I used to be a star.
On Thursday mornings, from nine a.m. to noon, at Lower Creek Baptist Church in Lenoir, North Carolina. I arrived with my toddler and her suitcase of toys, everything she needed to keep occupied while I did my magic. My TEACHER AT WORK bag, full of graded papers, candy, my homemade version of Balderdash, highlighter pens, poems, Thirteen Steps to Better Writing, chart paper already marked up with writing prompts and story-openers, sentences to imitate, brainstorming space. I had a roll of masking tape to put it all up with, my once-a-week writing classroom in a bag, and a 20-oz. bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper to keep me juiced up. Energetic. The perfect pitch of happy-crazy-enthusiastic.
Ready for them: three classes of homeschoolers, ages 9 to 17. The boys who came with a pencil behind their ear and a scraggly spiral notebook. Who sat back, tipping their chairs while I did my thing. Writing exercises. Writing workshops. Critiques. The older girls in cowboy boots and lip gloss. Giggly, everybody half-flirty with each other, ready to show off a little to me, a lot to each other. Me yammering on about parallel structure and the fluidity of really good prose. Me, the co-op writing teacher, the one who liked to talk about strong verbs and concrete nouns.
I wanted to give them to the tools to write about their own lives, lives they carried with them in their trinkets and souvenirs. Ordinary pocket-stuffings. The younger girls with their sparkly purses and photographs of their pets, their airplane trips, their snowy backyards. They came to me with their whipped-cream-topped coffees, their bubblegum, their music instruments, not to play, but just for me to see, nestled into the padded, soft cases. I had a boy who played the banjo like nothing I’ve ever heard, who aspired to be Earl Scruggs. A girl who hand-knit dozens of outfits for her dolls. They raised tadpoles and bunny-rabbits, hunted deer and turkeys. They wrote science fiction. Essays. Opinion papers on tattoos and Edgar Allan Poe. They wrote about the history of cheese and the glory of skate parks.
I asked a lot of them, workshopped their papers until their eyes glazed over, unable to hear another word about where they could be clearer, which sentences needed more punch. I threw pens at them when they weren’t paying attention. They wrote and they wrote and they wrote. I tried to make things fun, or at least, lively, and they repaid me with over-the-hill birthday parties, hand-woven oven mitts, and some of the best-written, funniest, and most touching papers any teacher ever got to read.
They also wrote really awful papers, boring ones, stuffy ones. Ones that relied too heavily—almost comically—on their thesauruses. Illegible ones. Bare-bones papers, run-on sentence papers, papers without any direction whatsoever. Really, really bad papers.
But, we worked through the awful together. We worked through and they each—every single one of them—came away with something great.
That’s why they loved me. Why they prattled after me in the hallway, Mrs. Susan, Mrs. Susan, guess what? I want to show you something. I wrote five pages! I was a star on those Thursday mornings—the mothers loved me, too; I had saved them from the task and struggle of teaching writing--but it wasn’t really me at all. It was them. The students. It was what they wrote. Their own lives. The accomplishment of working through the awful, getting to the good.
I love teaching writing. I love it. I love it almost as much as I love writing. I love helping my students, young and old, cut through the awful, find the truth of what they’re trying to say. Turn a portion of their lives, their experiences, their passions into a glimmering, wonderful thing on a piece of paper. Recorded, there, in black and white. Tangible.
One boy, a boy named Luke, came to me first as the brother of a star student. His sister wrote fluidly, beautifully, expansively about nature and God and family; Luke, a little guy then, hid under the table. Created mayhem. Talked too loud. Interrupted. His mother shooed him out, but then, a few years later, and there he was, looking uncertain, worried, and maybe just a tiny bit hopeful. There, in my chart-paper and masking-tape classroom. Ready. Luke was not the natural writer his sister was, but he was a natural story-teller. He was ready, readier than he thought he was.
Do you know what I remember best about my students? I remember their hand-writing. The way their words actually looked on the page. Luke wrote a story about spiders, and I can still see that single word—Spiders—on the top of the loose-leaf paper. His mother helped, and it was a good paper. Then, with revision, it was a great paper and Luke, the non-writer, the boy who hid under tables, who created the occasional mayhem, earned the coveted check-plus, the highest grade I ever gave—and gave sparingly. He wrote a thing about his own life, wrote that word Spiders at the top of the page, and came away with something wonderful.
I got to be a part of that. That one moment in that excitable, talkative, passionate, outdoorsy, non-bookish boy’s life.
He died, unexpectedly, last week. Sixteen years old. In the picture in the newspaper, he was a great, big, hulking fellow, a football player. But I remember the ten-year-old. The look of that word—Spider—at the top of his paper and the look on his ten-year-old face. A check-plus. He earned it, dear boy. He had written something wonderful about his own life.
I was no star. They were the stars. I am so grateful I got the chance to work with them, to help them discover the power of writing. Such a gift! The writing, the sharing of it. To see them see the amazing and the funny and the powerful and the poignant and the deeply, deeply true things in their own lives. To help them struggle through, pin it down on paper. I was blessed those Thursday mornings. Blessed beyond measure. Blessed always, remembering.