*An essay every Friday in 2016*
“What world do you imagine? What are you doing to make that world come to be?”
I posted this on my FB this week because I’ve been thinking about this a lot since starting this junior college essay writing class where I help 2nd semester juniors start the process of writing the personal statement for their college essays. (This work isn’t a far stretch from Writing Our Lives and the personal narrative writing class I teach.) I focus on the common application prompts because over 500 colleges and universities accept the common ap, and the prompts are the same as the SUNY ap. For most of the students, this is the first time they’ve had to write about themselves. It’s bad enough that most don’t know how to write a proper essays (that’s an entirely different conversation for another time) but they’ve also been told for their entire academic lives not to write about themselves, then suddenly that’s exactly what they have to do, and they’re expected to do it well. Of course they struggle and that’s where I come in.
There’s a particular prompt I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since introducing my juniors to the list of five this past week. It’s prompt #4:
Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
I’m imagining the faces in the room as this prompt was read—eyebrows were raised, heads shook, brows furrowed. They looked confused and challenged. I looked a Kia, one of my feistier students; I met her the summer after her freshman year, and it took me a while to get her to open up and trust me, but that one, she’s got a heart of gold with a barbed wire fence around it. She mouthed “hell no” as she looked at the page and read along.
What is it about this question that stunts them? It was first presented last year and I haven’t had a student take it on yet. Nationally it’s the second least chosen prompt—only ten percent of students opted to take it on.
Is it just me? Is it how I’m built that I want to take on the world and all its shit? That I’ve always been this way.
I think of a story my mother told me years ago. The pre-kindergarten teacher complained that I was always distracted during story time. Instead of sitting on the mat with the other four year olds, I would walk around the class, digging into the bookshelves and toy chests. When my other confronted me, I said, “Ay mami, I know the story already.”
“Really?” I imagine her folding her arms over her chest and glaring at me. She thinks she’s got me. “So, tell me the story.” She shakes her leg as she waits, impatiently.
My face lights up. I get up like I’m on a stage before a huge audience. I start, “Once upon a time…” Mom says I went on to tell this long, elaborate tale. She laughed when she told the story. I had just told her, at the ripe age of 31, already a single mom and terrified of what I was about to take on, “Ma, I think I wanna be a writer.” That day my mom revealed to me that I always have been a writer. She was also telling me that I’ve never been the type to follow rules or do what I was told.
When I present the college essay prompts to the students, I tell them how I would answer the question. I take them through my thought process. I show them who I am and what my stories are, so in sharing myself, they feel comfortable to share who they are. It’s how I establish trust. If I want and expect these students to trust me with their stories, I have to be willing to trust them with mine.
For this particular question, I take them back to when I was in high school. I was a voracious reader. I was known by my teachers for it. One day, in my junior year, one of my professors, Mr. Goddard, gave me How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. It was the first time I’d read a book by a Latina. I could see myself in both the author AND the characters in the book. I was blown away. This would change me forever, but I didn’t yet know how much. I remember thinking, “Wait, my people write? Maybe I can do this too.” And thus began the road to me becoming the writer I am now.
After that I started seeking out books by Latino authors. I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and ate up A Hundred Years of Solitude though it confused me. When I went to Columbia for college, I took Latina American Literature classes and later became a part of the movement for Ethnic Studies. I wanted to learn and read about the stories of people like me, first and second generation immigrants who somehow learned to navigate this country, overcoming poverty and racism and xenophobia. How did they do it? What model could they provide me to help me get through what I was enduring at Columbia and the world at large? By my senior year, we’d won the fight and my second semester, I took 24 credits so I could complete the new major in Latino Studies.
I was always bothered by the required reading throughout my academic life. Why was it largely white and male? Why was the work of dead white men and western history taught as what we should aspire for? What did their world have to do with mine? As much as I tried, I couldn’t see my world in that of Ulysses and his trek across the ocean in The Odyssey. I was an unmothered girl from Bushwick, Brooklyn when it was a pile of rubble whose brains got her a scholarship to boarding school and then to an Ivy League. Where were the stories by and for people like me? I found some but not enough. I was told left and right, when I looked at the American canon, NY Times Best Seller lists and the new releases at Barnes and Noble, that our stories weren’t being published, that they didn’t matter. I believe it was Toni Morrison who said, “If there’s a book you want to read, write it.” So I started writing my own. All this ultimately led to me to create the Writing Our Lives Workshop five years ago, where I’ve now led hundreds of writers through the journey of writing personal and memoir essays. Why? Because our stories matter and I’m committed to help get them out there. This is the part I play. This is the change I want to see in the world. This is the problem I saw and how I went about solving it.
I imagine a world where a girl like me will come across my book (or one by one of the dozens of writers of color I know and admire). Her face will light up as she reads. She will see that people like her exist out there. She will feel less alone. She will feel that her story matters and that her history matters. She will feel affirmed. She will come back to that day repeatedly in her life. It will be the day she found herself in literature and was saved from this idea that her story and the stories of her people aren’t worthy telling.
Some will say this is a pipe dream. Some will insist I’m putting too much stock in the power of story. To those I say, “I don’t care. This isn’t about or for you. This is for the girl I was who needed to read and hear those stories.” Nena, I know you’re out there. We gotchu. Come in. Welcome.
Thousands of feet in the air, somewhere between NYC and Minneapolis (my ultimate destination), I started reading The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki. In it she writes of a challenge she’s given herself of sitting in front of a mirror and watching her face for three hours. She was inspired by “The Power of Patience,” an essay by Art History and Architecture professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who every year gives her students the same assignment: go to a museum or gallery and spend three full hours observing a single work of art and make a detailed record of observations, questions and speculations that arise over that time. The Harvard professor admits that the assignment is designed to be “painfully long,” and insists that “anything less painful will not yield the benefits of the immersive attention she seeks to teach. ‘Paintings are time batteries,’ she writes, quoting art historian David Joselit. They are ‘exorbitant stockpiles’ of temporal experience and information that can only be tapped and unpacked using the skills of slow processing and strategic patience—skills that our impatient world have caused to atrophy. She’s trying to help her students develop their stunted skill set so they will learn not simply to look at, but see it.”
I think about the students I’ve had over the years who resist writing the personal statement. They don’t want to write about themselves. They tell me their lives are boring. They’re convinced they had to have survived Hurricane Katrina holding on to a raft to have anything worthy of writing about. I think of my student who, when given the assignment of creating a timeline of significant events over their academic lives, grades one through 11, said, “This is depressing me, Ms.” Some of them are afraid of what they’ll uncover when they start to dig into their lives.
I remind them that I get it. I know firsthand how difficult and taxing this work is, but the only way out is in. How can you really start to see yourself if you haven’t taken the time to stare and ponder and question and dig and seek answers?
In therapy this week, my therapist helped me peel away the layers of a habit I have—when I’m sad and roiling inside, I tend to isolate. This wasn’t so much an issue when I was single, but now that I’m in a relationship, I’m seeing how this habit affects the people I love.
I’ve taken to being proactive with my emotions. I go for hikes, do stairs, ride my bike to and from my teaching gigs, like I did on Monday, May 16th, what would have been my brother’s 44th birthday. The night before, my partner Katia knew something was off, but when she tried to lean in, I recoiled. I didn’t know how to tell her what I was feeling—loss, grief, I miss my brother, man… I retreated to the kitchen where I wrote by candlelight. It wasn’t until midnight when I posted an FB status about my brother that Katia understood. She pulled me into her arms and held me while I sniffled into my nook—the crook between her chest and her arm that’s one of the safest places I’ve known.
When I told my therapist this, we talked about where this comes from—my tendency to go into myself and process in solitude. As a child, I couldn’t express my emotions. Whenever I tried or dared to, the response was physically or emotionally violent, so I learned to keep my feelings to myself. They’re called “creative adjustments,” the things we do and ways we adjust our behaviors to help us survive our circumstances. At 40, I’m still practicing a behavior pattern I learned in childhood that’s no longer serving me at 40. The thing is, if I hadn’t spent all this time staring at my life, I wouldn’t be able to see the root, the why it is I do these things and act this way. I wouldn’t be able to find ways to be better and live a richer life.
When I started with my therapist a while back he told me I was ahead of the curve because I’d done all this introspective work and digging into my life. I didn’t completely believe him then. I do now… Ashé to our healing journeys. To the risks we take and the love we make. Always.