Or so I think.
Last year a female student began reading her new work out loud. The assignment was: to write in a parent’s voice—mother or father—about a time when you the child, disappointed her/him. I’ve used this assignment in the past to great success. It shows students how to get in the mindset of another person, and create a character different from themselves.
When I ask Samantha (not her real name) to read she starts by apologizing:
“I just want the class to know that I’m not really like this…”
“Sam, what are you saying?”
“I’m writing about my mother who is angry at me all the time…”
“But I don’t want the class to think I’m this horrible person.”
“We won’t, Sam. We know the story is from your mother’s point of view.”
“Okay… are you sure?”
“Just read your work.”
As Samantha reads, she starts to cry but continues. The work is devastating in its power. She has gotten totally into her distraught mother’s head. Her mother is furious, yelling at her “rotten daughter.” When Sam reaches the end of the first paragraph, she’s almost sobbing and thrusts the paper into the hands of the student next to her. “I can’t do this. You read it.” I’m impressed that Sam knows her limit and asks for help.
Annie (not her real name) starts to read. Within seconds, Sam runs out of the classroom saying, “I can’t listen…” I’m stunned. Although students cry in class when they’ve touched “that deep place inside” no one ever runs out of the room.
“Free write,” I tell the students, “I’m going to check on Sam.” Looking in the Woman’s Restroom I try not to panic. Sam’s not there. I go up and down the hallways, until I find her curled up in a little ball in a corner, head down, and crying.
“Sam, are you okay?” I ask.
“Can you come back to class?
She nods again.
“Do you want me to read your piece?”
“Sure, but I can’t be in the room.”
“I won’t read your work without you present.” I say, concerned I’m pushing her too hard.
“I don’t care if the class reads my work. I can’t listen to it.”
Eventually Sam comes back to class and we settle on a plan. She’ll post her piece on Blackboard, the school’s online learning program, and students will post their responses.
I’m uneasy. But the experienced teacher in me says that this is a good solution. Sam is once again active in class, talking, and offering comments on other students’ work. Only, the atmosphere has changed. Students are afraid. Afraid that they’ll start crying. Afraid that Sam will run out of the room again. I try not to blame myself, even though I know this is not my fault. I’m left with an ethical dilemma: when asking students to write autobiographical material, what happens if the student can’t handle what she/he writes? Do I push for more, or lay back? I always tell the class “to write the truth as they see it and not to be afraid.” But I’m afraid.
Finally, another student volunteers to read. Ben (not his real name) reads a piece from his single mother’s point of view about the time she got pregnant and he told her to get an abortion. The mother refuses and is angry at Ben. It is a stunning piece. Raw in its honesty and highly crafted.
I’m relieved that another student took a risk; and that he’s able to read his piece all the way through. The students are amazed that Ben went as deep as he did into his mother’s voice. And, they’re impressed with the writing. I’m thinking, everything’s okay; there’s nothing wrong with the assignment.
As soon as class is over I try to understand what it means to teach autobiography to students so young. I want them to find their voices, and have agency. I’m proud when they take risks even if it still makes me nervous after all these years. Will there be a back lash from the administration? Will the students shut down and withdraw psychologically and intellectually from writing their memoirs? I never know what the outcome will be. One student’s risk can free the whole class to go deeper. Or not to go deep at all. Why do I do this, semester after semester? I don’t like to cause my students pain, yet I want them to stretch. To go beyond what they think is possible. I’m always careful not to turn the class into therapy by keeping the emphasis on craft. The students understand the difference. The challenge is not to be afraid of my own assignments. Try this exercise for yourself. You’ll be surprised where it takes you.
Jyl Lynn Felman
Jyl Lynn Felman is the author of three books, Hot Chicken Wings, Cravings, and, Never A Dull Moment: Teaching And The Art of Performance. Her many performance pieces, include “Burning In Cuba,” and “Silicone Valley” about lesbian sex after breast cancer. “If Only I’d Been Born A Kosher Chicken” is available on C-SPANS’s performance series. She is currently touring with “Girl Kicks Girl” about her experience in Israel and Palestine. She can be reached at www.jyllynnfelman.com.