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As I prepare to return to writing, I decided to clean out a tall cabinet overflowing with old letters and essays. I was delighted to come across a letter I wrote to my 12th-grade Rhetoric & Composition students after a personal essay writing assignment that I had given them. Below, I share the letter I gave each of them, just prior to their graduation in 2009:
You think you know your students. You see them day in and day out for years. They bring you joy and annoyance in no particular order. You read their facial expressions, laugh or roll your eyes at their quirks, assess their strengths and weaknesses, identify their distinct voices in a crowded room (“Jonah, join a choir and stop singing in my classroom!”)
You think you know them, but, really, as their teacher, you’re just skimming the surface of a population society writes off as angst-filled, confused, ungrateful, spoiled, directionless and nonchalant.
It was the word my mother often hurled at me when I was a teenager. She despised my blank stares when she was lecturing me about something, that stony phase of empty stares and silence. What she didn’t realize—or maybe she did have an inkling and this is why she was, thus, so irritated at my nonchalance—was that even though my exterior sent messages that I didn’t care about what was going on around me, my brain, my heart, my blood, my cells, my very soul were processing seemingly disconnected experiences, words and sensations, many of which would, years later, come tumbling out of my memory and onto a page. Pages.
Reading some of these essays and columns many years later (in the newspapers I worked for, where all the world could see), my mother would write to me in awe: “I never knew you felt that way. I didn’t know you even remembered that” Or, “I didn’t know you went through that!”
We teachers are like parents. We fuss over and at our students. We think we know them, but we don’t. When I asked you—my dear students, my brilliant students, my sometimes stubborn and frustrating students, my students who are filled with so much potential, but who don’t always access those hidden treasures—to write your memoirs, I didn’t know what to expect. What I didn’t know is that I would be absolutely floored at your writing, your intimate and, sometimes, shocking life stories. After an entire school year of pulling my hair out to get some of you to turn in your essays on time, or even write them, I watched with a bursting heart as each of you bent your heads over your memories and attempted to craft them into written art.
You produced writing that made me laugh, made me cry, made me angry, made me want to hunt down have hurt you, those who have doubted you. While reading your essay drafts, I would sometimes whisper aloud, “I’ve known this kid for three years. Oh my God, I had no idea!”
But it was not like snooping into someone’s journal. You guys wrote for an audience, you wrote in deeply humanizing and reader-engaging ways. You used those rhetorical and figurative devices to make us understand you. I believe that this is what writing is all about—making people feel, think, cringe and smile.
This is the kind of writing that I want to teach. One day, one day.
And one day, I will find a way to return to my own writing. Thank you for allowing me to share my love of writing with you. Thank you for allowing me to be your teacher. Thank you for reminding me of why I love writing, thank you for reminding me of my own dreams.
Wishing you all the best,
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