Saturday, September 3, 2016

Essay Cafe

For almost two weeks, I have been preparing students to write, write well, and in the last six days, they have been writing. I've encouraged them to "spill" it on the page by writing an essay a day.

"Writing is like a muscle, and when we write everyday we build that writing muscle."

Some look at me with droopy eyes, others emanate excitement. Oh to please every student every day is equivalent to feeding the thousands, healing the sick, and raising the dead.

In the days preceding Essay Cafe, the inevitable question begins, "Do we have to read our essays?"

I encourage, promise, remind them it is an essay CAFE, and food makes everything comfortable. I see a student sit up straighter in her chair and another refuse to meet my eyes. I know who will be reading and who will not.

Most of all, I promise it will be a safe place to share some of the most important and personal thoughts they've ever written.

Essay Cafe finally arrives. The reading hour of a two hour class has more absences than usual.

When the first person volunteers, it's like the airplane door has opened and whether or not they're ready, it's time to jump!

The first essay opens with a confession that our author has kept hidden. It's not a grave sin, just something he's kept to himself out of fear. I brace myself.

"I still watch Thomas the Train," he admits.

Waaaa!! He jumped, he broke the ice, he threw the first pitch! When he finishes his delightful piece, the class starts admitting the childhood shows they still watch. When someone mentions "Dragon Tales," the class erupts in a collective cheer--almost everyone else still enjoys Dragon Tales. We've reached common ground that might have taken months.

Another student of Korean lineage but born in America, shares her journey to patriotism. In her short years, she's been asked, "When are you going back home?" and "Are you American?" She must sort through the angst, the accompanying embarrassment in not knowing exactly where one fits--but she finds where she does and  finally experiences heart burning patriotism like a real American should.

All along, I've been trying to teach how a personal experience becomes an essay when the writer elevates it so every reader or listener can relate. "It must have a theme, or a universal truth. Universal truths are something that everyone understands. We've often experienced the same feeling, or epiphany, or shame, and so we relate. The essay gives meaning and understanding to our own experiences; we learn we are not alone. We are not the only person to have been humiliated, embarrassed or reached a conclusion of joy or sorrow.

When E stands to read, she shares a moment of utter sadness when she reached out to a caring person with a phone call. The person is a thousand and a half miles away, but she wants to help my student, my E. She picks up a stick and through the face time call explains that it is all she has to give her at the moment, but she is clear it is a gift of sincere love and comfort. E searches her surroundings and can only come up with the elastic hair band she pulls from her head. She holds it up and returns the gift. Her essay conclusion is that it is all they have to give...but it is enough.

On my nightstand is a one inch, plastic Catholic cross. A Syrian refugee on his way to Poland pushed it into my palm to show his gratitude for what little I had given him on a January night in a cheap Athen's hotel. Eight months later, I see it every night and my gratitude for the remembrance grows stronger.  It was all he had to give, but it was enough.