments, monoliths, flags and obelisks, all saturated with symbolism. I saw my reflection in the obsidian wall inscribed with the war dead, felt the fountain spray of the World War II memorial, sensed the presence of the Unknown Soldier, and warmed my patriotism over the Eternal Flame the way our ancestors held their hands over the cook fire to bring them back to life. Everywhere I walked the shadow of my grandfathers followed me, and my uncles and childhood friends were never far behind.
I could have sworn there was no more room in me for anything else when I innocently checked my email at a cafe. A message from a former student. “Dear Mrs. Kibbie, I wanted to let you know that letting me write about my friend Trevor’s death last year was the only thing that helped me. I will never forget what you said. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for you to see what you’re really made of.” Half a country away a girl hit “send” and I thought I would burst. Looking at monuments gives me a sweet, far-away, nostalgic kind of prideful melancholy. This letter, on the other hand, was sharp and sudden and too real. The boy, Trevor, had died a year ago today along with five others.
So, the homework tonight was to re-write that sample from an immersion point of view an a reflective point of view. Here’s what I came up with:
I’m on a charter bus and I’m thinking about bathrooms. I’m glad I just went in the convention center because who knows how long this duck boat thing is going to be. Kinda wishing my husband hadn’t booked it. He’s not even going. He’s at the convention and I’m with a bunch of people from the convention I’m not even really attending going on a duck boat tour of DC and my ticket has my husband’s name but that’s okay, because the guide said it was okay, and because Lee could be a woman’s name, so how are they supposed to know that I’m not Lee?
Waiting for the last person to show up. I pull out my phone, give it my fingerprint, and do what I’m not supposed to do — check work email. A message from ____. A long one. I read it. “Dear Mrs. Kibbie, I wanted to let you know that letting me write about my friend Trevor’s death last year was the only thing that helped me. I will never forget what you said. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for you to see what you’re really made of.” I read it. I read it again. The bus starts moving and the guide is talking, chipper, cracking jokes, and I read it one more time. I’m bloated with pride. At the same time traitor thoughts foray their way in; someone put her up to this, it was an assignment to write a thank you letter to a teacher, some of this was plagiarized.
I let it be for awhile before I respond. I look out the window at some more things that remember dead people.
I could probably count on two hands the number of times a student has let me know, without a parent or another staff member’s bidding, that I made a difference in their life. I don’t count exact numbers, because I don’t want to be depressed. See, there’s a difference between teaching middle school and teaching high school. High school kids come to my husband all the time and say how much he helped them. They send him notes and invite him to graduation parties. High schoolers on the verge of graduation are nostalgic. They come by it naturally or are forced into it by being force-fed a steady diet of picture slideshows and last proms and class songs. They’re on the cusp of something, and they often look back and really reflect on how they got to this point. The thoughtful ones thank those who lent a hand along the way.
Yeah, middle school kids don’t do that. They’re lucky if they make it through the day remembering to put on deodorant. Several years might go by before they realize that I had their best interest at heart, that I gave them something special, and most never realize it at all. By the time they figure it out, I’ve left that school to work somewhere else, foolishly thinking that some other public school might be better than the last one. I never see them again.
So, ____’s email, so painstakingly, beautifully written, so brutal and Hallmark-y at the same time, her gratitude and growth and pain and healing so evident, bleeding through my phone screen, was, as you can imagine, unexpected.
I’m very excited for day two. I want to say thank you so much to the IWH for granting me the scholarship that made this possible. I hope to find a way to attend more of these workshops!