Our eyes catch in the cereal aisle. She has three small blond boys in tow. Two dangle from the front of the shopping cart; the other wobbles in the child’s seat, chewing contentedly on a box of animal crackers. I don’t recognize her until I hear her voice, almost a question: “Ms. Rubenstein?’'
Now I remember her young face in the fourth row, fourth seat in Room 231.
That’s how my students remain to me. No matter how they grow and change, their teenage selves are pressed in my memory like photographs in a scrapbook, their smiles bright and unwavering.
“Dina,’' I say warmly. “Of course I know you!’' And we embrace in a quick hug and plunge into a catch-up conversation while her sons prattle and pull at her sleeves. I smile at them. “They must keep you very busy,’' I say.
With that mother-mixture of weariness and pride in her voice, she agrees. “They do.’' There is a pause, and I am about to say goodbye when she says softly, “But I still make time to write.’'
Her words surprise me, and suddenly I know that this is why she has stopped me today in aisle five. I wonder if perhaps she has seen me here before and let me roll my cart by, oblivious to her. But I know today she is ready to talk.
Her words are slow and self-conscious at first, but her voice grows steadily more animated. She has written a children’s book, labored over it late at night, tested it out on her sons. I glance at their grinning, fearless faces and decide they are probably tough critics. “They liked it,’' she says. “But, oh, it still needs work, and . . .’' Her voice trails off. “It’s probably not very good, but . . .’'
She sounds like every writer I know, published or not, vacillating between the euphoria and despair the act of writing brings. I tell her so. “We all feel like that,’' I say. “Sometimes the words look so good on the page, but then when you think of sending them out, letting an editor read them, all of a sudden they don’t look so good.’'
She nods. “And I don’t even know that much about publishing. All I know is that when I write, I’m happy. And I found that out back when I was a senior in Creative Writing. That class gave me confidence. I wasn’t a great writer.’' She grins at me and says slyly, “In fact, I think you gave me a B minus. But I loved it, and now,’' she gestures toward the three squirming boys, “when I have a minute, it’s all I want to do.’'
And so we make plans. She will send me her manuscript to read. I will pull together lists of publishing opportunities and put her in touch with a friend of mine who knows about marketing children’s literature. The wheels that have spun idly for 12 years will get moving; she will see where they take her. She gives her shopping cart a hefty push; her sons giggle and cling more tightly to the cart. They are off.
This encounter confirms what I believe about students and writing: Every student has the potential to become a published writer, and every student deserves the opportunity to discover firsthand the power that his or her words can have in this world. I believe, as a writing teacher, that I owe my students this opportunity. This obligation colors my approach to the teaching of writing in two significant ways.
First, I encourage writing that comes from my students’ hearts, not my mind. Students should write about what matters to them. Just as teachers urge them to find their own voice, so too should we urge them to find their own subjects. Adolescents are passionate and plain-spoken; their emotions are raw and real, and the stories they tell about empty homes, lost love, found friendships are the stuff of good writing. In a classroom that functions as a community of writers, readers, and editors, they can shape these pieces of their heart into fiction, poetry, and essays that travel far beyond the classroom walls and into the world of published writing.
Second, publishing, like writing itself, is a process--one with which most young writers are unfamiliar. They need advice and information about the many publishing opportunities available to them, and it is my responsibility as a writing teacher to provide this direction. So the “Go Public: Publish!’' board in the back of my classroom announces contests and competitions, gives guidelines for manuscript preparation, and lists appropriate markets. My desk is cluttered with copies of Writer’s Market, Poets and Writers Magazine, and a collection of publications devoted completely to student writing. These resources come and go with my students, returning with pages dirty and dogeared, just like the Writer’s Market I use at home.
We share in the struggle, revising our manuscripts, complaining about slow editors and rising postal costs, comparing our most recent rejection slips. And then sometimes, just sometimes, we cheer when someone in our writing community does it, becomes a name in print. I think of my students’ awe-filled eyes as they gazed at the words following Jen’s essay in Worcester Magazine: “Jennifer Cutting of Rutland is a free-lance writer.’' Certainly Jen has been a student writer since she penned her first sentence, but a published writer, that’s something else.
Student writer as published writer. This idea seems basic to me, but it is not a universally accepted one. I have colleagues who tell me that my belief in the student as published writer is foolish and fanciful; those who are kinder substitute the word idealistic. Whatever the words, their underlying message is clear: A lot of student writing really isn’t very good, and we are wasting our time encouraging students to pursue publication.
I challenge these naysayers with Dina’s story. Dina was right. She was not a particularly good writer at 17. She was not one of those young writers whose work takes your breath away, makes you wish her words were your own. Back in 1982 when Dina labored over her writing in Room 231, it’s unlikely she would have been published in Seventeen or Merlyn’s Pen or any other major publication. But Dina learned then that those opportunities do exist. She learned how to prepare a manuscript, she learned how to research a market, and, most important, she learned then that when you have something to say, something that comes from your heart, there is a whole world waiting for your words.
Today, as a young mother, Dina’s heart is full of children, and she has something to say to them. Back in 1982, she began to believe in herself as a writer. It may have taken a dozen years for her ability and her confidence to come to fruition, but in the course of a lifetime, a dozen years isn’t very long.
Dina is not my only student who has found her voice long after graduation. I think of Seth, a young man who battled with cancer during his early high school years but only began to put words to the painful struggle in the months before he graduated. Now, three years later, he and his doctor are exploring the possibilities of a collaborative work for other young cancer victims. I read a compelling letter to the editor opposing censorship and see its author is a young man who years earlier sat in the back and grumbled his way through American Lit. And at 16, Lisa possessed a wild mane of hair and even wilder opinions. Now a law student, she ekes out precious minutes from her studies to write powerful fiction about independent women.
None of these young writers was published while they sat in my classroom years ago. But they began to imagine the possibility. As teenagers, they saw themselves as writers, and they learned their words had worth. And that was enough to bring them back as adults to pen and paper or word processor, ready to give voice to all that life has taught them.
That is enough for me. Let the critics say a lot of student writing isn’t very good. I’ll never stop believing that one day it will be.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Going Public