Writing memoirs is the most meaningful writing students can do.
Eminent scholar Walter Ong said writing “is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. … Writing heightens consciousness as nothing else does.” As a writing teacher, this axiom inspires and challenges me. What an incredible opportunity I have to facilitate a life-altering experience for my students, especially for those whose personal and academic growth has been somehow stunted.
This opportunity is powerfully illustrated in the 2009 movie “Precious.” Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, the movie tells the story of an illiterate, overweight black teenage girl named Precious whose life is pure misery. Brutalized and sexually abused by her mother and father, Precious is invisible to the rest of the world. After a second pregnancy, she is taken out of the regular public school and sent to an alternative school, the last stop en route to oblivion. As it turns out, that dilapidated alternative classroom offers the only sliver of hope in the story, as the idealistic writing teacher struggles to bring a ragtag group of society’s castoffs into literacy. For each student, that classroom is a last chance to make it in life. And miracles happen there. Writing brings those women back from the dead. In a safe place, they literally write themselves into existence.
This story resonated deeply with me as a writing teacher because bringing students to life through writing is my favorite part of what I do. Though the circumstances in my classroom are not nearly as dramatic as those in Precious’, I relish the opportunity every semester to take a group of fresh faces on a journey of meaning-making through writing. As a rule, the most meaningful writing my students do is memoir writing. “Precious” illustrates the power of memoir: Putting a narrative frame on our past—especially our struggles—promotes perspective and self-awareness that are otherwise out of reach for most people.
Though few students are suffering the level of destruction and misery Precious knew, most of them are struggling to make sense of their lives. Sure, this has always been true, but from my point-of-view, it gets truer each year. Those diagnosing the state of our education system and offering remedies must factor in the level of aimlessness, neglect, and violence—and the corresponding illiteracy—experienced by so many of our struggling students. As Professor Barry Sanders put it in A is for Ox, “The problem is not that young people have a difficult time becoming literate. They have a difficult time becoming literate when things fall apart—the connections to family, the connection to voice, the connection to play.”
K-12 public school teachers already know this. These heroes, stationed in every community, hold together our social fabric. Stories abound of teachers quietly going the extra mile to make sure a child has school supplies, shoes, or clothing. An elementary art teacher I know was working with two different families who lost everything in house fires last year. She petitioned her social network for clothing and furnishings. That kind of caring from teachers is common, and teachers often do even more.
Continue reading how memoir writing promotes self awareness among students.