You know those teacher conversations? The ones that begin with “Gosh, I don’t know what’s gotten into so-and-so,” or maybe “His grades have really dropped.” I listen to teachers in the lounge commiserate about how to motivate our students. As high school teachers, we fight a battle, or maybe more accurately, wage a war, against hormones and extracurricular sports; against apathy and electronics; against short attention spans and sometimes less than thrilling subjects (Pronoun/ Antecedent agreement, anyone?).
But here’s the difference: I know why my students’ grades have dropped. I am not a psychic or a counselor. I teach them to write. I teach them to express themselves. As a result, they express themselves to me. And so I know.
I teach sophomore English at Lamar School, a private college prep school in Meridian. Through my ten years of teaching various grades, I have developed a curriculum that is writing intensive. We read literature and respond. I love reading my students’ opinions on Hector’s gripping death at the hands of Achilles in The Iliad. I love reading their responses to Beowulf’s bravery as he battles Grendel in the fiery depths of that gruesome creature’s lair. Seeing my students inspired to read and write about these works of literature that meant so much to me…well, the feeling defies description. It’s why I became a teacher. Or so I thought.
My students also work tirelessly (or so they claim) writing personal narratives on a broadly defined topic. This is the best way I have found for them to apply their grammar skills (that pesky pronoun/ antecedent stuff) and to develop their vocabulary (I have forbidden them to use linking verbs. Many tears are shed over that one, I assure you). Our students at Lamar are all college bound, and I want to prepare them for the inevitable onslaught of college entrance essays. So I lecture tirelessly (or so I claim) about the pedagogical theory behind writing these essays. And then came the essay that changed it all.
The broad topic was forgiveness: I threw Diogenes’s famous quotation about “forgiveness is better than revenge” as a stepping off point. I read through class after class, marking comma splices and misplaced modifiers. One boy, 15 years old nonetheless, wrote about his the complicated experiences he faced following his father’s death. Prior to reading this essay, I really enjoyed teaching this child; he is very bright and studious. He seems happy and popular with his peers, but this glimpse behind his sophomore façade almost broke my heart. But what saved my heart is…that he chose to share this with me, knowing I would read the content as well as the grammar. Of course, I can’t openly acknowledge what he told me; after all, he does have his teenage image to protect. But tacitly, we both know. I think we were both changed: his ability to write this story was obviously cathartic. I experienced a renewed compassion not only for him, but also for all my students who struggle behind their carefully crafted exteriors.
It is all because of writing.
And so I know.
– Mary Wilson, Lamar School