Last week a student asked me why I became a writer, and more than that, a teacher, and although I usually reach for the easy answers—I loved to read, and I loved to talk about reading—suddenly I find myself really answering the question, find myself telling her about walking into a classroom to teach my first college class at the age of 35 and walking out of it sure that I had discovered one of those rare and holy places where you know you truly belong, telling her how I have always believed that writing is a type of communion with a reader you don’t know and can only imagine, and teaching is that communion made, somehow, concrete.
And I think about it all day, about the reasons I find myself at home in a classroom in front of a sea of faces that change from semester to semester and yet somehow remain the same—the same fears and doubts and insecurities packaged with confidence and enthusiasm and trust. And I remember myself at that age—sitting in some of the very classrooms in which I now teach, but my role has been reversed, and it is an odd type of kaleidoscoping of images as I see myself from the eyes of a younger self. It stayed with me, this small, simple question asked during a lull before class on a warm fall afternoon. And this is what I wished I had remembered to tell her about why I became a teacher, and why I choose to spend my days with stories unfurling all around.
Because I can sit down to write in a warm room in the middle of July and find myself deep in the memory of the ancient forests we clambered through together, my family and I, that one time on vacation when we went to the Pacific Northwest and found an enormous tree that we could drive a car through, the children hanging out the windows of our minivan, arms outstretched trying to reach the living heart of the green forest, counting the rings and imagining the many possible lives that had touched and been touched by the heavy weight of moisture in the air. And I can tell you about that day—tell the story and watch as you relate it to something you’ve done or seen, somewhere, sometime, because there is no such thing as a solitary life.
Because I don’t have to know the small details of your heart to know that you remember the shivery feeling of the floor on cold winter mornings or the heat of the sun in summer, the smell of green grass and growing things and the slow rhythm of adolescence passing into adulthood as you lounge around the pool in the months between school stopping and starting, or the way you fell asleep in the car on the way to the beach/zoo/museum/park, and the holy grace of those moments, you know the ones that I mean, the first glances and last dances and new beginnings and when you write about it, to see the words spill from you changes us both, a witness of grace.
Because I see in you not only myself but my own children, tall and lanky and folded into desks like awkward puppets, beginning their first forays into adulthood, and I hope and pray that there is someone in a classroom somewhere watching out for them, reminding them when it is time not only to work, but time to sleep, and time to eat, and remember to stay hydrated—that there is someone pointing out to them that school is great and good and wondrous and opens all kinds of doors for them that were not only closed but that they never even knew existed, but also don’t forget about making friends—that there needs to be time to laugh a little, time to ponder, and time to wonder, time to create, and even time to weep at the sheer joyful newness of it all.
Because there are stories that save and stories that change and stories that redeem, and it is not enough to be a teller of stories. Like the gleam of golden leaves falling from the trees on my college campus they are too numerous for any one person to catch, try as they might—there is far more going on than I will ever have the words for, but you might find the stories I missed and tell them in your own unique and glorious way, translating your life into lines of wavering ink on a page, knocking down old barriers as if they never existed at all.
Because writing, and teaching, and life, really, is all about connection—about finding the common ground, no matter the distance between us, in age and geography and experience and knowledge and in bright colored glints of memory that we paint in the air when we sit and talk in the warm autumn light.