She reminded me of a porcupine, ready to shoot quills at a moment’s notice. And yet, when I began each memoir class by telling a world tale, she, like the other 8th graders listened attentively in the class sponsored by PEN, an international organization for Poets, Editors, and Novelists.
One morning, after I told one about how Hummingbird faces her fear and helps Panther recover his eyesight, she told a student who’d come in late, “You missed a really good story.” Fast forward to the end of class when we spend a few minutes reflecting on the session. She spoke up. “I hate the stories you tell. Why do we have to listen to such stupid stories?” I sighed, let the other students talk about their experience, then ended the session. She was one of the most difficult students I’d ever worked with. I felt as if her behavior changed faster than I could blink.
At the beginning of the next class I asked students to paint a “telling” image—a visual abstraction of an important point in their story and then to write what came to mind. The class was busy writing when she walked up to me and said, “I made an image and wrote some, but it’s too hard a story to tell. I can’t write it.”
“Okay. Is there another story you’d like to write? Remember, the only rule is, whatever you write has to be meaningful to you.”
“I’ll write about a camping trip with my uncle.” I nodded and watched while she painted an image of what might be a sleeping bag with a bump in the middle, grass, trees, and a stick figure looming over it all. She wrote for a few minutes, then crumpled up the paper and said, “I don’t want to write this story.”
“Maybe you need to write the hard story. Sometimes when we write what’s difficult, it helps us feel better.”
“I did something awful. How can writing about it make me feel better?”
I knew her story. It was hard. Very hard. “After what happened, did anything or anyone help you feel a little better?”
She nodded. “My grandmother told me it wasn’t my fault. She told everyone it wasn’t my fault.”
“Okay. Why not start by writing the ending, how someone you love told you it wasn’t your fault. Then, remembering how the story ends, you can write the beginning. Every time the story seems too hard to write, you can look at your ending.”
She shook her head. “It’s too hard. I can’t do it.”
“Could you do it if your teacher and I help you?”
“How you gonna help? You can’t change what I did.” I could feel the quills shooting out.
“You’re right, we can’t change what happened, but we’ll help you every way we can. I think you’re very brave to be willing to write such a hard story.”
It took a lot of doing, a lot of anxious moments when she tore up what she’d written, only to have us tape up the pages. A lot of encouragement by her Language Arts teacher and me. Up until the last moment I wasn’t sure she’d finish it, but she did. We sent the class’s stories to PEN. They printed the stories and made them into a book, with a cover designed by the class.
After the Author’s Celebration, I handed each student a copy of their memoir books. She hung back, looking distressed, clearly waiting until the other students had gone. When she walked over to me. I waited for one of her verbal zingers. Instead, she said, looking at the floor, “I know we’re only supposed to get one book, but could I have two books? I want to give one to my grandmother.” I was so shocked it took time for me to register what she was asking. She sighed, thinking I wasn’t going to do it. Looking at me, she pleaded, “Please give me a book for my grandmother. I promise I won’t tell the other kids.”
No porcupine quills. Only a troubled kid who’d written a powerful memoir that took a lot of courage to write. “Of course you can have two.” I handed her the books. She took them, carefully put them in her backpack, started to leave, then returned, gave me a quick hug, and ran off.
How do you keep going when all you want to do is quit?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.