A student I had only taught for six weeks found me two years later to ask if I would help her edit a paper. She'd found a program that sent students into villages around the world where they would learn a foreign language and serve the people. She could spend her junior year of high school in Morocco or Tunisia where she would learn Arabic...and oh how she wanted to learn Arabic.
The required essay would be a game changer. The essay not only determined whether she was accepted to the program, but would also pay her way. Writing becomes important when the stakes are so high.
She sent me her first draft essay. The prompt was simple: Why do you want to participate in the program?
Her first draft was riddled with cliche phrases that had little meaning: I want to move outside my comfort zone; diving into the unknown; gain a global perspective, become a citizen of the world; change the world; impact my community.
When she came into my classroom after school, we moved to the white board. I wrote down the phrases and she understood how little the phrases really meant. We explored the reasons why she wanted to learn Arabic.
We traced her desires back to the day her teacher told the class about an encounter with refugees in Athens Greece. I was with her teacher, so I knew exactly what she'd learned that day. She realized she was different because she was sitting on the edge of her seat completely engrossed in the story. When she looked around, her fellow students weren't as engaged as she. She had found a passion: she wanted to help refugees.
"That's the story you need to tell!"
And her essay was infused with life, with purpose, and an original premise that was all hers. Her story to tell.
Last night, I spent an hour on google docs with a student who is applying to Dartmouth College. His 650 word prompt read: Discuss
an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition
from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
He had laid out a beautiful-boned essay; it only needed a few ligaments and tendons to hold it together; I had the privilege of helping him find those additions. In the end, It was a flowing and succinct essay recalling his rite of passage in New Delhi India.
Years ago, I wrote mainly for myself. I had a beautiful children's story that an editor held onto for a year with high praises and promises to publish. In the end, the marketing committee wasn't sure how to market the book. The project was canned. Another publisher wanted it, but wanted it changed from fiction to non-fiction...maybe someday.
Another story made it to several literary agents, one of whom asked for edits and a re-submission. The middle grade novel was loved--but not enough. When my friend's little girl devoured the book and kept asking when it was going to be published, I published a copy just for her. Because the little fifth grader was suffering at the hands of a teacher who didn't like her, I even dedicated the book to her.
So much time and energy into writing for myself...the day came when I made a shift. The skills I had learned from writing would be gifted to others. The chase to publication no longer was inviting. It felt selfish and self serving--I needed to help others, and I never imagined how much joy it would bring.