This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on February 19, 2008.
One of my favorite moments teaching college English is discovering the stories of students when I read their essays. I never know what tale of woe or triumph or joy I might encounter.
Imagine turning, as I did recently, to an essay in a stack and reading this: “In 1975, the communists from North Vietnam overran the south not long after the American soldiers left. My family faced a dark future.”
The student describes her many years in and out of prison for repeated attempts to escape her country. Until I read her words, I had no idea that the quiet Asian woman in the third row of my class had endured such hardships, the threat of malaria and other diseases, or that she’d escaped by bicycle through Cambodia to Thailand.
Of course, not all essays are so dramatic. Many well-written papers describe interesting vacations or experiences falling in love or the trauma of divorce or people who made a difference in the students’ lives.
Sometimes the essays are funny, such as one that got me smiling by a young man who writes, “I’ve been breaking stuff since I can remember. Somehow, I broke all four windows in my friend’s Honda Civic by leaning on them the wrong way. He also has a beanbag couch I put a huge gash in because my keys were sticking out of my pocket. That room turn into a winter wonderland.”
Later in the essay, this writer asserts that he comes from a long line of men who were known for breaking things: “The crack in the Liberty Bell was an accident by my great-great-great grandfather.” And the leaning tower of Pisa, he claims, got that way due to “a stick of beef jerky, a goldfish, and a hot Italian chick” that one of his ancestral grandfathers was wooing. “But that’s a whole other story,” he writes.
Some essays move in unexpected directions, such as one that introduces a morning in a hospital never to be forgotten on September 11, 2001. But as the essay unfolds, the memorable moment, we discover, is not the loss of life and the destruction of the twin towers. Rather, writes the author, “I’ll always remember it as the day my life began. Some people call it a moment of clarity, others call it an epiphany. I don’t know exactly what to call it, but when I held my baby girl, I was a new man. I had a purpose. I was a father now.”
Other memorable essays involve heartbreaking or suspenseful moments, such as when one writer describes helplessly witnessing the drowning of his friend as the brute force of a river pulls him under, or another suspenseful essay that begins, “I remember the doctor telling us she could die in her sleep. I remember not really understanding what it meant that she needed surgery.” This author tells about her younger sister’s successful journeys through heart and scoliosis surgery, her visits in and out of the hospital for various conditions. “She only complained when it really hurt,” she writes. “Her attitude toward life is strong-willed.”
As a teacher, I enjoy engaging students in the process of writing. Often an artistic and therapeutic tool, writing is a healthy activity on many levels. It requires a mental focus, and prompts us to think through elements of our lives we may not have explored in much depth.
When I read the essays, I share in the lives and hopes and dreams of my students. In one essay, an 18-year-old woman shares her love of dancing, a love she’s had her whole life.
“Dancing has taught me to be determined,” she writes. “I may not become a famous dancer, but I know it will help me in whatever I decide to do. At heart, I will always be the little girl pulling on her soft pink tights and leotard in awe of the art that is dance.”