When I tell people about my job teaching students how to write their personal histories, I usually add, “I love what I do.” It’s true. I delight in helping people create a tangible record of their lives–a gift that will be cherished and lovingly passed through the generations.
That is reason enough to love what I do. But there’s more. I derive my deepest pleasure from observing how my students begin to transform when they start thinking and writing about their lives. I begin each term excited about what will occur—not just the new stories and the noticeable writing improvement, which is wonderful, of course. It’s the personal insights that truly energize me. Writing requires reflection and analysis, activities that can alter lives in meaningful ways. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years, and every term I love witnessing the epiphanies that come when students discover that they’ve had interesting, meaningful lives… or that they’ve done the best they could with the cards dealt them… or that their lives haven’t been as bad as they once thought… or that they’ve come to understand and forgive people they’ve held grudges against for years. These are transformative discoveries. They happen so often that I’ve come to expect them, and it’s humbling to be a small part of the process.
Here are a few recent examples. So far this term, one woman has told me our writing class is the main thing she looks forward to all week. Another says she sees the class as therapy that helps her deal with widowhood. One student sent me the following email recently, which I quote here with her permission:
I love hearing all the stories. Writing is changing and improving my life. Before I would wake up to trying to get every thought out of my head and stay in bed until I could pry myself out of the everyday morning depression. Writing has become as effective as some of my other treatments for depression. After a few weeks I’ve discovered that my life would not be the same and many struggles I’ve had fell by the wayside. or were gone. My mornings have transformed and the depression I have is not as bad. Thanks for being a part of my life-changing experience.
A new student recently read a story in class about taking charge of her home at age fifteen when her mother almost died and her father was too busy with his girlfriends to feel any parental responsibility. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to write about that experience for her FIRST story, let alone read it aloud in class. Many of us shed tears, of course, but the real tearjerker came when she announced, “I’ve never told anyone about this before.” I love that she felt she could trust her classmates with this personal experience. But even more, I know that writing that story will pave the way for healing.
Another new student had the courage to write and read a story about how, despite a lifelong struggle with weight issues, she participated in a marathon as a fundraiser for a sick niece and braved taunts from mean-spirited bystanders along the route. Her courage in sharing this story is helping other students face their demons and write about them.
Bob Stumpf, who has attended my class for years, recently wrote about his arduous battle with lymphoma. Many of my older students have struggled, or are struggling, with serious illnesses and are reluctant to write about such painful topics. Bob’s story demonstrated that it’s through the darker, “hard” stories that we truly reveal our core natures, and the patience, grit, and humor that we draw on to cope with adversity. You can read his story here.
One last thing… Last week I attended a memorable gathering of writers who had contributed to an anthology of stories focused on the California immigrant experience. The project was funded by a grant from the California Council on the Humanities and directed by Sylvia Worden, a teacher at Golden West College. It turned out to be wonderful anthology, full of interesting, joyful, poignant stories written by Vietnamese immigrants, Hispanic immigrants, senior citizens who came to California decades earlier, blind “writers” who dictated their experience to generous transcribers, and writers whose ancestors had made California their home in its early years.
Eighteen of my students submitted stories to the anthology, some seeing their name in print for the first time. Altogether, the book is a magnificent endeavor and everyone in the audience that night was jubilant about being part of it. I was particularly struck by a woman named Mollie–97 ½ years old, she announced, and a little over four feet tall, blind, sharp as a tack, and dressed in her Church-going finery. She was overjoyed to be “published” and to know that her story will be remembered by future generations of her large family. My student Marta Sarkissian had served as her scribe.
I could go on and on, for these incidents are examples from only the last two weeks. Yes, I love what I do. How could I not? It’s life-changing.