I’ve developed the practice of stretching my soul taut like the leather on a tambora and beating the bass line of my teaching. Vulnerable writing has bled beyond my research. It is what I do. I want to use what I do to talk to y’all about student authors, a teacher’s role as an audience, and writing about trauma. Bear with me, we’re taking the scenic route.
I’ve played some of this publicly, talked about my depression and my waves of anger. But plenty of things, paragraphs dropped in random notebooks and a litter of Word docs, will never see the light of a reader’s eyes. Not because I’m ashamed — I’m (mostly) not. Not because it isn’t good writing — it’s actually the writing I revise the most, the documents I come back to over and over, changing a word, moving a sentence, rearranging paragraphs. It’s because I’m worried about your concern. I don’t want to freak anyone out. I don’t want to choke on anyone’s compliments. I don’t want to explain to anyone that all the compliments in the world can’t mold my perspective. My mind is not a house you can renovate and sell back to me for a profit of your own comfort.
Here are three paragraphs I cut from previous essays. Hazme favor and fight the urge to change my mind on Twitter or otherwise.
- Sometimes my anxiety feels so real, so tangible, that I almost think I can dig my nails into my skin and rip it out of my thighs.
- I am not a happy person.
That isn’t to say I never feel happiness, I absolutely do. It glows through my arms when I hold my godchildren and tightens my fist when I hear that good pop of my leather boxing gloves on leather boxing mitts. And it isn’t to say I’m an unhappy person. I’m just a not-happy person. Happiness isn’t my default, nor is it a goal. I’m okay with being a not-happy person. There are a million things I’d rather be. A reflective person. An adventurous person. A whole person. A balanced person. A great teacher.
I am not a happy person and I doubt I ever will be, and maybe I never want to be.
- I am not a writer.
I am a reader who writes. Some days I know I wrote something good. Other days I throw my writing on the internet like spaghetti at a kitchen wall, testing to see if my thoughts are cooked through. Everything halfway decent that I’ve ever written came from something I have read. The hurricane imagery I used to describe the women in my family? Jesmyn Ward used verbs to reinforce her water symbolism. If you’ve ever noticed me mythologizing my family, especially by using the plural, you’ve caught me emulating Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. If you squint and catch me writing my prose in iambic pentameter, congrats, you dug deep enough to catch my Spring semester Roald Dahl revelation. I have no idea why you’d spend that much time on my writing. Go read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s short stories.
I know someone is about to pop out with “That’s how good writers think!”; it’s what I would have said to my students. But, like I been told you, I am not a writer. I am a reader who writes. And the most liberating thing about not being a writer is that I am never obligated to give a damn how good writers think. I only care about what good writers do.
I’m comfortable with these truths. I am deeply uncomfortable with your discomfort. So, even though I wrote them weeks ago, even though they’ve fit neatly into other pieces, I cut them out and pasted them into the junk drawer Google doc where I toss all my evicted sentences.
Here’s the part where we talk about student writing and audience.
I am uncomfortable telling my peers some mostly innocuous truths because I worry about their discomfort. It has impacted the way I write. I’ve cut paragraphs — decent paragraphs, paragraphs with potential — from my essays. I’ve added disclaimers and compromised my conciseness — I added an extra paragraph to the last bullet because I anticipated your reaction. I wonder how many of my students re-tailored their writing because they were concerned about my response. If a student is altering their writing to suit a teacher’s emotional needs, do they truly own their work? I doubt it. Students sacrifice sections of their writing in the name of their teacher’s comfort.
Teachers are far too often their students’ primary audience. We are certainly our students’ most powerful audience. We dole out the grades. We recommend the IEP evaluations. We influence who takes what course. We call caretakers. We call school administrators. We call the Administration for Child Services to report potential abuse.
I’d like to tell each student that I am a neutral party, that they can tell me anything without their lives being changed. But that just isn’t true. Teachers are never neutral — teaching is a political act. And anyway, I am a mandated reporter. I am ethically and professionally obligated to contact authorities if I suspect that a child is being abused. I don’t like compromising on the truth with children and I have never compromised on a child’s safety. Neither of those fit the narrative that a child can tell me anything without my action, however good or bad or unbiased or just or professional or compassionate my actions may be.
I’ve talked a lot about how no teacher is entitled to the details of a child’s trauma. It is a structural pillar of my work in trauma-informed education. I don’t like to compromise on that either, even when it is difficult to swallow, even when it gets morally and professionally complicated. The best I can do is offer a child alternative audiences:
Maybe I’ll let a student choose which essays are graded.
Maybe I’ll let a student choose who does the grading — maybe me, maybe a classmate.
Maybe I’ll let a student publish online anonymously and receive feedback with the shield of screen.
Maybe I’ll choke down the urge to constantly call my students “writers”. I don’t even like the term for myself. Maybe I’ll just call them by the names they’ve chosen. Maybe that’s a bad idea. Maybe they need to hear the word “writer” a million and one times before they believe it. Maybe it’s my responsibility to show them that they are possible.
Maybe it’s not my job to define possibility.
I don’t know. I don’t have concrete answers. I have a collection of maybe’s. Maybe one of them will work for you. Maybe you’ll have a better idea. Regardless, I hope you finish this essay with an understanding that a teacher’s role as their students’ primary audience is complicated by their systemic and often, racialized power over a student’s life. We work in a profession dominated by white women teaching black and brown children. Believing that this does not impact what students choose to tell their teachers, how teachers hear students, and how teachers respond to students’ words is intensely, insultingly, dangerously naive.