Everybody Hurts and Also Writes
As I write this blog post, I wonder, how many of you reading this are also writers? I don’t necessarily mean published writers. I mean those people in the world who find it healing or enlightening or exhilarating to get their thoughts down on the page.
Those who relate to Joan Didion’s words:
I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
I never believed myself to be a writer, not during those years spent writing in my journal, or little-read articles, or in another language. Writers, in my eyes, had full command of their words, and could explain how one lives, loves, and feels where others lose their words.
But my views about ‘who is allowed to express themselves through words’ changed when I taught at a performing arts school in Okinawa in my 20s and early 30s.
It started on my first day of class. I was hired by the school to teach English, and had moved from Los Angeles to do so. I stood before a class of maybe twenty or so students, ages fifteen to twenty.
I surveyed the room. They stared back. We smiled awkwardly.
It was my first time teaching English, and I curious to know what the students thought about learning it. Did they care? Did they really want to be there? (They were free to choose their classes at the beginning of the year.) What did they hope to gain by learning English in Japan? What did they expect from me?
I decided I would ask them.
I had cut up some construction paper down to index card size, and found a plastic yellow basket in the staff room, one of those small baskets that hold crayons and markers in kindergarten classrooms.
Class began and I passed a few small squares to each student, asking them to write whatever came to mind when they heard the word English. I asked them to be as honest as possible, that they would not be graded. This would be an anonymous exercise. I wouldn’t know who wrote what, as that wasn’t the point.
When they were done writing (after much squealing and thinking aloud), I collected their folded-up pieces of paper and tossed them into the basket.
The students where thrilled that this class was so easy.
As they looked on, I unfolded each piece of paper, and started reading aloud. The students giggled and whispered as I read. “I want to learn English because it will be useful when I start working.” Another said, “Speaking English will widen my possibilities.” The expected responses.
But the giggles turned to silence when I read the next one. “I hate English and have no idea why we have to learn it.” I could feel the students watching me. A teacher in a regular Japanese classroom would never allow this.
I broke out into a huge smile and said, “This! Thank you to whoever wrote this!”
I was relieved. Someone had actually written the truth.
Not knowing whether I was serious, the students stared at me for a second before letting out a collective sigh of relief.
That was the moment it was decided that in that class, whoever wrote honestly, won.
The next day, the students begged to take the first ten minutes of class to do that ‘fun thing’ again. Still thinking of it as an English exercise, I wrote “Santa Claus” on the board. (Thinking of English words and concepts that were part of their daily vocabulary.) Christmas was near, and the topic was lighthearted enough to communicate to them that they weren’t expected to divulge their deepest, darkest secrets.
The ‘tanoshii (fun) activity’ continued the next day, and the next day, and the following day. The students, not used to expressing their thoughts in public (even if they were anonymous), became increasingly animated in their writing.
They realized they had things to say.
When one of their favorite teachers quit the school abruptly, I simply wrote the word Strength on the board and watched as the tears in the room quickly dried, and they started to write about what they thought strength was, who they thought they needed to depend on, and why.
This activity of ‘writing on a single topic’ would become a class all its own, and would continue for the next five years. The class of twenty ballooned to a hundred students at one point, and took up to three hours - one hour to write, two hours for me to read. (They chose class over lunch!)
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room on the day we wrote about Mother. I knew that was the big one, and worked slowly up to it. The young people lived with so many heartbreaking stories, stories I, and they could never have imagined their classmates had gone through. For many students, this was the first time they were speaking about their mothers out loud, and no matter how devastating, they almost always ended with “Thank you for having me” or “I’m glad I was born.” Unprompted. (The adults in the room - we had many school visitors that day - were sobbing.)
I learned some things in the years I held that class. The bad memories, the painful moments seem to always pop up first. But once they access their courage and are able to bare their soul to an audience in a safe environment, the painful memories begin to release. Without me instructing so (because I had no idea it was happening), the students were confessing their darkest feelings and then, ending on a positive note. It was remarkable. (I found this to be similar to how morning pages work.)
That class taught me things I still live by, and when I see former students now, almost fifteen years later, they will all bring it up. I received an email from a former student last week, and she thanked me for the class.
My lessons learned in the years I ran the class:
Everyone has a story. Without exception.
Everyone has the words, when they feel compelled (and are encouraged) to share.
When the words are real, they will shatter you.
The writing gets better and easier when you learn to hit the release button.
The students wrote their hearts out every day for three to five years. (Depending on when they joined the class.)
And most weren’t writers, they were dancers and singers. Funny thing was, the more they expressed themselves on paper, the better they performed on stage. Their hearts were open, and it showed.
I don't know why I felt compelled to share this story today. But I did.
Thanks for reading. And writing.