Beginning to Read
I. My mother had been reading to me since I was an infant. By the time I was a year old, I had heard all of Beatrix Potter’s writing and dozens of fables. Even when I couldn’t yet comprehend what she was doing or saying, she was helping me begin the process of acquiring the skill of reading. I asked her recently why she put so much care into making sure reading was an active part of my life, beyond teaching me to be literate for the sake of functioning in society. She listed several reasons, some of which were entirely practical like developing an increased vocabulary and high level of articulation so that I could be successful in school and in a later career. Others were more abstract, like instilling the appreciation for art, creativity, and cultivating and active imagination. Surely not coincidentally, these are all things that I value highly, and are the reasons why I want to write. They are also the reasons why I might even consider teaching, so that I can share the things that I have learned with others.
II. As part of a community-based learning class my junior year of college, we went once a week to an elementary school in Lancaster and teach creative writing to fourth and fifth graders. I was paired with Kaylin, and as we drove over the first day, we talked made sure we both remembered our game plan. First, to give them an understanding of what creative writing was. Second, for them to learn to enjoy writing. And third, for them to leave with a compilation of their work— neatly bound, of course.
I. CAT. BEG. BAG. FED. NAP. In kindergarten I got some of their spellings right, and made the others up. “Bag” and “beg” were interchangeable—I knew what they meant when I heard them out loud, but I didn’t yet understand the difference between “a” and “e.” I found out much later that there was talk of me having to repeat kindergarten. I didn’t, but that was a frustrating time that could have ultimately crippled desire to read and therefore my reading ability. I wanted to be right at all times and good at everything. This was the first time I was confronted with something that was going to take a bit more effort than I initially anticipated. Thankfully, with enough coaching by my mom and kindergarten teacher, Miss. Bradshaw, I can read and know the difference between “then” and “than.”
II. The first day of our teaching venture was a Thursday afternoon. I stepped into a school for the first time not as the student but as a teacher. I was cold and dark spots formed under the arms of my cardigan sweater—my make believe teacher garb. I was slightly terrified the kids would all find out I wasn’t really a teacher and tear my perfectly ironed sweater to shreds. But I knew that wasn’t really going to happen, mostly because my sweater hadn’t been ironed and was actually slightly wrinkled, and because I didn’t feel like I was much older than them. I didn’t know how they were going to perceive me as the after school program instructor. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to teach them anything. I suddenly felt like I knew nothing.
I. Growing up, we lived in a rural area and I was one of twelve kids in my grade until middle school. I won’t go as far to say that I was literally friends with my books, but I was fully immersed in the word of print as much as possible. My first library card was a prized possession and as necessary for survival as food and air. Through all of elementary school, a trip to the public library was in order once a week. I took books home by the armfuls, checking out the maximum number—eight at a time— and returning them the next week for eight new ones. One Halloween the library had an event for kids, a dress-up-in-costume-and-spend-the-night-at-the-library-telling-ghost-stories kind of deal. I won’t deny being utterly ecstatic to roll out a sleeping bag in the library and sleep among the thousands of books. I wanted to stay there until I had read them all.
II. While I was apprehensive about that first afternoon teaching, the terror momentarily subsided when Kaylin stopped the car and we had to open the door and walk into the building. Behind the orange double doors were a thousand tiny people running in circles, bumping into me. I wasn’t prepared for this. But just as I started to feel anxious again, problem-solving mode stepped in: Where are we supposed to go? Do we need to sign in? How many kids are we teaching? Is there a classroom available? Could we get some pencils? Do you have a pencil sharpener? And finally: Can everyone please sit down?
Adventure and Discovery
I. Laura Ingalls Wilder was my first love, and I was convinced I was born in the wrong era. Up until middle school, my room was decorated in the style of a log cabin, complete with quilt, braided rug, and fireplace wall decal with mantle shelf. I dreamed of traveling into the great unknown wilderness where there would be nothing but nature and the books brought along for company. Then and still, books were and are my companions. The shelves of comforting paper pages take me away from the “real world” and though the reality of these books is not always accurate to history or science, I don’t always know any differently, nor do I really care. The worlds they create transport me to places beyond what I am familiar with, beyond the mundane. Each time I open a new book, I know I am about to delve into an alternate reality, where the laws of this world aren’t necessarily present, where I can suspend my disbelief and go alongside the adventure for whatever length of time my eyes linger on the pages. That experience is what convinced me to love reading, and it is why I still do.
II. We taught in the cafeteria, because that was where we were told to go. There was no blackboard, but we could make do without, though I had hoped to write some terms so that the kids could see them. Kaylin and I managed to get everyone seated at two tables and I attempted to introduce us over the babbling in the back. We began with a civil discussion about writing and what it meant. Half the class jumped out of their seats with their opinions, while the other half was bored out of their minds. I indulged the first half for a few minutes before I knew we needed to move on. For the next part of the lesson, I was to read a story to them, because I figured that reading was an important part of the writing process. Much to my surprise, most of them were quiet and paid attention. Only when I heard my voice as I read aloud did I realize that I was so used to class discussions in college, that I had forgotten about how much I loved reading aloud and being read to. For some reason I hadn’t remembered what it was like to be their age, to be a kid who just wants to hear a good story.
I. My freshman year of high school, I ventured on one of my first writing endeavors: a novel. Never mind the fact I had never written a short story that I was really satisfied with, I was going to write a novel because it was about time I had something to show for my existence—I had lived fifteen years and hadn’t yet made any memorable contributions to the world. I filled thirty pages of my notebook before my heroine became annoying and I was no longer enamored with my plot. For a while afterwards, I turned to poetry; and then when I got a guitar for my sixteenth birthday, I would be a songwriter. I shared my poems and songs with my friends and they assured me that they were good and I should continue writing. When I found my notebooks as I was packing for college and wanted to burn them all. But I didn’t; I knew there was some value to them. While everything I had written was riddled with overwrought clichés and was otherwise completely tortured, I had really tried and they had come from a place that was earnest, and then, that is what mattered most.
II. Our first few weeks, we focused on the basics of character, setting, and plot for building a short story. Kaylin had said something after the first class about not wanting them to write about existing characters, and at the time I had agreed and gone along with trying to implement that rule. We insisted that they be original, though they protested not being allowed to write about SpongeBob, Patrick, Superman, and Batman. Instead, we said that they could write about a sea sponge as long as he wasn’t SpongeBob, and they could make up a new superhero if they wanted. But after having to say this a half dozen times, I realized that we were being restrictive in a way that we didn’t need to be. They wanted to write about their favorite TV show character, and I didn’t see why I should be stopping them. So Kaylin and I changed our objective and our strategy. If that’s what would get them to write, then so be it. There was one stipulation on this though—they could not write down exactly what they had seen on TV or read in their comic books. After this announcement, one boy in still seemed at a loss of what to write about, so I told him to write an episode that he had never seen before. He asked if he could write about the characters before the show started, when they were younger and before everything happened. Of course he could! And I looked forward to reading it.
I. My junior year of high school, I took a Creative Writing Class. Besides my attempt at writing a novel, this is what I consider to be my first real experience with fiction writing. Two of the boys in the class wanted to become writers. One of them actually has gone off to become a writer, and at 21 is already quite successful. But at 17, I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do, and they intimidated me. In class discussions, they referenced books and short stories I hadn’t read and though they were my year, they seemed so much older. Because of this, however, I really tried to push myself. I spent a lot of my time dedicated to turning out works that I was proud of for that class, probably more than I should have for a class that was not one of my core subjects. In retrospect, it was worth it (and not just because one of the writer boys ended up asking me on a date). At the end of the semester, my teacher, Mr. Houghton, said that whenever I got some of my work published, he expected me to send him a copy. I was a bit startled when he said this, because at the time I was still not entirely confident in my ability to write, though I enjoyed it. But Mr. Houghton believed that I had potential, and so I believed him. I signed up for Creative Writing II the next semester.
II. The kids wrote. Some wrote a lot very quickly, some wrote slowly and with perfect penmanship, and others got distracted and started poking the kid sitting next to them. Then there was a couple that sat twirling their pencils with a look of frustrated concentration. When I asked them why they weren’t writing, they surprised me with, “I can’t think of anything to write.” I had previously figured that all children had an endless supply of ideas and characters at hand. I am not sure why I had thought this, since I could certainly remember times when I had felt like there was nothing to write about. But when I was confronted with that statement from the mouth of a fifth grader, I kicked myself for ever letting that thought cross my mind. In this cafeteria-classroom with these young minds, I knew that the possibilities were endless for me and for them. Anyone could write about anything. So I told them to write about anything, because anything can be something. That was probably a bit vague, but I was convicted of it. And suddenly I realized that the goals that Kaylin and I had set out for us weren’t quite right given the circumstances. Since I was sure that every ounce of those kids was packed to the brim with creativity, it was our job to help them uncover that creativity. The next time I glanced over at the ones who didn’t know what to write, they were writing.
I. The first book that I read carefully without skimming over sections as I had the tendency to do, was Crime and Punishment, just before I graduated high school. Before then, I had simply devoured what I was reading without taking the time to savor the language. I read only for the plot. But it must have been something about the plot of Dostoyevsky’s work that compelled me; I hadn’t read something so meticulous and engrossed within the mind of a character before. After that, I knew I wanted to find other works in that psychological vein that demanded my attentiveness to every word and detail. The most challenging work I read the summer before I began college was Correction: A Novel by Thomas Bernhard. Some sentences were multiple pages long and the prose was unending without the pause of paragraph breaks. I picked it up because I thought the cover looked interesting, and bought it because I knew it would be a hard read. It was difficult, not in the language but that it caused me to slow down. And I found that slowing down was actually quite nice.
II. One Sunday afternoon in November, our class took a trip into Philadelphia to visit Mighty Writers, a nonprofit organization with an afterschool program and classes for kids to gain thinking and writing skills. We met with Program Director Rachel Loeper, and among the various bits of wisdom that she bestowed upon us pseudo-teachers, the most helpful for me was the reminder that we were teaching kids, and they have different needs than adults. Of course I knew this to some degree, but I also figured that if I treated them like they were adults, then they would feel respected and in turn respect me. Which I am sure is decent in theory, but what I failed to realize was that I needed a different structure from what I had become accustomed to as a classroom setting. The kids needed to run around, they needed to get up, they needed to do things with their hands that was interactive and expelled their energy so that they could then focus on writing. The next class after visiting Mighty Writers, we began with a game, Zip-Zap-Zop, and low and behold, they were able to sit down and write for a solid ten minutes after that. It seemed like a breakthrough at the time, but really it was so painfully obvious that is what we should have been doing all along. We only had a few more classes left, and they were mostly all fantastic because we had brought in the fun.
Just Going with It
I. Senior year of high school, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, and since I had to begin the process of applying to colleges, it was becoming an increasingly pressing to figure it out. So I looked at schools with good English programs, because that was the class I seemed to get the highest grades in, and Creative Writing (I and II) had been fun, and that seemed like a good enough reason just to go with it. I got into two schools, and waitlisted on a few more, so I went with what I thought was the better choice between the two I got into—Franklin & Marshall College. I started off right away with a linguistics class, but dabbled in many other areas, just because I could. In the back of my head, I knew I was going to end up as an English major, but I wanted to entertain the possibility of something else, just to give the other departments a fair shot of winning me over. I didn’t end up officially declaring English (concentration in Creative Writing) as my major until my first semester of my junior year, but I had been telling people that was my major for at least a year. It was inevitable.
II. One class, we began with an attempt at unearthing sensory details. The assignment was for them to pick a place and to describe what they see, feel, smell, taste, and hear. They could choose from the list I gave (outer space, an ocean, a rainforest, on top of a mountain, a desert) or choose their own location. I was excited for this exercise; as I was planning, I imagined being in each of these places and I was struck with wanderlust. To my surprise, these locations were met with the outcry that all these places were boring. Boring? They were awesome! But then I realized that the places were only awesome if they chose to see them that way. I emphasized that they could choose another location if they preferred. So with the exercise underway, I went around the class to see how they were doing. One girl read me her answer to the prompt: “I’m in space so I don’t see, feel, smell, taste, or hear anything because I am dead.” And the girl next to her responded, “Yeah, same for me because I am in the middle of the ocean.” I had been convinced that children would more readily disregard the laws of reality in favor of the imagination. Apparently I was wrong. I told them to forgo the idea that they would be crushed by the change in pressure or suffocate or freeze. Imagine that you will be fine, just as you are now, just transported somewhere else. One of the girls came to my rescue. She told the one who said she felt nothing in the ocean, “I chose the ocean too, but I’m a mermaid and I can see all kinds of fish and feel the warm water. You could be a mermaid too, or a fish.” And they commenced their scribbling.
The Art of Writing
I. I visited the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin & Marshall one autumn afternoon after deciding to submit to the writing contest inspired by the Hudson River Exhibit. While the art itself was captivating, I was drawn to reading the short snippets beside the paintings. Normally I am not one to do so; for some reason I had convinced myself that the words beside the art were unnecessary for my artistic eye’s consumption. They were just plaques of dates and history and some person’s interpretation of the art that I would probably not care about. But I wanted to win the contest, so I sought out every glimmer of inspiration to churn out the best poem possible. I read the plaques. While I thought that the purpose of my visit was to be inspired by the art, I found myself inspired by the descriptions of the art as well. I wrote down aptly coupled words, the titles of the paintings, and words that the caption writer used to describe the tone or the colors. With those words I began to form some of my own writing. While I didn’t win the contest, this was an eye-opening experience. I suppose I had some inclination that writing and art were intertwined—I had always considered them both forms of art—but for the first time I realized that the writing and the art together could be something more profound than either by themselves.
II. In order to live out the idea of letting kids be kids, Kaylin and I decided to indulge in the world of arts and crafts. Inspired by Purgatory Pie Press, we would make “instant books.” First off, poems taped to the walls of the cafeteria. It was a slight madhouse for them to find one that they liked and return to their seats, but I figured this might expel some energy and let them focus on the task at hand. They wrote the poem out on printer paper in neon highlighter and complained that they couldn’t read it. “Trust me,” I said. They didn’t seem like they did, but we went on anyway. They folded their papers into tiny booklets and wrote their names on the covers. In turn, they handed their original poem to the person beside them, choose a line, and wrote it down, ultimately creating a poem of their own from all of the poems that had been on the wall. Their poems were created from other poems, both literally and figuratively, and the overlapping of both in different colored markers was appealing in an artistic sense. At least it was to me; I don’t know if they understood the implications of what they were doing. They thought they were making little books, but they were really making art.
Setting Off into the Great Unknown
I. By my third year of college, I was aware that writing was inevitably going to be a huge part of my life, and so I was determined to be good at it. I enrolled in three intensive writing classes for the semester. I was a writer. I carried a notebook and I drank black coffee and typed furiously. I read in my free time—I made free time to read even though I didn’t have any free time—and let myself be carried by the world of the Writers House and who I dreamt I was. I was a writer. I thought that if I acted like one, I might become one. For a week, I wrote “WRITER” on my wrist to remind myself of who I was, who I was becoming. Then I let it fade into my veins and simply tried to embody it. I stayed up until two and three and four and wrote stories of people who may have been me and I poured all my worries into my writing. I wrote the things that needed to be written– I wrote about my fears, about my family, about my confused spiritual state, apprehensive sexual liberation, the trepidation to let myself love. I exposed myself to my classmates, and they thought I was writing fiction. I’m not writing fiction, though some of it may be false. I have a lot more to expose about the world and myself, and that will be a life-long process of discovering how to do that honestly. But so far, telling myself that I am a writer has worked pretty well; I believe it, but I know I still have a lot to learn.
II. The last class was the culmination of what Kaylin and I had learned, what we had come to realize what was important, and what the kids needed. They finished up their stories they had been working on for several weeks and transferred them onto paper. We had managed to secure a large assortment of markers, and they were thrilled. Once they were done, they chose the binding of their storybook—brightly colored scrapbook paper, and pasted on their title and name below. The books were fastened; some of them did so more meticulously than others. Kaylin and I had accomplished what we set out to do, in some form. We had originally wanted to give them portfolios of their work, for this book to contain multiple stories and poems. But that’s not what ended up happening. Maybe a more experienced teacher could have made it work, but for us, as first time teachers, we were pleased that we had been able to give them anything to take home with them. It was odd saying goodbye—I didn’t know if I would ever see Norah or Zoe or Nasir or Isaiah or Dayima again. Would they go back to their classes unchanged by our writing workshops together? Had they learned anything about writing or about themselves? There is value in these questions, certainly, but at the same time I knew that there was nothing I could do. I had to walk away in faith that this experience had been worthwhile. Maybe I had learned more than they did, but there is no way to know; there is no way to quantify the teaching and the learning that goes on between teachers and students in this kind of setting. I think I am okay with that though, because at the end, I got hugs from the kids I had gotten to know over those weeks, and that gesture told me that they appreciated that Kaylin and I were there. If nothing else, they appreciated that we were there and we tried, and I think I have learned a lot from that.