Dispatches | January 08, 2014

writers block (1)

By Maura Lammers

For the past five months, when people ask me what I do, I say, “I teach.” This is sort of true. But I categorize what I do as “teaching” in the loosest possible way. According to my official title, I am an AmeriCorps volunteer in an alternative high school, where I do “teacher things” every day; I take attendance, grade assignments, answer questions, and manage the classroom. Sometimes I’ll stand up to teach a lesson in a traditional way, while my “co-teacher” (i.e. real, certified, professional teacher) supervises. In reality, my position is part-teacher, part-mentor, part-counselor, part-amateur-investigator. Like the rest of the staff at this alternative school, I wear many hats because our students have difficult lives. They often need a “part-counselor” or “part-mentor” at any given moment. Some days, learning about the brain or diabetes takes a backseat to a student overcoming a personal crisis.

Because most of our students have experienced (or are currently experiencing) some kind of personal trauma in addition to the expected dosage of teenaged angst, they keep their feelings close to the surface. Thus, I often experience the full spectrum of human emotion in one day, either personally or by proxy. Anger is what I see most often. In one class, a student could walk in, scream in a fit of rage, and throw a binder across the room, thus triggering the rest of the students. Then, the next class could be full of bubbly, bouncing freshmen who can’t seem to stay in their seats, but could not be happier to be at school. I never know what to expect hour by hour, much less day by day.

A large part of my job (and every teacher’s job), however, is finding out why that student would throw a binder across the room in the first place. It’s not just because he’s pissed off and doesn’t want to be in class – there is always something brewing beneath it. Many of the upperclassmen know the drill, and will pull me aside to tell me if they are struggling, or will open up when I directly ask them what’s wrong. With distant or angry students, I read body language, interpret their response when I ask how their weekend went, try to guess if they are hiding something, and figure out how I can get them to open up. When they do open up, I hear a lot of sad stories. Stories that haunt me, that make me cry if I try to talk about them. It’s the only downside of being “part-counselor.”

Daily life at school is exhausting, rewarding, fascinating, frightening, and a long list of other complementing and contrasting adjectives. It’s the best and most challenging undertaking of my life, thus far. But it’s also sometimes painful. And like many writers, I deal with the painful things in my life by writing about them. So, I wanted to write about my students.

For the first few weeks, when I came back to my apartment, I would sit down and pour whatever I had heard that day into a word document. The little details I did not want to forget, and the big things that were impossible for me to forget. Part of it was therapeutic; at times, the sheer multitude of personal strife shared in one day overwhelmed me to the point of tears or numbness. Typing it out on a page made it real, so it did not exist solely in my head, and yet created a necessary separation. I could think, “This is the story so-and-so told me today, and now it is just words on a page.” I would stew over it for twenty minutes, and then conclude, “I will write about this later.” Leaving the stories behind was good for me. It was when “later” finally rolled around that I had a problem.

In October, after a little over a month at my school, I accumulated a couple pages of collected anecdotes and stories from my students. One day, I dove in and started writing. And after a couple of paragraphs, I stopped writing, because I didn’t feel good. I felt an intense tangle of emotions in my gut that I didn’t totally understand. It became a process – I would take a break for a day or two, then write again, feel awful, and stop. I wasn’t ready to write a story. An essay seemed like an even worse idea. I didn’t know why I couldn’t write about my school and my students. All I knew was, it felt wrong.

It took another month or so to pin down where the “wrong” feeling came from. When I started this position, my co-teacher warned me about burning out. Burning out happens in a field like this, where day after day, you’re confronted with very real human emotions and struggles that are never within your power to fix. The options are to internalize my students’ problems and carry them home with me, or to leave them in the classroom. Forcing school and home into two different realms is essential. Pouring my students’ stories into a word document and leaving them there was okay. But I was torturing myself day after day when I sat at my apartment and tried to actually write about it. To hammer and chip away at what I knew, to try to transform it into something else. I brought every ounce of pain in their lives into my home, and back into my head and heart.

The “wrong” came from another place that I did not expect – from me. I had started to wade into that sometimes troublesome, sticky, reality-turned-to-fiction territory. I was taking bits and pieces of my students’ lives, reshaping them, and trying to turn it into fiction, an entirely new story – until I hit my mental block and heard a little alarm bell saying, “This is wrong.” Wrong, because my students are living, breathing, multifaceted, and vulnerable human beings; on the page, I inexpertly reduced them down to whatever they were currently struggling with and tried to spin it off into its own plot device, and develop a character around it. When I realized what I was doing, I sank my head down on my desk and wanted to disappear.

I didn’t do it on purpose, of course. This accidental reduction happened because I was still getting to know my students, and because it was an amateurish coping mechanism. (And, obviously, because I still have a lot to learn about writing.) Regardless, I recognized my mistake. It’s not one I will make again. My students are not writing material. Their stories do not belong to me. They are in the middle of writing their own life stories and figuring out who they are. I am, at best, an observer, and an ear when they need it – at my unintentional worst, I was an eavesdropper. So I put the document away for good.

Undoubtedly, I will write about my school and my students at some point. I have learned too much about human complexity, and about myself, to let it all waste away in my head. But now is not the time. I’m not going to forget their stories, or how remarkable each of them are. Maybe in a year or two, or even ten, I’ll write it all down, in a way that is true and careful. For now, I’ll find something else to write about.