Using Your Pain to Tell Your Story: When Students Teach Teachers

This week’s post is a slight detour from my month-long research and writing about chronic illness.  Next week will be the final installment on chronic illness.


Even though Dina, the girl who always wore sleeves, has been a student in my class since September, I really meet her for the first time last week on a cold, January morning.

On January 18th I facilitated my 5th Write-a-Thon for my students. The Write-a-Thon is a voluntary, two-hour writing event where students are allowed to write on any topic, in any genre they wish.

It’s an event designed to encourage teenagers to express themselves, discover their voice and tell their story in a welcoming, enjoyable environment free of the judgments and the awkwardness that define high school.

With donations from student writers, the Write-a-Thon raised $200 for the Special Olympic athletes of our school.

Halfway through the event, during the 15 minute intermission, I like to catch up with some of the students to see how they’re doing and hear what they’re writing about.

So I started a conversation with Dina. The girl who often came into class early, reading some YA title as she waited for me to start the day’s lesson. The girl who sat in the front row and sometimes traded smiles with Paul, who sat across the room, when the lesson became boring. The girl I hardly knew.

But when my conversation with Dina was over, I was left humbled and inspired and thankful I finally got to meet her.

Write about your pain

For a long time I believed that I hadn’t suffered enough to be a writer.

I was never a drug addict, never traversed the Iditarod Trail, never abducted by aliens.

I felt I was to pedestrian to be a writer.

As twisted and as selfish as it sounds,the writer in me secretly wished something bad would happen so I had some real material worth writing about. (As if living is not suffering enough.)

Real writers, I thought, suffered romantically, cinematically. Their addictions and tribulations spawned our favorite books and movies.

I felt that until I suffered hard I would always be short on material.

Then something happened.

I got sick. And my sickness caused brain damage. And my brain damage stole my coordination and blurred my vision. I was told I would spend my life in popping steroids to temper my chronic pain. I was told my I could lose my sight, my ability to speak at any time. I was told I was destined to suffer.

Congratulations– I guess. I got what I wished for.

I, an average middle-class white kid from the sprawling lawns of suburbia, finally had something worth writing about.

A few days before the Write-a-Thon I read a personal narrative Dina wrote for a class assignment that made me want to talk to her.

So during the intermission I told her how much I enjoyed her writing. How her writing has a maturity, a grit and gravity that I rarely read in student writing. How I admired her ability to write so openly about her depression.

As the other students ate bagels and talked, Dina sat down in a chair alongside my desk. I remember it was unseasonably warm. I had my sleeves bunched about my elbows. But Dina’s sleeves were ringed around her wrists. Where they could usually be found.

I asked Dina if writing was an outlet for her. A place to go to find strength, to find peace.

She gave me a half smile, looked down and sat quietly. Then she held her index against the corner of her eye as if she was holding something in.

Then she took a deep breath, removed her finger, leveled her eyes into mine and let this out:

“I was taken from my mom when I was two. I’ve lived in seven different foster homes. I’ve seen a lot. Been through a lot. Which has made me a really distant, a really closed-off person.  When things got bad I use to self-mutilate. You know, cut myself.  But I write now. Writing takes the pain away. Writing is where I go when I want to cut myself.”

Where there’s a scar, there’s a story

Pain is a fine place to begin your writing. But you can’t end with pain. You must use your pain as a means of finding a higher purpose.

I cleared my throat, found my voice and asked Dina what her plans were after she graduated high school?

Without acknowledging the scars that run like railroad tracks underneath her sleeves, along the underside of her forearms, without considering the nights she was forced to sleep on a basement floor of drug infested foster house, without recalling the time she watched her one foster dad stab her one foster mom with a fork over and over and over again until the kitchen floor pooled with blood she smiled and said, “I want to be a social worker. I want to help foster kids the way I wished somebody would have helped me

When the students began the second writing session I felt embarrassed that it took me so long to meet Dina and hear her story.

At 17, Dina already believed in her pain. She knew it was the pain that helped her find purpose. And she knew it was her responsibility to tell her story, to share her pain so that others may find their own reasons to believe and that she could find the peace she was looking for.

As the students wrote, I began writing this story. Humbled and a bit unnerved that I, their teacher, had so much more to learn.

Be well,

Jay

(Please Note–The student’s name in this story has been changed.)

The Power of a Conversation: A Recap of the 2017 Spring Write-a-Thon

Never underestimate the power of a little conversation.

The Write-a-Thon grew its roots in 2015, during a little conversation between my school district’s (Robbinsville, New Jersey) Superintendent, Dr. Steven Mayer and myself.

The crux of the conversation was, “How can we teach teenagers to see writing as an exercise in self-discovery and authenticity not just a forced activity aligned with the harbingers of school?”

So we talked. We listened. We brainstormed.

And 3 months later the first Write-a-Thon was held in my classroom., a 2-hour writing event that afforded students the opportunity to write, to tell their story.

The event hosted 13 writers including Dr. Mayer and received donations and support from my student’s parents, faculty and my own friends and family.

When concluded, the Write-a-Thon raised $1,300 for the Special Olympics of New Jersey.

Write-a-Thon-November 2015.

A few months later, in April 2016, as I was planning the second Write-a-Thon, Dr. Mayer was tragically killed.

The May event was held in his honor.

An event that began with me, fighting tears, recounting our little brainstorming session and how though he is physically gone, his story, his passion is alive and well.

The heart of the Write-a-Thon is simple–show up and tell your story.

This week, the fourth installment of the Write-a-Thon had 30 student writers, ranging from 7th to 12th grade. The event hosted a $500 college scholarship essay challenge and was filmed by the Emmy winning “Classroom Close-up NJ” and will be featured in October 2017 episode.

My experience as both a high school teacher and an adult has taught me that, in the contentious transition between young adulthood and adulthood, it’s easy to get distracted with the noise of the world.

It’s easy to forget about the importance and power of your voice, of your story.

It’s easy to believe your story doesn’t matter.

It’s easy to believe fiction.

The Write-a-Thon is a celebration of the human voice. Of the lasting power of the true human story.

And it’s our stories that stand before us, that become the permanent teachers, forever instructing the lives of the living.

Be well,

Jay

Write-a-Thon Supporters

The 2017 Write-a-Thon received tremendous support from the following Robbinsville High School programs:

The Debate Club

Coach Patterson and the Robbinsville Football Program

Robbinsville Boys Lacrosse

The Drama Club

GSA

The RHS Literary Magazine

The RHS Class of 2019

A Look at the Spring Write-a-Thon

 

Check out more pictures courtesy of NJEA


 

Write-a-Thon Recap

writeathon
Write-a-Thon Scholarship winners- Michelle Singh and Shameek Ray. Each writer won a $500 college scholarship.

On May 17th, amidst the buzz of the approaching senior prom, WoFo sponsored a Write-a-Thon  at Robbinsville High School .

The event attracted thirty-three 12th grade writers. Their mission–in two hours compose an original, personal story which recounts a time where their perspective of themselves or the world at large was challenged.

For the contest I constructed a panel of judges who read through each entry. Throughout the readings, the panel continuous commented on how impressed they were not just by the writing skills the students demonstrated but with the sheer vulnerability the students wrote with.

I applaud all those who participated in the Write-a-Thon. Who summoned the courage to be vulnerable and pin their truths down on the page.

When the contest concluded, I read every entry.  The submissions run the gamut of emotions and subjects. Of styles and themes. But for certain– all entries announce an aliveness with passionate voices. I can only hope all the writers strengthen and sharpen their writing into a fearsome roar. A roar that will continue to echo deep into the jungles of adulthood.

My initial hope for the Write-a-Thon was that one essay, one writer would win a $500 college scholarship. However, through some generous donations, through some extended support, WoFo was able to award two $500 scholarships.

When the judges presented me the two winning entries I was a bit surprised– not because the winners are not good students (because they are)– but because they are both such quite people.

And yet their writing is loud, humming with tension. Unlike the writers themselves, their writing demands attention. Their writing announces an intrinsic strength to question and to challenge not only themselves but the world at large. Their writing aches with vulnerability and honesty and I ( and the world) can only hope they continue to write.

Be well,

Jay