What Friends Are For
Once in a while I live a moment that reaffirms one of my strongest beliefs, that the creative process is universal. Each of us has it. We need only to learn how to stop stopping ourselves. As a writer who also teaches writing, I’ve had many frustrating as well as shining moments with students, and I don’t always know what they carry away from our encounters unless they tell me. One student did that in a unique way.
I had a two-week residency in a school for mentally impaired youths. Most of my sessions were one-on-one with the most difficult cases, and there was a girl who had been abused. Withdrawn and sullen, she hated speaking, let alone writing, but I worked to get her to trust me. She often wrote a few words and then stopped. Her teacher feared the situation was impossible. I often went home discouraged, yet I felt there was hope when she got interested in a particular poetic form, the pantoum.
The pantoum, an ancient Malayan form that repeats lines in a pattern, is fun for students because they can start with a few lines. Then the form takes over and suggests more. She got an idea about her language difficulty and started writing. Each time she put down the pen, she picked it up again. She was hooked and didn’t stop until she finished the poem. I’ll never forget the triumph on her face as she handed me the crinkled paper.
When the school had a talent show, she shocked her teacher and me by volunteering to perform her poem. In a quiet but firm voice, she read it and smiled. I felt like a proud parent, but that was not the most amazing part.
On my last day, I was walking to a classroom when I felt a tug on my jacket. I turned to see my young friend, and she asked if I was leaving. “I have a gift for you,” she mumbled, “but we have to be alone.” We walked to a nearby teacher’s lounge. “You can’t look at me,” she said, so I sat down and stared out the window. Then she sang a cappella, in the clearest voice, the words to a Stevie Wonder song. After the second verse . . . Well you came and opened me / And now there’s so much more I see / And so by the way I thank you . . . she stopped and ran out the door. I never saw her again.
Years later, I still think of her, especially when I’ve had a difficult day and feel like I’m not getting anywhere with a particular student. I hear her radiant voice in my ear and know that my strongest belief in any writer ‘s possibility can be a catalyst to enforce that writer’s belief in him or herself. The creative process is alive in all of us. We just need to get out of our own way.
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