A Good Question

Where do you write?”

It was a surprising question from a guest at a party in my home.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I write. I even sometimes call myself a writer.   I’ve worked with this woman for seven years. She knows this about me, reads my blog, and owns a copy of my book. Why did her question catch me so off guard?

I proceeded to explain that if it was morning I wrote at my dining room table because I love the morning light on the golden walls of that room. If the weather is mild, I sit on a back patio by a small fountain, where the sound of the trickling water and the green walls of trees and shrubs surround me. That spot, in fact, is where I wrote my devotional book a few years ago, and I showed her the exact chair where I sat on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, pulling together the week’s worth of handwritten notes and scribbles and somehow turning then into seven devotionals a week in order to meet a tight deadline.

It took only seconds to answer her, but long after the guests were gone and the last dish put away, the question still lingered in my mind.   Though in the moment I was serving as hostess, and day-to-day this person signs my paycheck as a teacher, her question spoke identity to me. She sees me as a writer.

Where do you write does two things for me. It acknowledges my identity as a writer and my need for space and time to work. The question validates writing as work, real work that must be done in a particular space at a certain point in time. CFOs have offices; teachers have classrooms; surgeons have operating rooms. Writers have… desks, tables, laptops, coffee shops… patios?

The inward response of surprise I felt when she posed her question, along with the lightness in my spirit I felt afterwards tells me two things as well. I’ve begun to believe it myself, that I am made to write, that it is who I am; but the surprise tells me that I have yet to conceive that others see me that way. The satisfaction in having the very question posed tells me I long for that – to be seen by others as a writer.

It’s all fine and good to say one should write because she has things to express or one should write whether anyone reads it or not (there are some valid reasons for that – not everything I write is to be public) – but at the end of the day, writing, though extremely solitary in the doing, is not solitary at all. It’s a conversation. I am writing TO somebody, maybe to several “somebodies”. Writing is relational. It’s my side of the topic and I need a reader to ‘talk back’. Whether she ever literally speaks to me about what I’ve written is not the point, but I need to know that someone nods and smiles and underlines and cries and argues as she reads my words – the same way I do when I read my favorite writers who may never know I exist.

The first week of class in AP Language and Composition we cover the rhetorical triangle: speaker, audience, and subject. Without the audience, the triangle collapses. We can’t write into nothingness. You, the reader, must be there for us, in our mind’s eye and ear. We shape our sentences and choose our words for you.

From the first methods class in composition as an undergraduate, I was taught that a good writing teacher writes with her students. I believed it. I still believe it. How can I teach what I do not know and do? I have always found this extremely difficult, though, perhaps because I took it too literally. While my students write, the temptation is too strong to be reading the last thing they wrote or conferencing with one who needs help. The marking of papers is never done!

But I do write with my students – daily, weekly, and regularly. I struggle with blank page, the distractions, the frustrations of revisions and edits, and the balancing of more urgent things vying for my time just like they do.  I don’t write in the classroom while they write, but I do write with them – in my dining room and on my patio and in the red leather chair in the den.   It was an excellent question: Where do you write?

So What Happens When…You Do Hurt Them?

So what happens when…. this was the subject line of an email I received a few days after I wrote my last blog post.  I smiled. I knew before I opened the emailed what the rest of it would say: …You do hurt them?   My smile was not because hurting anyone is pleasant or funny, but because of the inevitability of it.  When you interact with other people all day long, somewhere in all those words somebody will get hurt occasionally.

My colleague went on to explain that she’d refused to let a kid off the hook in answering a question in the beginning days of school.  She assumed, like most of us  high school teachers would, that he was apathetic and unprepared.   Later she learned that he had “serious academic issues –  some processing problems,”  and now she feels “awful!”

How did I answer her?

You just do what you are doing.

Buried in her question was most of my answer.  She had already recognized what she had done.  She’s self-aware, a reflective person by nature, and willing to grow and change as a professional.  She had the presence of mind to think about what she had done and put a name to it.  To recognize is to identify, to acknowledge, to accept, to admit.

Secondly, she confessed.  In reaching out to me, in telling another person, “Hey, I messed up,” she is finding solidarity and accountability. Those two things can carry a person through most anything.   Confession to another person means somebody to feel my pain and  share my regret because they’ve had this experience too and somebody to help me lessen my chances of messing up again. Telling our stories has tremendous power both to heal ourselves and help each other.

Thirdly,  I told her to start again with awareness. We are given a sunrise every morning.  Mercy is extended to us upon waking.  She could, the very next day, just be kind and supportive to that student. He will in time see that she genuinely cares for him and her ‘push’ wasn’t personal. The beauty of the Gospel is that even our messes are redeemed and used for good purposes in the lives of others and ourselves.

Some occasions call for apologies, not an easy thing coming from the teacher to the student. We mostly expect them going in the other direction.  But there is tremendous power in that act to create a lasting relationship with a student. To show yourself as a flawed human being, to show them what humility looks like, to recognize the dignity of their feelings, to show them that power doesn’t exempt us from continuing to learn out of our own frustrations and failures,  those may be some of the best lessons we ever teach them.

Then, I told her to let it go.  In starting again, mindful of what you have learned, don’t waste time and energy and emotion on the guilt.  Nothing creative comes out of guilt and we need creative teachers in our classrooms.

And lastly,  don’t be surprised when you mess up again.  Pride is the problem when we are continually shocked at ourselves for imperfection.   If you’re like the rest of the human race, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll hurt someone with your words once in awhile.  When you do, start with step one: recognition… and repeat the above process.