This week, my students are wrapping up classes with speeches on their journeys this year. It’s intentionally a broad topic, designed to get them reflecting and sharing something (anything) important that happened this year. They get two minutes to speak to me and their peers, and then they’re done. Newman passed the assignment on to me years ago when I needed something to fill a couple of classes, and I’ve repeated it every year since as it’s a fine way to end the year (as long as the classes have bonded enough to be routinely nice to each-other and comfortable enough to say what’s really important to them and not some sanitized or, as Holden C. would say, “phony” version of what they think will get them an A). The truth is, if they say anything that is earnest and from the heart, they will get an A. I spent a lot of time today listening to speeches by freshmen, and I was impressed, as I am every time, at the wisdom of these young adults.
We are gathered in the outdoor classroom, a recent addition to the school with large flat boulders as seats and trees too young to shade us yet. Occasionally, a student who is not in our class walks by and glances our way, wondering what he is missing out on, why we are all gazing so attentively at the speaker in front of us. We pause when an airplane flies by; we take a break to sample some of the brownies, chips, and fruit everyone has brought to share.
My students are sharing lessons that they’ve learned, not because someone told them it was so, but because they’ve lived it, many for the first time in their lives. A lot of them speak of overcoming challenges: parents’ divorces, losing a family member, moving to a new community, changing friendships, failing and then recovering at sports or academics or hobbies. Some speak of travel, of discovering a new talent, of finding something in themselves they didn’t know was there. They are surprised, shy, vulnerable. They are confident, repetitive, and funny. The writers among them shine forth with brave spoken word performances and poetic treats they have clearly pored over for hours. Their peers applaud loudly, lending an”ooh” here and an “I can’t follow that!” to show their appreciation. They see each-other and hear each-other. Friends nod and smile as they watch someone share something they have already been privy too, something a little personal, something you might miss if you aren’t leaning in, listening carefully.
We don’t talk about the speeches afterwards, although we could; I ask them instead to write notes to the speakers whose words stand out to them: those they can relate to or who inspire them. One young woman reaches for more cards to write more notes; she is touched by the young man who speaks of how Catcher in the Rye has helped him put his uncle’s death into perspective, by the young woman who returned from India deeply disturbed by the poverty she encountered, by her sister who went on the same trip and exuberantly shares her pride of overcoming the germ phobia she thought would ruin it for her. Some of the quieter students reveal bolder sides, their voices coming through clearly for the first time all year. The assignment and nearness to the end have lent them courage, and we bask in their momentary glory with them.
At the end of each class, I thank them and release them, always feeling like I handle the transition poorly. Newman asks how it went, and I mumble “ok.” I am still thinking about their words and their spirits, wishing I knew them better, grateful to know them enough to hear what they have to say. The lessons they have learned are real and important: some of them are lessons I also have learned this year, things that I find myself nodding to and underlining on the brief notes I put on their rubrics. “Yes,” I write and say. “YES.”
Newman and I are slowly, carefully starting to pick through pieces of our brutal fight over the weekend. It was not a physical fight–it has never been like that between us, yet this last fight was indeed brutal. We have shocked ourselves with what we threw at each-other when we were at our lowest, and now we have some work to do to sift through where it all came from and what of it is real. I feel dazed, sad, yet thankful that we are able to kiss and talk and love each-other again.
Today’s speeches have helped me step back, sit down, listen, and learn. I have begun to think about my own lessons from the year and what I want to take from the ups and downs of my own journeys. I am in a time of reflection, of trying to sort and clear what it all means. I only know that I don’t feel that I know much. I mostly feel humbled–by my students, by life’s everyday challenges, by my mishandling of even the most mundane situations.
I have wanted to push myself this year; the blog, for example, was one way I wanted to face some fears and explore writing in a raw state. It has meant exploring myself in raw states of being, and often, I don’t like what I see. I thought, or hoped, that I would be able to find more joy by trying to focus in on the small pleasures in life. Instead I have often found myself overwhelmed by negative feelings, trying to hang onto whatever small piece of hope I can drudge up in a piece of pressured writing. Sometimes, the process does work, and I do find that hope, that pleasure, that piece of joy, but sometimes, the opposite happens.
Today, I borrow hope from my optimistic students, and I find it in this message that a student shared with me: Ira Glass’s “On Being Creative.”
Here is the main text (or a close paraphrase) of the video:
Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told me: all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
I could file this under “Things that make so much sense that I surely already knew them.”
Life is about learning and re-learning and then learning all over again, isn’t it? I will keep mulling over this message, but I think it’s about more than just writing. It’s about how we live our lives, how we keep showing up to try, to put ourselves out there, to love and to risk and to share and to be.
“It’s gonna take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.”