It’s the Sunday morning at the end of the first week of classes for the fall semester. I’ve just moved to Providence, RI and I’m so much happier here. I miss my place by the water but this neighborhood has a vibrant park filled with people, a health food store two blocks away, a deli on the next corner and gardens everywhere. And there’s this little sunny spot by the living room window that looks out at my neighbor’s trellis of squash where I sit and watch the light change. I don’t know her name and she doesn’t speak English well but I always want to call her Mrs. Kim after a character from one of my favorite books. Someday I will tell her how much joy her little yard provides me with. I’ve just painted this room peach and the kitchen is turquoise. I don’t know what possessed me but there it is. My small rooms are now bright and vibrant and colored like New Mexico. It is here that I sit down to read the first pieces of writing my new students have given me.
Every semester, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to write me a letter of introduction. I explain to them that this tradition comes out of 18th and 19th century western culture, where it served as a way for people in society to meet one another. Then I tell them they can liken it to the original friend request. They don’t think that’s very funny but lucky for me I don’t mind looking like a complete nerd in front of a room full of teenagers.
I learned to ask for these letters from one of my favorite professors in graduate school, Dr. Santos, who said she had files filled with letters from each of the students she had in her 26 years of teaching. She said that once she read them she would always remember who that student was. It didn’t matter if she had taught them 20 years earlier. My own complete lack of a genius mind and perfect memory notwithstanding, I have found that it is one of the most important parts of the semester with any new class. The letters help these strangers come into form in my mind. Out of the darkness come their beautiful, unmistakable lives.
Simply put, each one tells a story about who this person is. And it is their story. I tell them the assignment is wide open, they will not be graded and they can write about whatever they want. It can be as short or as long as they want it to be. I do give them suggestions: they can write about their culture, language, family, what they love or hate, what they think they are good at. I ask them to describe any hidden superpowers they might have. I ask them what they love and hate about being in a classroom. But I tell them that they can write about anything. So often in a classroom we are working to get students to fit parameters we’ve set up with pedagogical goals we want to reach, but when it is so low-stakes and individual they really get to shine without fear of success or failure. I want to be able to tell them that writing can be this too, not just a space filled with rules but a place to be free.
And their letters are genius. Their honesty and vulnerability fill me with gratitude. The details of their lives lure me in. I mean, not every letter bares the student’s soul but so many of them do that it makes me believe that they really do want to be seen, be heard, be understood. They have something to say. This reminder comes in handy by mid-semester when some of them have settled into not talking during class and barely occupying their seats, texting in class and all the other ridiculous antics that consume a teacher’s life.
For now, this is the way that I start to learn them and it reminds me why I do what I do. One girl talks about how much she misses her mom and how tight-knit her Puerto Rican family is. She describes a life where she is always in a room with loved ones. Another explains how he got his name and details the struggles of coming from Guatemala and learning a new language, how hard it is to be far from home. One talks about how she is the first person in her family to go to college and how she wants nothing more than to make her family proud of her. This desire drives her to succeed. Another talks about the satisfaction of coming to this country as an immigrant and working his way up to receiving scholastic awards and participating in the honors society. Yet another is a 19-year-old mom who describes how when she got too broke to pay the cable bill, she had it shut off and started to read instead. She never turned it back on and describes her life as simple and quiet.
Then, I write the pieces they forget to mention in my own head. I imagine how it must feel to be a child without a mother or father, raised by aunts and uncles and grandparents. I am impressed by how many of them still view their family members as heroes and role models. And what does all of this have to do with writing? Well, what I know about writing is that we are here to tell our stories. We might be telling them with argument, with scientific evidence, with a poem, or any manner of communication. But, we as a human species want to share. We are wired this way, for narrative and for recounting of experience. My hope is that each of these students will feel that they have a place in the classroom and by extension, the world, that there is someone there on the other side of their words, paying attention to a small slice of their story.
I know this semester will be long and there will be moments when I don’t want to see their faces one more day. I will question my motives, I will wonder if I am successful or not, I will ponder how someone like me who likes so much quiet has chosen such a public life, or how, a misfit like me who never fit in spends so much time in a group with others. But for now, all existential questions aside, it is a sweet way to begin.