I stood in front of my classroom the other day, all those eyes shining up at me, attentive and excited. It was beautiful. And as I jumped around the room, talking, asking questions, telling them all the things they would have a chance to try, and explaining that when they entered my room, they were writers, a question in me flickered. It was question that would later persist, repeating in my head.
I teach children to write. Not just the grammar and mechanics, or the thinking and structure, but I teach them that they have things to say. In my classroom, over and over, I try to show those kids that language is power, that everything important that is accomplished is accomplished by communication-- that the ability to understand and be understood is our highest purpose. That's what writers do. And write they can, in different ways, at different levels. But I have never heard one of them in years say, "I can't write." They just accept that they have a talent, and they work mightily, and diligently to uncover it.
As I was explaining that some things would come naturally and some would be hard work, that while one person might be great at haikus and another struggled, that they would each find what they loved, and they would each be great at some type of writing. I was using examples, trying to tell them what I was naturally better at, and what I had to work hard for, and the rewards that rested within each. I am a notoriously bad speller, yet somehow a great proofreader-- go figure. I cannot do math, but I can do calculus with ease in physics and chemistry. I have to figure out how things work, and I have to care, but there is nothing we cannot learn. As I spoke and asked questions, I said, "Who here is good at math?" and every little fourth grade hand shot up without hesitation. In later groups, with slightly older kids, when I asked similar questions, there was hesitation, some hands up right away, some staying folded in their laps.
I wondered the thing I have always wondered being a teacher: when do we stop saying we can do anything and start volunteering our weaknesses? When do we let our failures trick us into thinking goals are unattainable, and when do we start self-identifying with our talents or weaknesses as others have laid them out for us?
Think about it. There was a time when every one of us would draw. We would craft stories and make them up and delight in anyone who cared to listen. We would struggle for hours over a math problem because it felt so good when we solved it, like the whole world suddenly opened up for us alone and started to make sense. We would build things and imagine the world looking differently. We believed. In everything.
And we thought we were good at everything. Who knows: maybe we were.
But at some point, that fades away. We know more. We have more experiences. We start listening to others more than we listen to ourselves. Doubt creeps in. But I wonder, each day, how many more brilliant thinkers or dancers, artists or architects we might have if they weren't told somewhere along the way that they weren't the best at something. Since when does our prowess at eight years old or eleven determine the rest of our future? It's like some kind of sad brainwashing so that we can better deal with people. Janey becomes the writer, John the future doctor, little Neil who needs attention and causes fights the one likely to go to trade school or drop out altogether.
It saddens me. And it saddens me mostly because I had teachers who fell into two categories: those that told me I should write because I was good at it, but who didn't think I should do anything else, or like anything else; and those that told me I was good at nothing, that I lacked focus, that my excitement was too intense and I got bogged down in details of wanting to ask questions that were irrelevant. (And incidentally, I still have never met an irrelevant question, some that are oddly timed, like the other day when a sixth grader asked me in the middle of a vocabulary lesson, with all seriousness, if she could feed her pet rabbit carrot cake since there were carrots in it...). The few teachers, and I will name them here for the record, that were good were the ones who thought of me as a person foremost and a student second. I was not to be their project, but I have grown up to be their friend: Mr. Carlson (whom I still write to every year), Ms. Lipowitz, Mr. Toler, Mr. Holbrook, Mark Costello and Brigit Kelly. There, out of how many hundreds over 20 years and 12 schools, only 6 stand out as fantastic. Thank god for those six. They never once limited me to what I was good at, nor did they discourage me away from the things which I struggled with.
It was like my heart filled up to see every single fourth grader say they were good at everything, and then it sank to see the older kids so very hesitant, thinking of what others told them. If I've learned nothing else in life, I've learned that persistence and curiosity are what make us great. So I'm going to keep telling those kids they are writers, because when I look at them, I have no doubt that every one of them, if they want to, can be. And they will be great. And for right now, for this year at least, they will hear me saying over and over, "You write well. You have important things to say," and hopefully later, they will remember that.