When I teach memoir, I like to model my process for my students. For me – and often for them – one of the trickiest part of writing a personal narrative is coming up with the right story, so we often begin with a list of prompts from the New York Times Learning Network . The students and I all respond to these as quickly as we can, skipping anything that doesn’t call up a memory. My students do this in their notebooks; I do it on the board (or screen):
A time I took a risk:
A time I learned something about myself:
A memory from childhood I think about often:
Something that happened to me that still makes me laugh:
Something very few people know about me:
Something I regret:
A time when I felt rejected:
Something I am really proud of:
Something that changed the way I think or look at the world:
How I am different from most people I know:
Some of my fears:
A time I felt truly satisfied:
A time I failed at something:
An object I own that tells a lot about me:
Because I want to model the process from the beginning, I like to come in without preconceived ideas for my list. I’ve been teaching for long enough that I can typically self-censor my stories on a dime – and I tell my students that I’m doing this because I assume they may also have things they wish to keep private. Still, sometimes I surprise myself. Like Wednesday, when, without warning, I wrote “not kissing Torin” next to “something I regret.”
I almost erased it, but some of the students were watching and I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I looked at it again, added the world “don’t” in front of “regret” and brainstormed a few more ideas. No teacher in the universe will be surprised to learn that, when I asked which prompt I should flesh into an essay, the students chose the one about kissing.
So there I was, writing in front of my students about not kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago – which, I suppose, is slightly better than writing about kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago.
I started off a little embarrassed, and I rapidly became very embarrassed. Should I tell them that my friends and I went to an apartment with a man who was standing on the quai as we pulled into the station? Our guidebook said that was a great way to get a deal. Do I tell them about the Russian champagne? Maybe leave that out. I felt obligated to say that my friends were also at the pub that night, dancing and… maybe I shouldn’t mention that Torin was Swedish & very handsome? Dear Heaven *how* did I end up writing about this in front of my students? Why didn’t they choose the nice necklace story from Ireland? or even the time I wrongly accused a student of cheating?
Flustered, I stopped. I was red enough that I probably didn’t need to acknowledge my awkward situation, but I did. “This is not what I expected to be writing about. I’m feeling a little uncomfortable.” I hesitated, “I guess the real question is: why, nearly 30 years later, does this memory stick? What is the point of writing this in an essay?”
That’s when the real work began. “It was my junior year abroad,” I told them. They nodded – as if they know! – and I fumbled forward, “I had a boyfriend in France.” Some eyebrows raised; I was not making this any less awkward and awful. “Maybe I remember this moment because I consciously decided to be loyal?” I wrote that on the board. The 17-year-olds looked unconvinced. They weren’t wrong. “I mean, no one would have known,” I added lamely. No response from my audience. Remind me again why I’m doing this in public?
I stumbled along, writing and thinking aloud, searching for the reason that this particular night stands out for me. My students watched, interested. Finally I hit upon something that felt true, “It was like summer camp inside of summer camp – Spring Break during my junior year abroad – and if I had done this, if I had kissed him, no one would have known or cared – except me. I would have known, and I would have cared. I think maybe that was a moment where I realized how much we are responsible for our own lives, our own values.” I started to scribble – arrows here & there, numbers. This is how I might organize this essay; this is how the details might fall into place.
Moments later my students were hard at work. Despite the fact that school right now is less than ideal, I saw them thinking, writing, sharing with each other. Relieved, my face slowly settling back to its normal colour, I sat down at my computer and considered whether or not this essay was worth actually figuring out. Maybe later, I decided, my embarrassment still too fresh to allow for real focus.
And maybe I’m imagining things, but the essays that particular cohort handed in at the end of the week seemed especially honest. Several of them pulled at my heart. None of them were about kissing or not kissing strangers in bars. Thank heaven.