ripcord: a memoir

Writer’s workshop, in theory, is my favorite class to teach. It’s not in reality, most days. Between the sometimes murky curriculum and chasmic skill/cognitive level difference in the one section of writing i teach, if I’m honest, it is the class I most often feel like I’m wrangling cats in. I stay true to the plans I believe in and hope to continually get better at teaching them but sometimes, and more often than other classes, this year it just seems like my writer’s workshop kids are just not responding. Ugh! But writer’s workshop is also the place where the most epic breakthroughs happen. It seems that way to me at least.

Today we were working on our memoir unit as usual and my lesson was pretty solid but as usual I felt like most of the class would have to be picnic table dragged through the beach, ie re-taught, on a one on one basis after being released to write. We were looking to reduce volumes to seed ideas. Something that epitomizes their little 10-11 year old lives so far to grow ideas and write long on.

One young student who sits next to my desk, for most of the reasons a student would sit next to a teacher, asked for help on what the theme of his memoir should be. He thought it was “sections of my life” because I’d taught them to look back at all their writing and find a pattern of emotions or lessons learned in order to find the one true message emblematic of their lives to this point. Just as I engaged in a discussion with this wildly erratic, sometimes aggressive, sometimes unmedicated, always unpredictable (and sweet, and well-meaning, and misunderstood) young person hoping to unpack his myriad misconceptions, I quickly, without thinking about it, jumped out of the plane without checking my parachute, or even knowing if I’d strapped one on.

“Buddy, do you mind if we have this conversation with everyone?”

“Ok”

“You’ve gotta talk so they can hear you.”

“Ok”

I call attention to the class and tell them we are about to have a conversation that will possibly clear fog many are experiencing. I perch myself on my desk (I’m almost always where the kids don’t expect me to be, I think they like it) and explain that the confused student thinks their memoir’s theme (I call it “t-shirt” for memoirs as lots of my writers like wwe wrestling and each character in professional wrestling has a slogan and they put that slogan on a tshirt and more often than not that slogan sums up that wrestling character’s whole thing, when storylines change, so does the merch) is “different sections of my life”. I quickly go over how biographies are more like story summaries of life, and that seems to be more of what he was leaning toward writing.

It’s not what he wrote again and again, it’s why. Crouch, quickly survey the horizon, suppress the fear, jump. Nevermind the chute.

“Why did you pick the sections of your life to write about?”

“They’re all times when I was young that I got hurt.”

Gulp.

“Why did you write about those times in particular? Why did you want people to know about those times?”

He lowered his head and shrugged his shoulders. The velocity with which me and all these children are free falling is neckbreak and ominous. So it goes.

“Class – why might he write about those times in particular?”

                                                       “He wants people to know what happened.”

“Why?”

                                                      “So they feel empathy for him”

(I abandoned an SEL blog post after this happened today and will finish it soon)

“Why does he want people to feel empathy for him?”

                                                     “Insecurity” (this was my “lowest” EL and constant behavior highlight)

“Yes!”

I should at least look for the ripcord at this point but don’t, double down and laser-stare the young troubled memoirist dead in his eyes, point at my chromebook next to me on my desk I’m using as my throne as my long ejected cockpit as my possible empty backpack hoped parachute, and say, “Yes, I know you and we all know you and you do have insecurities just like most of the rest of the young people in here. I am insecure like you too. Probably 10 Xs more emo than you will ever be and if you read the blogs I’ve written lately on this thing you would see that I am not teasing or making fun of you I am being honest with you in saying that being insecure is a normal thing AND writing about it is an excellent way of trying to deal with it.”
To be fair, this is not an unusually personal revelation in my room, so everyone is still taking the free fall in stride and everything is somehow coming together. So I put it all together and prompt one last time.

“So he writes about pain from his past to gather empathy from his readers because he’s insecure.” I look to the young man briefly and receive the nod to continue with landing procedures.

“Why?”

(I swear this was the response)

                                                        “To explain why he acts the way he does sometimes?”

To that, the epiphany smile on our confused young mistreated insecure memoir student told everyone the target had been struck with pinpoint precision. An actual, audible gasp fell over and hovered around the collective skydivers. We know this young man. KNOW him. It is HIS theme. A t shirt for his wrestling character. Perfection has been reached. The landing instructions went something like this –

“If you dealt with a lot of pain sometimes growing up, might it make you insecure, and might you want people to empathize with you because of it, and might it then be possible that sometimes, because this has been your life, you don’t know how to handle yourself and therefore get in trouble and therefore want people to know that you act a certain way not because you are a troublemaker but possibly because you’re trying to deal with some troubles of your own?”

And together we landed. Safely. Better for the jumping.

“All of that happened” , I recounted to students still slack jawed and seemingly proud of the hive-mind revelation we’d just unraveled, “in right around 6 minutes. But we all helped and that included a brilliant adult. But you can all do this with effort and determination and time. This will take you time to figure out alone with your work and your life’s memories but it will be so worth it when everything clicks. I want you to write memoir snapshots of yourselves at 10 or 11 that you are proud to show your kids when they are 10 or 11 to prove that you understand their brains and hearts.” I know, overkill, but it was just so awesome I think I just had to slap a signature on it or something.

We plan lessons for a reason and it is good to remain firmly planted within them when possible. But sometimes you trust your instincts and leap.

5 thoughts on “ripcord: a memoir

  1. Amazzzzing. I’m pretty sure Lucy C. couldn’t have faked this kinda dialogue. I wish I could have seen this exchange, it seriously sounds magical and it is absolutely worth veering away from your lesson to get to this!

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  2. You are such a great writer. I would love to be a fly on your wall. I absolutely love that you take learning to the next level. Just think, you have opened a new pathway for ALL students to be vulnerable … real In their memoirs. Sometimes, going deep… taking that risk is just what needs to happen. Thanks for bc sharing!!!

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  3. I felt like I was sitting in your class, hanging on to every part of this classroom conversation. Such an honest way to teach kids….Thank you for sharing this with all of us…something we can bring into our discussions with the writers in our classrooms!

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