Tonight I sat in a room full of middle and high school students, where I was tasked with teaching them about creative writing. I had an idea more than a month ago about how I might approach this. That turned into an outline, and the outline turned into typed and printed notes, which then turned into the thing I was holding on to while it felt like I was sinking.
Across this room were seven teenagers, all seemingly eyeing me with skepticism. They’re at the age where they’re starting to learn just how much they’ve been lied to about so much in life. They’re still hopeful, but they’ve seen enough to know that people don’t always shoot straight and that sometimes things aren’t as great as you might have hoped. And I caught the distinct impression that if this class felt at all like school, I’d find my pupils wandering around the library until their parents came to get them.
That didn’t happen, but I thought it would. For probably the first half hour I was a bundle of nerves. I was sweating. Sweating, with the scent of fear all over me! And while I was happy to see there was at least one adult who was interested in my creative writing class, I felt bad when I had to ask her to leave. I didn’t feel like it was fair to the kids in the class to share space with a grown-up student. Besides, I wasn’t really prepared to talk to adults about writing. I might not have been ready to talk to young adults, either, but at least I had tried to prepare for that. The woman understood and was exceptionally gracious. I hope I get to host an adult class some day, because I think it’s sorely needed and that a lot of people might enjoy it.
After a bit of rambling nonsense from me that occasionally used the words “writing” and “creativity” together, I fell into a groove that didn’t feel like I was drowning in my own pool of failure. We talked about writing, about how not many people write much and how even fewer seem to do it for themselves, not because they have to. We talked about the things we think about, and how to turn our thoughts into words, and how the best way to be a good writer is to be a good reader. And we talked about the tender heart of a writer – the one that doesn’t want to show anyone what you’ve written because it’s not quite perfect, or because we carry the heavy fear that if someone saw what goes on in our minds, no one could possibly like us. Anne Lamott talks about this in Bird by Bird. I think she calls them Gremlins. I can’t remember. So does Brene Brown, but not about writing, so much, but life in general. Whatever it is and whoever has written about it, I think people who have been chosen to write carry this insecurity with them always, no matter how much they write or how often they’ve been published. It’s not getting the feeling to go away that matters so much as accepting that the feeling is there, and telling it to shut up because you have work to do, and something to say.
I had them do an exercise based on an idea I stole from Anne Lamott – the theory of the one-inch window. Basically it’s the idea of viewing the world through a small window to bring what you want to say to more manageable level. In this case, I gave them a tag with a small hole cut in it. First, I asked them to write a few lines about our classroom. I was surprised even then at some of the things they noticed, and the level of detail they pulled from this fairly bland room. Then I asked them to look through their one-inch window and write a few lines about what they saw. It was markedly different, and that was the idea. But I was really impressed with how creative they were, how they seemed to quickly understand my point about the small window and how they applied it to this room.
I left the class feeling, at best, fair to decent. I thought I pulled it together at the end after a rough start. I felt like we worked out our introductory awkwardness and managed to find some decent lessons in that 90 minutes. But I wasn’t sure. See paragraph four. About an hour later, though, I got a message from one of the students’ parents. She told me that her child really enjoyed the class, talked about it a lot and remarked on a few story ideas that came from the session. There was some writing that took place, right after class, she said with excitement. I nearly leaped out of my chair, I was so happy.
This is why teachers teach, I suspect. The knowledge that one young person felt inspired, moved or motivated by what I shared with him or her is an amazing feeling. I think the list of things better than that is pretty short. I’m not a teacher, though, so I won’t be back in class tomorrow – I have a week in between to do other things and spend some time thinking about what I could have done better. And because I’m not a teacher, all of my students are there of their own will, so I’m not even touching the tip of the challenges of teaching in school. I’m just a guy who wanted to do something useful at the library, and that gave me just a taste of teaching. Let me tell you, it’s intimidating and overwhelming in the best of conditions. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the worst. Also, I don’t have any rules to follow or guidelines to meet, and I don’t have people breathing down my neck telling me that every student has to excel in every class everyday, or else! Anyone who wants to stand on the sidelines and criticize the work teachers do, should first stand at the head of a classroom and see how they do.
I should probably take this moment to apologize to every teacher I’ve ever had. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Had I known, I might have been less …. difficult.
Next week’s lesson will be on using nature as a source of creativity and considering a different point of view. I’m really looking forward to this session. Hopefully, I have students who will return to give me another shot.