Lisa (fifth grade)
For almost two years, through distractions and conflicts in the writing group, Lisa gets it done. She enjoys writing, even when it’s a struggle. Sometimes Lisa comes to the Teachers & Writers room alone to write—without any outside direction—in her notebook. Today she seems to be particularly happy with what she wrote, and I ask if I can see it:
My mother made
a great promise.
My father made one,
They both promised
me to stop quarreling.
At least for a little
My cousin made
my uncle and aunt, too.
But they all broke
their promises one
I don't want a perfect
family who would always
dress up fancy and neat.
Just a family that keeps
As writing teachers, what do we want for our students? A good experience with writing—the feeling that it was worthwhile to take pen to paper—should be right up there on any list of goals. I ask Lisa about her experience, and she replies that she exaggerated, which made her feel better.
Sometimes we can “write well” but the piece has no life to it—the bones are assembled in the correct formation, the features are properly positioned, but the poor creature can’t laugh, cry, crouch, or dance. A week later, I read “My mother made…” to another class in another school. They listen, quietly, caught up in the words, in the presence of a living poem.
Marcus (fourth grade)
I notice him hovering around the doorway to the Teachers & Writers room during the lunch period. He inches his way barely across the border. I say hello and ask his name, which he slurs several times before I can make out “Marcus.”
I ask if he likes to write, and he shrugs. “Perhaps I can arrange with your teacher for you to come down to the room sometime.”
“I never go anywhere, I just stay in the classroom,” he replies.
I ask him to write down his name, teacher, and classroom number, and I’ll see if I can make arrangements for him to join a group. It takes Marcus a painful few minutes to get the information down. He is in class 4-3 (next to bottom on the tracking ladder), on the “2 fool.” I ask if he’d like to write something now. “Sure,” he says into his chest.
I suggest that he write down some things that are important to him—favorite food, sports, weather, whatever. I can then follow up based on the list.
He writes diligently but slowly for several minutes while I make myself look busy. When I look at Marcus’s paper, I am surprised and puzzled.
I am learning how to type.
Am how to type.
Learning am how to type.
How am I to type learning?
Me to is I type me.
Then I remember that earlier someone wrote on the blackboard “I am learning how to type.” Marcus has written like Gertrude Stein, without intentionality.
“Did you have fun with the words?” He nods. “How come you're not outside with the others?”
“Because I always get into trouble.”
“You get into trouble whenever you go out?”
“Yeah, I wind up fighting.”
“Don't you have anyone to be friends with?"
“Just my brother.”
“What class is he in?”
I open a book I’ve been using with my classes, Fasanella's City—with childlike out-of-proportion paintings of city scenes—and point out two baseball paintings, one of the Polo Grounds and one of a sandlot game. We talk about the differences between the paintings, and he writes:
I saw men play baseball in yard and in stadium.
Men hit ball in ran around bases
Lunch is almost over. Marcus goes back into the hallway. Will he return? How many other kids “never leave the classroom” who don’t wind up at our doorway.
Grace (senior citizen)
Last week Grace wrote a piece about seeing a deer in her backyard when she was in her twenties. The group marveled at how that deer could be brought to life—for all of us—with words, so many years later. Today Grace is writing along at a good pace when she stops abruptly and looks up at the ceiling as if the next line could be found there. She leans back, with a look of annoyed resignation. I know that look well, and I walk over to her, confident that I can help her out of her literary cul-de-sac. I read her incomplete poem and ask the questions I might ask myself if I were the author.
“I can’t write anymore,” she interrupts.
“Do you follow what I’m saying?”
“Oh, yes, I have plenty of my own ideas, but I can't write anymore.”
“I don't understand.”
“I just can't write. It’s this thumb, it goes dead on me.”
I offer to take dictation, but she isn’t able to verbalize her ideas. “I want to write.”
There is nothing either of us can do but wait until her thumb stops playing dead.
Shelly (fourth grade)
During my third session, the teacher points me toward Shelly, who isn’t writing. Her hair covers her face as she leans over her blank piece of paper, her pencil perched on the desk. Shelly says she has nothing to write. I ask if there’s anything or anyone that she feels strongly about. Finally, she confides that she does like her mother and her cat. After a few more minutes of conversation she writes a simple little poem about her mother and her cat. Shelly and I have both met the challenge. The teacher is impressed; Shelly has written a poem.
During succeeding visits, Shelly becomes more than a challenge. I am getting to like her, and she is getting attached to me. Since Shelly usually doesn't talk much, the teacher is anxious to know what we talk about: has she mentioned her family situation— rumor has it that her mother has a new boyfriend. Actually, Shelly and I don't talk about very important things; it is just important that we talk.
One morning I see Shelly at the other end of the hall. She doesn't see me. A boy bumps into her and then shouts to his friend, “Someone get me the cooty gun! Shelly touched me! Hurry, the cooties are all over me!” Shelly continues on into the classroom, without changing the expression on her face.
I am horrified, partly at the boy’s cruelty but mostly at Shelly’s lack of reaction. I imagine twisting the boy’s arm behind his back until he apologizes to Shelly, but I realize that even verbal coercion would reduce any apology to hollow words and result in more grief for Shelly.
I resolve to speak highly of Shelly in the hearing of other students—to use my position of prestige to heighten her class standing. I want very badly for Shelly to write terrific poems so I can read them to the class. But Shelly does not write terrific poems. She tries hard, but perhaps she is simply not capable. A learning disability, the teacher calls it. But Shelly does her best and improves, and I have to distinguish what is progress for her from what my ego wants, which is for her to dazzle everyone.
One day, a few minutes after making some suggestions for revision, I notice that Shelly is crying. I go over to her and ask if I said something that hurt her.
“I hate you,” she whispers, and returns her trembling head to her desk.
I walk away, myself near tears—have I become one more tormentor, my weapon more powerful than an imaginary cooty gun?
The teacher calls me over and says, “Shelly cries a lot. Always tears. The best thing is to ignore them, she'll be okay in a few minutes. I was going to tell you that Shelly's mother is getting married again and they're moving away from here.”
Later, I see Shelly in the remedial reading room, a place where she thrives with the small group and sympathetic teacher. I ask her if it is true that she is moving. She begins to cry.
I am teaching a Saturday morning noncredit remedial writing course. Some of the students border on illiteracy, even though they have high school diplomas. I have them do some creative writing, on the premise that if they perceive writing as an opportunity for recounting experiences and releasing feelings they will be better motivated to go through the rigors of mastering the technical aspects of writing.
Most of the students do well on the standardized test for admittance into the regular English courses (though not as well as I hoped). At the department’s end-of-semester party, I am talking to Laverne, one of the younger students, who tells me he is going to do reserve duty in the army but will return to school the following semester.Laverne looks at me with a distracted glint in his eyes and says, “Do you ever get the feeling that you just gotta drop everything you're doing and write a poem?"
"Yes—it's one of the most exciting moments in writing, that sense of urgency."
"Well, that's what I'm feeling right now."
Laverne goes into a corner and writes in an abandoned exam book. He gives me this poem as he says goodbye:
Teachers where did they
come from, like the winds
of this world, blowing north,
south, east. west, being kind,
cruel, happy, heartbreaking.
Always moving, going one way, then
another. Where do they come
from these winds of learning?
Touching our lives but for
a few hours a day but
changing us, shaping, like
the wind blowing sand
always changing it. Where
do they come from these
winds of learning? Are they
human? Where do these
winds of learning come from?