The Greatest Gift

On the last day of my second decade, I stood in front of my students and asked them about perspective.  Technically, I was opening the class with a journal prompt, something designed to loosen their minds from the tight grip of the thesis statement and get them thinking in a more free-flowing way.  At the same time, I was giving myself some space, time to take attendance and prepare for class while they worked busily at their computer screens.

But really, what was I doing?  I needed their advice.  When I turned twenty I was not much older than them, but the next day I would be nearly twice their age.  I didn't feel any older than I did on my first day in the classroom -- or, for that matter, the first day of my own junior year of high school -- and, in fact, many of the same insecurities and ambivalences remain.  What purpose has my life served thus far?  What do I have to show for the intervening years I've spent wandering and occasionally doing something of value?  Am I really helping anyone?  Is any of this worth it?

"Get up," said the journal prompt.  "No, really.  Get up and move to a different desk, next to a different person."  There were groans from all corners of the lab as the students realized I meant it.  They negotiated chairs and backpacks and binders and settled in with a friendly poke or shy smile for their new neighbor.  "Now look around, from your new seat, and think about the last time you experienced a change in perspective.  What caused it (A new dress?  A special birthday?  The redesigned box of your favorite cereal?) and what did you learn from your new point of view?"

Their fingers flew for the next ten minutes, and when I asked for volunteers to share, quite a few hands went up.  One girl had spent her first afternoon in rush-hour traffic the day before, and when she arrived home cranky and out of sorts, she realized suddenly what her father had gone through for years, and forgave him for his own grumpiness.  Another got a ride home with her father, whose truck can't fit in the garage, so he parked under a tree instead; as she got out, she suddenly saw the grass littered with pink and white petals as if for the first time, and felt the reproach of the natural world she tends to ignore when she's in school.  "I yelled and threw my arms in the air and rolled down the hill just for fun."

We pray and move on to the day's lesson.  Preparing for disappointment, I ask for a show of hands: who read the assignment sheet and prepared their homework, a rough draft of a personal memoir?  Everyone except one, a student who had the forethought to come by during break.  I direct them to read and comment on each other's work, and as they do so, I come around to do the same for each one.

Their first memoir assignment was mediocre, and I am expecting more of the same.  What I read shocks me.  They have just finished discussing an excerpt from Angela's Ashes; they commented on McCourt's breezy, conversational style and humorous use of run-on sentences and quasi-dialogue.  And they have used it in their own work with great success.  Two students have me in tears -- one about the day she learned of a friend's eating disorder, the other about a family friend's death.  Descriptive, chaotic images pile on top of each other, re-creating the fabric of grief in a compelling and brutal manner.  I read another and am suddenly shrieking with laughter, thumping the table as I read the final lines: the kindergartner who smuggled a secret item to school and went to the bathroom just before Show and Tell only to emerge buck naked, wearing her mother's bra strapped around her head.  "Ta-daaaa!"

Another has written eloquently about the high that accompanies performance: afterward, shaken, she wonders, what just happened?  Then she hears the applause and knows.  I did a good job.  Everything is right. She thinks it's trite and melodramatic, but I disagree.  "Anyone who has performed from the heart has experienced what you describe.  It's beautiful.  Thank you for sharing it."

My heart is so full from their stories, each one a votive offering inviting me into their minds and souls.  They don't know that tomorrow is my birthday.  But they have just given me the greatest gift I could imagine.  Like a performer, I am shocked by the results of my efforts to engage them; I leave the dim classroom and walk into the hall, flooded with light and  gratitude.  I helped them.  This is why I am here.