Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall
I anxiously headed out this morning to a public school on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to lead the second session of a 12-week memoir project. The school hired me to provide creative writing enrichment for their freshmen--and I was pretty confident that I had failed to do so in the first week. But the principal told me something poignant and painful as I was leaving: "The kids are all level-one writers, so they expect to fail this project."
I realized in that moment that their resistance to writing was more of a call for help than an act of fundamental disinterest or rebellion.
So with that, at first things turned around today:
As I came in, the kids sat down and placed the first paragraphs of their memoirs in front of them on their desks. (They had dutifully done them for homework at the prodding of their teacher.) They were quiet and nervous. And staring at me.
"Would anyone like to share?" I asked. One boy tentatively raised his hand. He read his paragraph about his friend who recently became addicted to drugs. I pointed out what was excellent about it. Then, one by one, the others shared their stories aloud: a fatal shooting one witnessed in a park; the murder of an 8-year-old niece; several incarcerations of brothers and parents; the close bond between one writer and his grandmother; the importance of friendship.
Normally when I give feedback, I begin with what I love most and then discuss what could be improved. But I decided in this case to do the constructive part privately. Each 5-minute one-on-one ended with a declaration that they knew where they were going next in their memoir. Towards the end of class, we discussed how to clearly convey a conversation between two people in writing--and then I asked them to add a scene with "dialogue" in the next paragraph of their memoirs. They thoughtfully nodded. It felt so good to see the contentment in their faces... But then...
No one had worked on their memoirs since the previous week, and there were no signs of what they had started last time either. By the end of the period, my throat hurt from teaching--and from begging for quiet--above chatting and tapping and banging and laughing and dancing.
But at one point, the loudest kid interrupted me as I was discussing how to write dialogue: "What? So if you say something, and then your mama say something, and then you say something, you start a new paragraph each time?!" Surprised (and happy) by her unexpected interest-doused-in-outrage, I picked up a novel off the shelf, found a page with dialogue, and showed her. "Damn, I get it!" she shouted. And then she quietly began writing a scene in her memoir.
By the end, most of them had found a piece of paper and writing utensil and had quietly put their thoughts to paper for at least ten minutes. I went around the room and read each one's writing and told them how great it was. And then I collected all of the work at the end of class so they wouldn't have to start from scratch again next week.
I don't expect this group to write long, polished memoirs, or that the other group is going to come in next week with perfectly constructed scenes with dialogue. But I do feel confident that most of the kids in both classes are going to get something out of the project. Which is a big change of thought from last week. I wonder if this will be a roller coast ride or if it's only going to get better.