Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall
This morning I headed to an innovative public high school on Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn, NY, to begin teaching a 12-week memoir workshop. It was exciting--and extremely challenging--to be back in a rowdy, inner city public school classroom after three quiet years of a Manhattan private school (not to mention the last eight months of hanging out with the please-please-teach-me-more WritopiaLab kids.)
Surprises on Flatbush Ave:
1) The first group of freshmen seemed to like the idea of memoir. Three girls raised their hands to talk about the deaths of friends--one was there when it happened. But writing on this first day was clearly out of the question. Maybe what they liked was the idea of being heard. The harder part will come next week.
2) As the principal gave me a tour of the school, he was both authoritative and genuinely warm with every kid he passed in the hall. And seemed to know all 140 by name. Was very moving to watch him interact with "his kids."
3) The second group didn't want to hear about memoir, or talk about anything. It was a sub, the principal, and me and when the principal left the room for a moment, one kid spit out the "f" word three times as quickly as he could and then looked straight at me. I took in the challenge, stared back, and sparred: "That was disrespectful." He disappeared into a chat with a friend, and I immediately felt old and silly--and frustrated that I wasn't connecting with these kids. Then, magically--and I mean magically as I take absolutely no credit for this--by the last 10 minutes of class, almost the entire group became engrossed in writing the first paragraphs of their memoir. I was caught off guard, suddenly teaching creative writing on Flatbush Ave.
3) The principal explained to me after class that the kids, for the most part, are "level one writers" and therefore assume they are going to fail at the creative writing project. I felt so much pain in that moment and wished I could go back and start from the beginning... and assure them that I will be helping them through every step.
4) As I headed to the subway after school, I passed half a dozen vegetarian Guyanese restaurants. I was surprised--I had never heard of this particular specialty, let alone seen so many variations of it in a row. I asked a restaurant manager about the trend. "I did it, and then everyone copied me." I am a vegetarian. I was tired and hungry.
I am looking forward to more surprises and lessons next week.