Stories that Last

Stories that Last September 21, 2014

To write is to share the truth of your life, of your heart.

Now, I don’t mean to be pretentious here.  I’m aware that, while Quaker Pagan Reflections has a certain value, it’s not earth-shaking or transformative.  Neither Peter nor I are a Walt Whitman, a Henry David Thoreau, or even an Ursula LeGuin.  But we do our best to speak our own truths, our own hearts, and on some level, our relative lack of skill is not the point.  We’re trying to be honest–we’re trying to share what is real in our lives.

In my life offline, I am a teacher in a small, rural high school.  The kids aren’t perfect (what kids are?) and we don’t have all the resources we need (what public school does?) but we’re a small enough school so that hardly anyone gets lost in a crowd.  I get to know my “kids,” my students.  I get to know their stories–not always, but often.

classroomAnd I get to teach them writing–and, with seniors, I get to guide them through what can be the powerful, personal writing of their college application essays.

Of course every student does not yet have either the verbal skill or the personal life experience to craft a moving essay.  I’ve seen my share of cliches; I’m sure the college admissions officers have seen even more.

But then, there’s that other kind.  Sometimes, kids have something important to say.

Today I introduced the Common App essay to my kids, my guys.  I talked about it as a kind of a writing audition, and also as the way to introduce the person each of them really is, beyond the test scores and grades and clubs. I shared this year’s writing prompts with them (of course) but I also shared stories with them, anecdotes that fit the prompts: a friend of my daughter’s, who had come to this country a refugee from Bosnia; what it had been like to be with my own mother the night that her mother died.  Stories can be about memories of big events or small ones, but the best stories are the ones that are most real to us.

“Find the story you can feel physically enough to write those details,” I said.  “When the phone rang, the night my mother’s mother died, and I went into her room, we curled up together under the quilt her grandmother had made and talked until sunrise.  I will always remember the rough cloth of that quilt, and the cold slickness of my mother’s bare feet.  Give me that: give me the story your body will remember your whole life.”

Because bodies don’t lie.  Bodies remember our deep truths… and if we can write that honestly, then our readers can feel the truth of our stories in their own flesh.  That is how we make our heart’s wisdom real to one another.

And while most students are going to struggle with that, spending time in the shallow waters of young love, the death of a pet, and getting cut from the basketball team, some will tell even those stories so truthfully they will hold wisdom.  And some… some have stories that transcend the genre of the application essay.

He came up to me at the very end of class.

“I know what I’m going to write about,” he said.

“I imagine you do,” I replied.  It showed in his eyes.

“It has been eight months,” he said.  “Eight months–”

“I miss your dad, too.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.”

His eyes were wet, but his face was firm and strong.

“But,” I went on, “what a dad.  A man to make you proud.  A man who made you the person that you are.”

And his face shone with the truth of that, that pride.

sunburstHis father had died quickly, painfully, from cancer.  He was the non-custodial parent, a janitor who worked at our school.  After a wild youth, he’d become wise.  He had been my friend: my chain-smoking, heavily tattooed, book-loving friend, whose son learned honor and goodness from his example.

Missed for a reason, that one.

To write is to share the truth of your life, your heart.  To teach is to hold that sharing in trust, and to nurture it.  And many of my students have lives, have hearts, of extraordinary beauty.  To try to help them voice that beauty in words–that is a joy, a privilege I can only do my best to earn.

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