Tag Archives: learning

Three Words for a New Semester

Believe

I struggled my first semester teaching. Frat boys sat in the back, whispered to each other while I spoke. They didn’t have the decency to hide what they were doing by passing notes or texting. One of these boys would walk into my office with a cell-phone pressed to his ear. His high school English teacher was on the other end of the line, refuting something I’d said in class. I’ve forgotten all the boys’ names but his.

One day a female student approached while I was writing something boring on the board.

“I’ve got my period,” she whispered. “I’ve got to go.”

She backed out the door and disappeared down a hallway. I never saw her again. I thought I’d done something to drive her away. I never suspected the boys in the back, who looked strange when she left –– too giggly. Had they done something while my back was turned?

Back then, I knew so little about teaching. I let her go. I blamed myself. Now I think about her all the time. I think about each student who leaves.

I did the same as a first-generation university student, dropping a class the moment it challenged me. After I graduated, I’d said “no” to a stellar graduate program in creative writing. At 23, I rationalized my choice: I wanted to work in a genre not offered by the program.

I made a list of reasons why I shouldn’t say “yes,” starting with the suspicion that I’d never feel entirely at home in the country where I’d lived, and where I’d have to return to complete the degree. I was homesick; I missed my sister. I hadn’t mourned my mother.

These challenges were not untrue. They were also not unworkable.

The larger truth was harder to face: I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe I had anything worth saying. If I could go back to the scared girl I was, I’d say: Believe.

Believe.

Believe the voice that calls you toward your dreams. This voice is inner truth, wisdom, consciousness. It’s your heart speaking. This voice will tell you to do things you think you can’t do. Do them. It’s the only way forward.

Stay

Don’t leave the minute a professor asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Like writing a thesis statement or brainstorming ideas for an assignment. Getting started is the hardest part. It’s the moment when it’s easiest to check Snapchat or text or go to the bathroom just because.

Stay in your chair, in the room, in your mind, in your body.

Whatever your professor has asked you to do is something you can do. It probably won’t take more then ten minutes. If you have a professor like me, she’ll want to help you. She’ll want to see you do what you didn’t think you could do. That’s why she’s here. Raise your hand. Ask for what you need.

Each time you leave a classroom or yourself, you miss an opportunity. You miss the chance to grow.

Stay. Stay even if you’re scared or doubting or consumed by the desire to run.

You belong here. Be present to your longing. Claim an education.

 Wonder 

Do you remember being a kid? Were you the kind of kid who wished on falling stars, believed in magic, your ability to fly? I bet you felt disappointed when you discovered those things weren’t “real.” No matter how loud you clapped during “Peter Pan,” Tinker Bell wouldn’t appear in your living room.  Maybe a sense of wonder left you. What was the point of believing in something you couldn’t see?

But what if magic is real in the way all true, unseen things are real? Love. Hope. Power.  What if you believed in your own ability to be transformed? What if you embraced the wonder of being in charge of who you become?

We can’t control everything. Other people will not see us the way we see ourselves. For example, I’ll always have to deal with men who ask, “Where’s the professor?” when they see me standing outside a classroom door.

I’ll wonder “What’s up with that?” each time, and that’s good. That’s a question I want all my students to ask.

What’s up with that?

 Don’t accept prejudice or platitudes or status quo. Suspect everything. Verify facts, evidence. Question your own beliefs. Where do they come from? Why do you hold them? Who would you be if you didn’t cling so hard?

Wonder. Wonder. Wonder.

Be curious and confused. Open to a thousand possibilities you never saw coming.

At the end of the semester you’ll be the same person who started and you’ll be different. Transformed by what you’ve learned and done. Maybe no one but you will see what’s changed. That’s true magic. Beautiful and sparkling as any falling star.

To My Creative Writing Students Now and Always

No one in my family wrote. That is, if you count “writing” as the kind of writing that gets validated in academic settings: journalism, opinion pieces, blogs, essays, book reviews, literary criticism, short stories, and poetry. E-mail wasn’t even a word when I was growing up. My mother wrote shopping lists. Notes to my teachers. Sometimes she wrote the occasional letter or card or college essay when she went back to school for her associate degree.

My parents never told me to write, or not to write. I just wrote. At the end of each school year, for example, I jotted down how I had changed from the year before, everything I could do differently: Write cursive. Multiply. Walk to the bus top alone.

But what possessed me to take a pen to paper and move it across a page? Who encouraged me to write?

A cousin put my first journal in my hand. I was nine, and the journal was baby breath’s pink. Its cover featured a kitten chasing a ball of twine. My cousin wrote an inscription inside the front cover. She told me to record my dreams and thoughts and ambitions. Until that moment, no one but me seemed to care about what went on inside a little girl’s head. Yet, the journal’s inscription bore a symbolic message that informs my work as a writer to this day: My writing and what I have to say are a necessary contribution to the world. It’s the same message I impart to you, my students.

Your writing and what you have to say are a necessary contribution to the world.

I initially started writing diary entries to get acquainted with my voice and to record moments of my life I wanted to remember. I write today to interrupt silences and to make meaning out of my failures or losses. I write to understand the other, the margins. I write to ask, not to answer.

What did it mean that my mother was chronically disabled for so many years?

How did I, as an adolescent and young adult, define myself against her illness?

What was I thinking at 21, when I boarded a plane for Glasgow, Scotland, to work in a country I could barely find on a map?

And then, two years later, why did I leave Scotland for another foreign country – the Louisiana Delta – to write about religion among people whose faith I did not share? What was I running away from? What was I running toward?

In each essay or book chapter or poem I create, I am writing toward and through such questions.

Like Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I write to seek, never to find.

Writing has, in turn, given me a life I never could have envisioned when I was nine and first writing in a baby’s breath pink journal with a cat on the cover.

Writing took me overseas and into parts of the United States I initially feared –– the Deep South, for example. Writing introduced me to my husband. Writing made me a teacher. Writing gave me permission to find myself, to be myself, to live with less guilt and shame or a need for approval.

I can find a thousand reasons to write, and a thousand reasons not to write. I chose to listen to the thousand voices that tell me to write, and I want all of you to do the same. Right now. Tune out every single voice that says you’re not good enough –- or too good –– to be here.

Write when you’re tired, sad, angry, hungry, guilty, ashamed, sick, scared, happy, anxious, wide awake.

There will never be a perfect time to write. The perfect time is now.

Remake the world with your writing. Rebuild yourself. In the words of Wendell Berry, “Practice resurrection.”

Show up in this room. Show up on each page you read, each page you create.

Be who you are when everyone can see you. Be who you are when no one can see you.

Listen. Seek. Question.

Get serious. Own your words. Make them sharp or shiny or beautiful. Make them everything that matters.