This is the beginning section of the Writing Autobiography that I wrote in Graduate School. It’s amazing to think about how different my early educational experiences were from the early experiences of many of my students…
When I was young writing was natural. It made me feel good. Words flowed. New ideas were constantly being born. Now words are heavy. To write is to take an enormous risk. Everything I write has complex meaning and is open to interpretation. I continue to try to write because there is important work to be done. Writing can help.
Mine was a childhood of comfort. Westorchard Elementary school was located on the top of a hill, at the edge of a pine forest. Each day, the bus engines would strain to carry us up that hill. At the top there was a school that made me feel like an important person. To be a student at Westorchard meant that everyone knew your name. This was a school that revolved around students. This feeling didn’t came from progressive or student centered pedagogy but was a result of the way students, especially male students, were treated. As residents of Chappaqua, New York, we were being raised to be the future ruling class. Many of us had spent all of our short lives being treated as if the world revolved around us. In many ways it did. Our parents were powerful people. Adults knew better than to mistreat us.
Many teachers were able to nurture our feelings of self-worth and guide us towards self-expression. The importance of writing to this process and its connection to individual voice was clear. Learning to write was learning to express thoughts. My stories were cherished. All of the adults I knew were interested in reading my writing. My writing modeled what I read. This was a point in my life that I was devouring young adult books, including books from The Sweet Valley High series which spoke of young-adult romance and passion. Reading, and therefore writing, were about entertainment. I was hooked by things that spoke to my reality or dealt with issues that captured my attention. At this stage I was not challenged nor encouraged to step outside of or question my social reality. Self-absorption was encouraged.
Although I don’t now have access to any of my early pieces of writing, I remember these works as exercises in expression. At this point writing was meaningful in the sense that it consisted of my own words and my own ideas but not because it dealt with crucial issues. As I write this I question the carefree attitude that I was taught to bring towards writing. Am I wrong to assume that young people are capable of writing for something more than entertainment? I question what my writing accomplished and what more it could have accomplished considering my position in the world. Certainly there is something more crucial in the writing of someone who is struggling for survival or any form of voice than the writing of someone who is already heard and is the product of nurturing and comfort. My writing and the way it was responded to was a logical outgrowth of the world I inhabited. There was no fear involved; my safety and security were assured. Learning to write in this way gave me the confidence to express myself. It did not teach me to act, analyze, or question.
One of my earliest memories of writing was the sunny day Mr. Gross took our entire class into a grassy field behind the school. We were told to spread out and lie on our stomachs, pen and notebooks in hand. Our assignment was to write about the lives of grasshoppers. The writing that flowed was natural. It came without effort and felt connected to, even vital to the act of lying in a field. This was the world I knew. Nature and the resulting feelings of awe were both vital parts of my existence.
It was during elementary school that I wrote a letter to the young-adult author Robert Newton Peck to tell him that I wanted to live a life of writing. I was drawn to a life of stories, a life of expression. Peck’s writing had captured me. It had taken me away from reality and allowed me to inhabit other worlds. It made me want to live a life of stories. This would be a life of comfort and joy…