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Curriculum, Opinion, Teaching

Writing his way forward

Amin approached me after school and informed me that he would not be doing the assignment.

“Thank you, Ms Moore, but that is not for me.”

“I’m sorry?” I stuttered, taken aback. I did not know quite what to say. He did not seem upset or nervous – he was, quite simply, informing me that the main assignment for the next four weeks would not work for him.

“You said a memoir is about telling the story of my life, about reflecting on the past and stuff.”

“Yes…”

“Well, I’m not interested in the past. It’s over. I look only to the future.”

I paused for a second to consider my options. He stared at me, with calm assertiveness and the shadow of a smile. Amin was new to our school – straight from Iran. I did not know about his past, but I suspected he had lived through some difficult times; he had a maturity and sadness to him that went further than that of most seventeen year olds I teach.

I’m all for allowing students to show their learning in different ways. In this Creative Writing class students often had the freedom of choice. However, the whole point of the memoir unit was to be honest and brave in our writing – to take risks – and to come to understand that one person’s truth may not be everyone’s truth. At this point in their lives, months away from graduation, I felt students would benefit from reflecting on how they came to be who they are.

So I looked at Amin and said, “The past may not be as over as you think. I understand that you’d prefer to look to the future and forget the past, but memoirs are worth doing for that reason alone. They can be difficult and scary and demanding. Sometimes, that’s what writing is. I will be here to help you with all that, and you will do the memoir.”

Amin’s face went dark and he left my classroom.

For the next couple of weeks, I guided my students through a series of exercises and writing activities to help them mine their pasts for story. We looked at events and memories from various perspectives. They wrote from the heart. They wrote their truths. During this time Amin often sat at the back of the room, away from the group.  He rarely looked at me. In fact, he rarely looked up from his page. Whenever I checked in with him he’d reply with a curt “I’m fine.”

On the day of reckoning I woke up with a knot in my stomach. It was the day Amin would hand in his memoir, or what I hoped would be his memoir. Throughout the unit he had refused to hand in any drafts or show me any of his writing. I hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with outright defiance of the assignment.

Amid the general chatter of the class as students got settled and read to one another from their finished memoirs, Amin sat silently at the back of the room and stared out the window. My uneasiness grew. He continued to sit that way while students shared two-minute excerpts of their memoirs. Then, ten minutes before the bell, Amin stood up and walked to the front of the room. In general, I suspect the rest of the students often feel intimidated by Amin. He is physically more mature than most high school boys. His facial hair came in thicker and faster, his build is that of a grown man, and his brooding dark eyes make him seem unapproachable.

As he took his place behind the podium everyone fell silent. Amin began reading. When the bell rang to dismiss everyone for the day no one moved because Amin had not finished reading. He read his entire memoir and at the end we were all changed. Not because his piece was horrific, or because the story of his life in Iran shocked us, but because of his fierce bravery in facing his past, in telling his truth.

In my writing class we do not praise others’ work. Sometimes we are simply witnesses to it (a technique I learned from Pat Schneider). Without prompting my students offered their witness to Amin.

“I remember how you opened with a description of the sky.”

“I remember that line about your sister’s clothes.”

“I remember how small you were.”

“I remember the red of that door.” And so on.

After everyone had left, Amin handed me his memoir and walked out of the room, moving forward with what I imagined to be a little more swagger than before.