Sunday, March 20, 2011

Beyond the Crusher

I wrote the following piece in 1999, during a National Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, when my student Janet was 17.   

Beyond the Crusher: Finding the Hero Within

Janet and her mother, Roz, sat together in my classroom one day after school, carefully proofreading the manuscript Janet was preparing for publication.  Over the years they had perfected their technique:  Roz reads Janet’s text aloud, and Janet follows along, alert for mismatches between the words as they are written and the words she had intended to write. 

I listened as Roz read from “Back to Class.”

....I was mad.
Mad at the world.
    Mad at my teachers for
not understanding.
Mad at my classmates
for being able to easily do what
was hard for me.
I was mad at the principal
for pinning blue and red ribbons
on all my friends, but not me...  
By the end of the poem, Janet describes her reflection in the mirror, “eyes and nose red, and cheeks puffy, ” and her attempt to reassure herself anyway. 

        ...I smiled and told myself
        I was fine.
        But in my heart I was dying.
        I turned and
        headed back to class.

“Wow,  Janet,” Roz said. “I didn’t realize how much of this you remembered...”  

Janet looked self-conscious for a moment, as if embarrassed that the child she’d been was now competing for attention with the young woman she’d become.  

I guessed it was a little uncomfortable to remember those moments of fragility;  only recently had Janet developed an ability to publicly proclaim, “I am strong.”

I listened, and I wondered: How much of her strength came from remembering, from writing about the difficulties of the past and later, much later, celebrating significant success?     
Janet’s work in the two courses she took with me-- the required sophomore English and Voices and Visions, an elective for writers--  reveals just how much she used writing as a research method.  Like an archaeologist sifting painstakingly through layers of earth, Janet sifted, often painfully, through sixteen years of memory.  Through writing extensively about the difficulties she faced growing up with dyslexia, she answered several important questions:  How did I feel as a child?  How have I changed?  What is the source of my strength? 
In a rich anthology of poetry and prose,  A Hand to Hold, (Edition Two of the Rainbow Palace Collection), Janet explores her emerging identity.  Told from her own perspective and occasionally from her characters’ points of view, it is intensely, deliberately autobiographical, carefully recording the growth which allowed her, this year, to assert:

I am Janet,
a personal accomplishment
which grows and blossoms
into womanhood.

Janet’s book reveals previous unsuccessful attempts to blossom;  again and again she was hindered by choking weeds:  teachers, principals, and psychologists who were unable to “look beyond [her] bad spelling.”   The more she wrote the material which would eventually be included in her manuscript, the more she became able, finally, to clear that overgrown path.  At last the road to self-knowledge and acceptance was open.

There Janet uncovered her “unique and proudly different” spirit and her ability to “stand out among rows of people.”  She also discovered her paradoxically chameleon-like nature, “shifting and changing, trying to find the answer to who or what [she] really [is].”   Unstoppable in pursuit of this answer, through the writing that led to A Hand to Hold,  Janet came to realize that for her,  as for Barry Lane, “writing is a way of rediscovering the past and building new understandings of the present and the future.”

All year Janet wrote “as if [her] life depended on it,” as Adrienne Rich said we must,  clearing that weedy path with her “creative spark and flame.”

She selected “Who Am I” to begin her book.  The stance in this piece, told from the perspective of a high school sophomore, is confident and secure, but ever aware of the fact that this has not always been the case.  While she knows that on the surface she appears to be a strong leader, she also knows that “more sunken are [her] feelings of loneliness and hope....” 

She realizes that before the proudly different Janet, she was often a “sad child huddled in the corner,”  that “many blows [and] challenges [were] bruises on her body.”  Before the confident leader was someone with “sixteen years of tears held back and... smiles not yet opened,”  and that very few people realize what she had endured.
You don’t know
how many times
I’ve wanted to sink away.
You weren’t there when Mrs. Teter peered down her nose
and singled me out [in front] of the whole class.
You don’t know how it feels....

Janet’s writing helped her to remember how it felt to want to leave that sinking feeling behind, to be an ordinary child, playing outside--
            Life was more scrumptious
            in a mud puddle or / cartwheeling through a sprinkler

-- or walking in the rain.   “During the rain walks,” she writes, “I could forget about all problems, about hating school and psychologists.  I left behind wanting to die and the “LD” [learning disability].  During this time I was just a little girl carrying a pink umbrella, smiling and feeling the rain.”

But she was not ordinary, the escape only momentary.  Even in the kitchen, dyslexia pointed that out all too clearly.
Teaspoons and hopscotch
    cooking, reading, Dyslexic
One cup of flour
or a half, a
mistake that ruins more than a
batch of cookies

While elementary school was tough, junior high was torture.  Surrounded by peers experimenting with parties, fashion and illegal substances, Janet had to discover where she fit in-- or didn’t.   In “A Different Side of the Story:  My Fate,” she tells the story of a girl who, through a fairy-tale mix of mistaken spells and potions, is changed into a frog.  I’ve come to see the frog-narrator of this piece speaking for Janet, as well:
    I  spent many lonely days pondering my fate, until one day it all became clear.   
    I was my fate.
    While I had spent so much time fighting to be normal, in the end... I discovered I didn’t want that.  My life is a different side of the normal story, but if you ask me, it’s a whole lot better.

By the time she reached high school, Janet had become a cross country runner. She describes one experience facing “the crusher, the monster hill that has a reputation of causing runners to drop dead on the spot.”  Exhausted but determined, she “kept pumping... remembering all the way back to sixth grade and pink spandex shorts.”  She wrote, “I’m not going to stop....  After the crusher it will be all downhill, easy going.”   
Janet’s writing makes it clear that she has, in fact, become unstoppable, even in the face of enormous challenges.  If she hadn’t written so much-- and distilled it to the 70 pages that made it into her manuscript-- would her own great strength be evident?   Through writing, Janet  was able to look within, to look deeply.  She became an archaeologist, and her book is a careful account of the artifacts found along her paths.
Before A Hand to Hold went to the printer, Janet dedicated it to “All those little girls who had to look within to find a hero.”  When she finished her book-- “at the end of all [her] exploring,” as T.S. Eliot wrote-- she was able to “return to where [she] started and know that place for the first time.”  It was as if she were
        Standing in front of the
        and for a second not recognizing the face.

Transformed, she describes her delight and her pride.   She has faced the crusher and found the hero within. In awe, I cheer her on.    
         ...I am Janet
the only,
signing off
to discover and
capture more of the

Living is continuing
but remembering
        ...With each footstep I am changing my future.

(Thanks to Roz and Janet for editing suggestions and permission to share Janet's experience.)

Janet graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2005, with a BA in Medieval Studies.  In 2010, she earned her MFA from Simmons College.  Her focus?  Writing Literature for Children.

The National Writing Project equipped me with the skills I needed to help Janet-the-high-school-student begin to become the writer she wanted to be.   

Today she is revising a manuscript for publication–– and teaching writing at a community college.  And so, the influence of the Writing Project continues.  

I pray that this always be true, and implore our lawmakers in Washington to support our mission with federal funds.

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