Biting my tongue; watching my words #SOL23 1/31

Here I sit on Day 1 of the March Slice of Life Challenge: once again, I have committed to try to write & publish every day for the next 31 days. I’ve done this for a few years now, so I know some of the ups & downs, but this year brings a new challenge beyond writing: I need to bite my tongue. 

Biting my tongue does not sound like fun. I pause to consider this. Literally biting your tongue hurts a lot – there’s a moment of disbelief, followed by the warm taste of blood, and then the pain that lingers while your tongue heals. Worse, once you’ve bitten your tongue, you often bite it again, its unexpectedly swollen shape catching in your teeth over and over. No wonder I do not want to write for a month if I need to bite my tongue. That sounds awful.

**Some minutes pass in which I fruitlessly attempt to remember times when I have or haven’t bitten my tongue, literally or figuratively. I remember nothing despite knowing that I have done these things.

In an attempt to re-frame, I have decided that I will not, in fact, bite my tongue this month. Instead, I will watch my words. This catches my imagination. Here I sit, writing about this moment in my life, and I can literally watch my words come into being. Look, there’s another one. And another! In class, I tell students to keep their pencil moving or to keep their fingers typing. Watch those words multiply! Look at how much you’ve written! 

Now I imagine my words multiplying, then beginning to peel off the page. They grow bigger and bigger, each word breaking free and flying around the room until the room can no longer contain them and they slip through cracks and imagined spaces and – there! – off they go, out into the world until I am no longer able to watch them, no longer able to see who they meet or how they meet them. I feel lighter already. Yes, watching words is doable.

Friends, I may not make it through all 31 days, but I might, and I won’t if I don’t start. I will not be able to write the whole truth all of the time, but I will be able to write a slice of the truth. I will be able to capture a moment – maybe a moment like this one that exists only because I have embraced the uncertainty that comes from watching my words grow. This month, I will share those words with you, acknowledging from the beginning that each slice of life is only one part of a sometimes nearly invisible whole.

I will not bite my tongue, but I will watch my words. That seems realistic. Watch with me?

Join us at After all, you never know what you might write until you write it.

Words can never hurt me #SOL21 27/31

This week, the end of week four, one of my students turned in her first major assignment. In a quarter that lasts only four and a half weeks, her piece was two weeks late. I was delighted.

The first week of class was, I think, a shock to many of my students: they read every day & chose their own books; they wrote every day, too, in quickwrites, freewrites, prompted writes. The rhythm was unfamiliar, not least because of our compressed and off-kilter pandemic scheduling. By the end of the week, they had written a short memoir.

Not every student, of course, slides easily into memoir. She was one of these. No matter how many mentor texts or brainstorming sessions, no matter how many small group or large group discussions, when it came time to write something “important,” she shut down. I managed to finagle a 100-word mini-memoir out of her, but she steadfastly refused to consider the longer piece.

In a normal school year, I would have waited her out. Slow steady relationship building goes an awfully long ways, and I know how to use daily interactions to learn about students. This year, I don’t have time. Of course, the thing about trust is that it can’t be rushed; trust comes when it comes. The best I could offer this child was conversation and genuine curiosity, so I started talking to her during the walk breaks I’d built into our 4-hour-long classes. Every other day, every other week… and I didn’t realize there was a problem until near the end of week one.

But there is something about that memoir unit… I swear she wanted me to know her story. During week two she confessed: she had never – not once – submitted an essay for a high school English class. She shrugged, “My mark is always good enough that I can afford to take the hit.” The hit? The zero she would get for not writing the one assigned essay. I must have looked physically ill because the poor child rushed to reassure me, “It’s ok, Miss, my mark doesn’t go down that much.”

My mind reeled. Where to start? One essay? Just one? No other writing? “No,” she told me simply, almost quizzically, “not usually.”

“And no one said anything?”

“Well, I mean, they are definitely disappointed with me.”

I closed my eyes, and then, just to be sure, I repeated, “So you really haven’t written any long essays in all of high school? None?”


Something lurked under that word: fear? or hurt? defiance? anger? I didn’t know, but I had to ask. “Why not?”

The story came out over a few separate discussions – the teacher, the public reading of her work, the shaming; the demand that she re-write or take the zero; the twin feelings of impotent fury and mortification; the decision not to write again.

And now I wanted her to write. She told me, frankly, that she couldn’t do it. Oh, we brainstormed together on Google Meet; she acknowledged that ideas were not her problem. I did my trick of scribing what the student says and giving it back to them; she said it looked better than she’d expected. Still nothing. And the quarter raced forward. During our class walks, every other week, every other day, I made sure to chat with her. She completed an infographic and participated in book club discussions. I praised her liberally. Week two ended and still no essay, though she wrote happily in her journal.

Week three, I kept looking for strengths, but she was keeping her head down. She still was reading, freewriting, participating in class… It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a piece done from beginning to end.

Week four and the class working on another essay, this time analytical. And there she was. “Maybe,” she said, “you could help me with a checklist for the essay?”

I looked up, trying to keep my breathing even. “Sure. The analytical essay?”

“Oh,” she said, “yeah. I turned that other one in just now.”

I used all my strength not to open it right away. We made a checklist. Two steps at a time. She went back to her desk. I did not read her essay until after class.

It was excellent.

And then, suddenly, I am angry. I am angry that a teacher decided to humiliate this child. I am sure that the teacher didn’t *intend* to humiliate her, but it happened nonetheless. I want to scream. I want to yell at the universe. This child has missed three YEARS of writing. Three years. I imagine where she could be now if someone had said something kind instead of something hurtful.

Nothing I do in the classroom is magic. Nothing I do is shocking or wild or inexplicable. I look for their strengths. I try to help them see the possibilities that exist. I insist that all of the students are capable, even when they tell me they are not. That’s it.

She turned in an essay. I told her all the good things about it. Now maybe she can write again.

(For more on the power of a teacher’s words, consider reading Melanie White’s post Journals or Molly Hogan’s post Thank you, Mrs. Minzy!)