Take Two This I Believe: That kindness and insight go a long way toward making better writers.
At a national conference discussing the teaching of writing, a marketing professor could take no more: “Community! I’ve read twenty of these student essays and they all talk about community. It’s as common as sand. So what? They all say the same thing. They’re all silly.”
And suddenly, with a habit of mind that sometimes proves dangerous, I transported myself back twenty-three years to a writing class I took in my senior year of college.
Our professor, a published author, a real writer, had said simply that we were to write 750 words about “getting here.” As a worldly undergraduate, I knew instantly what she wanted: A process essay on how to walk to our classroom, a complicated affair because the room was tucked away off the upper floor of our gothic library.
As I began writing, however, I realized that I had something deeply profound to offer instead. “Here,” I reasoned, could mean anything—North Carolina, my final year of college, my state of mind. Even better, “here” might indicate humanity itself—this moment in history, the current state of world affairs, culture as we knew it. The essay would provide me with the opportunity to join my teacher in all her deepest profundities. And so I did.
“Roads less traveled,” “untrammeled paths,” and “soulful, mystical journeys” rolled onto the page like glorious, blazing sneaker leather as I tried to take my reader everywhere and got nowhere. I submitted that essay with pride, my immortality assured.
I wonder now, what my professor thought that day, reading that piece. Did her hands cup her forehead in exhausted agony, or did they drop to her belly to sense its deep laugh rumbles? How many sighs preceded the nib of her red pen as she pushed it into the fiber of the paper? Did she drink?
She must have found me incredibly silly. Still, somewhere in that essay, she also found my roommate’s Aunt Sissy sitting on a lawn chair, guarding the Econoline van as we trundled our belongings into our imposing Duke dormitory. And, encouraged by her discovery, I dug up Uncle Don, waving goodbye to us as he stood outside in his billowing boxer shorts. Her insight guided me to look again at the world I though I knew. And her kind expression of that insight invited me to mourn my profundity only briefly, realizing that I could exchange it for something truer.
These days, I am silly still. I direct a college writing program peopled by students in various stages of scared and hopeful and brilliant and profound. And I work with colleagues who prospect their students’ papers for the humble and the homely and the unique, returning them to their creators with a gentle but no-less insightful light. And I am grateful.
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