Making Out: Courage, Profession
Making Out is a series centered on how issues observed in the high school classroom by writer and teacher, Jess Burnquist, translate to daily life in the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.
When Alejandra says, “I took this class, but I don’t even like writing,” I am concurrently impressed and annoyed. Why would she admit this to her Creative Writing teacher? Was it a scheduling mishap?
“No. I took this class on purpose.”
Her comment feels like a challenge, and this took courage on her part. When I was in tenth grade, my English teacher took a survey of my class. He charted whose parents were divorced and whose were still married.
My best friend Crystal and I were the only ones with divorced parents. That statistic would change drastically before we graduated, but I always regretted not challenging him over such a stupid and inappropriate activity.
For the record, he was fired two years later for having an inappropriate relationship with a student—clearly, some kind of breakdown was happening when he made his chart of married versus divorced on the board that day.
In any case, whenever a student of mine is bold enough to tell me a truth I might find unpleasant, I try to remember the courage I lacked my tenth grade year.
Already, Alejandra’s body language seems to suggest that she might regret having said anything. She is curling into herself as her peers look on to see how I’ll respond. I am thinking about her first assignment and how she revealed that she loves to read, but hates talking and writing.
I am thinking about the footnote she added to her biography which read, “In elementary school I wanted to be alone. To be left alone. I was teased for not being good at speaking or writing in English.”
She doesn’t tell me she hates writing to antagonize.
It is an admission—one she feels safe enough to make in a writing class.
It strikes me that I haven’t conveyed to Alejandra how much I respect her writing and her artwork. She is active in the National Arts Honor Society. She doodles on everything. Often there are comic figures. Teen female heroines turning an assignment in on time or scoring high on a doodled math assignment and similar inventive images fill the margins of her daily writing journal. Her writing is far less ornate than her doodles, but it is accessible and beautiful in its simplicity.
I ask Alejandra, “Do you dream in both Spanish and English?”
She seems surprised at my question but responds that yes, she does. We look at each other for almost a full minute before I pose my next question. It is one of those moments as a teacher in which time slows just enough for me to gain some clarity.
Alejandra has the most beautiful face framed in natural curls. She’s at peace in her body and I find it heartbreaking that she hasn’t yet found peace in her modes of written or spoken expression—at least in an academic sense.
It dawns on me that I’ve only heard Alejandra laugh or giggle with her best friend on the way out of my class. Still—she felt safe enough to tell me in her own way about her discomfort today.
Something pushes me to ask her if she would ever consider writing her stories and poems in both English and Spanish if one language is failing her in the moment.
“I would be allowed to do that?”
I point her to Sandra Cisneros and Richard Blanco on my bookshelf—instruct her to check them out for as long as she would like. I begin making a mental checklist of translated poets too. I am more driven now to illuminate how being true to one’s cultural experiences makes for more interesting and authentic writing. Why should students deny their truths or be forced to compartmentalize themselves?
“I’m so happy you’re in this class, Alejandra. We have a lot to learn from you.”
She looks down, but I catch it. She is smiling.
* You may find archived installments of Making Out, and other work by Jess, at http://www.jessburnquist.com/.